Schweitzer and the New Africa

In 1958 FREDERICK S. FRANCKset up a dental clinic in the hospital of Dr. Schweitzer in Lambaréné. Equatorial Africa. He went as an artist and dentist, and having found that there were hardly any dentists on the continent, he returned in 1959 and 1960 to give short courses on dental emergencies in Ghana, the Congo, the Gabon Republic, Ethiopia, and the Sudan, as well as at Lambaréné. This article and the drawing for the headpiece are from his AFRICAN SKETCHBOOK, to be published try Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

WE FLEW through an overcast sky to the Gabon Republic. In the plane I sat next to a gray-haired African with a finely cut face who was correcting a manuscript. He addressed me in especially elegant French. “Are you going to visit our newly independent country?” he asked, slightly ironically. “In which case, I bet you are going to Dr. Schweitzer.” He was the editor of a local newspaper, a patriot and a conservative, which made him a friend of Léon M’Ba, Prime Minister of the new republic. “During the independence celebrations,” the editor told me, “M’Ba made a speech which was a model of moderation. He was educated in France, like myself, and for years he was a deputy in the French Parliament. The Prime Minister sees very well that the Gabon needs France. As long as M’Ba is Prime Minister here, the Gabon will be a cultivated country, but,” he added with a worried look, “elections are coming. and if the demagogues win, we might get into a Congolike situation. Then I would not vouch for the safety of your friend Schweitzer either.”

“What do you think of Schweitzer?” I asked.

“Oh, I admire the man,”he replied. “I realize very well that without Schweitzer few people would ever have heard about our country. He has done tremendous good here. But the young hotheads hate him, and that is understandable too, for they cannot realize that Schweitzer has been here for nearly fifty years, and that when I was a child he was about the only doctor in the whole country. They only see that there are now modern hospitals here and there and that the Schweitzer hospital is becoming an antique.”

At the Libreville airport buvette they were drinking beer. The blonde woman behind the counter was shouting instructions to the kitchen. A black boy, shining like a new shoe, brought in a large capitaine fish for Friday lunch.

The next stop was Port Gentil. The customs officer, with his heavy, kind black face, recognized me. He had been my patient at Lambarene, and asked me for a prescription for pills to improve his potency. At the mouth of the Ogowe River lies Port Gentil — an enormous sky of pearly gray, a strip of beach with a few high palms, a sleepy street parallel to the beach, with new ugly houses built by the Petroleum Company. There is not a ripple on the polished mirror ot the bay. Not a soul stirred in the Sunday streets except a man in a battered felt Homburg, who was walking his dog. He looked as if he were walking in Valenciennes and had forgotten to put on his winter coat.

Here in the air-conditioned, gleaming new hotel I waited for my plane connection to Lambaréné. Since the country has become independent, it has its own airline, which consists only of a few planes chartered from Air France, and hence the number of flights has been greatly reduced. But to rest two days in this pleasant atmosphere of indolence is no punishment. Main Street has a few bookshops with the newest French literature. Is this turbulent Africa? All the Africans speak French, and waiters and postal workers talk to you like equals, quite naturally and with dignity. How far away is humming Lagos, terrorist-infested Douala, and seething, ex-Belgian Congo? lei tout est calme et beauté ....

Copyright © 7967 by Frederick S. Franck.

Lambaréné from the air: a homecoming. The plane nosed its way over the green jungle soup with its patches of island and came down on the airstrip, where a smart control tower is being built. At the Ogowe River ferry, the large pirogue from the hospital was waiting, and the rowers Emile and Obiange and petit Jean welcomed me like a lost brother. The river is very low in the middle of the dry season, and on the large sand flats fishermen were camping in palm-leaf huts. Little black boys were playing a game, sliding off the high river banks into the turbid water. The same crews on the same old steamers still come and go, and we recognized each other. A boy in a pirogue shouted, “Bonjour, Docteur!”

At the hospital landing, there were more pirogues than ever. Dr. Schweitzer has aged. He is building again, a row of new huts for his workers near the new garage. He looked worried and drawn, completely wrapped up in his building. “I still have to build this,” he said. “When I am dead they can get on for a few years yet, but then there will be nobody here who can organize this.” It was the first time I had heard him mention anything about the hospital after his death. I am constantly asked about Dr. Schweitzer’s plans for his hospital and usually answer: “Can you predict what will happen in Africa next week? How can anyone make plans?”

The hospital has not changed. There are two new doctors and a few new monkeys. The young pelican has become an adult and a tame member of the family, and the velvety litter of off-white kittens of last year is now a family of mangy cats. Main Street is still choked with the sick; the shouts of “Brancardier, brancardier!” still sound from the beach when new emergencies arrive in canoes. I thought I heard a woman singing from a pirogue midstream. The pirogue came closer, and what I thought was a song was a heart-rending wail. As the pirogue touched the beach the woman jumped out, holding a child in her arms. The child’s head dangled passively as the mother ran on her thin strong legs to the hospital.

Yet, also in Lambaréné, things change. In the Leper Village a radio blares; it was given by a visitor. First I heard music; then a demagogue from Leopoldville spoke. Something has changed in the mood here too; the children have forgotten their songs.

THE old man was sitting at his table, writing. His head, bent low over his note paper, nearly rested on the table. He muttered something, started to rummage in his papers, could not find what he was looking for, and muttered louder. His housekeeper-nurse-secretary, Mathilde, must have heard him, for she appeared in the doorway and looked at the mess on the desk. Her hands folded, she asked softly, “Were you looking for something, Docteur?”

“Did I call you? Then stay where you are,” growled the old man.

Mathilde left meekly, and Schweitzer went on digging in his papers. Then he got up, angrily, his great torso bent, the legs a bit curved in the frayed khaki trousers, the square bushy head thrust forward. He started to leaf through the clusters of clippings, bundled together with string, hanging from nails behind his desk. He was still mumbling, found what he wanted, and lowered himself onto the hard square stool (“I don’t like chairs; I despise comfort”). He licked his fingers and leafed through the file of clippings.

Then he started to write again. His face was even closer to the paper now, a face built around a central massif core, the large pitted nose as its base and the heavy brow arch as its top. From it radiated innumerable lines, deepening into grooves which divided the aged flesh into planes; above his glasses the bushy eyebrows were knitting and unknitting, hairs sprouting and jumping over the rims. The line of the eyebrows was repeated two or three times in parallel grooves on his forehead. The skin looked hard, old, and elementheaten. The white mustache bristled over his mouth and nearly caressed the paper.

The old strong hand slowly, deliberately wrote on. Then, after a sentence or two, his head would straighten and turn. For a few seconds his gaze would be fixed on the glassless window with its mosquito screening, and he would look out over the river. Suddenly he seemed to notice me again. “Shall I pose for you?” he asked kindly.

“Oh, no, please go on working. I’ll sketch while you work.”

“Yes, but not with my glasses,” he said. “They make me look too old.” Within a minute he had forgotten me and was writing again. It was getting dark, and the cicada music had become as strong and irritating as a blaring radio. The file of ants marching across his table got out of focus in the dusk.

When he pulled the oil lamp toward him and lighted it, I noticed for the first time that he was wearing cotton sleevelets over his wrists, so that the sweat would not soil the paper. After a few more sentences he got up again. He took the sleevelets off and put on a faded, crumpled felt hat. “Let’s sit down outside,” he said.

I followed him out of the room, and we sat on the steps of his porch, looking at the dusk deepening over the river. He seemed sad about something he had just read. “One should have the skin of a hippo,” he said abruptly and without explanation, “and the soul of an angel.” His dog, Tshutshu, sat between us. Mathilde came noiselessly behind us, standing erect. The toucan Jackie was on her shoulder, and was peering at us from the beads on both sides of his ludicrous beak.

The old man looked at the evening and absorbed it. “Look at that tree,” he said, pointing at a kapok in the distance. It still was caressed by the last light of day. We stayed, silent, a few minutes longer. The darkness had fallen quickly, like a hood, over the landscape. The dinner gong was sounding, and kerosene lanterns started their dance to the dining room. “Ja, ja,” sighed the old man. He got up heavily, took his kerosene lamp from the shelf, and we all crossed the yard to the dining room. We put our burning lamps to wait for us in the little hall.

The twenty people in the dining room, who had been talking, became quiet and sat down. The last chair stopped scraping on the concrete floor. Schweitzer’s eyes quickly darted up and down the long table; then they closed.

“Thank the Lord, for He is kind and His goodness is everlasting. Amen,” he said quietly.

During dinner I told him about a public school class in a poor section of the Bronx, where I had given a talk some time ago. The children, all thirty of them, had written letters to Dr. Schweitzer. “I just thanked them in your name,” I said. “I guess that is all right.” But the old doctor wanted to know all about it, and when I read to him some of the names — Spanish, Italian, Jewish, Polish, Chinese — and told him about the teacher who made it her task to teach all these white, pink, yellow, and black children to get on together, he looked at me with suddenly very young eyes under the bushy white eyebrows. “But this is important,” he cried. “This is really important.”

After dinner he asked me to his room, and I watched him write, slowly and steadily, two letters, one to the children of P.S. 53 in the Bronx and one to the teacher:

I myself come from an old Alsatian family of schoolmasters. My grandfather, his four brothers and two sisters were schoolmasters. And I, deep down in my heart, am a schoolmaster and have a schoolmaster’s soul. That is why I understand so well your work in the difficult and very special profession of a teacher. . . .

He is more than a great man, I thought, he is a great, human person.

WHILE I was drawing next day, an African joined me. He was fortyish, thin and intense. It was clear he wanted to ask me for something. It was money. Then he started to complain bitterly about the hospital. He said he was working on the new road and hardly got paid. “Just because my wife is sick, I have to work like a slave,” he snarled. “And the Grand Docteur insults us when he gets mad at us. You don’t do that any more to us blacks. If he were a younger man, I’d bash his head in.”

Even Lambaréné is changing. The winds of change which sweep over all Africa are not stopped by any wall of mahogany and okoumé trees. Schweitzer is still the great witch doctor to the old, but the young évolués dislike the hospital. It may have been true twenty years ago that the Africans were afraid of a gleaming white hospital and preferred one which reminded them of their villages. Schweitzer has often said so, and his hospital did become a cross between an Alsatian farm and a native African village.

But the young Africans have a new god; not the Christian one, whom they never really accepted Christianity is losing in Africa, Islam is gaining — but the cruel god Progress. In Lagos I saw Yoruba women who lived in slums without plumbing or any sanitation proudly push the buttons of the self-service elevator in their new skyscraper hospital. No condescending pseudo villages for them, but the shiny gadgets, the roaring power of car, plane, bus, and tractor, which at last will make them equals of the whites.

“Why is there no sanitary water in that hospital?” the bus driver asked me, blinking through his sunglasses. His hands were behind his back, and his chin was thrust up aggressively. He is the man who drives the bus from Lambaréné to Libreville and back, once a week. “Why didn’t the Grand Docteur ever start a school to train black nurses? Why are there still those dirty old bunks and no beds? Why does he separate the Fang and the Galwa patients? That was OK fifty years ago, but we are all Gabonais now, aren’t we? Come on, Docteur, have you ever seen the hospital at Libreville?” The bus driver knows what he is talking about. The hospital at Libreville, five hours by bus, is hypermodern and built in the latest international style. It is huge and, no doubt, excellent.

“All of Gabon has only about fifty doctors, and look how this old hospital is filled day after day with three hundred and fifty patients or more,” I answered. “How can you doubt it is useful?”

But the chauffeur is the new Africa, and his quarrel with the Lambarene hospital is not based on reason but on emotion."C’est dégoûtant” he repeats. And he will repeat it at all the bus stops between Lambaréné and Libreville.

ON THIS third trip to Lambaréné my heart grew heavier and heavier. In America Schweitzer is criticized because the press took hold of him and publicized him to the point of irritation. His imbecilic adorers still pretend that his hospital is the only hospital in Africa, the only medical center on the tropical continent to which all the little Africans come running to have their ulcers cured with potassium permanganate; as if there were no hospitals and doctors all over Africa, albeit too few; as if there were no World Health Organization. Hysterical females sing his praise in falsetto and pour their adulation over women’s club audiences, making a career out of eulogizing the old doctor, until those who never did anything creative in their lives feel justified in dismissing this great human being as a phony.

Meanwhile, the old man plods on. Somewhere deep inside he must know that, although he was the pioneer of medical help in Equatorial Africa, he has been overtaken. He must, with his probing intelligence and his real love of human beings, feel deeply unhappy that he has underestimated the Africans surrounding him. But even there I defend him, and have defended him against attacks all over the west coast of Africa. For all the African doctors and intellectuals attacked me on Schweitzer, whom they see as a vestige of colonialism, paternalism, and a Christian endeavor they don’t understand and hence despise. “He may be the noblest flower of colonialism; he is typical of the era,” they say. They seem to decry the old curative hospital, which, even if it is not modern and not perfect, has relieved suffering for nearly half a century. They think only in terms of the mass approach of preventive medicine. At the same time, many African doctors, who are so quick to criticize the old pioneer, flock to the cities, where almost all of them work for status, money, large houses, and gleaming cars.

Schweitzer has never been in Africa, I have often argued. After his short European “vacations,” during which he gave talks or organ concerts to raise money for his hospital, he took the boat from Bordeaux to Port Gentil, and from there the slow pinasse to Lambaréné, where he buried himself in work among a poverty-ridden, backward agricultural people. The more developed countries of west Africa he has never seen, and who of us a few years ago knew what went on in Accra, Abidjan, Lomé, or Yaounde? Who knows now? But the Grand Docteur worked and cured and wrote and played his piano-organ, and the years flew by, and the inroads of education and culture in his poverty-stricken district were far from spectacular. If he had come from his native Alsace to some forlorn hillbilly village in the Ozarks and never left it except by air, would he have a high estimate of American culture from direct observation?

My intellectual African friends often understood this argument, but my anxiety remained. If there were only hope of modernizing Lambaréné in time! But how can we expect Dr. Schweitzer at eighty-six to adapt himself to the mutations of Africa? Even if he were to install electricity and water and a school for nurses, even if he were to streamline his hospital out of recognition, banish his animals into kraals, import African doctors (from where?), who would guarantee that it would be sufficient?

One day Schweitzer must die, and the loss of this great human soul, this gigantic example of what a man can do with his life, will leave us all much poorer.

He asked me, with something at once hopeful and hopeless in his eyes, “Do you believe that the idea of reverence for life is gaining ground?” Reverence for life. I came from New York and had traveled all over exploding west Africa, across half of a globe which seemed to be getting ready to destroy itself in a last general spasm of insane violence. Timidly I said, “I don’t know There has never been so much violence. And yet, you sowed a seed.”

We were standing at the bend of the new road Schweitzer is building. After forty-seven years he has given in; the hospital will be accessible by car and truck instead of by canoe only. A yellow bulldozer was flattening the underbrush, and the African driver was singing. The old man bent down stiffly and lifted a few, too heavy rocks. He put them carefully by the side of the road and mumbled: “I can use them for building later.”