Working with Dr. Schweitzer

Chapter 5. A Birthday Celebration

By Louise Jilek-Aall, M.D.
The great secret is to go through life as a human being who never gets disenchanted. The great wisdom is to overcome any disappointment.

(Albert Schweitzer, Kein Sonnenstrahl geht verloren p. 40)

- Author's translation

One morning after having been in Lambaréné for several months, I woke up in a festive mood. It was my birthday, and birthday celebrations were special events at Dr. Schweitzer's hospital. Lying in bed in these early morning hours, I thought of the time gone by in Africa.

During the years when I worked as a field doctor in East Africa, there had been little time for personal matters such as birthdays. Months passed and I did not even hear my own name. I was just mama mganga, the doctor who had to be available for the sick at all hours of day and night. Only now, since I experienced the community life of Lambaréné and the relief of having a team of colleagues and nurses around me, did I realize how hard it is to be a lone bush doctor. Medical problems and life-threatening illnesses did not seem near as frightening to me now as they had then. I remembered the feeling of loneliness that would befall me in the bush upon returning from a hard day's work when I would see the African families sitting together outside their huts.

Something very intimate about the scene would stir my heart: people around the fire eating and having a good time; it made me stop and gaze towards the flickering light that shone on the faces. The security and warmth of the blazing fire set against the dark and dangerous night gave me a reverberating feeling of familiarity. Long, long ago my ancestors, too, had known the beauty of togetherness around the fire under the twinkling stars.

Sometimes I gave in to the feeling of longing and joined the people. But when I stepped into the circle, the peace of the Africans was disturbed. They would make room for me, have me sit down, and offer me some food with friendly gestures, but the awe inspired by my profession and the strangeness of my appearance made them uneasy. The free flow of conversation stopped and the easygoing merrymaking died away. Even when I could talk to them in their own language it was in vain; the spell was broken and I sadly had to realize that I did not belong.

Coming from the peaceful tribespeople of rural East Africa, I had experienced a much more painful kind of loneliness in the war-torn country of the Belgian Congo, when I worked for the Red Cross at the hospital in Matadi. I could still see in front of me the row of desperate patients in the big hospital wards, left there without medical treatment since the Belgian doctors and nurses had fled from the brutal war. I remembered how I had worked hard at winning the confidence of the African staff with their suspicious and sullen looks. Little by little, the Congolese attendants and I had brought some order into the chaos and I had begun to feel more confident in spite of the difficult situation.

Then one day I happened to open a door which I had not noticed before. To my consternation I discovered a severely ill young man, lying in the single bed in the small room. The uniform hanging over a chair told me that he was a Congolese officer.

“So, you finally found the time to see me,” he said in a voice vibrating with pain and anger.

Deeply shocked, I realized that whatever I said, he would still think that I did not care about him. What was the explanation for having kept me away from this patient? The African helpers must have known what a dangerous and revengeful enemy this man would have been to me upon recovery. I had found no answer when I turned and looked at the Congolese orderly, who had followed me into the room. His glance was merely hostile and defiant. Did my work mean nothing to them? Did they not want me there? I realized then that no matter how hard I worked, they would never accept me as one of them; too much damage had been done between whites and blacks in this country.

Lonely and scared, I had gone about my work, realizing that as medical supplies dwindled and my treatments would become less effective, distrust and hostility would increase among patients and helpers alike.

For weeks after I had come to Lambaréné I would still stiffen in fear when passing a group of African men on the road. I would feel compelled to look back over my shoulder lest one of them was sneaking up on me from behind. But Lambaréné was far away from war and racial hatred. Now I, who had become accustomed to watching African faces for the slightest twitch of a muscle which could indicate hostility, saw nothing but relaxed and friendly expressions among the people I encountered at the hospital here.

In the congenial atmosphere between white and black staff and patients in Lambaréné, I regained my self-confidence and peace of mind. It almost appeared to me that patients who saw Dr. Schweitzer sad and worried when one of them got worse, mustered all their willpower to get well just for the sake of making their beloved old doctor happy again. It was as if they vaguely understood that their recovery gave Dr. Schweitzer the contentment and the feeling of purpose he needed if he was to remain with them in Africa.

The sharp, metallic beats of the gong that woke us up every morning brought me back to the present. It was 7:30 a.m. and my birthday had begun. Soon I heard faint footsteps and low voices as people gathered outside on the porch to start the birthday celebrations with the songs Albert Schweitzer had introduced for these occasions. I stretched myself on the bed and smiled as Dr. Schweitzer intoned the first melody. The nice chorus of the nurses set in, intermingled with some gruff tones produced by male staff members. Above all the others, the old man's voice of Albert Schweitzer could be heard singing away in high tune and to its own rhythm. “Harre meine Seele....”

That was the last verse! I jumped out of bed, dressed in a hurry, made the bed, and was ready just in time to open the door when the song ended. Albert Schweitzer himself was the first to enter. How his presence seemed to fill my little chamber; and his physical closeness took me quite by surprise. My hand disappeared between his soft paws and the mocking expression in his dimmed eyes confused me. A cool kiss upon my cheek by Mlle Mathilde sobered me up. Now the others filed in and I received their congratulations.

The nurses gave me friendly smiles and warm handshakes. Others tugged my hand awkwardly as they passed. How well I understood them! I had also found this ritual too solemn for the occasion, as we were only among ourselves. But Albert Schweitzer insisted upon this formal procedure.

We all trooped into the dining room for breakfast and now it was my turn to feel embarrassed. A lot of gifts were heaped around my plate. As I looked at them, I tried to find a winged word of thanks for each of the donors. There was a book by Albert Schweitzer with his personal dedication, a beautifully carved chess board from Eric the carpenter, a new stethoscope and African wood carvings from the medical staff, and thoughtfully selected personal gifts from the nurses.

But the painted piece of cloth, the traditional birthday present at Lambaréné hospital was missing. I myself had painted one not so long ago. Perhaps they forgot to put one for me on the table, I thought.

Work at the hospital went on as usual. The Africans, who always knew when one of us had a birthday, found their own ways of showing me their affection. Mothers bringing their sick children smiled and wished “la doctoresse” une bonne fetê, squeezing my hand or just tapping me in friendly gesture on the shoulder. Some even brought little presents--a bowl of rice, an egg, or a cooked banana.

In a quiet moment Gustave, my African helper, put a little object in my hand. Shutting it firmly he whispered something like an African charm into my ear, and wished me good luck for the future. Opening my hand, I found a tiny, delicately carved image of a pregnant woman in my palm. Red-faced, I thanked Gustave for the precious gift and quickly let the little fetish disappear into my pocket. I turned to my next patient, glad that I did not have to make further comments.

Dr. Schweitzer made his birthday speech at the luncheon table. He called me “our bush doctor” and amused the staff by retelling how I had dropped in on Lambaréné just in its time of great need, and thanked me for having agreed to stay with them.

“We have all learned to appreciate the lady from the North,” he said, “both at work and at leisure time when her charms and social skills are especially welcome.”

I did not know where to look, feeling embarrassed at being so openly praised in front of my colleagues and the nurses. I waited nervously for his eulogy to end. Next on the program was to be another birthday song, accompanied by Dr. Schweitzer on the piano. To my surprise, it did not happen. I looked around uneasily while we finished eating, wondering what was the matter?

On the way to the nurses' quarters for our midday break, I asked Anne-Lise why there had been no singing.

“Since you do not belong to the permanent staff, you are not entitled to the whole ceremony,” she explained.

“Is that why I did not get the painted cloth either?” I asked indignantly.

She nodded. “Well, I guess you have not been here long enough yet,” Anne-Lise confirmed. “It is nurse Ali and Mlle Mathilde who decide these things,” she added regretfully.

I knew these celebrations quite well for they were repeated in the same fashion each time one of us had a birthday. Anne-Lise was right. It was nurse Ali and Mlle Mathilde who supervised the procedure and made sure everybody followed the rituals. Even Dr. Schweitzer submitted to the rules they had staked out, for he knew too well how easily jealousy is provoked in a tight-knit group of people. By keeping up the rituals, he would not so easily forget himself and show a favor towards one or the other of his staff on such occasions as the birthday celebration.

Still I went back to work feeling sore at heart. Had I not worked just as hard as anybody else? Had I not sweated with the others and shared their joys and pains? And still I was not counted as fully belonging? As the afternoon work proceeded, I felt myself sliding deeper and deeper into a dark mood. I struggled in vain to regain my good spirits. It is amazing how easily one can lose one's emotional balance in the heat and fatigue of the tropics! I told myself over and over again that the whole affair was of no significance; but it did not help. I felt rejected and that made me angry and sad. I had to turn away to hide my tears.

Neither the festively decorated dinner table nor the delicious food or the good wine served for the occasion could change my downcast mood. I felt ashamed about my negative sentiments and only hoped that nobody would notice my gloomy face.

Then, while sitting at the table eating the birthday dinner, a song came drifting in from outside. Everybody stopped and listened. It was a chorus of women and children, singing as best they could the birthday song I had not received. The patients at the hospital and all my friends there must have noticed my sad face. Since they were usually well informed about what was going on among the staff, they must have guessed the reason for my depression. We could hear sick children coughing and crying under the window; laughter and whispering interrupted the singing, but the message came through, sweet and clear: the Africans had come to show us that they felt “la doctoresse” should have her birthday song, just like everybody else.

With a surge of pride, I lifted my head and looked around. People at the table smiled as they listened to this touching show of affection. Dr. Schweitzer's two escorts seemed embarrassed, but the old doctor gave me a nod.

“This is the best compliment you have received today,” he remarked.

Excitedly he ordered cookies and chocolate to be brought and asked me to come with him outside to distribute the sweets among the children. Happily, I followed him outside while the others remained at the dinner table.

A wave of cheers greeted us. Eager little hands stretched out to caress and to receive. Women, draped in their colorful Sunday garbs, and with babies in their arms, came forward, letting out cries of pleasure when they saw that they had made “la doctoresse” happy again. They returned to the hospital contentedly and we could hear them laugh as they proudly related their success to others.

“Africans have a unique ability to put things right,” Albert Schweitzer said thoughtfully. “Few of us could match their skill and sensitivity in human relationships. I am very happy your birthday had such a beautiful ending.”

With warm smile, Albert Schweitzer returned to the dining room where the others were waiting. I stayed outside for a while to cool off. It had indeed been a day of shifting emotions, both painful and happy. That is the price one pays for being truly involved, I thought. Remembering the cold emptiness of being alone which I had known so well while in the bush, and the fear while at the Congolese hospital, I felt it was worthwhile to pay this price. As I stood there in the dark, I again heard the merry laughter from the Africans at their quarters. I had to smile. I felt completely restored. Maybe I did belong after all.

Copyright © 1990 Louise Jilek-Aall
Reprinted with permission

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