Chinese doctor in Ethiopia relishes visitors from home

Updated: 2014-05-08 22:06

By ZHAO YINAN in Addis Ababa (

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When Zhang Yanjie showed me into his dormitory building, two of his colleagues were standing in the corridor discussing their attire for their upcoming meeting with Premier Li Keqiang the next day.

One asked Zhang if he had a spare tie to lend, promising in exchange a considerable amount of guazi.

Guazi, a widely loved snack in China made of sunflower seeds, is very precious to him and his Chinese friends in Africa, Zhang explained to me, "sometimes more useful than money".

Zhang, 35, is a surgeon on the Chinese medical team in Ethiopia. He and his colleagues are expected to meet and take a group photo with Li, who was visiting the East African country for three days this week.

Normally an introvert, Zhang becomes excited and very talkative whenever he meets people from the motherland, he said.

"Although I may have never met these people before, or may never again in the future, I feel as if I'm with family members when talking to them."

As a reporter who arrived just one day before and will leave the country soon, I am one of those people who pop in and out of his life, I told myself.

The hospital where Zhang works — in a suburban area of Addis Ababa that's a two-hour drive from the capital's downtown — has been dubbed "Beijing Hospital" by the locals.

Before coming to Ethiopia, Zhang worked at an inland Chinese hospital in Jiaozuo, Henan province.

The work at "Beijing Hospital" is not as busy as in China, but usually more complicated and difficult.

Zhang said Ethiopian patients are usually in serious condition when they come to see a doctor. "I once treated an appendicitis patient who came in only after being in pain for a week," he said.

Many of the patients here are HIV-positive. The OB-GYN department, he said, is like walking on a high wire.

I thought that Zhang must be the best type of interviewee for a reporter because he talks as if he has just come back from a remote island.

As he continues with his stories, I took a look around his place, a one-bedroom apartment located at the end of the second floor of the dormitory building. A flat-screen television was sitting in front of a Chinese-styled wooden sofa, and an English-China dictionary lay on the tea table.

"The signal in this room is very poor. Only one channel is clear," Zhang said, taking out a ginseng from the television stand. "I've keep this for a long time. Let's see if it's good to eat now."

The ginseng, he said, is sent from a local Chinese agriculture team. They are providing agricultural training to the locals.

After one year in Ethiopia — another one to go — Zhang has made gardening a hobby. He planted three ginseng trees and two plantain trees in the yard outside his dorm.

"When it rains, the leaves of the plantain trees rustle and rustle, reminding me of the sentences describing plantain trees in Chinese poetry," he said.

In Chinese poetry, the image of plantain trees is usually used to describe loneliness.

Li Lianxing, China Daily's Nairobi correspondent who accompanied me to the hospital, said when he first came to the hospital, he saw a doctor holding an umbrella and walking in the yard.

"He walked around and around for at least half an hour," Li said, "I asked him why, and the doctor said that was his only entertainment."

When Zhang showed me out, I saw his face lit up under the starry sky of Addis Ababa. The night was tranquil, and the grasses were sending forth a delicate fragrance. I knew this would be the most touching and memorable moment of my days in Ethiopia.