Monday, October 12, 2015

Lost In Africa

This is a review of Against the Current - How Albert Schweitzer Inspired a Young Man’s Journey by Clarinda Higgins with William G. Armstrong Jr., Oakham Press, Westport, Ct. 2015. 

This is a biographical tale of Mark Higgins, who in 1959 at the age of 19 went on a voyage of self discovery to Schweitzer’s clinic in Lambarene, Gabon.  The scion of a prominent New England family Mark felt he never measured up to the expectations of his demanding father and rarely had the support of his distant divorced mother.  He bounced through a couple of prep schools and during an emotional crisis tried to take his own life.  After a “hush, hush” stint in a mental institution, he struck out for Africa. 

In Lambarene he found the space and the support that enabled him to mature into his own person.  Starting essentially as a laborer, Mark became a reliable jack of many trades, working with lepers,  giving injections and conducting heart disease research.  After a year or so with Dr. Schweitzer’s eclectic team, Mark decided to move on, to cross Africa and voyage up to Israel to work on a kibbutz.  Unfortunately, the summer he decided to do this was 1960, the year of African independence, and the month he began his travel through the newly independent (ex-Belgian) Congo was July, immediately after independence on June 30.  This was a chaotic period for the Congo.  The Force Publique mutinied and ran amuck.  A hundred thousand Belgians were fleeing from every corner of that vast land.  Yet armed with a youthful sense of invincibility, good French language skills, and a genuine liking for African people, Mark was determined to persevere.  Traveling by river, rail and truck, he made it about two thirds of the way east, before being murdered by renegade rebels in the town of Kasongo on the Lualaba River.

So that is the story, but the book offers more.  The author Rindy Higgins, Mark’s younger cousin, knew little of Mark’s youthful troubles and only a smidgen of his Lambarene experiences and not much beyond the fact that he died in the Congo.  However, beginning with what she did know she fleshed out the tale through an enormous amount of research.  The family had some of Mark’s letters home, but Rindy found a treasure trove of correspondence in the Schweitzer institute in France - virtually everything that the man wrote, everything that was written to him, and all sorts of memoirs by his staff and supporters is preserved there.  Using these resources, the author was able to vividly reconstruct life at the African clinic.  Most importantly she was able to discover the identity of the man who reported to the American Consulate in Elizabethville, Congo, the fact of Mark’s murder. Additionally, she was able to reconstruct his travels throughout the Congo and juxtapose them day by day with international developments regarding the Congo.  

Although Mark was certainly a nice congenial young man with a brighter future ahead of him once he found himself and got back on track, his death elevated him to martyr status, especially as seen by his cousin. He is even touted as an inspiration for the Peace Corps; perhaps he was. Many young Americans have found themselves in service to others. 

I found only two factual errors, both in the same sentence describing the Ruwenzori Mountains as volcanic (they are not) and reaching to 22,000 feet (they top out at 16,721 feet).  I found the chapters on Lambarene to be couched in paternalistic terminology of that era, which was understandable as much of the material was drawn from contemporary accounts.  But the author persisted in using the term “natives” throughout the narrative, which is a bit passe.  

For those who want to learn about Albert Schweitzer’s operation in Gabon, this book is relevant. It also reveals solid details of what the Congo was like as it crashed into anarchy in July 1960.  Finally the story of Mark Higgins’ short life and his tragic end provide a cogent tale.

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