With Schweitzer
(And Adlai Stevenson)
In Darkest Africa
Around the third week the group left behind the relative comforts of the chartered DC-4, and switched to ancient Chevrolets, as they continued west toward the Congo, bumping down a long unpaved road, past the Mountains of the Moon, then on even rougher roads as they made their way beneath the great tree canopies of the Ituri Rainforest. Along the way Patterson conscientiously scribbled notes about pygmy villages, more native dances, grazing elephants, a legendary French "white hunter," in whose camp they spent the night, and whose "air of casual glamour," as she wrote, "was somewhat offset by his having just shot himself in the foot."

By this stage of the journey Patterson was experiencing several challenges. First, she was feeling less and less well; not the usual intestinal complications of the tropics, but something unspecific, weakening, wearying, perhaps something she'd picked up, she told Nancy Stevenson, the day they'd ridden that steel-cage elevator a mile deep into the hot-cold darkness of the Kimberley mine. She was enough of a veteran traveler not to complain or look for special treatment, knowing none was available; on the contrary, as was her nature, she gamely pushed forward as if nothing was the matter, just a little tired she might say, all too aware that her younger female traveling companions were soldiering on each day - - - no matter the heat, insects, various discomforts - - - as if on holiday.

Her other problem, more of an intermittent headwind, was surely not helped by being self-conscious about health, nor by inevitable feelings of competition brought on by daily proximity to younger women, no matter how much they may have genuinely liked and admired her. But as the trip grew longer (even though she was no stranger to long, grueling travel in difficult places), she found it harder to be the person she always liked to think she was: a good sport no matter where or what, a team player. In fact more and more she found herself at odds with the team leader, everybody's beloved "Guv," and while for the most part she kept her alienation to herself, offstage, nonverbal, her notebooks begin to show a barely hidden tone of criticism, a definite impatience at Stevenson's sometimes all-too-facile balancing act, always trying to be a polite, responsive guest at the banquet tables of some of Africa's more authoritarian colonial powers. Not that Patterson herself, in 1957, was in any vanguard of postcolonial thought, or that Stevenson, twice a presidential candidate, and while in Africa still in the public eye, had much room for maneuver.

However, as she wrote in one of her notebooks: "It's one thing to talk, with that eloquence which AES does so well, better than anyone, of the need for time in transitioning to native governance, which is obviously what our hosts so much want to hear . . . but do we really need to sound so agreeable, so easygoing about it, and with population ratios everywhere nearly ten-to-one in favor of the blacks . . . it's hard to see where time is coming from."

They spent three steamy days in the Belgian Congo, Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," mostly in Leopoldville, named after the late Belgian monarch famous for his hand-lopping policies, where Belgian missionaries showed off their school for native children (in one of whose classrooms, twenty or so school-uniformed young Congolese were being taught about Charlemagne), and later, where a brigade of beefy, beshorted Flemish paratroopers, with plenty of rifles and even a few howitzers for good measure, paraded in the stunning heat before Governor Stevenson and the colonial high command. Then across the famously water-hyacinth-clogged Congo River to French Equatorial Africa, and its capital, Brazzaville, where the colony's tiny, fierce Gouverneur Général Léon Pétillon produced the finest banquet of the trip, two hundred guests, mostly European, barrels of Bélon oysters, fresh asperges, and a dance band this time flown in from Paris. As Patterson noted: "The Guv's speech brought the house down, as expected, when he made his Father Knows Best remarks, the need to avoid chaos, not to be driven by artificial timetables . . . 'only you know what is best for Africa.'"

While in "Brazza," the travelers heard they had been given a much-anticipated go-ahead for a visit to Lambaréné; this being the site of the little jungle clinic on the Ogone River (four hours west, in the French colony of Gabon) where the saintly Dr. Albert Schweitzer had been ministering to the natives for close to fifty years. At the time Schweitzer enjoyed a huge, iconic, almost mystical reputation in the West as a selfless, wise, providential caregiver to Africans, a paragon of virtue as well as medicine, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Time's "Man of the Year," and so on. For many in the Stevenson group a visit to the "great humanitarian" (as he was invariably referred to in the American press) was viewed as a highlight of the trip. The DC-4 landed downriver, on a dusty, grassy runway shared with grazing goats and scrawny cows (as young Frances FitzGerald noted in her journal), after which the travelers were driven in a couple of beaten-up trucks, plus a new Land Rover lately donated by an American philanthropist, to the doctor's clinic.

Once there, a couple of things became immediately evident to many in the group. First, it was indeed a little jungle clinic, nothing fancy or pretentious; a jumble of outbuildings, some of which were being used for medicine, others for chicken coops and other farmyard activities. Second, the level of medicine being practiced by the good doctor and his mostly native staff seemed astoundingly primitive; not picturesquely country-doctor primitive but often slovenly, unsanitary, in places downright filthy. Third, although Schweitzer went about in his grimy doctor's smock, not the starched, gold-braided uniform of a colonial ruler, his attitude toward his black patients seemed painfully brusque, condescending, bordering on disdain. Patterson, along with most of her traveling companions, noticed right away the striking contrast between Lambaréné's myth and reality, but once again Stevenson seemed to insist on seeing only what he wanted to see, trailing humbly after the great humanitarian as he made his rounds, clipboard in hand, kicking chickens out of the way in the operating room.

On their last day at the clinic, Patterson finally lost it with the Guv, asking him furiously if he'd noticed anything - - - not only the farmyard rags all over the dispensary, the chickens in the operating room, the chicken shit all over the tables and floors, the way the saintly doctor literally pushed and shoved patients out of the way, cursing at them in German?

As Patterson later remembered it, Stevenson smiled tolerantly at her, as if she were a wayward child, and then told her proudly of his "personal moment" with Schweitzer: how he and the good doctor had been deep in conversation about world peace, a subject needless to say dear to both men, when a tiny insect had landed on Stevenson's jacket. At which point he had made, or rather had begun to make, a typical Westerner's move to brush it off, flick it away - - - gnat, anopheles mosquito, what have you - - - but Schweitzer had reached across and stayed his hand, remarking gravely, "All life is precious." (Not surprisingly this same "All life is precious" insect-protection-routine of the great doctor's turns up in numerous memoirs of Westerners in Lambaréné.) "How can you question such a man?" the Guv said to her.

--- From The Huntress
Alica & Michael Arlen
©2016 Pantheon Books
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