Crisis engulfs Gabon hospital founded to atone for colonial crimes

Dr Albert Schweitzer cradles two babies at the hospital he founded in Lambaréné, part of French Equatorial Africa (now Gabon). Photograph: FPG/Getty

Institution launched by Nobel prize winner Dr Albert Schweitzer on brink of closure as funding woes and racism dispute take toll

A Gabonese hospital founded more than a century ago by a Nobel peace prize-winning doctor to atone for colonial crimes is in the grip of a funding crisis that could force it to close.

The Albert Schweitzer hospital in Lambaréné, a town of 25,000 45 miles south of the equator, cannot pay its bills because funding from the government, which is struggling to cope with the global slump in oil prices, has not arrived.

At the same time, more than a century after its French-German founder arrived in Lambaréné, the hospital has been embroiled in a row about racism and corruption, with several former high-ranking hospital officials believing it would be better if it closed down.

Albert Schweitzer, a doctor, philosopher, missionary, musician and ecologist, travelled up the Ogooué river in 1913 to “make atonement for all the terrible crimes” committed by Europeans in Africa by building a hospital in what was then French Equatorial Africa.

Schweitzer outside the Lambaréné hospital in December 1964.
Schweitzer outside the Lambaréné hospital in December 1964. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

Schweitzer, awarded the peace prize in 1952 for his ethical theory of reverence for life, was renowned for founding the Lambaréné hospital, which treated patients whether or not they could pay. Winston Churchill called him a “genius of humanity”; Time magazine, the “greatest man in the world”.

However, his hospital may soon admit its last patient. “It’s quite common that the money comes late,” said, Daniel Stoffel, president of the board. “But now it’s half a year. Until now, we’ve been able to pay salaries, but not more. It’s getting more and more difficult.”

Among locals, the hospital still has the same reputation as it did in Schweitzer’s time. Whoever you are, come and you will be treated. Payment is calculated according to what each patient can afford.

Elderly women who have been using the hospital all their lives plod up the hill, loudly thanking God that they can get free treatment. In the maternity ward, the families of new mothers spread out across the beds and floor, chatting. Children play football in the road outside the art therapy room, and the few cars go at a snail’s pace to avoid interrupting their game. There is a decidedly village feel.

But at its higher levels, the hospital has been in the grips of a struggle for control between the Gabonese authorities and its European supporters.

The Europeans say some senior Gabonese staff in the hospital, now departed, were stealing money from it, though the allegations have been denied. Gabonese staff have in turn accused the Europeans of racism and colonial views. In one incident, staff protested in the hospital grounds holding a coffin bearing the name of a director they accused of racially oppressing them.

The only Gabonese director in the history of the hospital, who claims he was pushed out, said he would not be surprised if it closed, blaming the manner in which it had been run. “It’s a bit sad, and it’s contradictory,” said Dr Antoine Nziengui. “There is neocolonialism at the Albert Schweitzer hospital. And the hospital runs the risk of closing. If in the 21st century, you don’t run things well, you’ll close.”

The Albert Schweitzer hospital is located in the heart of the Lambaréné rainforest.
The Albert Schweitzer hospital is located in the heart of the Lambaréné rainforest. Photograph: AFP/Getty

The current director, a French national, reportedly spent a week in prison because he alleged links between Gabonese staff at the hospital and officials in the justice system. Another former director, who was also arrested and held for several days, says he fears for his life and that he will not return to Lambaréné.

Still roamed by descendants of the pelicans that Schweitzer loved, the grounds of the hospital are now a mix between old and new. A large donation in the 1970s allowed the institution to construct new buildings – the original whitewashed buildings and their treasures stay locked up, disturbed only when a curious visitor makes the four-hour journey from Libreville.

The staff has also changed since Schweitzer’s day. One of the criticisms levelled at him was that he did not train enough local doctors and nurses. The hospital keeps its tradition of accepting volunteers from Europe for long or short stints but most of the staff are Gabonese – except the new French director.

Nziengui said he was pushed out because the board, which is half Gabonese and half European, did not want a Gabonese person in charge.

“I can only think that from Schweitzer’s time until 2011, the hospital was run by westerners, and that the board wanted another westerner,” he said. “It’s the same little group from the same countries that have always run the hospital. Everyone resists change.”

Schweitzer supervises an assistant as she inoculates a patient at the hospital.
Schweitzer supervises an assistant as she inoculates a patient at the hospital. Photograph: AFP/Getty

Damien Mougin, another former director who lovingly restored the old buildings into a museum, and who was running the hospital for a stint over the summer, greeted everyone warmly as he wandered its paths and showed off the best views of the river.

Schweitzer raised money in Europe to pay for the hospital by giving concerts and his piano, in a sealed zinc box, was floated by canoe up to his simple wooden house, where it still stands today, along with his shoes, apron and helmet, his glasses still on the small desk where he worked long hours writing hundreds of letters back home to raise money. According to Mougin, the European connection is key to the way the hospital works.

“Multiculturalism is in the hospital’s DNA,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a question of what the nationality of the director is. I think for the Gabonese, it’s a question of whether the hospital will continue to serve the poorest.

“This notion of racism – it doesn’t exist here. If someone is racist, they can’t stay here. Europeans ask me: can’t the Gabonese run the hospital themselves? But if I ask a Gabonese person, they say no – the heart of the hospital is half Gabonese, half foreign.”

Financial crisis is nothing new for the Albert Schweitzer hospital but the current circumstances are worse than ever.

“It would be a tragedy if the hospital had to close after more than 100 years of such extraordinary work, and I hope it never comes to that,” said Lachlan Forrow, a former president of the board.

“But it might be an even greater tragedy if it no longer embodies the deepest values that Dr Schweitzer stood for.”