Peace Corps Writers
With Albert Schweitzer in Gabon

Editor's note
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The Quest of the Historical Jesus

The Quest of the Historical Jesus (Buy this 1998 reprint edition)

The Philosophy of Civilization : Part I, the Decay and the Restoration of Civilization : Part II, Civilization and Ethics by Albert Schweitzer, C.T. Campion (Buy this 1987 reprint edition)

J.S. Bach vol. 1

J.S. Bach vol. 2

J.S. Bach
(Buy Volume 1)
(Buy Volume 2)

WITH ALBERT SCHWEITZER IN GABON

November, December, January 1964–1965

The Invitation
In reply to a long letter I wrote, explaining, in German, my interest in his work and writings, and willingness to spend the school vacation working at his hospital, Doctor Schweitzer expressed a need for additional help and invited me as a working guest for December and January.
     Teaching ended and final exams began in Okigwi the first week in November. The performances in physics and calculus were most encouraging. The boys are really thinking now and no longer expect the usual questions requiring only memorization and recall. The intense competition, the urge to learn, and the occasional excitement that ideas can produce in one student, or in the whole class all make me very glad to be teaching in Nigeria.
     So many November afternoons and evenings were spent with a nearby friendly Igbo family, the Okparas. The father is a drum maker and in his mud-and-thatch house, gathers palm wine from his oil palms and hunts for his food with an antediluvian, muzzle-loading blunderbuss. We speak mostly Igbo and have had many enjoyable times together, talking under a palm tree or by kerosene flame at night, singing, learning how his family cooks delicious meals in the low kitchen, smoky from the wood fire in the middle of the dirt floor, or sipping fresh palm wine with the luxury of ice cubes from my small fridge in tall bamboo cups.
     By November 18th all Christmas cards were written. To my cook, a friend and I gave a four-year scholarship to secondary school as a present. He is meticulously honest, so friendly and quick to learn and remember, as well as being an excellent cook. I wrote letters to friends hoping to raise enough money to allow the top student in the school, Emanuel Nwosu, to accept the rare invitation he won for two years of pre-university education at one of the finest schools in Nigeria. All of my own Christmas gifts were made in the form of donations to this scholarship fund. The next morning I set out for Gabon.

On The Way To Gabon
Hitch-hiking with a dynamic Nigerian soap salesman for Lever Brothers took me south through Umuahia and Uyo to picturesque Calabar. A town living on its past as a great port, set secluded beneath towering green cliffs at the mouth of the Cross River, with an antique British colonial white customs-house, as its promontory. A short plane trip after three days in Calabar was the only way to reach West Cameroons. An Igbo lawyer and I drove from Tiko, the small airport town, to the rustic and colorful seaside town of Victoria which looks up to a two-mile-high Mount Cameroon at its back. A Baptist missionary school principal put me up for the night, and by good fortune I met a Peace Corps fellow, Ernie Leonard, who took me with him by motorcycle on a crystal-clear day to Douala. The verdant and undulating Cameroonian countryside, extensively cultivated bananas, rubber, cocoa and oil palms is the loveliest I have yet seen on this continent. Douala is in the French speaking half of this divided country and looks like a European city, reflecting the French colonial philosophy of turning Africans into perfect Frenchmen, while discouraging their native culture which the British sought to develop.
     Staying with a Peace Corps teacher and two French teachers in Douala, I took a two day crash program in conversational French before finding a tramp-steamer with a charming French captain to Libreville, the capitol of French-speaking Gabon. A night in the Peace Corps hostel introduced me to Henry Boucher, a young missionary friend of Dr. Schweitzer’s who related the recent atrocities happening next door in the Congo, and arranged for a ride to Lambarene in a top-heavy rattletrap bus over five hours of slippery, bumpy mud road, which divides the ever-present tropical rain forest. Gorillas, elephants, crocodiles, and hippos are still common in Gabon to the point of being nuisances. That night I stayed at the Protestant mission school on the Ogowe river with a friend whom I had met in Lagos. This school is the original site of Dr. Schweitzer’s hospital, which he began in 1913, but left in 1923 to rebuild several miles upstream where it now stands. The church service on Sunday morning was held in an old wooden church above the river, and conducted in French and Fang (one of the three main local languages), and the syncopation and power of the local hymns was quite moving and beautiful.
     The Ogowe river, now swollen and swift, is Gabon’s main highway, flowing out of the most remote portions of Africa, bearing dug-out pirogues between the widely scattered forest villages and the hospital, floating giant hardwood trees down to Port Gentil. Hippos call from its sheltered banks at night, and flocks of egrets, white as the meat of coconut, skim its surface in evening upstream pilgrimages. Two small, sinewy, women straight out of Little Abner, smoking chubby pipes, paddled me upstream early in the cool morning to the hospital. My first impressions: many buildings with red tin roofs rising up the shady hillside, the smoke from many outdoor fires rising between the trees and roof, Africans busy washing, bathing in the river, boiling plantain or sitting. On the steps of his house, busy preparing the workers for the day, stood Dr. Schweitzer. He greeted me warmly, his great hands enveloping my own and asked with real interest about my work in Nigeria, the subjects I most enjoyed studying and my trip. I have never met a more impressive or warmer man to be with and to talk with.

The Doctor Himself
Fifty-two of the doctor’s ninety years have been spent in Africa, running a hospital for 500 patients, which he built himself bit by bit under the equatorial sun. Yet he stands straight and strong, his shock of long white unruly hair, and bushy distinctive mustache, setting off a gentle and alert face, which is usually expressive and constantly changing, somehow seeming to draw one’s eyes inexorably to itself and hold them there. His eyes are unique, yet remind me vividly of Albert Einstein’s in a picture by Joseph Karsh; large and full of wonder, almost childlike, seeming to be near laughter even when his face is stern or tired. Without preconceptions, I believe, one would sense great kindness and wisdom, and perhaps the iron-willed self-discipline of a man who is occasionally hard on others, always hard on himself. His dress is unvarying: white sun helmet on top, a neat black bow-tie, short sleeved white shirt, shapeless, often patched gray trousers and big brown shoes, which still get plenty of use.
     Dr. Schweitzer has been called one of the foremost prophets of our century. In him exists the Renaissance ideal of excellence in all things and a vigorous combination of the contemplation and the life of action. He is the unprecedented holder of four doctoral degrees in Theology, Philosophy, Music, and Medicine. His books Quest of the Historical Jesus, The Philosophy of Civilization, and [The Life of] J. S. Bach, while only a part of his extensive writings, have made important contributions to western thought. He is a world-famous organist and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1954. The size of his daily correspondence is absolutely unbelievable, but he answers every letter personally, refusing to type or use a secretary. It has been suggested that his collected letters and writings might well make the most extensive literature ever produced by a single man.
     For a man of ninety the doctor has the physical and mental energy of many men half his age. His hand is still as steady as when he was a young surgeon. He devotes most of his time to supervising the construction work of the hospital, directing African laborers, making and evaluating plans, inspecting progress; on his feet for hours at a time in the heat. We worked together for eight days in a row, building a small dirt road, beginning at 8 o’clock and finishing work at 5:15 and I always felt more tired than he looked at the end of each day. We would rest every several hours, which gave us time to talk. He reads widely from the German, French, Swiss, and American press and is well informed politically. Any visitor from outside Gabon, particularly those from the Congo, recently, find the doctor anxious to learn in detail all that is going on, the deeper the analysis the better. After dinner each night at the great dining table, lit with warm oil lamps and seating for about forty nurses, doctors, workers, and visitors, the doctor plays a hymn on the piano which we all sing. He then reads a passage from the Bible, both in French and German, followed by his own interpretation of its significance. And his is often one of the last lights each night to be blown out, as he writes and reads or converses late in his small simple room.

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