Chinese doctor Cao Guihua looks on as the acupuncturist from China's medical team in Uganda works on a patient in Kampala. Image by Kathleen E. McLaughlin. Uganda, 2012.

The acupuncture ward inside Kampala’s newest hospital does not have an open bed to spare.

A lone Chinese doctor busily scurries from bed to bed, inserting and turning the long acupuncture needles, checking placement and keeping a careful eye over her patients – most there for pain relief. With a wide grin creeping from behind her sanitary mask, Dr. Zhang Yu laughs when asked if she’s busy. She stops for about three minutes to remove her mask, pose for a photo, then hastens back to work.

The eight-member Chinese medical team sent to Kampala, Uganda's capital, a year ago by the Chinese government is booked solid, each routinely seeing 20 patients or more every day. They are specialists, led by urologist Cao Guihua, and their mission is more than medical. They are here to build goodwill among Ugandans for China.

“We are sent by the government,” says Cao. “It’s a kind of political mission by the Chinese government to African countries to build political friendship between the countries. Of course it’s working.”

“The Chinese teams started in 1963 – they started in Africa and Asia, several different countries,” explains Dr. Cao. “Africa is just one place China has doctors.”

There are 42 Chinese medical teams working in Africa today, and Cao’s is the 15th to work in Uganda.

“It’s a volunteer mission, some people enjoy the climate,” says Cao. “For me, the Chinese medical team sends different specialists and my specialty was needed here.”

“I like it,” he says simply. “So I came here. I like the country, I like my career.”

Cao and the other doctors are the foot soldiers in China’s soft power efforts in Africa. Their medical expertise, often more advanced than what can be found locally, is well-known and sought-after. For the doctors, working in Africa is a chance to see diseases they don’t normally deal with, but have only read about. Malaria, for example, has been all but eradicated in China but remains one of the top killers in Uganda. So the doctors make adjustments, hone their treatment skills, and as employees of the Chinese government offer treatment services for free.

The Chinese doctors at Naguru Hospital are part of China’s biggest yet medical donation to Uganda, a country sorely lacking in facilities and trained healthcare professionals. The hospital, built by China and donated to Uganda at an estimated cost of $10 million, remains largely understaffed and overcrowded since it opened earlier this year. Hospital administrators say one wing of the facility hasn’t opened yet, and they admit there were problems early on in making the equipment work with local electricity supplies.

As for the doctors, they may be bringing in more than just medical supplies. About an hour outside the Ugandan capital, in a city called Jinja, local radio advertises a private Chinese pharmacy that sells medications one can’t buy elsewhere. The original plan called for China to build a hospital in Jinja, but it was relocated to Kampala instead.

The building, tucked off of Jinja’s main road is basically a storeroom for medications carried in by Chinese medical workers and sold out the back door for profit, according to the pharmacy manager. He says associates of the Chinese medical team bring in potions, teas and full-strength pharmaceuticals for sale to the locals. Ugandan officials say it’s unclear whether the operation is actually legal, but it does add an element to the endeavor that goes beyond goodwill.

Project

Today China focuses much of its foreign aid on healthcare in the developing world. It has achieved some success but also brought problems.

Recently

August 13, 2013 /
Kathleen E. McLaughlin
Reporter Kathleen McLaughlin looks at how China's efforts to provide medical aid to Africa have been corrupted by fake drugs.
July 27, 2013 / Untold Stories
Kathleen E. McLaughlin
China's emergence as a new global power has brought pressure to give back as it takes from Africa. Fake drugs and corruption on both sides have thrown a wrench in those plans.