Working with Dr. Schweitzer

Chapter 9. The Secret Ritual

By Louise Jilek-Aall, M.D.
We treated the medicine man as we should a colleague, because our policy is to keep on good terms with all of them, so that they may send to us of their own accord the sufferers for whom their art can do nothing.

(Albert Schweitzer, More from the Primeval Forest p. 142)

- Author's translation

Albert Schweitzer in his late eighties was indeed the authoritarian father figure that he was relentlessly criticized for being. How could it be otherwise? Doctors and nurses, employees and volunteers, not to mention patients and their families, came and went; Albert Schweitzer stayed. Apart from involuntary absences during World War I, lecture and fund-raising trips abroad, and convalescence visits home, Albert Schweitzer had been in Lambaréné for more than 50 years.

Starting his hospital in 1913 as a mere cluster of huts at a mission station, he had developed it into an independent hospital complex of around seventy buildings, accommodating more than a thousand people. Dr. Schweitzer always felt personally responsible for his employees, and also for his visitors. One did not have to stay long in Lambaréné to understand why his anxiety for his ever-increasing community mounted with the years. Many of the nurses and other employees, as well as the visitors, came to Lambaréné unprepared, knowing little if anything of the many dangers lurking in the tropical jungle. Without firm rules of living, frequent accidents and serious illness would constantly plague his diverse flock.

Albert Schweitzer knew more of the reality of the African world around him than people usually thought. I will never forget an incident which took place while I was in Lambaréné.

Rucksack on his back, a young American student visited Dr. Schweitzer on his trek through the continent. He displayed a rather naive faith in the goodness of the Africans and in his own ability to deal with them; but he carried a handgun. Now, in spite of the closeness of the Congo and its war, guns were unheard of in Lambaréné. Dr. Schweitzer warned the young man not to carry a weapon on his way through the jungle; people would easily become suspicious and fearful. He even offered to keep the gun until the student's return from his adventure.

But the young man did not heed Dr. Schweitzer's advice. A few weeks later we heard that he had been killed by tribesmen in a remote part of the jungle. Dr. Schweitzer's feelings of remorse and his self-accusation for not having been able to avert this tragedy was quite remarkable and lasted for a long time.

Because of the regulations Dr. Schweitzer had installed, everything functioned smoothly in Lambaréné. Everybody knew what he had to do and, outside one's clearly defined responsibilities, one needed not to worry about the daily routine of living, which is such a time-consuming effort elsewhere in rural Africa.

This feeling of security and harmony which develops through well-organized cooperation was quite unique in Lambaréné. True, each of us had to accept restrictions on our personal freedom. Some of the staff felt resentment toward Dr. Schweitzer for his indisputable authority. But then, they were free to leave at any time. The doctor never took it badly when somebody decided to quit. He paid generously for the work done, for the journey home, and for recreation time.

If Dr. Schweitzer was like a strict father, we often behaved like naughty children. The rule that off-duty staff members had to stay in at night often provoked us to sneak out in the dark, just for the fun of it. Few ventured far, though; the sinister, primeval forest around Lambaréné with its reptiles and weird noises seemed to close in on us when it was dark and made us quickly retreat to the security of our living quarters.

Once, however, I broke nearly all the rules Albert Schweitzer had set up for our protection; I ventured out to a distant village after dark. For some days there had been noticeable excitement among the Africans at the hospital. I asked Gustave, my African helper, about it. At first he ignored my questions, but when I persisted he finally told me that there was going to be a big feast at a village and that everybody was talking about the famous medicine man who was expected to come. I continued to ask Gustave about this upcoming event until he suggested that I join him there.

“Come and see for yourself,” he said with a smile, “you could observe a medicine man at work.”

I had been accustomed to moving about freely in remote villages day or night in East Africa, so I did not hesitate to take up Gustave's invitation.

But how could I get to Gustave's village? I decided to ask Eric, the carpenter. He was the adventurous type, and since he did not belong to the medical staff, he had more freedom from Dr. Schweitzer's rules. I knew that he had built himself a canoe, and I had seen him paddling on the river in his spare time. So I went to him in the evening and told him about the feast. He was interested and right away wanted to go there.

“We could take my canoe,” he suggested.

Together we studied the map Gustave had sketched for me, until we felt confident we could find our way to the village, which was situated on a tributary of the Ogowe River. We prepared for the trip in great secrecy, for we knew that Dr. Schweitzer would never allow us to attend African ceremonials, especially not at night. It was well after dinner when we left our quarters, sneaking out into the darkness. We had to pass under Dr. Schweitzer's window and could see him sitting at the desk, bent over his books. We indeed felt like naughty children as we tiptoed down the path to the river where Eric had hidden the canoe in the high grass. Noisily he unlocked the iron chain. I looked around, afraid that the watchman at the hospital would hear us. The canoe was tiny and it took some anxious moments before we finally passed through the thick reeds of the shore into the open water where it was easier to keep the fragile craft straight. We now could use the paddles for balance as we navigated on the river, looking out for the entrance to the small tributary Gustave had marked on his map.

The lights of Lambaréné disappeared behind us, and when the excitement of the escape wore off, we began to feel uneasy. Was it not quite risky to venture into the unknown dark? Did we really know how the people out there would receive us? Apprehension filled me when our tiny craft steered into the narrow water where the branches of mighty trees shut out the dim light of the stars. My nervousness increased with every paddle stroke which sent us deeper and deeper into the uncanny forest. The strange noises and foul odors of the nightly jungle heightened my apprehension. How did we know we were going the right way? Eric must have felt the same, for he stopped paddling and asked whether we should turn back before being completely lost in the jungle. As we sat still, we could hear faint drumming somewhere ahead of us. We were heading the right way and decided to proceed.

Soon we could clearly hear the drums; they accompanied us like the heartbeat of a giant. The dull, rhythmic sound blended with the oppressive heaviness of the hot and humid night. Afraid to get stuck in the mud of the dwindling river, we groped our way in the horrible darkness. Great was our relief when, at a widening of the river, we saw the lights of many bonfires reflected in the water. We paddled over to the landing where large canoes lay moored, and tied up our little craft alongside them.

Legs aching from the uncomfortable position in the narrow canoe, we climbed up to the village. In the light of the fires we could see people milling around in the village square, singing and dancing. As we approached the brightly lit place, we only wished we could melt into the crowd without being noticed. But our fair skin and Western clothing made us uncomfortably conspicuous. Standing there, not knowing what to do, I caught sight of Gustave in the circle of dancers. Or was it he? Head lifted high, face distorted and eyes staring into space, sweat pouring down his halfnaked body, he was dancing along in rhythm with the drums. As he passed us, we could see that he was completely oblivious to our presence.

My heart sank, for I had counted on Gustave to introduce us to the villagers. We did not even know whether he had told them of our coming. As he came close again I felt bewildered. Was this the quiet, rather submissive orderly whom I knew so well from our daily work at the hospital? No, this was a different person; a wild man, unrestrained and disinhibited in his emotional expressions; strangely fearsome. I did not dare to look straight into his face as he passed us again, much less call him. I just had to give up the hope of getting a friendly introduction.

In the meantime, some villagers had become aware of our presence. We could see them putting their heads together, talking excitedly and casting rather unfriendly glances in our direction. They seemed in doubt about how to deal with this unexpected intrusion of strangers to their feast. Again we wondered whether we had better beat a retreat when someone approached with two chairs, greeting us and inviting us to sit down at the outskirts of the dancers' circle. Others brought us something to drink. I looked at the greenish brew; it probably was palm wine. Having heard of the indigenous custom of adding hallucinogenic plant extracts to the beverages brewed for festivities, I warned Eric not to accept it.

Our refusal to take the drink created considerable consternation, especially so because we could not explain ourselves in their language and Gustave was not available to interpret. When somebody brought half a bottle of red wine and two cups, we quickly accepted and sat down on the chairs. The mutual uneasiness diminished as we tried to look relaxed and thanked them with a smile. Seeing us comfortably seated and sipping the wine, people left us and joined the dancers. Now we could finally turn our full attention to the ceremonial activities.

Rows of men and women were facing each other. With rhythmic steps they were alternately dancing toward and away from each other. Babies slept on their mothers' backs, heads bouncing precariously with the rhythmic stomping, apparently with no ill effect. Older children danced along behind their mothers, imitating their movements. Some of the children gathered around us with their usual curiosity. Eric reached out to them in a gesture of friendship, but I warned him not to touch the children. If one of them should start to cry, fall down or suffer any mishap, the people would immediately suspect some evil influence of the stranger who had come in contact with the child. The children themselves cautiously kept at a distance and we soon forgot about them.

The monotony of the drumming and singing was stupefying. Nearly imperceptibly the rhythm of the drums quickened and the dancers' trance intensified.

Suddenly a clattering noise drowned the sound of the drums and all dancing stopped abruptly. This weird noise--unlike anything I had heard before--was made by a group of men beating sticks together and producing a rapidly increasing staccato rhythm. The excitement of the people rose to a high pitch. Then, as if appearing from nowhere, there was a strange figure in the middle of the square, a tall man clad in garb of straw, and a hideous straw mask covering his head and face. Feathers and bones made swishing and rattling sounds as he moved about. We stared in complete fascination at the weird dancer.

We could hardly believe our eyes as this figure danced in ever-increasing tempo until one could no longer follow the movements of its legs and the whole appearance seemed to float in a cloud of dust above the ground. Without us being aware of how it happened, the masked figure stood there, right in front of us. My heart made a jolt and began to race. What a frightening sight! Like something from another world, inexplicably eerie. A mysterious power seemed to emanate from the strange being and it made me breathless.

The vibrating figure of the stranger extended a hand towards me with a slow, snake-like movement. Everybody watched in suspense; the tension was at a breaking point. Without thinking about it, I also stretched out my hand; instinctively I knew that I must not show any fear. In the split second when our fingers touched there was a shock, like an electric spark in the air. Its arm recoiled with a violent jerk and a piercing cry flew from the mouth of the mask.

I was stunned. Unable to move, I watched the strange appearance turn away from us, fading into the dark like the fleeting shadow of a ghost. People were very much aware of us now. We were unable to figure out whether their attitude was hostile or fearful. If only Gustave had come to our rescue! But he never once acknowledged our presence.

People went into a frenzy, they danced convulsively and uttered what sounded to us like screams of anguish. All at once, women and children were chased out of the dancing circle and sent scurrying into their huts. A man came over to us; he was talking in an unmistakably hostile tone but, as we did not understand what he was saying, Eric suggested we stay where we were.

The men now formed a tight circle around the masked figure, who had reappeared. Each dancer held on firmly to his neighbors. They faced inward so we could see only their sweat-glistening backs. Singing a rousing song, they made undulant movements with their bodies, working themselves up into utter excitement. By now we were really scared. It dawned upon us that we were witnessing a secret ritual. Realizing that we were at the mercy of these extremely agitated men, we did not dare to move lest we attract their attention.

Suddenly they let out a hideous roar, and dispersed in all directions, leaving on the ground an emaciated young man who was obviously seriously ill. He sat there, swaying his body and uttering long, drawn-out wails. The strawmasked figure came gliding towards him. The young man began to tremble, his face distorted in a grimace of fear, his cries expressing utter agony. We were gripped by the feeling of imminent danger. With utmost willpower, we controlled ourselves, fighting off the panic which threatened to choke us. We sensed, more than saw, the masked man closing in on the youngster and, as he hovered directly over his patient and touched the body, the cries suddenly stopped and the young man lay stiff and lifeless. He had obviously fainted. We could not see because some men again blocked our view and in no uncertain terms asked us to leave.

The mood was clearly against us now, but we were too petrified to move. With stone faces, we just sat there. Maybe the fact that we did not even stir convinced the men that some unknown power gave us the right to stay. They left us again and joined the others, who had lifted up the young man. They carried him into a large compound, apparently prepared for this purpose. A high fence made of straw hid the procession from our view but we could hear incantations and eerie sounds from inside. In the noise we made out the protesting cries of a child. A small boy came running out into the square, pursued by men and women. Grabbing the little fellow, they forced him into the same kind of straw costume the masked dancer had worn. No sooner was the mask put over his head than the boy stopped crying and began to dance. His dance was an exact imitation of what we had seen before; he, too, whirled across the square until he was nearly hidden by a cloud of dust following the rapid beating of the sticks. When he seemed to float in the air, people burst into laughter, clapping their hands with joy. The tension melted away.

At that moment, there was a voice close by my ear: “You'd better leave now.”

It was said in French. I turned around and saw a person disappear in the dark. Was it Gustave? The warning was clear and broke the spell which had kept me glued to the chair. I stood up and motioned Eric to follow me. Using the moment of relaxation when everybody was amused over the little boy, we retreated. Moving backwards slowly, we kept an eye on the people until we were at a safe distance. Then we turned our backs to the village and hurried down to the river. Nervously we stumbled from one canoe to the other until we found our tiny craft. We did not dare to speak until the fires of the village had disappeared around a bend of the river. The moldy, humid air and the darkness of the jungle at first soothed our agitated nerves. But hardly had we escaped the uncanny atmosphere of the village than we were plunged into new dangers.

With mounting anxiety, we realized our canoe was drifting towards a grunting herd of hippos. There was nothing we could do to avoid them; we had to continue on our way down the river. Loud snorting and splashing on all sides told us we were passing right through the herd. I felt nauseated with fear. It was absolutely terrifying to hear and smell those large animals without being able to see them. Holding our breath and hardly daring to use our paddles, we sneaked through the herd. Straining our eyes to pierce the dark, we expected any moment to see white teeth flashing in the open jaws of the huge beasts. Having treated Africans mauled by hippopotamus, I remembered with a shudder the crushing wounds they inflict. Although we passed the herd unmolested, I could no longer control the feeling of panic which overwhelmed me. The stress of the last few hours had been too much and now my hands were shaking so badly I could hardly hold the paddle.

It was pitch dark under the trees. Every noise of the jungle made me jump. I trembled when twigs brushed the side of the canoe; I cringed when an overhanging branch pulled my hair. What if a snake were hanging down from the tree? The dark forest was alive with crawling creatures. Would they attack us?

Something bumped against the canoe, we nearly capsized. Was it a crocodile? Or only a tree stump? Would the beast snap at my hand when I dipped the paddle in the water? I was panting; cold sweat pearled on my forehead. Was this nightmare ever going to end? Fear pressed heavily on my chest. If I had only heeded Dr. Schweitzer's rules, I would not be in this situation. Was I ever to see him again? We would not be the first white people to disappear in this horrible jungle.

After a long, long time we felt a cooling breeze and saw the dim light of the Ogowe River, and with a sigh of relief we paddled out into the open water. Now we had only to follow the shoreline until we reached the hospital landing. Still weak from the frightful experience, I followed Eric up the path. The light in Albert Schweitzer's window was out; everybody in Lambaréné was asleep.

“I guess we both need a good rest.” Eric uttered the words wryly as we parted, and that was all he ever said about our eerie adventure.

As for me, I relished the safety of my room as I crawled into bed that night, but I could not sleep for a long time. I had to think about Gustave and our other African helpers. How little did we actually know about them! We met them daily and worked with them in the world we Europeans had created here in the tropics. The Africans who chose to work with us adapted so well to our ways that each of them appeared very much like one of us. Most of the European staff took their African helpers for granted, and few had any interest in looking behind the polite and gentle front they presented.

I had caught a glimpse of a different Gustave, as he was in his own African world. Never had I seen such a drastic change in a person. The wild, ecstatic expression on Gustave's face; the anxiety-ridden people in the mysterious ritual; the brief encounter with the powerful medicine man, and the frightening journey through the darkness of the jungle--all this had opened a door to a different world to me. It was Gustave's world, a world of which I could never be a part, while Gustave had been able to be a part of mine.

It dawned on me that these people of the jungle have a greater capacity to adapt than we have, and that they can choose from a wider range of experiences than we do. I remembered how Albert Schweitzer had provoked a lively discussion around the dinner table with his statement that only those who, through their own action and behavior were able to convey the very best of Christian civilization to the Africans, had any justification in trying to influence their way of life.

“I don't think I am the first European to be put to shame by the African who seems to have an intuitive understanding of human nature,” he had said to us.

Wholeheartedly agreeing with this attitude, I finally fell asleep.

The next morning, Gustave, contrary to his habit, was late for work. I waited for him with mixed feelings. Would he also be somewhat embarrassed because I had seen his African nature so bluntly uncovered? But when he came, Gustave was his usual self. Not a trace of emotion showed on his gentle face; collected and polite, he attended to his job as always. He did not mention the village feast with one word, and I never got to know whether he had noticed our presence there at all.

Everybody else in Lambaréné, however, seemed to know, and Dr. Schweitzer's entourage looked at us with stern faces, only waiting for his reprimand.

“Did you have an interesting evening?” Albert Schweitzer asked at the table.

“Interesting yes, but not enjoyable,” I answered, trying to be as honest as possible.

As I looked up into his face, I saw only amusement and understanding in his friendly eyes. To the disappointment of everybody else, Dr. Schweitzer did not rebuke us. Maybe it was because he knew that both of us were no newcomers to adventures in Africa, so he was probably not too anxious about our getting into trouble. Maybe, too, it was because he kept in mind that both Eric and I were volunteer workers in Lambaréné. He might not, therefore, feel free to put us under the same restrictions that he placed upon his own employees. Whatever the reason, he did not make any further comment.

Copyright © 1990 Louise Jilek-Aall
Reprinted with permission

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