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Albert Schweitzer - A hero falls….

One of my childhood heroes was Dr. Albert Schweitzer, renowned physician, theologian, Albert Schweitzer - my childhood hero..he still is - though like all of us with feet of clay.medical missionary, musician, humanitarian, Nobel Peace prize recipient, and a person highly revered in the West.  As a young man, laid up with scarlet fever, I consumed page after page about him, creating an inner dream of going to Africa and making a difference in the lives of people. 

Go to any Internet search engine, type in Albert Schweitzer and you will find reams of information touting his greatness as a person who lived and died for Africa.  His reputation in the West is simply one of a hero, of a person who had a reverence for life to the extend that he would not kill any living being.  When his beloved organ in Lambarene, French Equatorial Africa was infested with termites he had one of his housekeepers sweep them up in a gentle manner and take them into the forest.  This reverence for life is celebrated today by many around the world, Albert Schweitzer is seen a model of love, peace, humanitarian action.  His name is kept alive through societies, schools, hospitals all bearing his name as they attempt to carry on the spirit of the great Doctor.  I would venture to say that most of them have not read a lot of the writings of Albert Schweitzer regarding his views of Africans, of colonization, of liberty and freedom.  Writings, that are racist at their core, though written not with ill intent, but in ignorance.

Recently I came across a book entitled “The Africa of Albert Schweitzer,” written in 1948 by Charles Joy and Melvin Arnold, two Americans who spent time in Africa with Albert Schweitzer and recorded their impressions of him.  As I read it, my former childhood hero crumbled from his pedestal into mere dust when I realized that this great man, this humanitarian who believed in the reverence for life, held the African in low esteem.  The essay by Albert Schweitzer at the end of the book shocked me in that it was filled with the myth of “White Superiority,” the “Bwana knows best” mentality.  I was deeply saddened that for the most part there was nothing to be found on the Internet that addressed this sad truth, but only accolades of Dr. Schweitzer, except for an editorial in a Kenyan newspaper that addressed his belief “that the Negro is a child, and with children nothing can be done without authority.” 

This goes along with his thoughts expressed in the essay in the book I read entitled “Our task in Colonial Africa.”  Where Albert Schweitzer wrote down his true thoughts regarding Africans.  Let me give you one of the highlights from that essay.

Taken from an essay by Albert Schweitzer “The Africa of Albert Schweitzer:” The task of the whites is to make good and worthy people of the natives, people able to meet as well as possible the exacting conditions in which they have lived since they have been in contact with the outer world – and even to shape these conditions wisely. 

From the epilogue of the book by the authors:  “Out of the jungles of Africa, black and mysterious he comes.  Those who know him and work with him are close behind; but back in the night other come, more and more of them, a growing multitude of in endless procession –simple, untutored souls who have been touched by his hands of mercy, blessed by his words of love.  Along the torturous forest trails they come, out of the dark into the light.  He marches before them, with firm and confident step, with clear and unclouded eyes, bringing to us his gifts of vision and devotion.  Albert Schweitzer – servant of man and beast, lover of God and humble disciple of Jesus Christ.

The reason that the Europeans came to Africa was to exploit to take, to extract its minerals, its rich resources from gold to ivory, from palm oil to spices and most of all for hundreds of years its people.  The majority of Westerners did not come to make good and worthy people of the Africans, they came to good and worthy people and brought fear, destruction of tribes and kingdoms, of a way of life that even after years of independence has never been regained.  There were the discoverers who came to find what was there, but soon after them the race for Africa began.  Before and after the First World War, Europeans divided Africa; people who did not understand ethnic and tribal territories drew the present boundaries of countries.  Tribes, clans and families were divided from each other; they became Kenyans, Ugandans, Tanzanians and the like. 

Albert Schweitzer had a view that was held by the majority of Westerners, that Africans are sub-human, ignorant, that they are lesser than, that they are children in need of a wise, white father.  When I read this, I was deeply saddened, my hero, Albert Schweitzer’s image had become tarnished.  He like many westerners, came to Africa with preconceived ideas and notions that were and are colonial, of one group dominating another, exploiting and all the while thinking that what they are doing is best for them, since after all Africans, cannot reason for themselves, they are like children and must be taught. He had not heard the wisdom of the elders both male and female, listened to the likes who would come after him or were his contemporaries such Jomo Kenyatta, Chinua Achebe or Nelson Mandela. 

Dr. Schweitzer brought healing to many, he affected lots of people with his music, his theology and yet as medical missionary he missed something, he did not value or understand the people to whom he came. He lived in Africa, but unlike the one in whose name he came, he did not dwell or live amongst them.  He lived in his own world, surrounded by likeminded, segregated from the African; the hospitals had wards and living quarters for Europeans and for Africans, separate dining halls, separated lives, living geographically near but poles apart. By living such a separate life, he was unable to listen to the African as a human being, as an equal member of the family of God, of the human race.

A few years ago I visited Anne Owiti’s clinic, school and orphanage in the Kibera slum of Nairobi.  She gave me the grand tour and was called to the phone, I was startled by sounds of something being hit, and I looked over the fence to find an immaculate golf course next to this slum.  A few well to do Europeans were playing during the cool of morning their 18 holes and then off to lunch at the club house, while on this side of the fence people were dying of starvation, were going without medical treatment, endured tribal clashes and haunted by the plague of Africa, AIDS.  I am sure that too had not spent time with an African and listened with an open heart.  I shook my head and walked away in disgust and sadness.

Albert Schweitzer is no longer with us, and yet his ideas live on.  The words have become sanitized, become politically correct and yet the results are the same.  I have seen missionaries in Africa that speak down to the people that they have come to serve, living in the best houses with servants, gardeners, housekeepers and nannies, sending their children to white schools in the Rift Valley of Kenya. I have witnessed business exploitation such as taking advantage of Ugandan laws that gave special benefits to companies that would manufacture locally, only to see the manufacturer importing the finished product to be assembled in Uganda.  I have seen bankers come and stay at the Kampala Sheraton, not knowing a thing about Africa or Uganda and demanding that the recipients change to Western type forms of this or that.  I have seen Western Governments such as France be more concerned that countries like Rwanda become English speaking instead of intervening in a Genocide that was under way, their troops standing idly by. 

It is not good enough to simply put down some words that describe a problem, a present and past mindset of Europeans.  The question is, how can it be changed? 

The answer is simple. It begins with respect for someone’s culture and ways.  It begins with listening, with understanding, with gaining information, with a desire to learn from others, instead of coming with all the answers and solutions in the spirit of William Lederer’s and William Burdick’s book “The ugly American.”  Ugly Westerner would also be appropriate.  Cultural adjustment is one of the major problems for people visiting or working in other countries.  It means leaving behind all pre-conceived ideas about the place and coming with an open mind and heart wanting to discover new ways of living, new culture and ideas and realizing that we can all learn from one another.

February is Black History month in the United States, and yet most in America know little about the history of Africa, much less geography, current events and the like.  American Newspapers, TV News and Magazines do not cover much of Africa and if they do, it is buried inside of the paper, much less shown on TV.  The New York Times is the exception with limitations.  At the same time ask a High School student in Africa about America and he or she will rattle off all kinds of things from facts to American history.  The papers in Africa are filled with news about America, Europe and Asia and hopefully the day will come when we receive World News in America in our local Gannet newspapers instead of the predigested pabulum of rhetoric that is handed to us.

Was Albert Schweitzer an evil man?  Not at all, but he did look at the world, at Africa with European glasses, he did not take the cross-cultural bridge across the divide, but built a moat around the castle of his mind that kept him closed to people around him in Lambarene, French Equatorial Africa.  We can do the same, the key is to recognize it and build bridges instead of walls and not to put people into the boxes of preconceived ideas, but give every person we meet the opportunity to be themselves and accept them for who they are without trying to change them, unless we are invited in and asked to do so.  Knowledge is one thing, but we all need to wisdom to apply the knowledge we have and the realization that we know in part and someone else may have the missing link and if we miss listening to that person that is near us we will miss the opportunities placed in front of us….jon


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