Feet of Clay

Another excerpt from Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories should be published in two weeks.

What follows are excerpts from Bill Shurtleff’s A Peace Corps Year with Nigerians, which tells of Shurtleff’s visit to Lambarene, Gabon, where he worked for Schweitzer during a two-month break from a Nigerian Peace Corps assignment:

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.

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.

The previously quoted praise of Schweitzer notwithstanding, Shurtleff had this to say about Schweitzer’s feet of clay:

Dr. Schweitzer, like Saint Francis, has a love of animals which is so genuine as to almost seem strange to new visitors. This bond 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…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 too 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.

…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.”

…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.

[The government hospital across the river] …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.

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.”

…Virtually no education or preventive medicine takes place here, yet nurses say that some native women are unable to explain what causes constant pregnancies.

Only the medical equipment is truly modern.

…the doctor recalled his early days in Lambarene and the way that two Gabonese workers helped him to realize that a modern European hospital was not what the local people needed.

…Perhaps nowhere has the fullness of Lambarene been so well portrayed as in Norman Cousins’ book: Dr. Schweitzer of Lambarene. Schweitzer, he concluded, must be judged not only for what he personally created, but for the great inspiration that his life has given to so many, since he has made his life his essential argument. He is as much a symbol as a fact. Aware of the criticisms of the hospital and the Doctor’s attitude towards Africans, so difficult to grasp in its complexity, Mr. Cousins concludes that history will rightly count Dr. Schweitzer among her great men: “A man does not have to be an angel to be a saint.”


William Shurtleff is a co-founder of the Soyfoods Center, headquartered in Lafayette, California. The company is the world’s leading source of information on soy foods maintaining databases and a research library, consulting and publishing. Shurtleff has written extensively on soy foods and has 80titles listed on Amazon.com including The Book of Tofu, America’s bestselling book on tofu.

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to Amazon.com to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (wvhighlands.org), and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation (ksff.org). I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at martinjul@aol.com or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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