For dinner, a thin sausage, a handful of rice clamped together and doughy mashed potatoes. Nothing green, nothing liquid.
For almost seven months now, the Kenyan doctors in Cuba have survived on this food, paying no more allegiance to a balanced diet, which they constantly preach to those keen on healthy living.
The doctors were sponsored by the government to study Family Medicine in Cuba. They are now convinced the same government has forgotten them, their plight growing with each passing day.
Their colleague Ali Juma Hamisi committed suicide on Sunday.
Health CS Sicily Kariuki confirmed Ali’s demise. “The circumstances resulting in the death are not clear yet, as investigations by the Cuban authorities are ongoing,” she said.
“We urge and request fellow Kenyans, especially his fellow student colleagues in Cuba to … refrain from discussing the case on social media or regular media.”
Hamisi was supposed to travel back home on Tuesday to see his family in Mombasa. His eight-month-old son has been ailing. His close friend blamed his death on frustrations—the “terrible living conditions” in the Carribean country, which led him to depression.
The doctors say their problems have worsened since the local media highlighted Hamisi’s death and frustrations. At first, on Tuesday, they were scared of sharing their tribulations, saying they were threatened with sacking. Some then agreed to speak up on condition of anonymity.
They accused the Health ministry of refusing to allow them to visit their families back home. The ministry remains cagey, they said.
“The ministry informed us that we were on a crash programme and would not be allowed travel permissions,” a doctor said.
They will stay in Cuba for two years in a deal on which the government will spend at least Sh215 million. They were entitled to air tickets to travel back home once every year. This was cancelled.
The 49 doctors, plus the deceased, were subjected to intense interviews to qualify for the programme. It was promising — only one doctor being taken from each county. They left the comfort of their homes, good food, and friends and family. Now they can’t even afford airtime to call back home.
According to the deal, the doctors are entitled to Sh36,000 monthly stipend for the two years that began in September last year.
In their confessions and from minutes of welfare meetings, however, they say the cash is always delayed until they fight or threaten to strike.
“They remitted our allowances after a very tough fight and us boycotting classes and the whole programme for a week,” one doctor said.
In one of the meetings held on November 23 last year, they recorded that the cost of living in Cuba is “very high” and the meager allowance is just “a drop in the ocean”.
Even worse, the minutes reveal, is the fact that they can’t afford anything except basic needs. To buy a Sh300 cup of tea, they have to punch above their financial weight. The Internet is a luxury, yet they need it to learn Spanish, which is a requirement in the deal.
“Each doctor spends Sh600 for the 10am and 4pm tea. In a month, they would have spent Sh18,000. The Internet charges for five hours a day for Spanish language proficiency and news updates cost up to Sh15,000 a month,” the minutes read.
Making a call from Cuba to Kenya costs Sh102 a minute. They spend Sh3,060 a month to make a minute phone call daily. To talk for an average of five minutes, each must spend Sh15,300 monthly.
To put the high cost of living into context, a 120-page exercise book, which costs Sh30 in Kenya, costs Sh800 in Cuba. Basic lunch in Havana is Sh1,200.
In their letters of admission to the University of Medical Sciences in Havana, which specialises in Family Medicine, accommodation and meals cost Sh2,100.
The doctors did not have information about Cuba’s cost of living or about the programme. They almost snubbed the programme at the last minute at the Kenya School of Government. They needed details of what to expect, but the authorities were not forthcoming. They say they were finally compelled to travel.
“We refused to go to Cuba, but the Ministry of Health threatened us a few hours before we boarded the flight. Honestly, the conditions are worse than we had imagined,” one medic said. “There is not a single document that any of us was given showing any details of the programme or the living situation. We discover new things every day.”
The Sh36,000 is 25 percent of the Sh144,000 they are entitled to as per the 2004 Ministry of Public Service circular on civil servants trainees sponsored to study abroad.
Health CAS Rashid Aman said the 25 percent was reached at on the basis that food and accommodation would be provided by the two governments in the university hostels.
He said Kenya will have to renegotiate with Cuba if the doctors are to be given the full stipend so they seek their own accommodation and food, which is what they prefer.
The Kenyan medics feel they should get the full stipend so they can decide what to eat and where to stay. Initially, three doctors were to share a room. After negotiations and compromise, the number was reduced to two.
They sleep on 2-by-6 beds, with bedding changed weekly. The air conditioner is turned on only from 10pm to 6am, despite the high temperatures.
The doctors said they have no choice but to survive the harsh conditions. The greatest dispute, however, is on the withdrawal of the annual visit to Kenya.