‘I left for Cuba to study medicine and three years later, tragedy struck’

His father wept when he told him he was going to study medicine – but the tears were not ones of pride and joy as you might expect but of sadness and disappointment. 

He had sacrificed a lot to get his son into university and had plunged himself into debt in order to pay his boy’s fees, so he could study biochemistry.

Now here his kid was, telling him he wanted to pack it in and become a doctor instead – just as he had registered at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

But Mfanafuthi Gasa stuck to his guns. This is what he had wanted to do all along, he told his father – and now he had a real chance.

And so he left for Cuba on a health department bursary to study at the Latin America School of Medicine in the capital, Havana. 

26-year-old Mfanafuthi is back home now after five years of study to do various rotations at South African hospitals and he knows his father would be proud of him.

But Bongani isn’t here to tell his son in person that he has long forgiven him for abandoning UKZN and going overseas. He perished in a car crash along with Mfanafuthi’s brother Sdumo, cousin Erick and uncle Sandile. 

Mfanafuthi, who was in his third year when the tragedy happened, will never forget the phone call from his older brother, Njabulo, that delivered the devastating news.

“I was all alone when I heard what had happened,” he says. “But it was a blessing in disguise because I had a chance to grieve and cry on my own.”

He was studying for a pharmacology test on a Friday night when his phone rang.

“I was numb and shocked and at first I didn’t believe him. The fact I was thousands of kilometres away from home made it worse.

“I cut the call and took a very long breath. Njabulo had to call again and explain what had happened.” It took him a long time to accept that he had lost his father and relatives, he says.

“I could hear his voice shaking,” Njabulo says. “The story of the crash was all over the news. We wanted him to hear it from us and there was no other way to tell him, except over the phone. We didn’t want him to get wrong information.” 

He still misses his dad terribly. 

“I don’t know how many times I tried to call my dad only to realise that he’s no more,” he tells us.
Mfanafuthi last saw his father, a bus driver, a few months before he died when he came home on holiday. 

“He wasn’t feeling well and was diagnosed with angina [a condition that causes severe chest pain] and had temporarily stopped working. 

Bongani had got over his disappointment at Mfanafuthi’s chosen field and father and son spent long hours talking about his studies and life in Havana. When he returned to university he kept in contact with his dad via WhatsApp. 

The worst part of losing his father was knowing that “he would not see me graduate”.

“When he died I told myself his sweat and tears shall not be in vain.” 

Mfanafuthi flew home for the funeral land then returned to Cuba immediately.

His family suggested he take a break from his studies, but he refused, saying he would probably have then spent all his energy grieving “and I didn’t want that. 

“Being away from home eliminated the constant reminders,” he says. “I didn’t want to take a break from my studies because that would’ve meant a double loss for me. Losing my dad and family members was bad enough – I couldn’t lose a year of study too.”

He also knew how much it meant to his father that he be educated. Bongani couldn’t afford to pay his son’s biochemistry fees at UKZN so he borrowed R10 000 from loan sharks, so he could enrol for his first year.

Mfanafuthi was still in high school in Greytown at the time and the headmaster, Themba Mabaso, told him about the health department’s bursaries for students to study medicine in Cuba. 

Mfanafuthi didn’t have the money for the travel documents required, but Themba came through for him and “paid for my passport, visa, blood tests and other travelling arrangements,” he recalls.

Mfanafuthi’s dad was initially upset when he heard his son was leaving for Cuba.

“He just cried, he thought of his money that I’d wasted. But I assured him I’d work hard and become a doctor, because that’s what I always wanted to do. He gave me his blessing and in November 2012 I left for Cuba with around 300 other SA students.” 

Cuba was life changing for him. He had to learn Spanish as it is the language of instruction and embraced Cuban culture.
The people are informed and the health care system more advanced than ours, he says. But he did miss home – and the food.

“Especially red meat. There is meat there but it’s hard, not soft like ours.”

He returned home last month and is now doing his sixth year of studies at UKZN and working at Greytown Hospital. “Then I'll move to Stanger Hospital followed by Ngwelezane or RK Khan Hospital,” he says.

“Rotations mean I have a few specialities to do, including internal medicine, gynaecology, family medicine and mental health care. After these rotations, I’ll be able to do my internship. This will take me 18 months before I can be called Dr Gasa,” he says.

Once he’s qualified he plans to make “great contributions,” especially in primary health care, he says.

“I want to implement what I learned in Cuba. Their system is different from ours in many ways – for example, their primary care patients have consultations with a doctor and a nurse, not just a nurse. This is also where most diseases are diagnosed. 

“As doctors we need to understand our society. Not everyone is able to go to a doctor, so I strongly believe we've got to do home visits especially in the rural areas. This would help in terms of early diagnosis.” 

Mfanafuthi is not planning on taking a break from studying, at least not anytime soon. “I love books. My aim is to specialise in internal medicine, but this will depend on my contract with the department of health,” he says. 

Whatever he decides, his dad will no doubt be smiling down on him.