Call Mama Doctor

Chapter 1. On the Way to Africa

By Louise Jilek-Aall, M.D.

The luxury liner Kenya Castle was plowing through Mediterranean waters on its way to adventure! A ship of the famous Cunard Line, she was sailing from England through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea down the African coast. Rounding the Cape she would return to Britain along the west coast of the African continent. I had boarded the ship in Genoa and would stay with her as far as Dar-es-Salaam, the capital of the then British Trust Territory of Tanganyika, East Africa. [Footnote: Tanganyika and the island of Zanzibar were merged in 1964 to form the independent Republic of Tanzania.] It had been a great moment, standing on deck and seeing the hills of the old Italian city disappear at the horizon; my last glimpse of Europe perhaps for years to come. With the enthusiasm of an explorer I was looking forward to what lay ahead, the tasks awaiting me in the heart of Africa. At mid-twenty, already a medical doctor, I had recently obtained a diploma in tropical medicine. While I was completing this postgraduate training at the Swiss Tropical Institute of the University of Basel, I had been offered a research grant for the treatment of certain tropical diseases. Financed by the pharmaceutical companies which also employed me, the Swiss Tropical Institute maintained a small research center in the interior of Tanganyika some 600 miles south of the equator. There the Roman Catholic mission had built a large hospital that worked in close cooperation with the research center. In order to survive on my small grant, I had contracted to render medical services to the many outposts of the Catholic missions in the diocese of Dar-es-Salaam where my work would be. The area extended from the coast of the Indian Ocean into the southeastern part of the country and included the Ulanga district with several mountain ranges as well as the districts of Kilwa and Nachingwea. Since I was neither Catholic nor missionary it was quite generous of the Archbishop of Dar-es-Salaam to accept my request. Without our mutual service it would not have been possible for me to live in the African bush.

Under deck, in the ship's storage room, was the huge wood trunk with the chemical ingredients and scientific instruments I needed for my research. It had been a struggle to get the mysterious trunk through the Italian Customs. To my great alarm the Customs officers were not inclined to believe that the upset young woman before them was a real dottore and that the trunk contained nothing but legitimate equipment. I fought desperately against their intention to break open the big case as it would have disturbed the well-balanced manner in which the numerous glass retorts, the microscope and the highly sensitive instruments had been packed. Not before I had stirred up enough fuss for a highly placed official to intervene did they give up and clear the huge trunk unopened. In a last minute scuffle the trunk and myself were hustled on board the ship which was about to put out to sea.

Still excited from nearly having missed the boat I inspected the tiny cabin which was to be my private room for weeks to come. To live up to my firm intention to study the Swahili language I would need in Tanganyika, I at once placed my books on the table beside the bed. With a feeling of joy I arranged the cabin. Having finished this, I went to the dinner table full of curiosity about my fellow passengers. I listened eagerly to their talk of Africa and asked all sorts of questions. Most of the people at the table turned out to be colonial officials and government employees returning to their posts after a holiday in Britain. With my inflated ego and explorer's enthusiasm I became an annoyance to them, and they showed their feelings, looking down their noses and giving the cold shoulder to my naive questions. They seemed to belong to that unhappy category of civil servants who hate serving overseas and continuously dream about returning to Britain. But having become used to being treated as important persons, as bwanas with subordinates, servants and houseboys, they find it hard to fit into everyday life at home. They cannot find a place to function there and return disillusioned to their boring life in the colony. These people talked about Africans with contempt, reporting petty incidents and relating stereotyped stories which seemed only to reflect their own resentment. On board the English liner they were determined to get as much fun as possible out of the trip as long as they were still in a “civilized” environment. But their way of having fun was quite foreign to me. I realized that I had been too immersed in my medical training to know what life was like outside university circles.

A painful blunder in my attempts to make social contact came on the second day on board. We had all received an invitation from the ship's captain to attend a cocktail party the next afternoon at 2:00 p.m. I had never heard of such a party before. Cock-tail party? It sounded slightly indecent to me and I naively asked a group of young people who had begun to show some mild interest in me what such a party implied? My question gave rise to general hilarity. Now they had found something to tease me about and they used it mercilessly. They vowed to show this oddball of a girl how normal people have fun together. They dragged me into the bar and asked me for my favorite drink: Singapore Sling?--Pimm's No. 1 ?--Whiskey Mac? My ears buzzed with weird names. How could I tell the laughing people that I did nt know any of these drinks? So far, I had not discovered that it was necessary to drink in order to be socially acceptable. I certainly did not dare to drink much now, as I would very quickly make an even greater fool of myself than l already had. In an unobserved moment I slipped outside and stood at the railing letting the fresh air cool my burning face. I actually felt like a coward for having fled the bar like this. As I stood there looking out into the dark, my self-pride came tumbling down. l felt uneasy and slightly ridiculous. Here I was, a “romantic”, fresh-baked doctor and specialist in tropical medicine on the way to challenging adventures in the African bush, who did not even know how to handle a bunch of exuberant fellow passengers. My high-spirited mood left me and I felt lonely there in the dark.

A young sailor came up to me and greeted me shyly. Did I know that the ship was nearing the island of Sicily and that in passing it we would be able to see the glow of the volcano Etna, he asked in a friendly voice. Thankful for having been lifted out of my brooding, I asked him about the volcano. I looked out for it through the dark and after a while thought I could see a faint gleam far away. “Is that the volcano?” I turned around to the friendly sailor, but he was gone.

How dark it was! The shining crests of the waves reflected the lights of the ship and then disappeared again into obscurity making the night look even darker. Was this darkness not like the uncertain future awaiting me in Africa? I could not look through it; I did not know what was in store for me there. Now the faint light of the volcano was becoming clearly visible. It glowed like a red eye between heaven and earth out there. In ancient times volcanoes were sites of the Gods; Christianity made them into glowing messengers from Hell--sinister warnings of destructive powers in the depths of the earth. The glimmering light which seemed to pulsate through the dark night sent feelings of awe and fear into the human heart. If the immense powers should ever break loose all the waters of the oceans would not be enough to extinguish the infernal fire. I stood there in complete self-forgetfulness, engulfed in the mystery of the elements: earth, fire, water and air. A premonition of the drama of Life and Death which I was to experience in Africa filled me with a sense of purpose.

Copyright © 1979 Louise Jilek-Aall
Reprinted with permission

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