Everyone has their Lambarene

The first time I crossed the equator into the southern hemisphere in Africa (in 2009) I was heading to hospital. It was a four hour journey along Gabon’s Ogooué River on a speedboat with eight roaring outboard motors, about fifty other passengers, and small cockroaches wandering about the lifejacket beneath my seat.

The river was wide; the colour of tea spoilt by too much milk. Heading inland from the coast, I knew the river would be decreasing in size the closer we got to its source, but the change over those four hours was unperceivable. The captain shifted the boat from one wide tributary to another, knowing the route to Lambaréné by heart. The herons and other wading birds, perched on fallen trunks, ignored the punishing sound of the engines. The thick curtain of green on the river’s banks absorbed the sound. It felt very much like the fifty passengers on this boat could be the only people on earth.

 The Ogooué River at Lambaréné, my boat in the foreground

At the hospital’s founding in the early twentieth century Lambaréné was just about the most difficult place to get to on the planet. It is situated on an idyllic spot where the Ogooué is split into two channels by a large island. Downtown Lambaréné sits on the island, with the livelier quartier Isaac on the left bank, and the hospital on the right bank hidden among the trees until the very last minute. Bridges cross the expanses of water, but it is easier and quicker to use a pirogue.

The hospital bears the name of its founding doctor, Albert Schweitzer. Nearly forgotten today Schweitzer won the Nobel Prize for Peace along with many other international awards for his work.

On the road to the Schweitzer hospital

The old off-white wooden clapboard buildings to one side of the modern hospital now house a museum. Among the letters from luminaries such as President Eisenhower and Einstein stand Schweitzer’s few personal belongings, as if he has just popped out to treat another patient. His most loved possession was perhaps his upright piano. Pushed against one wall, it was already out of tune when Schweitzer was alive. Now, the lacquer peals from the wooden sides, and the yellow ivory is separating from the keys. But the hospital continues its original ethos as a medical resource for the nearby leper colony, with patients only paying what they can afford.

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