A doctor who lived among pygmies

José María Porta Tovar.
José María Porta Tovar. / Francis Silva
  • After 22 years as director of the Sagrado Corazón psychiatric hospital, his NGO 'Andalucía por un mundo nuevo' is now building a fish factory to breed tilapia in Malawi

  • Gynaecologist José María Porta lived with his wife in Malawi for two years and then trained inpsychiatry

Living in Malawi for two "extremely happy" years marked him for life, but there has been a before and after for this white-skinned doctor who speaks and writes chichewa. He has done nearly everything a doctor can do in this deepest part of Africa which won his heart, "but medicine in that part of the world is always a challenge," he says.

He fell in love with the country after collaborating, first as a sociology student and then as a doctor with the Padres Blancos association. His feelings for it have never changed. The wonderful countryside of the continent, and also India, meant that he took all his future holidays in those regions, most of them with his family.

He recalls the first time he worked with a doctor from Teruel, who brought him to the harshness of the leper colonies in Cameroon and carried out surgery on anyone he could with almost no resources, and amid the routines of war. "Come on, José María, we're going to cut fingers off today," he would say.

"For a leper in the 1960s there were only two remedies: surgery, or chaunura oil," he says, still amazed at the radical binomial. When he returned after that summer he began his career as a doctor, specialising in gynaecology, before perfecting his skills in hospitals in Canada, the USA and the UK. He turned to psychiatry later, following several stays in the pygmy villages. "It was in Africa that I learned the most psychiatry," he says. His vocation gave him the subject of his doctoral thesis, based on notes he had made in the jungle of Cameroon.

He moved to Malawi, on the other side, with his wife and young son who was just learning to walk, but he considers the experience of two uninterrupted years of cooperation, including creating a hospital, to be very small compared with 'giants' like Pedro Cavadas, the surgeon from Valencia, and Teresa of Calcutta who he met in 1975 when people were only just beginning to talk about her.

"I have never seen anyone with her ability to give things up and do so much for others," says this doctor who is a Catholic and has great faith in everything he does, a psychiatrist who admires the polyfaceted Nobel Prize winner Albert Schweitzer and has a transcendent vision of man, inviting people to seek happiness in personal projects and small things. "People in the African villages aren't happier than we are, as some think," he says, rebutting the myth that African villagers never suffer from depression.

His father used to be a commander with the Artillery, and when José María was young he once asked him about the sign saying 'Todo por la patria' above the door of the barracks. His father adapted his answer, and it has remained his philosophy ever since: "From the time we come into the world, we all have a mission and some people love others so much that they would give their life for them," he said.


He says he wasn't a brilliant medical student, "but I was very tenacious", and talks about his time at the Faculty of Zaragoza, where he took his doctorate in psychiatry before moving to his first post in Seville. 'Magical-primitive thought and psychosomatic medicine in the village of Ngovayang' was the subject of his thesis in 1977, the academic work based on his experience on the ground where, he says, "almost nobody understood the solidarity work carried out by missionaries and doctors for nothing".

After helping to set up the NGO Médicos Mundi in Seville, in 2000 he began his own project - it is called Andalucía for a new world - which has 170 members between Malaga and Seville and the ability to mobilise 250,000 euros a year in cooperation.

As a cooperating doctor he knows the problems faced by medics in some countries, where bacterias and viruses are seen as "nothing more than the evil eye and curses from somebody who wishes them ill, because for them illness and death do not have an organic cause," he says.

Not only did he have to cope with ancient beliefs and a lack of resources, but competition from more than 50 witch-doctors as well.

"Families would come with their sick children, but it was a disaster. They trusted me, but they also believed the witch-doctors, so what they did was take their advice and give their children enemas when they took them home from the hospital where we had been trying to hydrate them".

When he came back from Malawi he needed financial security and took a job with the Navarra regional government. "I didn't have many expenses in Africa, but when I came back I realised I was poor and hospital management seemed a good option," he says.

For the past 22 years he has been the medical director at the Sagrado Corazón Psychiatric Hospital in Malaga.

"My wife, who is a saint, couldn't cope with the lack of sunshine in Navarra," he laughs.

The seed he sowed all those years ago has grown like a baobob tree thanks to his NGO, which is now run by his son Javier, a biologist. "In Malawi, after the hospital and a farm, we are planning a fish factory to breed tilapias, a fish which is very resistant to illnesses," he says.

José María is now writing his memoirs, and has just decided on a title for the book. It will be called 'Mission accomplished, commander', dedicated to his father.