William Moffitt Harris - Part 12
Dr. Schweitzer, already 88 and his daughter Rhena, half his age, stayed back with some of their helpers who refused to go when Dr. Schweitzer ordered the place to be evacuated on hearing the daily radio newsreel on his primitive galvanic battery wireless urging them to hasten to Libreville, the French protected provincial capital. The doctor, his daughter, Dr. Miller and others of the staff were spared due to haste and military the benefit they had provided for the people of Gabon.
In that year the independence movement, which had swept over Africa for over twenty years, strangled French Equatorial Africa economically and destroyed Schweitzer’s dream after working so hard there for over forty years. Many of the forty buildings, including the doctors’ and Rhena’s houses were also spared due to hurry and military disorganization during the rampage.
Although going partially blind and severely diabetic Schweitzer, despite his age did his best to organize reconstruction of the part destroyed mainly by fire. To his delight his pet antelopes, which had disappeared during the ravage, months later found their way back. The remaining patients who were able to walk or carried were returned to their families or adopted by other poor but generous ones.
Schweitzer had been an interested student of Hindu and Muslim religions and social behaviors for a long time and had foreseen the possibility of eventual trouble in coming years. So he carefully built an underground dark storage vault below his main office building where he kept many of his precious photos and paintings of his private collections alongside presents he received from some of his friends, visitors and admirers throughout those many years at Lambarènè.
During the reconstruction period years later most of his personal arts and crafts and collections were saved and can be seen at the Syracuse University Libraries in New York. All this material had been carefully wrapped up in oilskins and canvas and stocked upon shelves and tables in such a way that he could bucket the infiltrated saltpeter water once a week with the help of one of his confidential helpers who handed down the bucket tied on a rope. Due to being barefoot in this procedure the skin of his feet became eroded with lesions which frequently bled and infected causing erysipelas. He did the bandaging himself and wore long trousers all the time so as to keep the secret.
There was an accident which caused him to endure several burns on his belly and back. He carelessly knocked over a kerosene lamp when down bellow in the middle of the night. The inflammable liquid rapidly created a suffocating fire. In trying to put it out and save some of his writings he fainted with the lack of air. Rhena, who was awake, sensing smoke, ran to see what was going on. When she received no answer from her father she leaped down into the vault as the ladder which Schweitzer had taken away from the opening entrance was not in place. She threw a bucket of dirty muddy saltpeter water on Schweitzer to put out the flames and carried him up the ladder on her back. He kept on thanking and chiding her saying that his time had come and that she was still very young and had to continue his work.
On this memorable day she twisted her ankle and burnt her shins and one of her hands. With the scarring and unable to undergo physiotherapy she could not stretch two of her fingers. Even after her father operated the tissues, the loss of tendons and local muscles of the hand condemned her to never thereafter be able to bend two of her fingers. She refused to have them amputated. Years later she received proper orthopedic care in the United States.