President of AMI - International Medical Assistance
Origins and Ancestry
"I am the fifth generation born in Africa since my great-great-grandmother. I have always assumed my roots in that country which I am very proud of. But on the other hand, I am European."
At first, I didn’t understand that my life was already outlined by many elements that were in me. I always knew I was the result of multiculturalism. I always knew my Portuguese roots from my father’s side, a descendant of Távoras. But also, from my mother’s side. I have French, Dutch, Brazilian roots and roots from Cabinda. When I was a little boy, in Luanda, where I was born, the colour of my skin was never an issue.
My great-grandmother was mixed race, the daughter of a princess from Cabinda and a Brazilian, Manoel António da Silva. He witnessed the Treaty of Simulambuco.
My great-grandmother came to Lisbon to study when she was five. She returned to Angola when she was 21 to marry an aristocrat and Dutch diplomat of French origins, my great-grandfather Jacob. I met my great-grandmother, but I didn’t meet my great-grandfather. He died in Antwerp in 1837.
I am the fifth generation born in Africa since my great-great-grandmother. I always assumed my roots in that country which I am very proud. But on the other hand, I am European. I was raised aware of my Roots. Aware of my great-grandmother. She was a Quicongo princess, one of the three kingdoms that shaped Cabinda. Aware of my Brazilian great-grandfather. He took part in the Treaty of Simulambuco as a facilitator. A Treaty that established Cabinda as a protectorate of the Portuguese Empire. This Treaty was signed in his settlement. I am also aware of my European roots. At my father’s house, we were raised through Portuguese traditional culture. It was my father’s culture. He wanted that his children were raised like this. We never spoke aboriginal languages. I only learnt an African language later, in Congo, Lingala, where I lived for three years. When I am in Africa, and I speak with people, I underline I am also from there. I don’t have any complex. The colour of my skin doesn’t have any influence. But when I am in Europe, I am also a European.
Before I was born, I already had three continents and five countries inside of me. Nowadays, we know that Mankind was born somewhere. Eden is in Rift Valley. I had already crossed big part of this valley that goes from South Sudan until Burundi, through Quenia, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia... In Abis Abeba, I saw Suzy’s skeleton, that some say it was our ancestor 3.6 million years ago. And from there the human diaspora to Asia and Europe and for Africa’s interior.
Africa is always in me and is not only because my ancestors and I were born there. Genetically, I am 6.25% from Africa, related to a great-grandmother. But because I know almost every country in Africa. From 54 countries, I don’t know six. I love this continent, but I have an unclear relationship (joy and frustration) with it, especially with Angola. Because, for some reason, it didn’t achieve its goals.
We are the result of our genes and different moments in life. We are a symbiotic link between all of that. Even before I was born, I already had three continents and five countries inside of me. My destiny was to jump around from one place to the other.
I used to say that I am an embondeiro [a tree that grows in some parts of Africa] that was born in a mythical island, somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where my origins crossed and where I was born, already with a dream. All of us have a unique path, but why did I have this will to travel the world? It is a Portuguese identity, without a doubt, but I didn’t neglect, or I don’t neglect other elements that are in me. I am a cluster of roots and cultures.
Medicine and AMI
"My dream was to have a hospital in Africa, in the jungle"
But it is also the circumstances of someone's life that count. Like medicine, in my case. My dream was to have a hospital in Africa, in the jungle. I have dreamt about that since I was a little boy. I always wanted to be a doctor. When I was fifteen years old I thought about Painting, in the Faculty of Fine Arts, but I had a dream and I did Medicine. But African art is in me, and I tried to know more about masks, sculptures...
I went to Belgium when I was 15 years old. It was the first European country I visited, even before Portugal. My father was a businessman in Angola. He moved to Congo, and we went with him. I came back to Portugal a year after the revolution (25 April 1974).
I always thought about Medicine and work in Africa, in a hospital in the jungle. It was my dream first. I graduated from University on the Independence Day. I remember I wrote to my mother’s cousin, expressing my desire to return to Angola. She was mixed race and doctor and she was in Angola. I specialized in general surgery and urology, but I always had a dream to do a different Medicine. Even though my father wanted me to follow his career in the university in Brussels and become a full professor in surgery. My father used to tell me this in his letters when I started doing my humanitarian missions around the world. I remember a letter where he wrote, “My son showed that he is brave, now have some sense and take care of your family and your career in the university.” I already had two children at that time.
A chance to do a different medicine.
In 1975 I couldn’t return to Angola and fulfil my dream – open a hospital in the jungle, that could be functional, clean and well managed. Then I discovered an organization: Doctors Without Borders. The missions I did with them were the result of my first dream, the opportunity to do a different medicine. But I was far from convinced that a small road would transform itself in my life. I used my vacations and emergency recover time to do those missions, three months in total, and I went to Ankara, Iran, Iraq, Ankara, Chad, Libya, Darfur… I did a different type of surgery, war surgery. Sometimes our path is made without knowing exactly how.
While I was in a mission crossing Darfur to Chad, I stand up for a group of journalists from a French magazine. As a recognition, in their article about the war in Chad and Libya, those journalists published a picture where I was operating in a tent with the subtitle “Fernando, the young surgeon from Portugal.” Barata Feio’s team read this article and tried to discover who that Portuguese was. The magazine was published in 1982, and the article had a great impact. Health minister called me to Brussels and told me that he would like to meet me. He asked me to launch a similar movement in Portugal. It was 1983, the health in the outskirts it wasn’t how it is today. But why not an international movement? That was what it brought me to Portugal. I founded AMI when I was still in Brussels, in December 1984.
AMI was a drop in the ocean, and I didn’t know that one day it would have 100 million invested in projects, 35 million in international projects and 65 million in Portugal, where we have an active social component to support the fight against poverty and social exclusion. We manage interventions in more than 80 countries, with 16 social equipment in Portugal. I remember phone calls after specific interventions, like the architect Helena Roseta, that after the tsunami, told me that AMI was Portugal’s pride or Miguel Sousa Tavares that said AMI is the most significant external representative of the country. I go to Africa every month. Some days ago, I came from Ghana and São Tomé, but in three days I am going to Mozambique and Madagascar. We have humanitarian and development projects in more than twenty countries.
Fernando José de La Vieter Ribeiro Nobre (born 16 December 1951) is a Portuguese doctor – urologist and surgeon - and the founder and president of the Portuguese NGO AMI (International Medical Assistance). He was born in Luanda, Angola in 1951. He moved to the Republic of the Congo (Léopoldville) by the age of 12. He spent 16 years in Africa. He then studied in Belgium, where he worked and lived for around 20 years. He was part of Médecins Sans Frontiéres from 1977 to 1983. In December 1984 he decided to create in Portugal, Fundação AMI, a Portuguese nongovernmental, non-profit and apolitical organization that has, since then, been making its history by aiming to build a better future, in four key areas, namely Medical Assistance, Social Work, Environment and Awareness Raising.
Fernando Nobre has participated in humanitarian missions in over 180 countries. He is a Professor at the University of Lisbon – Medical School, directing a course of Humanitarian Medicine, which he has been invited to launch. He has run for President of Portugal in 2011, obtaining 14,1% of the votes (3rd place within 6 candidates) and proposed, in June 2011, by the majority party, to be the President of the National Parliament, although he was not elected by the members of the chamber. He is the author of several books about his humanitarian experiences and his perspective of the world. He was awarded with a vast number of prizes and titles, both at national and international level, including the "Officier et Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur" of France, "L’ordre du Lion", of Senegal, "The Order of Merit", of Portugal, and the "Human Rights Gold Medal" from the National Parliament.
Conversation conducted by Maria Teresa Cruz
(video registration and editing by Madalena Miranda) ©2016
We thank the President of AMI for the opportunity of this interview.