A Post-Peace Corps Experience

A Post-Peace Corps Experience

Reflections on a Year Spent at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital
(another tale by Finlay and Skeese)

On the Way There

Finishing up our teaching chores at the end of 1963, Johnny and I planned a “going home” trip through East Africa.  But, as usual, we took plenty of time “to get ready.”  Mostly, we shuttled many times back and forth between Lagos and Onitsha – where Johnny had been teaching at CKC.  I had pretty much wound up activities at my Ekiti-Parapo College assignment in the West.  We did, however, finally get underway around April of ’64.  By that time, though, we had been told that fighting in the southern Sudan might make the crossing difficult (later we would discover that old PC friend Rich Piazza made it through without a hitch – and has some great shots on his website these days to prove it!).  Not to worry – we’ll just go south to the Cape and come up the East Coast.  So, with all our spare Honda parts (i.e. for his 250cc and my 305 cc machines), and new luggage racks, we set out through western and eastern Cameroun.  And we thought Nigeria could be complicated – until we met those “gendarmes!” Lots of stories there, including Johnny’s night in jail on the Ring Road while I went back to Bamenda to get his passport.  But better move on.  Nkonsamba, Douala, and up to Yaounde, the latter where we met the American Presbyterians – and were told of their mission hospital and school in southern Cameroun where we might stop.  We did, and of course were enchanted to see all these little white kids running about.  The hospital was also famous for its ‘surgical technicians’ who had been trained there since the mid-20’s and now did all the hernia repair jobs (and sometimes other procedures as well).  Unfortunately, while there, we slept outside without mosquito nets.  Still not sure if I had been taking my chloroquine regularly (thought I had), but after heading farther south to the border at Ambam, Johnny was fine but I had a helluva case of “fever and chills” – which eventually led almost to delirium.  What to do?  Johnny knew that Bill Ainley, a Presbyterian missionary based in Rio Muni would be passing later that day.  In the meantime, the border folks took me to their house to rest.  When Bill passed, he took us to their local mission and clinic – where I met my first Nurse-Practitioner in May 1964 (only years later would such health professionals become known to Americans).  He promptly took a blood sample, made a thick smear with Giemsa stain, and took out his microscope.  Aha – malaria for sure!  [for you trop med folks out there, to this day, am still wondering if I did not have a case of chloroquine resistant falciparum “palu!”  but most American scientists of the time would say “No!” and that it only made it to Africa much later].   An injection of quinine and rest did the trick – though it would take four days to recuperate at the home of Pastor Nguema (the local Presbyterian) where he and his family provided fantastic care – and even taught us the Cameroun national anthem.  Of course, Johnny used this unfortunate ill spell of mine to get acquainted with the local  rebels (not sure if they were Gabonais or Guineean) who were plotting to overthrow  the government of the country that we would soon be entering.  But before Gabon, we wanted to visit the still Spanish colony of Guinee  Equatoriale – the non-island portion of which was then known as Rio Muni.  So down to Bata – which had all the delights of Spain, including food and drink brought in by a weekly mailboat from Cadiz.  After a nice stay in Rio Muni, we were told of a short cut into Gabon – and Canadian and French Protestant missions on each side of the border.  We stayed with both, but perhaps the story of the Canadian independent missionary is worth a few words here.  This is how the pastor, who sometimes walked a 50 km radius to all his interior mission outposts, told it.  When first entering the mission field from Canada, he had anticipated an assignment in Columbia and had studied Spanish in preparation for it.  But in a vision one night, the Lord told him that there was a greater need in Africa.  When looking at the map, there was only one country in Africa south of the Sahara where Spanish was spoken – Guinee Equatoriale.  So off he and his family set.  Am not exactly sure how he decided on this somewhat remote village.  But do remember him telling us that he was the first Protestant missionary to set foot in Rio Muni.  And after being in the provincial village just one night, he received a visit from the (obvious Catholic) Spanish District Officer.  He was told that he could not stay and open his mission there.  Whereupon, he informed the Prefecto that “God had sent him there, and ONLY God could tell him to go!”  He was still there some seventeen years later.

Onto Gabon, and a two day stay with the (also evangelical Protestant) French missionaries.  As many of you remember, such long-term resident missionaries often had innovative, and wonderful setups.  Finding a good source of clay, this missionary had made a small village of brick – to this day can remember those marvelous shiny brick floors.  And the Pastor’s wife, in the vrai French tradition, was also a superb cook.  But he had a story to tell, as well – though not concerning his arrival.  Maybe some of you remember, but it seems that earlier that year (or was it ’63?), there had been a revolt in Gabon led by another man named Nguema (nearly all folks in this area of Gabon, Guinee Equatoriale, and Cameroun shared this same family name).  At the time, they actually captured President Leon Mba and took him to a remote village in the southern part of Gabon.  But President Mba was “France’s Man!”  After only a few days in captivity, and despite the fact that Gabon had also received its “independence” in 1960, French paratroopers dropped into the Gabonese village, freed President Mba, and took him back to Libreville – where of course he remained the President of Gabon for many years hence.  At the time, we were wondering “what would have been the reaction if America – or even England – would have done that!” [Not so sure that we should still be so surprised at such audacity after Panama and Iraq, should we?].  But that’s not the punchline.  Get this!  The Pastor, with whom we were staying, told us that he had been in Libreville during those days and had personally seen a sizeable dollar cheque from the American Ambassador in Gabon which was written to the rebel, Nguema.  This money assumedly financed the “attempted” takeover.  To this day, we are still somewhat skeptical – but then, who are we to question the good pastor?  Guess that it’s just as well that we didn’t stay longer than necessary for my recovery in Ambam – where Skeese was hanging out with those rebels!

The short cut worked and we soon hit the main road south at a major town in northern Gabon.  There, the local folks told us of another “European” who had arrived in town a day or two before.  Sure enough, it was our “singing German” friend, Fritz, who had stayed with us in Onitsha and who was hitch-hiking his way across Africa.  Fritz explained that he was on his way to Dr. Schweitzer’s hospital in Lambarene.  So, re-arranging our loads, Fritz, with guitar mounted on his back, saddled up behind Johnny and we were off.  We were to spend the next six months with Fritz at Lambarene – before he continued on south in a VW Kombi with a group of other young Germans who had arrived prior to us and were working at the hospital.  That was the last time we saw him – though my wife,Teresita, and I, some ten years later did spend a few hours visiting with his parents in Bochum, Germany (where we “talked” for several hours even though they spoke no English and I only about ten words of German).  Maybe some of you met him too – i.e. the guy who always wound up his evening campfire concerts with his favorite tune, “Paloma-a.”  Now you do, eh?

Our Year with Albert Schweitzer


Arriving at the Schweitzer hospital, guests are almost always immediately taken to see “le Grand Docteur” (as the locals used to refer to Dr. Schweitzer).  We were no exception and he welcomed us to stay awhile.  Johnny and I looked at each other and said, “Good idea, let’s stay a week!”  That was in May, 1964.  We left in May, 1965.  In the interim, a few things happened.  Most especially, all hell broke loose again in the Belgian Congo – through which our journey south would have taken us.  Some of you may remember the time.  It was June ’64, I think, when the Moise Tschombe financed “White Mercenaries” made their forays around Stanleyville and elsewhere.  And it was also during those days when American Protestant Missionary Carlsen died in one of the village melees.  Looking back now – after the current, and especially the recent past Rwanda, human disasters, this outbreak was a mere aberration in otherwise peaceful times.


What can we say about Lambarene and Dr. Schweitzer that has not already been written?  [including a well written article by Bill Shurtleff, another RPCV from Nigeria – on the PC Writer’s Workshop website] (www.peacecorpswriters.org)  Not really much.  And while Lambarene had been isolated in 1913 when this Alsatian first arrived and set up shop a little downstream – interestingly enough at a missionary site originally established by an American Presbyterian missionary – and still was in 1964, a great number of folks from all over the world had by this latter date somehow made it to this remote outpost to visit Le Grand Docteur.  And, of course, Dr. Schweitzer himself wrote many things.  We generally recommend his “Out of My Life and Thought” as a primer.  For a more visual tour of Lambarene, we have always gone for Erica Anderson’s picture books and film documentaries.  She actually lived at the hospital while we were there, and knew Schweitzer well over a number of years.  Of course, these items by and large promote the image generally held of Albert Schweitzer – i.e. that of prominent theologian/philosopher, and world authority on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, who gave up all such notoriety to become a medical doctor in his mid-30s and go out to the heart of Africa and establish a hospital to serve the people of Gabon’s tropical forest.  An inspiration to the world, and the Nobel Peace Prize winner of 1952.  Even to today, wherever in the world we meet folks, this is the general image we encounter.  But already in 1964, Schweitzer had his detractors.  We remember one such book, “Verdict on Schweitzer,” where the author maintained that Schweitzer’s Christian belief in the humanity, but not the divinity, of Jesus Christ was founded on the good doctor’s belief that he could then be a second coming of Christ!  [not a bad act to follow, we suppose!] We found that a bit hard to swallow, though the book did contain some other interesting background information on a few of the more colorful “characters” who resided and worked at the hospital during our day.  And there was the story about Adlai Stevenson, who was said to have been absolutely shocked at the lack of modern sanitation at the hospital.  To our recollection, there was only one working latrine, used primarily by hospital staff, on the whole hospital compound.  [though neither of us has since visited Lambarene, we understand that there is now a big modern hospital, with all the amenities, now constructed there in  memory of Schweitzer’s life and work].  But then, that was the point.  The Schweitzer Hospital at that time was meant to be constructed and run as much as possible like an African village in the area.  As far as we know, in that river dominated area of Gabon, it was rare to find (much less for the people to use) a latrine in their villages.  However, at the time, some would argue that indeed “a hospital should not be like an African village!”  More as a wisecrack, even we were known to remark in those days “that if you weren’t sick when you came to the hospital, you probably will be before you leave.”  But, of course, we were not altogether serious.  In fact, even by 1964, it was known that “a familiar environment” aided in the recovery of a patient.  At the Schweitzer Hospital of our day, every patient brought with him/her a member of the family to cook and care for them.   And, to the extent possible, the caretaker, as part of the payment for services, would aid with the daily maintenance chores at the hospital.  All the hospital laundry, and even the repair or construction of  buildings to house patients, was done with the help of this “caretaker” labor.  It sounds incredible, not to mention hard to organize, but somehow it worked.  Talk about modern theories of community development!  And for you skeptics out there, we bring your attention to the work of “our own” Nigerian medical doctor and psychiatrist, Dr. Lambo in Abeokuta.  Later to become the Assistant Director-General of WHO, his work with mental patients, not in a modern hospital, but in the familiar nearby Yoruba Aro Village setting, probably still serves as the foundation for the “community” treatment of the mentally ill all over the world.  We should also note that by the time of our stay, there was already a regional (modern?) government hospital in the rather large town of Lambarene.  The Schweitzer Hospital is located on the mainland, while the actual town of Lambarene is on the large island in the middle of the Ogue River just across from the Schweitzer compound.  During the times we visited the government hospital, we were always surprised to find the beds there only partially filled, while it was sometimes difficult to even find a place to put a patient at the Schweitzer Hospital.

So yes, we are “disciples!”  In our opinion, Albert Schweitzer was neither saint nor sinner, but a man who accomplished an extraordinary amount in his lifetime while serving as an inspiration (rightly or wrongly) for all mankind.  Judged by the standards of our era, yes, he was paternalistic.  Reportedly, he never did modify his opinion that “Africans,” in his experience, “could make excellent theologians, but they could not become very good scientists,” nor his belief that somehow Moise Tschombe was the legitimate leader of the Central African people (we never did quite understand that one!). But, on the whole, we became part of the Lambarene family during our year there – i.e. bitch and argue internally, but fight like hell anyone “from outside” who was quick to criticize our leader or our Lambarene home!

A few words about what we actually did in Lambarene during the year we were there.  At the outset, we worked more closely then with Dr. Schweitzer than we would at later periods. Along with the patient family volunteer help, we were asked to aid in the destruction of some old hospital wards to make way for construction of new ones.Dr Schweitzer himself, who was no longer active in medical practice, supervised this work.  And during breaks, we had time to visit a bit with him.  Not being steeped in scholarly subjects, most of our conversations dealt with “run of the mill” stuff concerning the hospital and his time in Gabon.  By this time, we could converse a bit in French, and Johnny would also mix in some of his German.  But, of course, Dr. Schweitzer, did understand English quite well – though in our experience, rarely spoke it in conversations.  Nothing terribly profound.  Just every day chitchat.  After living at the hospital for a year and seeing him with other visitors, we would come to realize that Dr. Schweitzer had probably been asked every silly question in the book by one visitor or  another.  So, in retrospect, we can realize why he was so patient with our queries.   To us, he was something like a wise old grandfather. We especially remember the visit of one rather wealthy American businessman who had been a contributor to Project Hope during the ship’s West African stay.  When posing for a picture with Dr. Schweitzer, he was somehow driven to say, “OK, Al” and throw his arm around the grand docteur’s shoulder.  Needless to say, such  enthusiastic American “familiarity” did not always meet with (the largely European) staff approval!  To us, he was always “Dr.  Schweitzer,” and sometimes even “Herr Dr. Schweitzer!”

My own work at the hospital varied somewhat.   Initially, most of my time was spent with Pierre, a partially blind African nurse, in locating spaces for new patients.  Quite literally, in the older wards, these were indeed just “spaces” on wall to wall wooden “beds.”  [Now living part of each year in the Philippines, I always think of Lambarene when I pass a sign, “wanted female bedspacer,” at a house near universities and other educational institutions]  The hospital did, of course, have separate wards where tuberculosis and other infectious disease patients were housed.  But it was soon deemed that Maurice, an older African nurse managing the “Salle de Pensement” (where all the ambulatory patients that could make it would come for the daily dressings of their wounds) needed help.  There were still quite a few cases of elephantiasis residing at the hospital during those days.  Surgery to remove the burdensome weight of an extremity, and sometimes even amputations, had occasionally been done in the past, but the long-time healing process, and frequent infections, had by our time rendered these procedures somewhat rare.  However, Dr. Sedlacek, a skin graft specialist from Czechoslavakia, arrived not long after us and had some success working on this problem.  The job in the “salle de pensement,” since it had limited hours of operation, carried with it the additional task of distributing food rations to the patients and their caretakers three times a week.  The actual caretaker (or sometimes the patients themselves) prepared the food using their own pots and those familiar three stones near the wards where they were housed.  The resulting smoke from these fires was often also a favorite target for visitors to criticize.  This food ration (i.e. one for the patient and one for the caretaker) always included plantain, and usually Norwegian “stockfish” as well.  Occasionally, we also had fresh fish to distribute – but the demand was so great that it was usually only enough to distribute for the weakest patients.  To fulfill this great demand for plantain (the main food staple in the area), Siegfried, a middle aged German who had been at the hospital close to ten years, would warm up the big hospital truck and go out to surrounding villages where he would purchase the plantain by the truckload.  Johnny would sometime help him with this endeavor, as well as the mechanical work to keep the big truck running.  Different agencies would also donate foodstuffs to the hospital.  I remember, when getting into this “patient food business,” that Melle Ali showed me several sacks of beans.  She noted that they had distributed them to patients but that they were not familiar with them – and usually threw them away.  So I got the “big idea” to try and make some “akaraje” with them.  Having loved eating those little deep fried bean balls in Yorubaland, but never having prepared them, this required some experimentation.  A few big pots and lots of cooking oil later, they came out “not half bad.”  And the patients enjoyed this treat when we would do all the preparation.  But they never did “buy” the idea of preparing the akaraje themselves.  Not sure I blame them, as I recall it involved a lot of work.

But perhaps the highpoint of our days at Lambarene were the mealtimes we spent together.  The European staff, and visitors all ate in the main dining room.  Meals were served, though breakfast and lunch were less formal.  Dr. Schweitzer, who usually dined with us only in the evening, would however, come at lunch on days when one of us had a birthday.  Birthdays were special, and the celebrant was allowed to choose which menu he/she preferred.  It was on such days that Dr. Schweitzer would say a few words and tell us how ‘indispensable’ we were to the work at the hospital – words that we all cherished on “our day” even though we knew they were exaggerations.  But it was the evening meal that no one wanted to miss.  Though the hospital had a generator, mainly to power equipment on surgery days, kerosene table lanterns were used in the dining room.  Dr. Schweitzer sat in the middle of the long table which we all faced.  He was usually flanked by Melle Ali and Melle Mattilde, who would occasionally prompt him on one subject or another (one must remember that he celebrated his 90th birthday while we were there).  Long-time resident workers, Siegfried and Dr. Friedman, who would always take notes when le grand docteurspoke, also sat at this table facing us.  Following the evening meal and relevant announcements, Dr. Schweitzer would read a passage from the New Testament of the Bible, first in German and then in French – the two official languages of the hospital.  Then he would give a brief commentary on these passages in the two languages.  It was particularly to the commentary that staff would listen intently and sometimes take notes.  As I recall, he had a special preference for St. Luke.  Not having been raised in a frequent Bible-reading family myself, it was here that I first began to appreciate the words of “the good book.”  Of, course, as we are sure you also have had this “after dinner bible reading experience” at the homes of various missionaries in Africa, we were not entirely unfamiliar with the custom, but it was perhaps here in Lambarene that it most impressed us.  Occasionally, after dinner, when Dr. Schweitzer did not retire early, we would listen to music and Dr. Schweitzer might also have a few comments about these as well.  If there is one memorable experience at Lambarene that we could say is most imprinted, it would probably be these communal dinners.

But our days at Lambarene did not involve only eating and working.  On Sundays and even sometimes after working hours, we would take one of the hospital’s pirougues  and venture out into the Ogue – usually to swim or sometimes just to look for the resident herd of hippopatimi.  These outings were often made with Fritz, Swiss nurse Elizabeth and head housekeeper, Hilda.  And after the young German crowd left, we discovered a wonderful nearby African village which held a somewhat ritual dance on Saturday evenings – which could go late into the night.  They seemed not to mind our presence as long as it did not disturb the ceremony.  In this respect, we do remember one night a visiting doctor specialist in tropical medicine taking a flash picture with his camera.  That created quite a stir.  We reached the village by pirogue and foot.  And we remember especially enjoying these evenings with our young English friend, who came to the hospital around this time and later became a particularly good waterman – often venturing out into the Ogue by himself in our large hospital pirogues.

But, alas, a year had elapsed and it was time to go.  Our Honda machines were in good order.  We said goodby to Dr. Schweitzer – and he gave us a little stipend for our time at Lambarene and one of his books.  Of course, we also had that parting “photo op” with him.  For me, the departure was also sad since I had to leave little “Oga” as he and the other primates were still under six months quarantine following the rabies outbreak.  I subsequently heard that he has made his way to a San Diego zoo – but unfortunately have never been there to verify this.

After many years of reflecting on this experience at Lambarene, I believe, that in addition to our Nigerian Peace Corps experience, it also has been one those life shaping events.  And we remember it and all the community there fondly to this day.  It would be just three months later, when checking our mail at the US Embassy in Madrid, that we received the sad news from Melle Ali that Dr. Schweitzer had died.  We would subsequently periodically hear from Melle Ali (and Jack and Teresita even once were able to visit her at Maison Schweitzer in Gunsbach) about activities of “the Schweitzer family” until her own death in the late 80s.

[Here is a recent picture of the Authors at the Chicago NPCA Convention, courtesy of Peter Hansen: