Pilgrimage to Albert Schweitzer's Lambarene

By: Katherine Marshall

September 5, 2011

It takes more than four hours by car from Gabon's capital, Libreville, to reach the Albert Schweitzer Hospital near Lambarene, but each day earlier this month people came from far and wide to visit. The hospital complex itself dates to the mid 1920s and the original buildings now house a museum, preserving the hospital, its equipment, and the Schweitzers' living quarters. There's a pelican and some antelope (Schweitzer loved animals), and the Oguooe river flows lazily by, seemingly eternal.
Visiting Lambarene is a sort of pilgrimage, as people pay their respects to Schweitzer, one of the last century's great heroes, and to marvel at and remember his life and legacy. Schweitzer maintained that his life "was his argument", and that the hospital became his life. So the hospital stands as a tangible and evocative symbol of a deeply passionate man who united, as few have before or since, intensive philosophical and theological reflection with an extraordinarily practical, dogged determination to translate his beliefs and ideals into reality by bringing medical care to some of the world's poorest people.

Schweitzer was a preacher, an intellectual, and a musician in Europe, a rising star in universities and a brilliant organist. He savored his pastoral life, especially the privilege of giving sermons that, he saw it, let him speak to people about life's most important issues. But early on he made a decision that he must find a meaningful way to devote the greatest part of his life to service. So at the age of 30 he changed course abruptly, studied to be a doctor, and answered a call he had seen by chance in a Protestant missionary magazine to go to what was then French Equatorial Africa. In 1913, almost 100 years ago, he and his wife set out and began a 50 year commitment to creating, rebuilding, and running a unique hospital, a commitment that ended only when he died in 1965.

Visiting Lambarene was a pilgrimage of sorts for me also, because reading a biography of Albert Schweitzer as a child lit two burning passions that have stayed with me since: to do something meaningful to serve others and to explore far off corners of our fascinating, ever mysterious world. Schweitzer's jungle hospital, the perpetual challenges of treating so many frightening illnesses, the contradictions and complementarities of this complex man, and his pithy wisdom, were all fascinating and I was ready (at age eight) to travel immediately to Gabon.

The Lambarene visit was a chance to unravel some of the history, and some of the myths that led so many in my generation to look to Schweitzer as our hero. One thread that runs through both the realities of the hospital and of Gabon and help elucidate the driving force behind what Schweitzer made of his own life is what he called "reverence for life". This phrase and idea embodies his theology and his philosophy (for Schweitzer the two were inseparable) and was a guide to living. It was mystical and practical, profound and immediate, deeply spiritual and eminently mundane. Exercising reverence for life means being alert, open to ideas and experience, and compassionate to all living things.

The living Schweitzer Hospital is a magnet for tourists but far more for people, most of them poor, who come here from far away, even from other African countries, drawn by the reputation of the man they still call "the great doctor" and his legendary hospital. The hospital still has some of the Schweitzer hospital -- village aura, with families living in the hospital wards, washing hanging on lines, and music and laughter wafting across the river and the complex of buildings. It draws volunteers from Gabon and many other countries who want to serve in the Schweitzerian spirit and tradition (my daughter is currently among them). But the hospital is short of equipment and supplies and its contemporary mission needs some revamping in a country whose health spending per capita is relatively high and where fancy public hospitals now exist. But the people who come to the hospital are almost all poor and suffering and they seek help.

The hospital's passionate leaders and board aspire for it to make prophetic, outstanding contributions to Africa's public health, and not to stand as a historical monument. An alliance has formed to make 2013, the centennial of Schweitzer's arrival in Africa, a renewal of both the spirit of Schweitzer and a major public health advance. Gabon's president and first lady have announced strong support.

Of the many wise Schweitzer comments, one especially appeals to me because it speaks so forcefully to the complexity of choices we must make in many fields, international development among them: "Responsibility is a difficult thing. Most people prefer to accept a common code of behavior that takes from them the need to make choices and leaves them simply with the obligation to obey ... In ethical conflicts man can arrive only at subjective decisions. No one can decide for him at what point, on each occasion, lies the extreme limit of possibility for his persistence in the preservation and furtherance of life. He alone has to judge this issue, by letting himself be guided by a feeling of the highest possible responsibility towards other life." It's a good reminder and call to humility, as applicable in today's Gabon as it is in Washington.

The Schweitzer hospital is perhaps the most famous of the many Christian mission hospitals that were the early outposts of modern health care in Africa. It was an unusual mission hospital but the pragmatic imperative was part of the mission experience. History has moved on and today religious health care, while a vital element of many countries' health systems, is part of complex and developing health systems that each have a character shaped by the different nations, their culture, and their people. Likewise the Schweitzer hospital is changing and responding to new demands. Its missionary, spiritual heritage is still evident, especially among the Gabonese staff, but today's Albert Schweitzer Hospital, though its core value remains "reverence for life", struggles as so many hospitals today in remote and poor areas, with shortages of supplies, people who arrive too late, and the constant battle the patients and their families face to pay for services and the struggle of those who care for them, to provide the best care they possibly can with the means they have available.

More power to them. We need Schweitzer's spirit, his spirituality, his determination, and his reverence for life more today than ever before.
Opens in a new window