Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Naki – South African surgeon gardener

Creation- Spring & Easter
Knowledge is like a garden: if it is not cultivated, it cannot be harvested. (Guinea)

Hamilton Naki’s work helped to bring about the world’s first heart transplant. Contrary to myth, he was not present when Professor Christian Barnard carried out the operation, because Black men were not allowed in white hospital rooms in apartheid South Africa. However, Naki’s skills in animal research paved the way for heart transplants on human beings.

In the late 1950s, Barnard’s hospital employed Naki to maintain the grounds and tennis courts. He was later sent to work at the medical school, cleaning the animals’ cages – work people avoided because it is so messy. One day, a professor of surgery asked Naki to help hold a giraffe on the operation table; as a result of the competence he showed, researchers gradually allowed Naki to do more serious work.

Naki proved to be a skilled surgeon and anesthetist. In particular, he had surgeon’s fingers and did open heart surgery, pulmonary bypass, and heart and liver transplants on dogs. He was skilled in the post-operative care of animals, and he was able to do almost all the work of a qualified surgeon. Indeed, Barnard thought Naki did a better job of stitching than surgeons including Barnard himself. Naki taught transplant techniques to about three thousand young surgeons who studied under Barnard.

Naki gained his surgical skills because of his intelligence, memory, and capacity to learn by observing and practice in secret. The hospital promoted Naki to the highest position possible for him under apartheid law – senior lab technician. Nonetheless, when he retired he received a gardener’s pension.

Barnard acknowledged Naki’s work only after apartheid ended, when he referred to Naki as. “one of the great researchers of all time in the field of heart transplants.” Naki’s work as Barnard’s principal assistant was particularly important when Barnard developed arthritis in his hands.

Naki (26 June 1926 – 29 May 2005) was born in rural South Africa and migrated to
Cape Town when left school at 14. He had only sixth grade education, and could not have received medical training under the apartheid system. While he worked with Barnard, he lived in a Black township where he had no electricity or running water. Most of his wages went back to his village to support his extended family.

During his retirement, Naki organized a mobile clinic for his rural community that was 50 miles from the nearest doctor or hospital. In addition, he organized support for schools with funds collected from doctors he had trained.

In 2002, Naki received one of South Africa’s highest honors – the presidential award of the Order of the Mapungubwe. In 2003, the University of Cape Town awarded him an honorary medical degree.

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When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

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Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

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