Globe, Latin America, Multiculture, United Kingdom

The Indigenous doctor saving her community

Since December 2019, she has been working in the hardest-to-reach areas of Salta Province, northern Argentina, saving the lives of children in her community suffering from malnutrition, a leading cause of death.


Everything she knows, and now practises, was learnt at the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM), from which she graduated 11 years ago.

Her name is Tujuayliya Gea Zamora, which means “she who conquers” in the Wichi language, but everyone calls her Tujuay. The Argentinian is the only member of her Indigenous community to graduate as a doctor in Cuba, her school of life.

Born in 1986, she grew up in Santa Victoria Este, a small village in Salta near the border with Bolivia and Paraguay.

The Wichi people are the majority ethnic group in this area, but there are also Quechua, Chorote and Tapiete communities.

At the age of 17, Tujuay embarked on an adventure, leaving to study in Cuba. Today, she is back in her country, leading a programme to strengthen primary health care in Salta. This programme aims to improve links between the local hospital system and families.

In these times of Covid-19, besides tackling the health situation, she works with children suffering from malnutrition.

In an interview with Prensa Latina, Tujuay, one of the numerous Argentinian doctors who trained in Cuba, shares some of her experience of a country that she loves.

What did studying medicine in Cuba mean to you?

On a personal level, it meant a lot. When I heard that I had been accepted for the grant, my life and my plans changed. It also meant a lot from a historic point of view. The Indigenous group that I’m from had never had a trained doctor.

It was a historic moment for my people; and also for me because I was able to experience Latin America by living with others in the ELAM. I learned and understood what revolution means for each of those there with me, from Latin America and from Africa, and it helped shape my expectations for my life.

I come from a family of social activists and through the example of my parents and of Cuba, everything I saw and experienced, I was raised with the concept of helping and serving others. Living through a revolution makes you understand why we help others.

Cuba was my school of life, and it continues to sustain me in each mission and task I undertake in trying to improve health and provide greater and better access to health care.

What is your opinion of private medicine?

I wish that everyone could access high-quality public health care and that private medicine didn’t exist. I wish that governments provided everything to allow free access to health care. To some extent we talk about intercultural approaches to health in the circles I move in. We have to think of it as dynamic processes rather than a fixed concept.

We need to be able to reconceptualise all these things and, as well as making health accessible, to build a health system for all.

What has it been like returning to work in the communities in the Chaco Salteno and being there during the fight against Covid-19?

It was very overwhelming. The situations they are experiencing are rooted in historical issues that are yet to be overcome. I went to work there during a social and health emergency, faced with deaths of Indigenous children due to malnutrition and associated preventable illnesses (1 in 5 children suffer malnutrition in Santa Victoria Este). Despite being in the middle of a pandemic, in some ways the hardest work was saving the lives of these children and supporting them, due to the structure of the health system.

It is often discussed, but public health policy has a centralised outlook, and it has been a battle, to be honest.

During Covid, many families also lost their access to secure work, which worsened their children’s nutritional state.

For me, understanding something of all the dimensions of health is a steep learning curve. Returning to the Chaco Salteno was another school of life; I am still learning. The process has just begun.

What message do you have for Cuba, where you studied, and especially for the Cuban doctors who were deployed around the world during the pandemic to save lives.

My message is total gratitude. I have a deep love for the Cuban people and their revolutionary role models. To the doctors, I send a message of strength, so that they feel the warmth of all of us who are grateful to this country.

We know the professional and human quality of each of their doctors who work day in, day out to tackle the pandemic within Cuba and beyond. (PL)

(Translated by Rebecca Ndhlovu – Email: – Photos: Pixabay


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