Working with Dr. Schweitzer

Chapter 10. Compassion


By Louise Jilek-Aall, M.D.
Men have thanked me for having brought home to their hearts the fundamental truth of the religion of Jesus as something to be absorbed into one's thought, and having thus strengthened them against the danger of giving up all religion in later life.

(Albert Schweitzer, My Life and Thought p. 40)


Ever since the frightening experience at Gustave's village, I could not stop wondering about him. Observing him and the other African orderlies at work, I came to realize how indispensible they were for the smooth running of the hospital. The people who came from far and near to seek help at Albert Schweitzer's hospital spoke a multitude of different languages. Few of them knew French. It was a hopeless task for the European staff to try to learn any one of the many languages. Physicians and nurses were, therefore, totally dependent upon their African helper's ability to interpret.

Each of the orderlies knew a number of indigenous languages. They interpreted for each other when one of them got stuck with a particular tribal tongue. Gustave had worked as an orderly for many years. He had acquired a solid knowledge of the tropical diseases we faced in our daily work at the clinic and knew what questions to ask. His familiarity with many native languages and the people's tribal beliefs and anxieties regarding sickness and death enabled him to interpret their presentation of symptoms into medical French. He translated with ease and in such a manner as to keep me actively involved in the conversations, so that I never felt like an outsider. Tactfully and inconspicuously, he often advised me how to handle these shy and suspicious people of the tropical rain forest. With never-ending patience, he explained to anxious mothers what I was about to do and encouraged crying children to endure the treatment.

For as long as I worked in Lambaréné, Gustave stood at my table. He was not only an orderly and an excellent interpreter, he was also the one who kept the patients' records. Before I arrived in the morning, Gustave had organized our work for the day: each patient had his medical card; instruments and medicines were placed ready on the table; the young patients with mothers as escorts were waiting for their turn at the assigned place.

While Gustave worked with me, he kept watching Albert Schweitzer's table. Each time he thought the old doctor needed some help, Gustave would hurry to his side. Sometimes it was merely to bring a cool drink; at other times to help with interpreting. When Gustave returned, his face always shone with satisfaction and happiness. His smile told me more of his love for Dr. Schweitzer than any words could have done.

My wish to know more of Gustave increased with time but since the idea that I might want more than a working relationship never seemed to enter his mind, it was difficult to find the right opportunity. Gustave was older than the other orderlies and towards the end of each day I noticed his tired posture and lined face. It bothered me that I was usually sitting while he had to be on his feet. True, Gustave had to move around, since he performed most of the manual work in the clinic, but there were times when he could have rested his tired limbs if a chair had been available.

One late afternoon when Gustave appeared quite worn out, I could not look on any more. I found an empty chair and asked him to sit down. He looked surprised, but since he was indeed tired, he dropped into it with a sigh. Some time later, Mlle Mathilde, the old secretary, happened to pass through the consultation room.

“Why is Gustave sitting?” she asked in an irritated voice. “He can stand, I would think.”

Gustave stood up, mumbling an apology. My face turned red. I rose abruptly from my chair.

“And so can I!”

It came out sharper than intended. The old lady's jaw dropped in amazement, but seeing my angry face, she shrugged and went on her way.

“Just sit, Gustave, you deserve it!” I said, and waited until he hesitantly resumed his seat before I myself sat down again. A shadow of a smile crossed his face, but nothing more was spoken of this incident. From then on, I made sure that a chair was available for Gustave. I soon found out that it was much easier to talk with Gustave when we were both sitting down, and a good feeling sprang up between us, allowing me to ask questions of a more personal nature.

One evening when we had finished with our last patient and it was quiet in the consultation room, I asked: “How is it that you, who have worked at this hospital for so many years, have not been promoted to a better position?”

Gustave smiled without bitterness. “I never had time to finish school,” he answered. “Knowing many African languages has made me indispensible to Dr. Schweitzer.” Then he laughed. “Besides, I did not dare to leave anyhow; too many boys wanted my position.”

Gustave looked fondly toward Albert Schweitzer's table.

“We old-timers knew Dr. Schweitzer when he was still young and very active. Most of us have been treated by him for some illness or other and we want to stay with him as long as possible. Therefore it does not matter so much what position we have as long as we can work with him here.”

I could not find anything further to say in the face of such devotion but another day when we were sitting down, Gustave began to talk again. He must have thought about my question for he picked up where we had left off.

“When we were young boys, we used to get together in the evenings, around the fire. We would discuss for hours all the new and exciting things we learned while working with Dr. Schweitzer. We African boys were proud to be his helpers, but fear and awe shut our lips when we were in his presence.”

Gustave shook his head in warm remembrance.

“I do not think you could ever understand the deep impression Dr. Schweitzer made on us. It took us years to sort out our feelings and to understand the many new ideas he brought to us.”

Gustave looked at me and frowned, but I had no time for a reply as somebody entered the room and interrupted our conversation.

Days passed before we talked again.

“Time means nothing to us,” Gustave suddenly said one evening.

It took a short moment to realize that Gustave was again ready to tell me something of the past. I turned my full attention to him.

“Please explain what you mean,” I asked as we sat down facing each other.

“One of the new things Dr. Schweitzer taught us had to do with time,” Gustave explained. “In our daily life in the village, before he came, time did not play an important role. Sure, we rose with the sun and we knew it was time to sleep when darkness came. We knew the time for a girl to marry and how many moons would pass until the baby was born; we knew how far we could paddle in one day and how long a hippo could stay at the bottom of the river before it had to come up for air, but time as such did not enter our mind. To us, days came and went in an endless line and before we knew how, years had gone by. But still we did not think of the passing of time.

“Dr. Schweitzer gave us a strange treasure, the ability to keep track of time. From him we learned that each day is divided into hours and that work fits into these time slots. He told us that if you are able to finish a task within a set time limit, you have achieved something. It was like a revelation to us, this new knowing about time. It was as if our lives stretched out and we became aware of the past, the present, and the future. Something about life and death and eternity dawned upon us....”

Gustave's voice faded away. He fell silent for a while, then he ended the conversation in his normal voice.

“As long as I live, I will be thankful to Dr. Schweitzer for the learning about time.”

Gustave continued to give me glimpses about how he and his friends perceived Albert Schweitzer. It was not the first time that I had been able to gain the confidence of an African coworker, perhaps because I treated what I heard with discretion.

Once I forgot! In a discussion with a Catholic priest in East Africa, I mentioned what a mission teacher had revealed to me about his people's beliefs. The priest sent for the teacher and reprimanded him for having told me such “nonsense.” I shall never forget the hurt and astonished glance my African friend gave me. He never told me anything of interest again, but I had learned my lesson. I was therefore careful not to discuss what Gustave told me with anybody in Lambaréné; I wrote it in my diary instead. To recapture his moving story as close to its originality as he told it in his halting French, I rewrote it freely in the English language, but kept the first person narrative. I made it an issue to stay on in the consultation room after the others had left at night so that Gustave could talk undisturbed.

One evening Gustave described how Albert Schweitzer often went down to the river, presumably to be alone and rest a while. He would find a secluded place and look out over the water.

“I remember that we did not like him to sit there,” Gustave said. “We used to sneak up to him and hide behind the bush and wonder what he might be doing there. Was he talking with spirits, like our medicine men do? Would the spirits tell him to go somewhere and then he might never return to us? Sometimes he looked sad. Was he thinking of his far away home? Was he going to leave us because he longed to go to the land beyond the sea?

“We felt that it was dangerous to leave him alone for too long. Then we would quickly make up a story. One of us would run up to him and say, quite out of breath, that he was urgently needed at the hospital. Pulling his mind together, he would rise and hurry back with us. It always worked.”

Gustave chuckled. Then he added, “Dr. Schweitzer saw and understood our needs, but he could not read our minds.”

“Compassion.” Gustave tossed the word at me one evening. I waited, for I could see that he wanted to tell me something of importance.

“The word compassion seemed to taste good in Dr. Schweitzer's mouth.” He smiled as he went on: “It took a long time and much discussion around the fire before we boys began to understand what he meant. At first when he told us what it meant, we thought it was a strange weakness of heart he had; a feeling more suited for a woman than for a man. We did not know what to do with that word; it bothered us. And we did not like it. It seemed to come up in the most difficult situation and interfere with our work. In all respect, we warned him not to act upon that sort of weakness; it would ruin his reputation.”

I wondered what kind of difficult situations Gustave was referring to.

“Well, let me give you an example,” explained Gustave. “Dr. Schweitzer would, for instance, place a sick man in a room with the wrong people, just because there was no other bed available.”

I could not help interrupting again to ask what he meant with “the wrong people.” Gustave nodded as if he had expected that question.

“You see,” he explained, “according to our custom, you may help your kinspeople and people of your own tribe. Everybody else is a rival and a possible enemy. If you pity them, it is looked upon as a sign of weakness and before you know, they have taken advantage of you. Dr. Schweitzer, he could care for all people because he did not belong to any of them; we could not. We had many a dispute with him over that. To avoid arguments, we learned to work out among ourselves who it was that would help who so as not to offend people's feelings or violate tribal laws.

“Long hours into the night we would discuss why Dr. Schweitzer wanted to help sick Africans. Maybe he enjoyed the veneration of those he healed? Or was it that he relished the power he had over the evil spirits of sickness and over Death itself? But then we saw his worry when a patient was slow to recover and his sadness when one died, and we realized that he did not consider himself all that powerful. There had to be another reason.

“The name of Jesus and the words mercy and compassion, together with the idea of feeling for those who suffer kept coming up in the talks he gave us; but we remained unmoved. Then, one evening my eyes were opened to what he really tried to convey to us. It was a small event; it might not even make much sense to you.”

Gustave looked at me searchingly.

“Please, tell me, Gustave,” I encouraged him.

Gustave closed his eyes. He spoke in a low voice, searching for the right words.

“One evening I walked past the hospital on my way home. I saw a light in one of the rooms. There were only a few kerosene lamps available for the whole hospital, so I went back to see if something was wrong. I stopped when I discovered that it was Dr. Schweitzer himself who used the lamp.

“Through the open door I saw him bending over a patient and helping him to some water. I knew the patient; a hopeless case of sleeping sickness already in the last stage of the illness, even too weak to lift his head. We had warned Dr. Schweitzer to leave this patient be! In my people's view, a medicine man who continues to treat a dying person loses his power as a healer and becomes the laughing stock of the entire village.

“Annoyed, I was about to turn away when Dr. Schweitzer lifted his head and looked into the dark. There I stood, nailed to the ground. The light of the kerosene lamp shone upon his face and there was something in his sorrowful look that touched my heart. It flashed through my mind: ‘compassion.’ My legs became weak and as I sank to my knees, the spirit of compassion took hold of me and I knew that I would never be the same person again.”

Gustave covered his face with his hands. In the stillness that followed, I vividly remembered a dramatic scene from my time in East Africa. I had been sent to a lonely dispensary in the dry bushland to provide medical care for the people of a few isolated villages. The scene was that of a crowd of people trying to enter the ramshackle dispensary all at the same time. To keep some elbowroom for myself, I had to shut the door and let in one person at a time. Whenever I opened the door, an unpleasant fight ensued as I tried to keep the unruly people from overcrowding the little room.

For a while, a local schoolteacher helped me. He grouped the waiting people in the shadow of some big trees and called them in one by one. But he had to give up after a while. The people accused him of favoring his own villagers and threatened his life if he would not stop acting as their master.

No sooner had my helper left, however, than the people again surged forward, pressing against the door. Once when I looked out, I caught sight of a woman who was desperately trying to get through the crowd. She held a boy in her arms. The sick child had collapsed in the midday heat and was gasping for air, obviously in urgent need of help. Reaching out for the boy, I shouted at the crowd to let them pass. But the people refused to yield. Their faces turned somber and threatening noises arose from their throats. With increasing violence, they pushed forward into the room.

Suddenly I became frightened. I realized that nobody out there felt pity for the mother and her dying child; everyone was thinking only of how he could get help for himself. With pounding heart, I sensed danger; the danger of facing a crowd of desperate people who knew nothing of mercy and who had never experienced the mitigating effect of compassion.

Gustave's voice brought me back to Lambaréné.

“I was indeed never the same person again.” Gustave took up from where he had left. “For a long time I went around in a daze. I was shaking and feeling like I would cry, but I could not. From that time on I listened more to Dr. Schweitzer, especially when he talked about Jesus Christ. It was as if-as if Jesus was a close friend of his-still alive and walking with him. Now the story of Jesus took on a new meaning for me. I sensed that compassion had been his way of life.

“I longed to talk with Dr. Schweitzer about the thoughts in my mind, but I was not able to speak about it. The missionaries who had tried to convert us to Christianity had frightened me. They said our African ways were bad-that we had to give them up if we wanted to be Christians. I felt too strongly rooted in the life of my village to throw away the authority and teaching of my elders, even for the sake of Christianity.

“Dr. Schweitzer did not show disrespect for our African ways, therefore we could listen to him without apprehension. Still, my mind was not settled when he spoke of Jesus. I became forgetful and did things wrong at work. The pain and anxiety I felt must have been on my face, for one day Dr. Schweitzer asked if I was not happy here at the hospital. I do not remember what I said to trim but he put his hand on my shoulder and said that neither the Christian missionaries nor anybody else had the right to impose a new religion or lifestyle upon us.

“‘The knowledge of Christ might lead to a search for new ways within your culture,’ he said. ‘To accept new ideas does not mean you must give up your traditions; it may even enrich them!’ To make me feel better, he added that the Europeans of today who claim to be Christians neither follow the tradition of Jesus nor do they understand the language he spoke.

“‘The importance of Jesus Christ to mankind,’ Dr. Schweitzer explained, ‘does not lie in the rituals people have made out of his teaching, but in the example of his life. His love and compassion and his willingness to die for the conviction that his death would redeem all men from suffering and sin, these are the deeds that have been remembered throughout time. If you are able to understand this message and conduct your life accordingly, you do not need to worry about the missionaries,’ Dr. Schweitzer told me. His eyes had a twinkle when he said that.

“I felt greatly relieved. From that day, Christianity was not a thing to fear. I could enjoy life in my village, but I could also discuss freely with the boys around the fire about Dr. Schweitzer and what he stood for in our lives.”

Gustave smiled as he got up from the chair. “And here is my final answer to your question why I am not concerned with my advancement in the hospital: I am happy with the work I do.”

Gustave chuckled to himself as he went about cleaning up the dispensary. “Dr. Schweitzer once told us: ‘If you work only for the money, you will never be satisfied with what you do.’ Well, we old-timers do not have much reason to be satisfied; we hardly earn enough to feed and clothe our families. It is true our living quarters at the hospital are dark old huts with tin roofs, so hot at night we have to sleep outside. Sometimes we wonder whether Dr. Schweitzer has forgotten his old helpers. Then we feel sad, but we cannot be angry, for there is nothing in the world we would rather do than stay right here and work for him.”

Gustave stood up and left the room holding his head proudly; a man who had freely chosen his own destiny.

It was the end of our talks about Albert Schweitzer. Somehow we did not find the right time any more; or perhaps Gustave had said all he wanted and preferred the more impersonal but no less friendly work-relationship we had always enjoyed together.


Copyright © 1990 Louise Jilek-Aall
Reprinted with permission

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