Written By: Albert Schweitzer Translated by: Mrs. Charles E. B. Russell, 1939 Reviewed Edition: Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1958 Paperback, 144 pages No ISBN Shown Quotes Table of Contents
African Notebook is a collection of stories and anecdotes about the people of the Lambarene region in Africa. Written fairly early in Schweitzer's African residence, most of the stories are secondhand accounts taken from Schweitzer's reading or from white businessmen he met at the hospital. His hospital was located on the former site of a trading post run by the famous Trader Horn, and Schweitzer describes the changes and disruptions that free trade brought to the region. From a modern perspective, his stories of the local natives are both compassionate and rather condescending.
I was disappointed that few of the stories were from Schweitzer's own experience. For those interested in Schweitzer's early work in Africa, I would recommend On the Edge of the Primeval Forest and More From the Primeval Forest.
"When I am in a boat with natives and get talking to them, and they ask me what is different in the white man's country from what it is here, I generally speak about three of the most remarkable things. ...
The first thing I relate is that in Europe there are forest fires. This is beyond their imagination. For here it is so damp even in the dry season that the forest can never catch fire even if one does everything possible to set it alight. ... At the sawmills in this country, the owners and their employees smoke their hardest and shake out their glowing pipes into the sawdust. This is so damp that there can be no question of fire danger. So how can natives imagine that fire may break out in a European forest if anyone drops a burning match?
At last all that is to be said on either side about this curious affair has been discussed, so I go on to tell them that in Europe people row for pleasure, a statement followed by uncontrollable laughter. ... I don't attempt to make clear to them what sport is. The conditions under which they live in so many ways compel them to use their physical forces and take exercise to a greater extent than they like, that they cannot understand at all how people can do so except under compulsion.
The third thing to tell them is that in Europe a man can marry without having to pay for his wife. Now, they declare, this cannot possibly be true. The Doctor is amusing himself by making game of the poor black man.
Women here are objects of value. From the moment a girl is born, the family calculates her value as capital. From their youth up the natives are accustomed to view things in this light. When a white lady bore twin daughters at the Hospital and the babies were shown to the 'boy,' he could find nothing better to say to the father than, 'Now you're a rich man!'"
"So the natives who come to us for treatment at the Hospital often cherish thoughts of which we have no conception. As the result of a taboo, a curse, or an enchantment, they are in a state of spiritual distress that is hidden from us. What brought them to us was not so much the expectation of the care they would find, as the need of being somewhere where the sinister forces of which they felt themselves the victims would be unable to operate. Even the natives who are still completely involved in the old beliefs are for the most part convinced that on the land of the Mission Station and on that of the Hospital, taboos, curses, and magic are without effect."
"Really to understand the African, one must get to know him as man to man. In greater or lesser degree he will seem to us strange and unattractive, but one must overlook all that and understand his essential nature. Whoever succeeds in this knows how much there is in him that is good and valuable."
Click here to return to the Albert Schweitzer Page.