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V. Ryndine—I Found God in Africa - Ch 5: Flight

V. D. Ryndine
I found God in Africa:
Letters of a Russian Bush Surgeon

Illustrated by Evgeniy Perelygin

adaptation and editorial work

by Irene Connelly

Ch 1: Morning Prayers
- Pblished in my blog on 06.12.2018

Ch 2: A Journey Across the South of Africa With Dr. Ryndine
- Pblished in my blog on 06.12.2018
Ch 3: Swaziland and Good Fortune
Pblished in my blog on 14.12.2018
Ch 4: Taking Exams at the Medical Council of the South African Republic / Surviving Abroad
- Pblished in my blog on 14.12.2018
Ch 5: Flight
- Pblished in my blog on 15.12.2018

The Flight

Dr. Dima and  Dr. Slava

In the wake of desperate times and with sudden, unaccustomed freedom, many Russians (including the Russian doctors) fled abroad like rats, in pursuit of happiness. There are many tragic and comic stories about these rat races.

Dr. Mamasha

Dr. Mamasha travelled with her son from Kiev to United Germany to visit her schoolmate and “disappeared” among the tourists. Mamasha proceeded to study English and prepare for the exams at the South African embassy. She made her living in Germany by cleaning houses for well-to-do families, and she also participated in the U.S. green card lottery.

After three years of trying, Dr. Mamasha was twice blessed: She passed the exams and received an invitation to work in South Africa and she won a U.S. green card. She chose the South African bird in the hand, rather than the American eagle in the sky.

The medical authorities of the Northern Transvaal placed her in a newly built hospital located in the middle of black townships. Here, she was lucky once again: Mamasha met a handsome Afrikaner who broke up with his wife and left his family for her. The Afrikaner-Russian newlyweds live in perfect harmony in the same town, an everyday car and a new Mercedes in their garage, and a summer garden on the Indian Ocean coast.

However, despite receiving South African citizenship, Dr Mamasha till works with “limited registration.”

The Dental Technician

Once, in Manzini, I accepted a call and heard a woman’s trembling and agitated voice on the line: “A Russian doctor lives here with his family. They don’t eat anything. Please, help me!”

It turned out that a dental technician from Moscow had burnt his bridges (selling his apartment) and bought the whole family a package tour to South Africa, where he expected to make a fortune. He proudly held an “international recognition” patent for the production of some sort of unparalleled dental crown. In addition to his wife, small children and an elderly mother, his brother had come along after stealing $50,000 from his business partner.

A succession of misfortunes began for these unlucky people when the representative of the travel agency didn’t show up at the Johannesburg International Airport—a scenario that is far too common. None of the family had visas to enter the South African Republic. The technician didn’t speak English, either. Somebody advised the family to go to Swaziland, where the authorities used to grant permission to enter the country on the condition that the tourist claim a travel visa domestically within three to five days.

Besides stealing $50,000 back in Moscow, the dental technician’s brother had taken the remainder of the technician’s proceeds from the sold apartment and headed for Mozambique to make even more money.

The dental technician’s family was sheltered by a not-so-rich, yet compassionate, lady. Having had a hard time with these strange foreigners who refused to eat, the lady heard about some Russian doctors in the missionary hospital and reached me by the telephone.

After the technician told me his sad story, I said “You haven’t heard of the Medical and Dental Council of South Africa, have you? Unfortunately, there is a similar medical authority in Swaziland. You won’t be able to support such a large family. Do you still have your return tickets? Take my advice: Go back to Russia, all of you. With your medical speciality, you can find a position in any part of the Motherland. Another option is to send your family back and try to find a job; your return ticket won’t expire for quite some time.”

Dr. Pegov, who had helped me find my job in Mazini, arranged to accommodate the technician’s family on the missionary hospital’s premises. But the Americans were unfamiliar with the Soviet concept of “freeloading”: The family was supposed to pay $300 for the one-bedroom house. The compassionate Igor made every effort and found a job for the breadwinner, but the African dentist paid the illegal dental technician only $400 per month. The family of five couldn’t live on the remaining $100.

The story had a terrible ending. The technician’s mother died. Then, the African dentist fired the Russian when he dared to ask for a pay raise. The family began to starve. My compassionate wife invited them to a dinner at our place, and the technician himself proudly refused to come, saying “It’s okay, I’d rather have a cigarette” and let his wife and children accept the invitation. (Such a gesture illustrates typical Russian hubris, because a pack of cigarettes cost the same as a small chicken, which his kids would have loved.) Afterwards, I had a serious conversation with him. My wife gathered $200 from each of the three local Russian families to pay the remainder of their expired Johannesburg-Moscow ticket, and Igor Pegov saw the holder of the “international recognition” patent off to the Johannesburg International Airport.

Dr. Ilya Pegov

Dr. Ilya Pegov was an extremely kind and compassionate fellow. A Soviet-made obstetrician-gynecologist, he had spent many years of his life working somewhere in Ukraine.

He was lucky to find a smart wife with a pragmatic streak who was able to masterfully redirect his “liquor income” (which came in quantity as gifts for performing abortions) to productive goals—that’s how they managed to buy a car, and build a big, beautiful house (he strained his back during the construction process). Thus Igor avoided succumbing to alcoholism, and acquired both property and constant back pain. The period of reform (perestroika) and the democratic transition in the early 1990s created chaos, which helped the Pegovs sell their house for freely convertible currency: the mark of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Next, the Pegovs made several choices that seemed bizarre to me: First, they booked a package tour and went to Hungary. On the first day of their vacation in Budapest, the Pegovs sought political asylum and were placed in a refugee camp. After six months of a pointless stay in the camp, Igor managed to reach a friend who had successfully emigrated to the U.S. His friend sent him $5,000 “for starters.”

Having planned immigration to the U.S. from the start, and being fed up and exhausted with Budapest, the Pegovs made up their minds to go to South Africa using travel visas.

The story repeated itself when, on the day after their arrival in Johannesburg, they headed for the first church that appealed to them. At the time, the congregation welcomed Russians with interest and curiosity. A businessman sheltered them in a garage which he had rebuilt into a small apartment. For six months, the Pegovs lived in a garage. The only (poor) consolation was that the garage’s owner entrusted Igor with the delivery of goods by car.

Dr. Ilya Pegov learned through the Russian community that to practice medicine he needed to take, and pass, exams at the Medical Council of South Africa. Neither his medical knowledge nor his linguistic skills gave him any reason to hope he would pass. But his talented whiz of a wife made Igor change his mind and take the exams.

A miracle occurred, and Igor passed the medical portion of the exam!

When I met the Pegovs at the missionary hospital in Mazini, they were living with the notion of moving to the U.S. where Ilya  could study in a Bible college, as an American had promised to pay the expenses, including tuition. All members of the family were consumed by great religious fervor. Pegov’s wife insisted that the Lord himself had predicted Igor’s success at the exam when she was showing me the combination of digits and events in scriptures coinciding with exam’s date.

Igor admitted to me, “You know the level of my English. I just failed to understand most of the questions; I was making check marks at random. And I passed! The Lord himself helped me!”

Dima Dimitriev shared with me the actual secret of Pegov’s success. One smart and proficient Yugoslav doctor took the medical exam on that very same day, and she let Igor copy her answers by putting check marks on the right answers for each of the questions’ numbers. The Orthodox Yugoslav doctor’s help was the real hand of God.

Being a kind and friendly man, however, does not qualify anyone to be even a mediocre doctor. Happily, Dr. Ilya Pegov understood this and it seems this is why he was far from enthusiastic about giving the last challenge—the exams in English, medical legislation, and ethics—a try. Yet he had more than enough time on his hands and excellent conditions in which to prepare.

With great reluctance (under the influence of his wife), Ilya took the exams twice, but there was no chance to pass by “freeloading.” This time, he was supposed to read topic-related texts and provide written answers.

Even if Pegov had passed the exams and been offered a job in South Africa, I strongly doubt that with his limited knowledge of obstetrics and gynecology he could have stayed in any hospital for long. Those working as Medical Officers in South African hospitals must know and be able to perform a variety of operations belonging to the primary medical sciences, and Igor completely lacked these “bits of knowledge.” Besides, a Medical Officer’s position gave one the right to an employment visa for several years without the possibility of a permanent residence permit. His wife didn’t have the right to employment, and they also had to pay school tuition as foreigners, which is three or four times more expensive than the amount that South African citizens, or foreigners with permanent residence permits, pay. Given the circumstances mentioned above, Igor wasn’t incredibly enthusiastic about putting an end to his exam saga in South Africa.

Having heard plenty of stories about the missionary life from Americans, he decided to tread the path of a preacher of the Lord’s word. Ilya truly believed that a generous “uncle” from the U.S. would pay the tuition for his Bible college, take care of his family, and pay his children’s tuition.

After a few years, it turned out that there were little prospects for the missionary career either. Ilya left the Nazarene Church’s parish, switching to a church visited by white South Africans living in Swaziland. Soon, he found some friends who were planning to move to New Zealand and agreed to help Pegov join them. The difference was that these South Africans possessed considerable savings and were welcome in New Zealand, unlike the Russian family—who ended up in a refugee camp once again. Refugees in New Zealand enjoyed better conditions: the authorities provided the family with a house of their own. Pegov’s wife wrote me that Igor got a job as a taxi driver and started a sort of an apprenticeship with the local herbalist, which gave him a chance to be admitted to exams in “herbalism.”

Knowing Ilya’s exam-taking skills, I have doubts about the success of the whole undertaking. Odds are, Dr. Ilya Pegov is still working as a driver. But he has a good chance of assimilating in the country as he is lucky to have a pragmatic wife and a talented son. If he doesn’t give up on the idea of staying in the medical profession, he can find a suitable niche in New Zealand.

Dr. Glen Gelheld, Professor of Surgery, George Washington University,  who branded Dr. Slava as a  Bush Surgeon