Peace Corps Writers
With Albert Schweitzer in Gabon

Editor's note
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A Lover of Animals
Dr. Schweitzer, like Saint Francis, has a love of animals which is so genuine as to almost seem strange to new visitors. This bondage to, and communion with, all things that live is the essence of his philosophy of reverence for life, the central ethical principle in his writings. The hospital is part zoo with tame parrots, pelicans, three antelopes, half a dozen playful, almost human young chimpanzees, two baby gorillas, baboons, spry long-tailed monkeys, and many domestic chickens, ducks and goats. What child would ever forget an evening walk holding hands with a friendly gorilla and a chimp. One day as three of us were walking up to the leper village, the doctor stopped and, pointing to the high limbs of a huge beautiful tree, commented that the ends seemed to be dying. When we looked closely at the base of the tree on that side we found gravel and old cement to have cut off the roots. For several days afterwards we cleared the ground to save the tree. He seems to notice everything!
     Another day while driving in a narrow street, the doctor called me to stop the jeep. A family of ducks were waddling along a good distance from us and he had noticed that one of the small fluffy yellow ones seemed to be limping. He cupped it in his hands and took it back to the hospital and splintered the leg. This love of animals gives rise to a true if not unfortunate story. An African was ill and one of the nurses felt it necessary to bring him extra food from the kitchen, but this she knew was not allowed. So she said that her dog was sick and got a great bowl of rice and meat with no questions asked. Nor is this an isolated or extraneous tale. Reverence for life seems all to often to be reverence for plants, animals, and Europeans, but somehow partially omits the Africans. How many of the truly dedicated nurses here are deeply bothered by this attitude on the part of those in charge of the hospital! It is a constant topic of private conversation in the evenings. For a hospital of 500 sick people there is not a single latrine or toilet. Incredible! Numerous nurses have urged the doctor to let them construct such a latrine in their spare time or at no extra cost, since the surrounding grounds, they assert, are full of disease from the excreta. But the doctor forbids this, saying that it is not necessary for the Africans. One nurse left the hospital recently because of this very issue.
Schweitzer’s philosophy
     Many of the large, common hospital houses are dark, quite cluttered, soot-covered inside and often smoky from the patients cooking fires near the doors. The floors are in many cases, only irregular dirt, soiled by the goats, dogs, and chickens which are free to enter. The tuberculosis patients do not live in isolation, and whole families live in this building together. The floor, I am told, is damp when it rains, and water seeps in from the hillside. As one nurse sums up the situation: “The people come here with one disease and leave with two.” White paint and cement have been offered to the hospital by wealthy friends to make the older buildings look decent, but Dr. Schweitzer politely and emphatically maintains that it is not necessary. His philosophy is to provide for the Gabonese a home away from home, which is neither much different nor much better than their normal living quarters in the forest, but which provides adequate medical service. The people seem to be quite happy with their accommodations and the common man loves Dr. Schweitzer and prefers his hospital to the free government hospital on the opposite . . . bank of the river in Lambarene, although the government service is completely free, while manual work is required here, when possible, as payment for food and medicine.
     Though there is only one doctor across the river, the hospital has iron-spring beds compared to wood planks here, electric lights in most rooms, cement floors, clean white interiors, and toilets which are used and well kept. Yet the government hospital is only half full, while we are always crowded here.
     The newer buildings here are nicer than the old ones, having wood floors and clean tin siding. Dr. Schweitzer is very proud that the simplicity and adequacy have been maintained, and that the people seem at peace when they are here.

“Diese verdammten Affen”
Working with groups of Gabonese laborers, the doctor is often a harsh and impatient master. He sometimes strikes the men with his hand, following small mistakes, and has slapped women for leaving several sticks of their firewood on the road when our jeep was going. He also shouts at the men and refers to them constantly in German as “Diese verdammten Affen” (these damned apes). Yet these are the people to whom he has devoted his life and full concern. This contradiction is central. It bothers many of us that he would never think of treating any European as he treats them. When once a worker had been sharply reprimanded for a small mistake, that was my fault, and I admitted my “guilt” to the doctor he replied tersely “A white man is never mistaken.” I find the men who work with us very hard workers and extremely cheerful under the circumstances. They try hard, but do not always understand, in French, exactly what the doctor wants them to do.
     My own work here has been mainly to drive the hospital jeep, working with a crew of six Gabonese; Makindy, Goma, Ibenga, Simone, Victor and Francois. We quarry and transport clay, serve as a hearse for bodies shrouded in woven palm leaves for burial in the outdoor, palm-Gothic cathedral, and move building materials and bananas. I drive the doctor whenever he feels it is too far to walk, and take new guests on tours of extensive and lovely grounds. In the mornings and evenings I carry a number of people afflicted with leprosy from the hospital to their separate villages, since their toes (and often their fingers) have been lost to this dreadful disease. No people that I have met in Africa are as joyous and alive as these who suffer so greatly. One young man, Victor, with no fingers left and only part of a thumb, carves delicate harps from soft wood. Many work at the hospital, ironing, washing linen, chopping wood, or caring for the plantation in return for the housing, food, and medical care they receive. It is the labor of these people and relatives of the patients in the main hospital, plus the donations in money and goods from people around the world that sustain this community.
     Indeed the world community applies particularly well to this group of nurses and doctors. Their work is strenuous and without end and has been compared to the fate of Sisyphus. It is discouraging to some who feel that always the effect and never the cause is treated.
     Virtually no education or preventive medicine takes place here, yet nurses say that some native women are unable to explain what causes constant pregnancies. A great many delightful personalities make this community what it is, and with few amenities or distractions most of the evening hours are spent talking with different people, usually on a very meaningful or interesting level.

Daily life
Daily life here affords us a unique view into an earlier century. I am writing by an oil lamp, which casts great bouncing shadows on the walls. The only electricity is used in the operating theater. Water is carried by hand to the rooms, and the bathtub is a laundry basin three feet in diameter where you poor cold water over yourself. The laundry is washed by native women in the river and ironed by heavy steel irons, loaded with coals from a wood fire used to cook our food. The only toilet is a two-hole outdoor latrine known as “hinter Indien” (behind India) and built in the 1920’s. Our one modern innovation is an excellent high-fidelity record player and speakers donated by friends in Switzerland and used for classical music concerts each Saturday night. Only the medical equipment is truly modern. The life is simple, uncomplicated, inexpensive. Distractions are replaced by essentials, and correspondingly what is superficial is tacitly avoided for what is vital in relationships within the community. Frequent visitors whether poor travelers or world famous theologians, philosophers, artists, and doctors, add further stimulation to the dynamic atmosphere which refuses to divorce itself from the realities of the world that is not “another world.”


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