Lambaréné is as beautiful as I’d imagined. The sound of it rolling off the tongue was as tantalising as the lush green river town described in our Lonely Planet Africa guidebook and I’d been looking forward to it. As we drove across the first bridge onto the island, there were houses with stoeps and faded blue and salmon pink paintwork scattered higgledy piggledy across the hillside, and little bars everywhere amidst the palms; it was charming.
We followed the signs across the bridge on the other side up to the Albert Schweitzer Hospital, and parked outside amongst some impressively tall straight trees. It was blissfully shady and welcoming. Now, my vague impressions of the Nobel Peace Prize winner were that a) he was a good bloke, b) he founded a hospital for lepers or malaria or something and c) he had a very Einstein look but with a moustache to make any Movember proud. So it was inspirational to visit the museum and feel quite overwhelmed by how much I didn’t know about this humanitarian scholar of philosophy, theology and music as well as medicine.
At the age of 30, the professor decided to dedicate himself to a life of service and the alleviation of suffering, and retrained as a physician. Dr. Schweitzer first arrived in Lambaréné 100 years ago in 1913, when the forest wall rose 100 feet high along every path and down to the water’s edge. It was deeply humbling to read of the profound conviction, passion and self-sacrifice that drove this man to build his hospital three times over, through the trials of war and internment, latterly without his ailing wife and only child. He financed his mission through lecture tours, book sales and organ recitals.
For an hour we wandered round the small museum with its collection of letters, photographs and some poignant personal items, including a pair of very worn lace-up leather shoes, which I thought must have been unbearably uncomfortable in the heat. I haven’t worn socks since Namibia!
It was an unexpected bonus when, afterwards, the receptionist showed us around the original hospital. Schweitzer deserves to be remembered for the revolutionary design of these rooms alone: long buildings lying east-west so the sun never bakes the walls, with overhanging roofs for extra shade, built on stilts with hot air circulating up through the trellised walls instead of windows and out through the open ceiling gaps, all covered with calico mossie nets. This natural air con is genius and I wish we had it in the truck!
Since arriving in Gabon, Sampson has been sleeping on the spare bed we had planned to use only in the event of guests or sickness. We have to take the table down every night, but it’s worth it to prevent him getting up to take a cold shower at 2am. Now he’s lying directly under the open hatch, between the open window and the open door, which are all quite secure thanks to our Trellidor gates. It is more by luck than design that the truck enables this felicitous Feng Shui flow of air. I wish I could punch a couple of ventilation holes in the wall of the shower opposite my bed, but I’m coping. On balance I would still rather live in Equatorial Africa than in Europe; I loathe the cold. Even in Cape Town, I have to snuggle up to Hot Water Bottle Man to warm my icy winter feet.
We drove out of the hospital looking for a cool spot to park off, turned left straight down to the riverbank and pulled in under a palm tree. Perfect. The kids got a surfboard out, tied it to a mango tree and splashed about. A small crowd gathered immediately, on the pretext of knocking mangoes down to snack on (you gotta love African fast food). The first one brave enough to join in and have a go on the board was Darlin, aged 14, who became a fast friend, with more than a little crush on Ruby. Darlin is pronounced ‘Darla’ but it should have a silent G on the end, he’s such a kind and thoughtful lad.
We needed clean clothes so decided to pause here for a couple of days’ R and R. I spent the first day doing a mammoth wash using water Sampson pumped directly from the Ogooué river into the tank using a 20 micron filter from We Love Water. In between rinses, I read The Primeval Forest by Schweitzer, which we bought from the museum shop. I felt honoured to be here, reading this account of his experiences from 1913-1927 in the very place where he wrote it, with the evidence of his work all around us.
As well as documenting his progress in building the hospital, The Primeval Forest reflects on what constitutes successful living. For Schweitzer, it is our duty to seek out useful employment that enhances the lives of others. He decided to be a doctor in Equatorial Africa as he knew that was where his skills could make the greatest impact. The Lonely Planet quotes Schweitzer as saying “Everyone has his Lambaréné.” I’m hoping I am finally on the right track towards mine.
As I sloshed dirty pants around in our giant drum, I was peppered with questions by a crew of buff blokes with spades who stood around chatting while waiting for 30T lorries to arrive. Once or twice a day we watched them shovelling sand over their heads for an hour in 30 degrees and 80% humidity, a job that would be done with a JCB in Europe. It’s a hard way to earn your bread.
The kids did school in the shade outside – it was suffocating inside the truck – with periodic dips in the fast-flowing river. Yet Darlin told us that, only a month ago, they were playing football on the dry riverbed. Sampson wasn’t feeling well; I think he got a touch of heatstroke doing the pumping the day before. I got a bit sun-lashed myself hanging out the second load of towels and sheets, even though I spent 99% of the time in the shade, the heat was so fierce.
On the second morning, we took a walk up the road through the local village of Adoumé, which was notable for its lack of interaction. I wouldn’t exactly describe the Gabonese as unfriendly, but they aren’t forthcoming like the Congolese. But then, they get so many smug-looking French and German tourists here, you can’t blame them for keeping themselves to themselves. The absolute poverty of outlying villages in the Congo is also absent; shutters and flowering bushes adorn the houses of wood or concrete; almost every one has a satellite TV dish.
Passing local Monsieur Bilé stopped for a chat the first time while he was on his way to visit the grave of his parents. It was the eve of All Saints’ Day, and he was taking some juice to make a libation. Sampson was touched. The second day, he sat down with us and we spoke about how Dr. Schweitzer was ahead of his time, an ecologist before the word was invented, proposing the ethics of Reverence for Life for all: people, animals and nature. M. Bilé told us he was so beloved, even animals adored him because he always carried rice in his pockets! As a young boy he watched the ducks follow Dr. Schweitzer about. M. Bilé became equally solicitous of us. He insisted I take his phone number and let him know when we’d arrived safely in Libreville; he also wants a call when we get back to SA at the end of 2015!
Darlin brought his Monopoly set to play with Ruby and Zola after school. I was thrilled to hear how much French they were learning while playing the Parisian version. Later he escorted us to the market to buy vegetables and fresh fish, which Sampson braaied for us all that night. Looking round the small supermarket, I was once again struck by the terribly high prices of basic foodstuffs that are mostly imported from France. In The Primeval Forest, Schweitzer wrote:
“Social problems are also produced by imports from Europe. Formerly the negroes practiced a number of small industries; they carved good household utensils out of wood; they manufactured excellent cord out of bark fibre and similar substances; they got salt from the sea. But these and other primitive industries have been destroyed by the goods which European trade has introduced into the forest. The cheap enamelled ware has driven out the solid, home-made wooden bucket, and round every negro village there are heaps of such things rusting in the grass… Thus native industries are going backwards instead of forwards, just when the rise of a solid industrial class would be the first and surest step towards civilization.”
It is so depressing to realise that if you replace the word ‘enamel’ with ‘plastic’, the paragraph is as relevant now as it was a century ago. The countries of central Africa import the vast majority of their food and are still completely dependent on their former colonial masters, who continue to do very well out of the deal.
Schweitzer has been criticised for being paternalistic and patronising, and I certainly winced a few times while reading, but you can’t deny he was way ahead of his time. I love how he spells it out:
Who can describe the injustice and the cruelties that in the course of centuries (Africans) have suffered at the hands of Europeans?… We and our civilization are burdened, really, with a great debt. We are not free to confer benefits on these men, or not, as we please; it is our duty. Anything we give them is not benevolence but atonement. For every one who scattered injury, someone ought to go out to take help, and when we have done all that is in our power, we shall not have atoned for the thousandth part of our guilt. That is the foundation from which all deliberations about “works of mercy” out there must begin.
I was fascinated to read Schweitzer’s exposition of “the Fellowship of those who bear the Mark of Pain”. He describes how those who “have learned by experience what physical pain and bodily anguish mean” are “united by a secret bond”. Subsequently he feels they should help “to overcome those two enemies… and to bring to others the (same) deliverance”.
This argument adds something to the discussion Abu and I had on the beach at Pointe Noire: could the First World begin to understand that there is a parallel Fellowship of the Art of Suffering? Could they grasp that there is a vast gulf between those who suffer social and economic injustice across the Third World on a daily basis and those who don’t, in the same way that there is a major gap in experience between those who have lived with chronic pain and those who haven’t? Following Schweitzer’s teaching, it is perhaps now the duty of Africa to deliver the First World from its ignorance of the capacity to endure and survive.
I also love this insight about ‘African time’:
Newspapers one can hardly bear to look at. The printed string of words, written with a view to the single, quickly passing day, seems here, where time is, so to say, standing still, positively grotesque. Whether we will or no, all of us here live under the influence of the daily repeated experience that nature is everything and man is nothing. This brings into our general view of life – and this even in the case of the less educated – something which makes us conscious of the feverishness and vanity of the life of Europe; it seems almost something abnormal that over a portion of the earth’s surface nature should be nothing and man everything!
This is ringing so true for me. Travelling puts the ephemeral into sharp wide-angled perspective. At home I was an internet/radio junkie and I thought I would struggle to cope without my daily dose of news, but I don’t miss it at all. Here I listen to nature breathing.
Africa has a different time signature. If you think of each continent as interlocking cogs of a giant clock, African time is just so much more massive and weighty than European time, starting so much earlier as it did. When the latter is pointing to 9am ‘time to start work’ or 5pm ‘time to close the bourses’, the African cog is still showing ‘just past colonialism’. You can’t push the pace of recovery from PTSD over generations; just breathe, just be.
Schweitzer’s tales of battling malaria, blackwater fever, sleeping sickness, dysentery and tropical ulcers are a catalogue of relentless horror. I thank God for Liberty Health, whose generous donation of their pan-African BLUE cover gave us the peace of mind to set off on this journey, knowing that if we ever got into serious medical difficulty, our kids could be flown to the nearest hospital within a couple of hours. I’m also incredibly lucky that I haven’t gone down with malaria. Yet.
On our last morning in Lambaréné, we woke to find four mangoes left at the bottom of our stepladder. Darlin had signed his name in the sand – what a sweetheart. His grandmother has leprosy and the whole family lives in the Village de la Lumiére built for patients by Dr. Schweitzer with his Nobel Prize stipend. The persistence of the ‘Village of Light’ seems a fitting counterweight to the Heart of Darkness trope introduced by Conrad’s Kurtz, and is my preferred lens through which to view Equatorial Africa.
Schweitzer is also quoted as saying “Happiness is nothing more than good health and poor memory”. It’s a comfort to reflect that Sampson’s always going to be halfway there then…
Written on 2nd Nov