ECU Field Journal: Africa

Marie's Blog from Lambaréné, Gabon<-- back

“Grow into your ideals ... "
October 25, 2008

Dr. Schweitzer once said, “Grow into your ideals, so that life can never rob you of them.” I have lived and worked in Lambaréné for three months now, away from my family and friends, away from a life so very different from here, and I have asked myself, many times over, what I will take away from this experience? The hardships I have seen here, not only in healthcare but in the daily lives of the people, are far more severe than I had ever imagined. I have much to reflect on—both good experiences and bad. There have been patients and circumstances so difficult at times that it was almost incomprehensible. Keeping this blog has been especially cathartic for me. In writing about specific patients, I have found a way to process the sadness and despair that I fear might otherwise have enveloped me.

In my last week of work, I was reconnected with someone who touched me very early on and of whom I spoke in an earlier post. Do you remember my patient who I diagnosed with tuberculosis and HIV, the man with no family to care for him, or food to eat? Well, just days after being released, he was back at the hospital. He had not been eating or taking his medications and had lost so much weight that we were worried he would not survive. I remember sitting with him explaining the gravity of his illnesses. I told him that if he did not eat and take his medications, he would die. The other day I was walking down the road in front of the Polyclinique and I saw him. I yelled out his name, and he smiled. He was doing well—eating, taking his medications, and was coming in for a follow up appointment that day. I will always remember him.

When I first arrived in Gabon, I was not only new to a country, but to an entirely new world. I was inundated with sights, sounds, and smells I had never experienced before. My priorities and daily routine were completely at odds with life here. When I was packing for this trip I had to decide what I couldn’t live without. Well, I was wrong about all of it. I was wrong about what I thought was important and did not bring what I would prove to be needed most. For my birthday, after a month living in Lambaréné, my dear friend Katie gave me the best present I could have ever received—a box of Ziploc bags. As bizarre as it may seem, these ordinary household items can’t be found here and are worth their weight in gold. Between the humidity and the bugs, a Ziploc bag is priceless!

I also will remember going into town for the first time. I was petrified. The hustle and bustle was intense and cars whizzed by just inches away. I couldn’t walk down the street without some stranger yelling “La Blanche, La Blanche!” which translates as “white girl.” It was unnerving to not know anyone, but having everyone seemingly know you. But as with everything else, time healed my insecurities about my surroundings. After three months, going into town is no longer an issue. The sights and sounds have not changed, but I have. I can now put into words some of my impressions about life in Gabon. As much as I have talked about the sadness and disparities here, I cannot emphasize enough the love and kinships that are abundant here. Yes, we Schweitzer Fellows are the foreigners in Lambaréné, but the people here made us feel like family. Yes, they live with very different resources than we do in the United States, but it does not impinge on their love of life and love of family and friends. Yes, they may still cook on fire pits and wash their clothes by hand, but needs are met and they live life as best they know how. I am not saying that we as Americans should change our lives, but I am suggesting that we acknowledge and come to know those in other parts of the world and the way they live. Technology is abundant in our society and there is always a “new and improved” version of something-or-other. I wonder how I will enjoy such luxuries knowing the disparities in other parts of the world?