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Traditional Chinese Medicine Training in Mali: “A Revolution of Sorts” but Skepticism Remains

Mali's Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Mahamadou Famantaf speaking at a vocational training seminar on Traditional Chinese Medicine organized by the Chinese embassy in February 2020.

In December 2019, when the Tianjin government launched its Luban Workshop in Mali, it stood out from the Luban Workshops (named after Lu Ban, the father of Chinese architecture) in other African countries which offer courses on ultra-modern device manufacturing, high-speed rail technologies and Chinese cuisine preparation.

The Malian Luban Workshop offers practical courses on Traditional Chinese Medicine, part of China’s campaign to promote TCM and its acceptability in Mali and elsewhere in Africa. Three years ago, the value of annual TCM exports to Africa was estimated to be USD 80 millionand it is reportedly China’s fastest growing export to Africa.

TCM is more affordable, about half the price of conventional medicine in Africa, according to a source employed in the pharmacy sector in Mali.

Luban Workshop: The Result of Wide Collaboration

The Malian Luban Workshop is similar to the Confucius Institute for Chinese Medicine, established three months earlier in South Africa, but unlike it, the Malian Luban Workshop is non-degree awarding and targets students and teachers with no prior medical training or experience.

The 400-square-meter workshop is the result of the collaboration between the Bamako University of Science and Technology, the University of Arts and Humanities of Bamako, the Tianjin Medical College, the Tianjin Red Star Vocational School, the Tianjin Hongxing Vocational Secondary School, and ten other medical institutions in China.

The period of training at the workshop can range from months to years, depending on a student’s ability to assimilate the technical details.

According to healthcare experts from the University of Bamako, China launched this workshop in response to criticisms by local health workers over the influx of Chinese medical teams into Mali, creating the largest enclave of Chinese health workers (at least a thousand practicing doctors) in any African country. Their contribution, particularly during the Ebola crisis, was deeply appreciated by the Malian health ministry, and by 2014, the country had already received 23 medical teams from China, several times higher than other countries.

TCM: “A Revolution of Sorts” in Africa but Skepticism Remains

During the workshop’s launch, China confirmed its intention of creating a capable local TCM workforce. This statement has been interpreted by some as a promise of employment to the Luban Workshop graduates.

Among some Western and African health experts there is still mistrust regarding the clinical value of TCM (which has not been approved by the WHO). Some believe it is displacing African Traditional Medicine.

Healthcare experts at the University of Bamako claim that China is “only putting on a show” and has no intention of engaging the workshop’s graduates as its workforce in implementing future China-Africa TCM-related projects. They question how a non-degree awarding workshop can create a local team of TCM experts.

Tom Bayes, a foreign policy fellow at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, worries that this campaign might not be in Africa’s best interest, claiming a lack of robust evidence supporting TCM procedures.

However, TCM is already very popular and well-received in Mali, as confirmed by a Chinese  pharmacist working in a Malian hospital.

During interviews with four students at the Luban Workshop all agree that TCM is a “revolution of sorts” in Africa, as it has been called by Anyang Nyong’o, a former Kenyan health minister.

Pandaily, Beijing-based tech magazine, has previously highlighted “Africa’s penchant for cheaper health products which China seems to have in abundance”.

“We Are Learning Something Truly Phenomenal”

Course participants describe the training as holistic, offering courses on disease diagnosis, acupuncture, massage, moxibustion application (a TCM technique complementary to acupuncture, involving the burning of an herb), the preparation of creams, ointments, herbs and teas for bodily aches, kidney dysfunction and a multitude of other diseases. The training also includes a historical understanding of TCM.

Participants highlight the historical aspect to the training as an excellent aspect of the workshop. They explain that the workshop’s demonstration area is home to over 200 TCM specimens, each with a unique historical significance.

Sade Konate, one of the participants, notes that before the workshop, most of the participants did not know that a Chinese scientist discovered Artemisinin, a Nobel-prize-winning anti-malarial drug.

“Displaying it as one of the specimens, alongside a picture of its founder, gave us the assurance that we are learning something truly phenomenal, and it inspired us to dive deeper into Chinese history,” she says.

A 29-year old Economics graduate, who has been job hunting for five years, explains that her participation in the care of a child born with a damaged nerve in his arm, who regained motion and sensation in the arm after seventy days of acupuncture, has changed her worldview and her career path.

Misconception Among Some Students Regarding Luban Workshop’s Vocational Character

Some students seem to expect training in line with what is offered by the Confucius Institute of Chinese Medicine in South Africa, apparently forgetting that the Luban Workshop offers vocational training with a certificate at the end of the course, not a degree. It is worth noting that Mali has no institution that offers TCM at degree level.

One student at the Luban Workshop says he and a fellow student were hoping for specialized herbal therapy training, because their post-graduation goal is to apply this knowledge to the preparation of medicine from the herbs found in their villages.

Luban Workshop Curriculum

Zhang Yanwen, the President of the Tianjin Medical College in China, announced at the launch last year that the project’s team “has developed new teaching materials for local teachers and students learning Chinese medicine”.

A copy of the workshop’s curriculum could not be provided by the students interviewed for this article for independent expert evaluation. They claim not to have received a curriculum due to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

In light of China’s government and media touting TCM as a Coronavirus remedy, Pierre Smith, a project monitoring and evaluation expert from the World Health Organization (WHO), when asked his thoughts on the Malian Luban Workshop and the unavailability of the curriculum, wondered whether the Malian university partners might have approved the workshop proposal without carrying out due diligence into its design and curriculum.

Admittedly not well-acquainted with the project, he hypothesizes that the training offered by the workshop might not be standardized, which is suggested by the lack of open access to the curriculum.

Furthermore, he posits that the curriculum might not be comprehensive enough to ensure the transfer of skills that can be easily commercialized.

Unfortunately, due to the language barrier, it was not possible to interview the Chinese staff implementing the workshop.

Would Chinese Language Instruction Aid TCM Training?

Some participants note a language barrier between them and some of the workshop facilitators. They complain that the facilitators speak very little French and English, and as such they can barely follow their sessions.

An intermediate understanding of English is one of the requirements for participation in the workshop. Some local tutors speak in French, others speak in English.

One of the participants further explains that this barrier extends beyond his communication with the tutors. Most of the comprehensive TCM textbooks available to him online are in Cantonese and Mandarin, of which he understands no word. He believes the workshop should offer an optional Chinese language course to enable participants explore all aspects of Chinese literature on TCM.

He has been reticent to mention his inability to pursue his studies to staff due to his lack of Chinese proficiency.

Luban Workshop Equipped With Ultra-Modern TCM Resources

The aspect of the project commended by the participants as well as the technical assistants to the tutors is the fact that Tianjin Medvalley Technology Ltd. has provided the Malian Luban Workshop with ultramodern TCM equipment and training resources.

They claim that unlike at other Malian medical institutions, there is an adequate amount of full-body and part-body mannequins for participants on which to practice TCM techniques.

The workshop has only been in existence for a year. Some participants would like to see a swifter commencement of collaborative research between Chinese and the Malian institutions, with a focus on the intersection between TCM, modern Chinese medicine, African traditional medicine and Western medicine.

One of the workshop’s guest tutors, Diarra Boubacar, a Malian and the first non-Chinese postdoctoral fellow in TCM, once said that “not studying Chinese medicine in China is almost a waste of studies”.

Students across Africa are looking to the Luban Workshop to prove him wrong.

Esther Ejiroghene Ajari is the Founder and Director of The TriHealthon, a youth-led nonprofit promoting health equity in Africa through community development as well as theoretical and community-based research.

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