If Diarra Boubacar did not have very good reflexes and a pair of sturdy legs, he might never have been able to distinguish himself as a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in China.
The 53-year-old still has a good laugh when he talks about his first day working as a doctor at a private hospital in Chengdu, the city in southwest China known for its panda museum and research base.
For three days, he didn't get a single patient. Then on the fourth, a matronly woman opened the door to his office, saw him - and ran away. "I had to run after her, saying I can help you with the problem," he said laughingly.
When she stopped, arrested by the sight of a foreigner speaking Chinese, he put on his best persuasive manner. "If I am not effective, I will not take any money from you," he promised her.
Reassured partly by that and partly by his Chinese, she came back, underwent treatment and felt better. "Finally, she started bringing her parents, her husband and they all became my patients," he reminisced.
Dr. Boubacar grew up in a small town in south-central Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa, which finds it challenging to provide affordable healthcare to its 18 million people, having suffered a series of conflicts following colonial rule by France.
From his father, Dr. Thiemoko Diarra, who worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross in his hometown, Dr. Boubacar learnt to build up trust with his patients and tried to be conscious of their payment capacity.
"When my father saw patients at home, he never took any fee from them," he said. "He would tell me, a doctor's job is to love his patients and serve his community."
A DIFFICULT START
Dr. Boubacar first came to China in 1984 on a student exchange program majoring in Chinese language and culture at Beijing Language and Culture University.
After the two-year course, he intended to enroll at Beijing Medical University but then switched to studying TCM at Guangzhou University of TCM, preferring to study something typical in China. The start, as he remembered, was very difficult.
"It's not like now when you have places in China where foreigners can go and (attend) class in English," he explained to Xinhua.
"I went to university with Chinese students (and) we did it in Chinese. So it was very, very hard for us. In the beginning we couldn't understand the teachers."
Since TCM is also related to Chinese history and culture, students have to study ancient Chinese literatures as most of the medical texts are written in ancient Chinese characters. "That's a subject even the Chinese find difficult; so think of me, a foreigner!" he said.
What inspired him to plod on was the similarities in TCM and traditional African medicine, such as using certain herbs to treat the same diseases and letting out blood.
However, the greatest challenge for him was to convince people that even though he was a "laowai" - a foreigner - he could still treat them effectively with TCM. Fortunately, his fluency in Chinese improved, which helped.