Only the COURAGEOUS, THE DEDICATED, the uninformed or the truly determined travel to West Africa. It is not that West Africa is so dangerous-it is just so costly, inconvenient, unpredictable and other-worldly that few strangers have any reason to come. The jungles of Gabon so effectively conceal the large populations of elephants, wild buffalo, gorillas, chimpanzees, monkeys and other animals that those tourists who ignore their travel agents’ advice and visit Gabon anyway are usually disappointed.
Westerners come to Gabon for only three reasons: to make money, to visit Dr. Albert Schwei- tzer’s hospital or to accomplish a scientific or benevolent mission. In each case the success of the individual depends on his or her ability and willingness to learn.
Some of the best learners I have encountered in Gabon are medical students. Since 1977 a number of American young people have visited our hospital for short periods of time. We have developed four requirements for these students: they must be in the fourth year of medical school; they must pay all their own expenses; and they must be able to speak and understand at least some French.
Although most of our students have found their African experience enjoyable, some have not. One, whom I shall call Steve, faced a tragedy that challenged his faith and reminded all of us that our ability to live and work in Africa ultimately depends on God.
Steve’s wife accompanied him to Gabon and their six weeks with us were happy ones. Steve did not speak French and while this limited his ability to function independently at the hospital, it did hide his affection for Gabonese people. Our African nurses remember him to this day for his hard work, his interest in them personally and sensitivity. We were all sorry to see them go, but since he was on his last elective as a medical student, he had to get back to the States to graduate.
Shortly before they left, a missionary from another station invited them to ride with her to Libreville. The trip is 540 kilometers and takes 10 to 12 hours of hard driving. Only the last 90 kilometers of the road were in good condition at the time. Once over the worst, Steve volunteered to drive the rest of the way.
By that time, the sun was low in the western sky and directly into their eyes. The road was straight and smooth and while most drivers drove at100 kilometers per hour, Steve chose to drive between 60 and 80.
Down the road a bit Steve saw a car parked on the far side of the road. A group of people stood around the rear of the car talking. As Steve approached, a young woman suddenly decided to cross the road. Unable to turn either to the right or the left, he could only slam on the brakes. It was over in an instant. The front of the pickup hit the woman squarely in the back and threw her about 30 feet.
In most countries in Africa, travelers are advised not to stop if their car hits a pedestrian. In Gabon, even the police advise the driver to continue without stopping until he gets to the nearest police station to report the incident. To ignore this advice is to invite death.
Of all the tribes in Gabon, the Fang tribe is most feared for its reputation for swift, lethal revenge. Steve could not know that he had just killed a Fang woman. Conditioned by a lifetime of Christian teaching and American law, he immediately pulled the car over to the side of the road and stopped. He, his wife and the missionary got out of the car and ran over to the inert woman to see if they could help. When they saw that she was dead, they carried her body off the road and laid it on the side. They were too stunned to think of their own safety.
By this time the people began milling around the trio. Some began hitting them with their fists and slapping them. A large man kicked the missionary from behind. Steve’s wife tried to protect her dazed husband from the blows landing on him. With her hand she deflected a punch from his face. Only later did she discover the blow had broken her hand. Several in the group ran to their houses to find machetes and to spread the news.
Steve, his wife and the missionary realized that the crowd was shocked and angered, but they had not yet comprehended that barring a miracle, they only had minutes to live. Instead of seeking refuge in the car, they tried to reason with the crowd. As precious minutes ticked by, someone reached into the truck and removed the keys.
At that moment, a miracle occurred.
The chief of police from Libreville was driving to a nearby town when he saw a crowd of 20 or 30 people ahead on the road. In the center, three white foreigners were trying to protect themselves. As he pulled his car to a stop and saw the body of the victim, he understood what had happened. He was in uniform and driving and official car. In loud voice he began ordering the crowd away from the foreigners. As the mob hesitated, he led the three to the car, ordered them inside and told them to roll up their windows and lock the doors. His quick action saved their lives.
For nearly an hour the stunned trio sat in the stifling car while the police calmed the crowd and took statements from witnesses. Some in the crowd came up to the car and screamed threats and insults at them, but the police managed to protect them from any further harm. Finally, one of the officers retrieved the keys, got in and drove them to the police station. Steve was confined to a room in the barracks. The missionary was allowed to call the Mission director, Clarence Walker, in Libreville.
An hour later Clarence arrived. He asked the police chief if he could stay with Steve while Steve’s wife and the missionary who owned the car continued on to Libreville in his car. The police chief agreed. When Clarence saw where Steve was being detained he pointed out to the police chief that the victim’s relatives lived only a few kilometers away and that unless a guard was posted outside the door and outside the window someone could easily get into Steve’s room. The police chief finally proposed that they all go a recently built luxury hotel in a town 10 kilometers away. Clarence and Steve gratefully accepted. Had Steve would most certainly have been left alone and unprotected during the night. It does not take much imagination to think of what might of happened.
As news of the accident spread, our missionaries and the national Christians responded with a great outpouring of prayer on Steve’s behalf. Steve and Clarence remained in the hotel for three days until the police investigation was completed and the paperwork was ready to be forwarded to Libreville. The investigation absolved Steve of any wrongdoing. He was freed without bail until a judge could hear his case and determine if he could leave the country. This was a tremendous answer to prayer. It can take up to two months to get a judicial hearing in Gabon, but in less than two weeks Steve’s case came to trial. The judge ruled that since no crime had been committed, Steve could leave the country. The Mission was held responsible to reach a financial settlement with the family, but since the Mission was covered by liability insurance, the problem was turned over to the insurance company for final settlement.
Steve will probably never know why God allowed that fatal accident on the road to Libreville. Steve’s initial reaction was to vow never again to leave the safety of America. Yet he had to acknowledge that when he was completely helpless and in the gravest of danger he had ever encountered, God had delivered him.