Wednesday 31 October 2012

Read in 2012 - 34: Tropenarzt im Afrikanischen Busch

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"Tropenarzt im Afrikanischen Busch" was written by Ludwig Külz, a medical doctor from Germany, and first published in 1910. I read the Kindle edition, based on a later edition with some additional notes by the author.
Dr. Külz lived from 1875 to 1938 and spent more than ten years in Africa, in what used to be then the German protectorates Togo and Kamerun.
Ludwig Külz, 1902 in Togo
The book is actually a collection of letters (to his wife, to his brother and to colleagues) and journal entries, more than half of them written from Togo, a land he grew to love very much and regretted having to leave for Kamerun on government's orders.

It is obvious on every page that he loved not only the land, but his profession, and took his work very seriously. His main concern was to vaccine and treat as many of the natives as possible; pox (variola) was a real threat in those days, and Dr. Külz managed to develop and produce a serum in large quantities and vaccined thousands of people. Many other deseases, such as malaria, yellow fever, lepra and frambesia were afflicting large numbers of natives and some of the European residents in both Togo and Kamerun, and the doctor saw it as his duty to fight those evils.

His first stop and the place he came to see as a home away from home was the Nachtigal hospital in Klein Popo, Togo. There, he treated mainly European residents; racial segregation was the normal (and government-induced) procedure in those days, and he treated the natives in their own policlinic, holding open practice there every day.
Nachtigal hospital in Klein Popo, Togo
He wasn't naive about his motives; while he openly speaks about wanting to keep the native population healthy mainly because the fatherland needed the workforce for political and economical reasons, unlike most of his contemporaries, he saw them as human beings and truly strived to improve their living conditions. Hygiene was top on his agenda, and he clearly saw the relation between many diseases and the lack of personal and public hygiene. Where his co-nationals and other Europeans in Africa were concerned, he was convinced that many times, they brought their illnesses upon themselves, and a lot of the problems they blamed on the tropical climate were really down to alcoholism and not adopting more sensible clothing and general behaviour in the hot and humid weather. 

For some of the native workers at the hospital, he saw himself as a benign father figure; he made sure they received an education (reading, writing, German and, most importantly, basic medical knowledge) and were able to work with the patients.

To give you an idea of the monumental task Dr. Külz was given by his government: at the time of his first arrival in Togo in 1902, the country was estimated to have a native population of 1 million, and 120 European residents.

I learned a lot from this book. The living conditions back then were very different to what Europeans were used to, and the author adapted admiringly well - because he wanted to adapt, and because he came to love the place. He talks about his trips through the djungle (on missions to help the only other German doctor practising far away from the coast) frankly, not glamourising the hardships, but he also beautifully describes flora and fauna, as well as the various native tribes, their villages and attire, he encounters.

He complains about the beaurocracy and gives a lot of insight into how such colonies were administrated. It was an interesting read, and taught me a lot about a period of German history I knew very little about; colonial efforts were made by most European nations, and none of these endeavours really shed a very favourable light on the nation in question.

I could go on at length about this topic, but this is only supposed to be a book review, and so I'll end


  1. It sounds a very interesting book Meike. I agree with you that we have very little to be proud of in the way we administered the countries we conquered nor in the way we treated the native populations. History would seem to suggest that it has always been thus. We build our wealth on empires. The empires crumble and eventually someone else takes over. I suspect that it will always be so and that in 100 years someone will be writing comments like yours. Providing, that is they are living in a country where they are allowed to.

    1. It was very interesting indeed, Graham, although more than once I was tempted to put it aside for the racist remarks and observations from the author. Then he went on to surprise me with some very thoughtful paragraph about the people around him, their and his own life.
      You are so right with your last sentence - I am truly grateful for having been born and raised in a country where I can speak (or write) my mind without being scared of an ominous knock at the door in the middle of the night!