I spent basically the entire today, our very last day in Cuba, getting my hair done and I’m actually really glad that I spent my last day this way. Like most everything in Cuba I’ve found, I was surprised to see that I learned something new and significant about an aspect of the island while doing something very mundane and ordinary.
I was originally supposed to do my hair on Thursday as Jamila (see blog #2) had arranged for her friend from medical school, Lamisi, to help me out. When it wasn’t able to happen then, we rescheduled, and at 8:00am this morning Jamila and I met to take me to the student residence where Lamisi lived. We took the gua gua to La Residencia Estudiantil de Presidente Salvador Allende and I said a final goodbye to Jamila. *The gua gua (pronounced wa wa) is what Cubans call the public bus that many Cuban citizens use instead of taxis because it is so much cheaper. Because of this it can often get really crowded with inches of space. There is also no set schedule for the gua gua. It has its regular stops that it always makes but there is never a set time for when it will be there.
We went straight to work on the hair (I was getting a braided bob) and we started chatting. She told me how about the differences between the public health system in Ghana where she is from, and the one in Cuba, appreciating the fact that Cuban medicine is largely preventative with a strong emphasis on public health education while noting that Ghana’s was typically curative. We started watching the Olympics and as we continued to work, several of her floormates came in and out of the common area where we were, some staying to chat and watch, or to work (one was making some clothes, one running up and down cooking), or to help with the hair every now and again. Most, if not all of Lamisi’s floormates were from Ghana and when I mentioned that I was Nigerian, we talked a little about what we had in common and what differed, mainly in relation to food. It was really cool to be in that little micro-community of West Africans in Cuba of all places. And it was even more than that. When we were finishing up the hair, Lamisi told me that in her torre (as they called each little section of the student residence), there was a floor where the South African medical students lived, one where the Congolese students were, and one that housed the Angolans. Additionally, throughout the residence of about 3,000 students there were people from Chad, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, Honduras, the U.S, and the Bahamas amongst other countries.
Lamisi and her friends were a real life look at what we had learned a little bit about in class. Due to Cuba’s reputation in the health care world and its goal to be a leading world power in health, along with exporting doctors to other countries to address issues overseas, Cuba also hosts foreign students to get their medical education here. Lamisi mentioned two programs: one was the Cuba sponsored, in which the Cuban government gives scholarship to foreigners to study medicine in Cuba, and the other was sponsored by the home country, in which that government would give students scholarships and send them to Cuba to get their education, provided that they come back to serve at home for a specific amount of time. I was surprised to realize how many foreign students were living in that housing complex. It was so interesting that this health care initiative had led to this international educational hub in a place that, at least from the American perspective, can seem fairly isolated.
(Residencia Estudiantil de Presidente Salvador Allende)
We talked a little more about health care and I noticed that I was intrigued about what they didn’t say. In our Public Health courses here in Cuba, we learned a lot about the informal sector and the people to people based interactions and systems coproducing the impressive health statistics that Cuba and the rest of the health world like to highlight. Knowing this, at first I thought it was interesting how the medical students tended to repeat those same statistics, like the low infant and maternal mortality rate and the high life expectancy, without acknowledging what I had learned to be a crucial part of Cuba’s health successes. However, given that the government has been responsible for the formal (that is the more visible) reforms to health since the revolution, it makes sense that the medical students, like the majority of spectators of Cuba, see the health accomplishments as a direct result of those reforms.
We finished up the hair, and I thanked Lamisi and her friends for their help and gave her a little gift (she wouldn’t accept any money). She walked me to the bus stop were we said our goodbyes and I boarded the Wawa to take me back to our casa particular and reflected on that cool, chance, and in a weird way, so typically Cuban experience. I got home, painted my nails because I felt like it, and started packing.
PS: Shout out for Drake for making his hit single “Fancy” just so I could quote it as the title for this blog post. You the realest Drizzy.
(Miriam and me with my newly braided hair)