Travel books: Dr. Schweitzer's hospital (1958)

The boat arrived next morning, a long narrow canoe with three rowers. I was asked to sit in the middle and was handed a black umbrella to shade myself from the sun. I did not like the umbrella but they would not accept my refusal; as it turned out they took no orders from me, but only from Le Grand Docteur, that is, from Dr. Albert Schweitzer himself. I had no choice. I sat under the umbrella and on we went.

It was a short journey. Soon we reached the hospital grounds. When we approached the primitive jetty made of wooden planks, three women were waiting for me: Dr. Schweitzer's secretary and two nurses. They took my umbrella and handed me a tropical cork helmet. I had to put it on my head, whether I liked it or not. I was told in the strictest terms not to leave my room without it. As I set foot on dry land and was shown my room, two more instructions were given to me on Le Grand Docteur's order. One was that I had to adjust my watch because the time in this hospital was different from the time of the country. This was symbolic of course, to tell me and anyone else who came here that the hospital and its ground were not part of the Gabun but the sole domain of Le Grand Docteur. The other instruction was to lock my door each time I left my room because, so I was told, they were all thieves there.

I was summoned to see Dr. Albert Schweitzer himself at his office in the Pharmacy, which was what the main surgery and the medical centre were called. All new patients were assembled in the yard opposite and at the entrance there were two sterilisation ovens: wood burning clay ovens. A long queue of patients was slowly moving into the Pharmacy. Sometimes it seemed as if the queue was not progressing at all. Medical treatment, like everything else in Africa, progresses very slowly indeed. When a patient reached the nurse and spelled his or her name, she took a card out of the filing cabinet, looked at it and selected a jar or a tin box from which she took out the medicine. The patient opened his or her mouth and the drops or pills were thrown in. The nurse said: “swallow" and the patient swallowed the medicine.

There was another queue in the yard in front of the Pharmacy, and this was the queue of new patients who had not yet been seen. The yard and the Pharmacy itself were crowded with people and other creatures: dogs, sheep, goats, chicken, cocks, ducks, geese and toucans. One of these toucans landed on my shoulders, adopted me and became my faithful companion throughout my visit. The place looked more like Doctor Doolittle's surgery than Doctor Albert Schweitzer's.

In the Pharmacy, opposite the nurse's desk and next to a window that was covered with a mosquito net, sat Dr. Schweitzer himself. This was his working desk during the day from seven o'clock in the morning till five in the evening. From here he managed and ruled all hospital business: kept an eye on diagnosis, medical treatment, distribution of food and complaints or requests if they were any.

At the time of my visit he was about 84 years of age, seemed strong and healthy and looked much younger. His grey walrus moustache and mane of hair matched his romantic reputation. He looked like a cross between Albert Einstein and Tarzan at an advanced age. He blinked at me with his small penetrating eyes which looked like the eyes of a hippopotamus and with a grin said to the nearby nurse: “Call in Doctor Freedman and we will listen to how they speak their own language".

Dr. Freedman immediately arrived. He too had a heavy fat moustache and a mane of hair like Dr. Schweitzer's, but his was black and not grey. He looked very much like Dr Schweitzer in his youth. He also wore the tropical cork hat that all of us had to wear outdoors. He turned to me and said in pure Hebrew: “how are things back at home?" I was so surprised and taken aback that for quite a few minutes I stood in front of him, unable to utter a word.

L'Hospital du Le Grand Docteur, as it was known, was composed of two small villages and a Muslim cemetery. One village was the hospital proper and the other was the Leprosy village. Both were planned constructed and supervised by Dr. Schweitzer. In the centre of the first village was the hut called the Pharmacy. It contained the surgery, the operating theatre and the medicine storeroom. Around the Pharmacy, in elongated huts was the hospital proper where the sick people lay. Each elongated hut was divided into smaller sections. The sick lay on simple wooden bunks covered with blankets and above every bunk hung a mosquito net. There were no sheets, no cushions and no covers. The principle was that the hospital should resemble as much as possible the conditions in which people lived in the surrounding villages. If Dr. Schweitzer had built a proper hospital, like those we have in our big cities, a hospital made of brick and plaster and covered with white paint etc., he would also have had to create a police force, because the patients would not enter such white sterilized rooms willingly. The colour white in this community was the colour of death, not of life. If one added to the white of the walls the smell of chloroform, ether and lysol so typical of hospitals, and the sight of oxygen bottles and night pots, the locals would prefer to die rather than be treated there. I was not so sure that the speculation about what the natives would or would not prefer was that obvious, but that was the philosophy underlying Dr. Schweitzer's idea of a hospital for native people in the hearth of Africa (read more about this subject in Schweitzer's book: On the Edge of the Primeval Forest).

It was difficult to tell how many patients were in the hospital at any one time. There could be anything between two and four hundred. But as every patient arrived with his or her relatives, who settled next to the patient's hut, it was impossible to count them. Every day, rice and bananas were distributed to all those present in the village. The relatives cooked the meals for themselves and the sick. Nobody in this region ate food cooked by strangers for fear of being poisoned.

The staff dwellings, the nurses', the doctors' and the local helpers' were all situated on the other side of the Pharmacy. Apart from the local helpers, who were paid wages, the doctors, nurses and other white professional people who arrived from all over the world were volunteers who did not get paid and often also had to pay their own fare. The way local helpers were chosen was unique. They were not even chosen. Anyone who came and settled got his or her portion of food and was allocated a job as needed without completing forms and without questions asked. Some fishermen arrived and settled and they constituted the hospital's navy which did not have a flag or a hymn but did rule the hospital territorial waters. Theirs was the canoe that brought me here. Doctors and nurses, on the other hand, could not just come and settle. They were chosen by Dr. Schweitzer from thousands of volunteers who sent him letters of application from all over the world. Dr. Schweitzer and his European staff lived in white painted huts, among which was one hut for white patients. In one of these rooms I was housed. In this section there was also the dining room of the medical staff and of the white guests if they were any.

Around Dr. Schweitzer's hut there was a fenced space in which antelopes were kept. He was very much devoted to his antelopes. When I asked him if I could make a drawing of him, he said to me: “Make a drawing of these antelopes and we will see what kind of artist you are. If you do well with the antelopes, you could draw me."

Apart from the antelope enclosure there were also caged parrots on the veranda. Under the huts, between the wooden posts were goat pens and chicken coops. The animal population seemed to be equal in their rights and in their welfare to that of the humans and sometimes even more so. A large band of dogs, some of them healthy and some of them sick, ran around barking. Among the sick dogs there was one without a tail, one without an ear, one blind, one deaf and one that limped. There was also a chimpanzee called Paricell, which was led out for walks by a special attendant and a pelican called Percifell, that walked to and fro along the river, watching the fish. The star of the show was Koloko, the parrot. He spoke many languages and was terrific in imitating Schweitzer's voice. Anyone whose name was called out by Le Grand Doctoeur had to make sure that it was not the parrot calling. I was told that until a short time ago there had been a gorilla by the name of Penelope. She became so strong that she had to be taken to a zoo.

It must be added that Dr. Schweitzer was also partial to insects. He always kept some sugar, fruits, pieces of carrots and sweets for the ants on his desk. Before I was admitted to his room to make my sketches, I was told to be careful not to step on any crawling insect. In the end I was not sure if the comparison to Dr Doolittle was apt. Maybe I should have said Francis of Assisi, instead.

I did some drawings of antelopes and showed them to Schweitzer. He approved and invited me to come that evening after dinner and sketch him. When I came, his room was lit by a paraffin lamp on his desk. I sat opposite and opened my notebook. He took off his spectacles, put them aside, took out a comb from his pocket and arranged his forelocks to look as photogenic as possible and started to write something on a piece of paper. A few days later, when I tried to take a sketch of him and the sitters around him at the dining table, his secretary came over and whispered in my ear not to draw Le Grand Docteur with his spectacles on.

Apart from Schweitzer, Le Grand Docteur himself, who was the corner stone of the hospital, everything else was ephemeral. Doctors and nurses came and went. Sick people arrived and returned home, cured or not. Epidemics appeared and disappeared. Animals lived and died. Journalists came and went, sometimes never to return. Only Schweitzer and his laws stayed forever like solid rock. Time and climate did not change him nor did they change the rules. Whoever set foot on this territory had to accept the standing rules without question.

The first bells of the day rang at seven o'clock in the morning. Everyone woke up and waited for the second bell that rang at seven thirty. That was the call for breakfast. Dr. Schweitzer's clock, like any clock, was also divided into 12 hours but ran 15 minutes ahead of the local Gabun time to demonstrate that this place was under a different jurisdiction. All other meals (apart from breakfast) were compulsory, for the white people that is. This group of white volunteers received no salary. They included three doctors; one Israeli, one English and one Dutch. The eight nurses came from different European countries and so did two other women who helped in the kitchen, the laundry and the storeroom.

They all lived a communal life or, if you wish, a monastic life. There was no trace here of what is known as an amicable social life and if there was one, it was not visible to the naked eye. Everyone was busy with his or her work under the watchful eyes of Dr. Schweitzer. He was the planner, the supervisor and the one who gave the orders. Anything out of the ordinary had to be brought to his attention. Nobody had a free hand in anything. There were no debates and no arguments. Whatever he decided was holy writ. It is against this background that one needs to judge the rules dictating that everyone had to sit in the boat under a black umbrella, wear a white tropical cork helmet when outdoors and not leave one's room after dark (if for some reason the last rule could not be kept, one could only walk outdoors with a lantern). In this rigid atmosphere there were only three opportunities during the day where one could partly relax; at meal times, when everyone was sitting around the dinner table.

The dining room was a large hut with a double door to keep out the mosquitoes. A long table big enough for twenty sitters stood in the middle of the room with ten chairs on each side. A piano was leaning on one wall and opposite it, in a corner, were a few armchairs. The evening meal was lit by paraffin lamps that stood on the table. There was an electric generator in the village, but Schweitzer did not like to use electricity, except when necessary, at the operating table. There was also a record player and on Saturday evenings it was possible to listen to a classical concert. Once upon a time, so the legend went, there was also a radio but it had belonged to one of the doctors and when he left, the radio disappeared with him.

Within five minutes of the ringing of the bell, everyone assembled in the dining room. Dr. Schweitzer sat in the middle. At his right sat the longest serving nurse, who was also his private secretary. All diners had their allotted chairs. The food was simple and based, as far as possible, on local produce. It was the first time that I had seen Europeans who regularly used local produce in their daily food. The menu included bananas, fresh or fried, papaya, mango and avocado. Jam was also made of local fruit. The hospital had a vegetable garden that produced masses of vegetables that were only served on the European staff's table. Patients only had local fruit, mainly bananas. On Sundays and other festive days the menu was enriched with European goodies which members of staff received by post from their friends and relatives in Europe and America – cheeses, sausages and beer. All present at the dinner table shared everything except for Dr. Schweitzer who received some special dishes.

Before the partaking of the food people prayed in silence; some clasped their hands or crossed themselves. When the eating and chewing commenced, the tension slowly dissipated. It was the first time that I noticed a more relaxed atmosphere. It was possible to ask questions not related to hospital business or tell an anecdote. Towards the end of the meal, Schweitzer took up the reins again. He would quote something from a newspaper that he regularly received and the quote was the subject of the conversation that followed. I once tried to ask something that was not on the intellectual menu, but it was immediately brushed aside and the conversation returned to its regular route.

A regular topic of these conversations was nuclear bombs and nuclear power. Schweitzer was one of the most vocal opponents of nuclear bomb testing and regularly raised his voice in public. He was also an opponent of the use of nuclear power for energy. He expressed his belief that radioactivity upsets the balance of nature. I was told that he continued his battle against the testing of atomic bombs in his correspondence with public figures and world statesmen. In this way his views became public. His link with the far away world of politics and world opinion never ceased. He received many letters every day from admirers and, I was told, he answered them all.

Dinner was the most important meal of the day. Afterwards, psalms written in German with musical notations were distributed among the people present. Schweitzer chose the psalm of the day and played it on the piano, while the rest accompanied him by singing. Then he read aloud a chapter from the Bible and discussed it with his audience. The religious rituals included the hospital staff and the patients. Sunday prayers were performed both in the hospital and in the leprosy village, conducted usually by the doctors on duty. Since the locals came mainly from two different tribes, the Galoas and the Fans or Pahouins, as the French preferred to call them, who spoke different languages, they were divided into two groups each with its own interpreter. The doctor in charge read the chapter in French and it was then translated into each tribe's language. That same ritual was performed at the same time in the leprosy village.
I had been in the hospital for only one week, but this was enough to get an idea of what was going on. The presence of Dr. Freedman and our ability to communicate in Hebrew provided me with a better insight into the history and the social network of that unique place. In 1952, when Dr. Albert Schweitzer received the Noble Prize for Peace, he was able to tackle his second big problem, the treatment of the lepers. He built the Leprosy village with his prize money.

Le Grand Docteur's reputation and his authority over the surrounding country were not based just on his ability to provide medication and cure. His authority and his reputation as a holy man and a great magician were based on something else. The native's belief in his magic power was the result of his use of anaesthetics in operations.

Every witch doctor has enough success stories to sustain and enhance his reputation. But the ability to kill a person, cut pieces out of his body and then bring him back to life, or even to a better state of health, was a magic that only Le Grand Docteur could perform. That was much more than any witch doctor could do. When his helpers, who were present at the operations told their folk about that magic, Schweitzer became not only the greatest witch doctor that ever was, he became a saint, a holy man and a great wizard, greater than all the witch doctors put together. This was most useful reputation which helped him to tackle one of the most dangerous and incurable diseases of Africa: the evil eye disease or the curse or as it was also known, the Juju. Anybody, upon whom a magician or a witch doctor had put a curse, had no hope of survival. People who believed that a curse was put on them, refused food, refused treatment and were resigned to die. As Le Grand Docteur's reputation spread, people brought their relatives, who were dying from a curse and left them in the hospital grounds. Here the power of the Juju of lesser magicians did not work. The curse succumbed to the power of the Le Grand Docteur and dying people stopped resigning themselves to death, started to eat and, in due time, recovered.

A similar story was also connected with the Muslim cemetery which was situated half way between the hospital and the Leprosy Village, on a path known as the Philosophers' Path. This was the path on which Dr. Schweitzer walked when he was in a philosophical mood. The Muslims living in the vicinity had a cemetery elsewhere which was desecrated time and time again. New graves were dug during the night and bodies disappeared. Many suspected cannibalism. The alarmed Muslim community asked Dr. Schweitzer to allow them to move their cemetery into the holy grounds of the hospital. He gave permission, after which nobody had touched the graves.

My week was over. It was time to leave the hospital and continue my travels. I walked to the jetty carrying my suitcase, the cork helmet on my head and my all time companion, the toucan, perched on my shoulder. When I sat in the canoe on the way back to Lambarene Hotel, my helmet was taken away, to be replaced by the black umbrella. That was the moment that the toucan realised my stay was over. He took off and flew back to the hospital without shedding a tear.

Albert Schweitzer was yesterday's hero. He was yesterday's hero not because he is no longer with us, but because his attitude to black Africans was colonial and patronising. In one of his books he describes the black people as his brothers but adds immediately that he was the elder brother. Since his days and my visit there in the late fifties, Africa has changed beyond recognition. I thought it useful, however, to record my visit to the hospital as I saw it then. I don't know if the hospital still exists and who runs it. I remember, though, that when I was there, I asked Schweitzer's secretary if she or anyone else she knew was involved in the fund raising or the organisation of the trust that would run it when he was gone, and she said that she did not know anything: Dr. Schweitzer organised everything and raised the funds himself, in spite of his old age.