As Zambia mourns the gallant son of the soil.
by Bill Nelem
I first met Chifumbe in 1962 when we enrolled as classmates in Medical School at the University of Toronto. He had come from Northern Rhodesia where they had no Medical School at the time.
In 1963, four events occurred that were relevant to both of us.
First, we both passed our exams and moved into second year!!
Second, I was playing rugby for U of T at the time, and I was appointed to put together a track and field team from Medicine to compete at an inter-faculty track meet. We were a motley crowd with little apparent talent. I urged the lithesome Chifumbe to join our medical team.
‘No, I’m out of shape, I’m not fit, I haven’t run for a long time’
But I persisted, and Chifumbe did run.
In fact, he ran and he ran and he ran. I can’t remember now how many races he entered, but I do remember that he was unbeaten in any race he ran, setting two university middle distance records.
He went on to train with the Canadian track team. At the Olympic
qualifying trials, Chifumbe won two middle distance races setting
Canadian records. The coach wanted him to compete in the Olympics for Canada. But some bureaucrat in Ottawa who noted that Chifumbe had entered Canada on a student visa blocked this request. A petition was sent to the Minister in charge of sport at the time. The application was lost in the giant hairball that is our Federal Government.
His home country did not have an Olympic strategy at that time, and was not able to send him.
And so it came to pass that the fastest middle distance runner in Canada at the time did not go to the Olympic Games. His friends were thoroughly aggravated, to say the least.
Third, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the British Prime Minister in 1963, announced in the House of Commons that Northern Rhodesia would be released from the Central African Federation, paving the way for the country’s independence. Thus, the following year, Northern Rhodesia became the sovereign state of Zambia. Chifumbe became a Zambian citizen, a First Zambian so to speak. His pride in his newly formed country would take him home one day once he completed his training. He committed himself to serve his country and his fellow citizens. The United Nations would one day award him with a medallion recognizing his contributions to medicine in Zambia and all of Africa. Zambian President Mwanawasa recently honoured him in a special ceremony, an act akin to our ‘Order of Canada’.
Fourth, on a fateful day in 1963, Chifumbe and I were attending a lecture at the Medical School. Professor Ritchie was giving a lecture in Pathology on Cancer of the Esophagus. He was a dour, autocratic, humourless New Zealander. He had a stunningly pretty wife and none of us could even remotely imagine what she must have seen in this overbearing man.
The day’s events were memorable for two reasons, both of which I can remember as if they occurred yesterday.
First was the content of the lecture and second was an event that everyone alive at the time will relate to.
Now, a Thoracic Surgeon having performed hundreds of esophaheal cancer resections during my career, I remember my Professor of Pathology’s words every time I begin to operate on an esophageal cancer patient.
With his sombre Kiwi accent, he said that ‘cancer of the esophagus is not really such a bad cancer, it’s just that it is located in such a bad location. Unlike other gastrointestinal structures, the esophagus has no serosa. Accordingly, esophageal cancers have one less barrier to prevent its spread. This disease has an unfortunate propensity to spread quickly to the gastro-hepatic and gastro- esophageal lymph nodes.
Surgical removal is fraught with technical difficulties and surgery is associated with a high incidence of complications and a high mortality rate’.
Forty-four years later, I can attest that everything Professor Ritchie said at the time remains true, with the possible exception of lower surgical mortality rates!
What was the other event of the day that was so memorable?
As the lecture drew to a close, the door to the classroom swung open and the janitor whom we knew well burst into the room. Professor Ritchie was indignant about being interrupted. Nobody, I mean nobody, ever disturbed this alpha male.
‘President Kennedy has been assassinated!’
Professor Ritchie, Chifumbe, our classmates and I sat in silence. After what must have been a duration of several minutes, the Professor quietly folded up his lecture notes and tiptoed out of the classroom. The janitor and my classmates continued in silence for several more minutes, no one knowing what to say or what to do.
I went on to train in General and Thoracic Surgery, whilst Chifumbe went to Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children to train in Paediatrics.
Now fully trained, Chifumbe returned to Zambia shortly after the creation of the Zambia’s only Faculty of Medicine and the building of the University Teaching Hospital (UTH).
Being the only certified Paediatrician in the country, he became the Professor of the fledgling Department of Paediatrics.
In the 1970’s he went to Japan and presented the case to Japanese
foreign aid that they could assist in the building of a Paediatric ward
at UTH. They did. The ward today stands as a monument to Chifumbe.
A dozen or more years later, he returned to Japan and presented the case for a Neonatology ward. Again, he was successful. Now there is another monument to Chifumbe where hundreds of critically ill neonates owe their lives to him.
If you perform an Index Medicus – Pub Med search on the Internet, and key in ‘Chintu CR’, you will be flooded with the titles of several hundred articles that he has contributed to the medical literature during his career.
He was strategic in his planning. Collaborating with research teams from the US, Canada, the UK and Europe, he made his burgeoning Paediatric practice available to research, and his international recognition soared.
He has published on the state of Zambian Paediatric Oncology, Paediatric TB, Paediatric HIV/AIDS, the status of orphans, and a host of other relevant topics.
At different times he has served as the Professor of Paediatrics, the
Dean of Medicine, the Vice Chair of Zambia’s Anti-Corruption committee, the UN appointed Chair of the Pan-African Ethics Committee, and the list goes on.
He has three children. A daughter is trained in Paediatrics and works for a Zambian NGO. A second daughter is a Rhodes’ scholar studying Economics at Oxford. A son is studying computer sciences in New York.
Three years ago I went to Zambia to find Chifumbe. I am the only classmate to have done so. This initial visit launched my desire to
pursue humanitarian work in Zambia.
Chifumbe is a revered icon in Zambia.
Recently, when visiting very rural Mongu, the hospital’s Executive
Director was giving me a tour. Spontaneously, he said; ‘Professor Chintu recommends this treatment with those patients. Professor Chintu recommends those treatments with this patient.’
When I told the Director and his entourage that I was a classmate of
Professor Chintu, I found myself walking on reflected water, such is the respect with which Chifumbe is regarded even in the most remote and rural parts of Zambia.
I am honoured to list him as one of my friends. He is a Pan-African icon, a reputation he justly deserves.
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