Albert Schweitzer—An African Image

By Ndabaningi Sithole [*]

Albert Schweitzer, who has done so much for thousands of African people in his lifetime, also forms a rewarding study of European attitudes toward the African people. John Gunther gives Albert Schweitzer's attitude towards the African people in the following words:

"The idea of the rights of man was formed and developed . . . when society was an organized and stable thing. . . . In a disordered society the very well‑being of man himself often demands that his fundamental rights be abridged." [1] —Albert Schweitzer.

The impression this makes on the African mind is that Schweitzer is averse to full African independence. He appears to assume that there was never such a thing as organized and stable African society and that there was never such a thing as the right of man in an African society. In other words the idea of the right of man is non‑African. Schweitzer seems to assume that African society was always disordered. If this is what Schweitzer means, there can be nothing farther from the truth. Although African society is so simple and primitive, it has amazing organization and stability which students of African anthropology readily concede. The genius of European rule in Africa lies in their indirect rule which is based on the recognition of the social organization and stability of various African tribes. Indirect rule merely means the imposition of the rule of a strong military power over an organized stable tribe or group of tribes who have a weak military system. indirect rule does not create a new order, but rather manipulates, exploits and utilizes to the full extent the pattern of life it finds among the natives themselves. If, therefore, Schweitzer means that the African society was disorganized and unstable, facts have proved the contrary.

From this erroneous assumption of a disordered society, Schweitzer advances his argument of abridging some of the fundamental human rights in so far as these affect the African. In the African mind, Schweitzer's reasoning seems to run along these lines. African society is disordered. Full human rights can only be exercised properly in a well‑ordered society. Therefore, since African society is so disordered, African human rights must be abridged.

The African is keenly interested in determining the real meaning of abridging some of these fundamental human rights. One African student from Tanganyika rendered Schweitzer's statement as follows:

"Schweitzer is simply telling the world this: 'The fundamental human rights of the African must be abridged. Don't give him all the fundamental human rights because he belongs to a disordered society. The world may be greatly endangered if you do so.' In short, Schweitzer is saying: 'Don't give the African full freedom and full independence.' "

This interpretation of Schweitzer may look somewhat exaggerated, and so we shall attempt a justification for it. The African looks around him to see the practical implications of this theory of abridging fundamental human rights, and he is more and more impressed by what he sees meted out against him by the European powers. He observes that many times when African workers go on strike the government declares a state of emergency, thus placing the African leaders at the mercy of the law. But in the case of European strikes no such emergency measures are taken. The African further notes that when African political organizations fight tooth and nail against discriminatory legislation, the government, which is usually white, passes laws that almost neutralize such organizations. While the government recognizes the legitimate existence of such an organization it deliberately cripples its activities. The African notes that whenever the Africans demand their freedom, which is their birthright, the leaders of such freedom‑movements are quickly arrested, and Schweitzer's meaning of abridging fundamental human rights becomes very clear to the African.

We may now ask ourselves: What does abridging fundamental human rights mean? Obviously, the statement does not mean total deprivation, or absolute denial of rights. It means partial deprivation or partial denial of these rights. This, in turn, means partial recognition, or partial affirmation. To abridge the fundamental rights of man is to take away some of these rights but to leave others, both the quality and quantity of which are determined by the one who chose to abridge them. What are these human rights? Equality of human beings in dignity and rights: freedom from discrimination on the ground of race, colour, sex, language, religion, and political creeds; and freedom of speech, expression, enterprise, and the press. Freedom of self‑determination of all peoples is one of these fundamental human rights.

It is clear then that to abridge any of these rights is to interfere with these fundamental human rights. In the final analysis, to accept this doctrine of abridging these rights, is to place one group of people at the mercy of another. In plain language, to abridge African human rights is to place the African people at the mercy of the European powers. If this be acceptable, it would mean that the African derives his human rights from these European powers. It would mean that these European powers are the chief source of the fundamental human rights of the African when actually the African derives his human rights, not from the fact that he belongs to this or that European power, but from the fact that he belongs to the human family. It is obvious, therefore, that the abridger of fundamental human rights is, by all standards of good logic, a dictator—the very antithesis of democracy.

Perhaps Slobodan M. Draskovich has a point which is very helpful at this juncture. In his brilliant analysis of the nature of communism he observes: . . . . the right of peoples to freedom, independence and self‑determination is recognized only if and when it serves the interests of the communist revolution and consolidation of communist power. [2] He might as well have said: "The communists abridge fundamental human rights where their interests are threatened." This becomes even more pertinent when it is remembered that the abridger is the white man who has vital interests on the continent of Africa.

It was Joseph Stalin who once said:

"There are occasions when the right of self‑determination conflicts with higher right—the right of the working class that has assumed power to consolidate its power. In such cases—this must be said bluntly—the right to self‑determination cannot and must not serve as an obstacle to the exercise by the working class of its right to dictatorship. The former must give way to the latter. That, for instance, was the case in 1920, when in order to defend the power of the working class, we were obliged to march on Warsaw."

Clearly communism purports, not to deny altogether fundamental human rights, but to abridge them. In motivation and goal Joseph Stalin stood for no more and for no less than the European powers stand for in Africa. The French imperialist might as well have said:

"There are occasions when the African right of self‑determination conflicts with . . . higher right—the right of the French government that has assumed power to consolidate its power. In such cases—this must be said bluntly—the African right to self‑determination cannot and must not serve as an obstacle to the exercise by the French government of its right to sovereignty. The former must give way to the latter. That, for instance, was the case in 1957, when in order to defend the French rule, we were obliged to march on Algeria."

Another interesting aspect of Schweitzer's thinking is his "elder brother" theory in African‑European relations. He says:

"A word about the relations of the whites and the blacks. What must be the general character of the intercourse between them? Am I to treat the black man as my equal or my inferior? I must show him that I can respect the dignity of human personality in everyone, and this attitude in me he must be able to see for himself; but the essential thing is that there shall be real brotherliness. How far this is to find complete expression in the sayings, and doings of daily life must be settled by circumstances. The Negro is a child, and with children nothing can be done without the use of authority. We must, therefore, so arrange the circumstances of daily life that my natural authority can find expression. With regard to the Negroes, then, I have coined the formula: 'I am your brother, it is true, but your elder brother.' " [3]

Schweitzer (like the Dutch who regarded Indonesians as innocent little children who needed at all times Dutch paternal care) regards the African as a child. He plays the common role of the big "white father," and if there is any blunder that most white people commit this is surely one. This reminds me of a conversation I had one day with a white student. "You see, Sithole, we don't like Nasser," he said.

"Why don't you?" I asked him.

"Because he's more inclined towards Russia," said he, as if inclination towards Russia and disinclination from the West merited death itself.

"Well," said I, "what else could he do? He wanted to buy arms from the Western powers, and he was carefully controlled as to what to buy."

"But, you see," he said, "selling arms to Egypt would be like selling arms to a child, and you know what happens when arms are in the hands of children."

"That's exactly the reason why Nasser has turned to Russia. We all like to deal with those who treat us like men, not those who treat us like little children."

This attitude of treating all non‑Westerners like children is prevalent among Westerners. The Dutch were surprised when the Indonesians, whom they had treated all along like little children, led a successful revolution which ended in the freedom and full independence of more than 78,000,000 Indonesians. The African interpretation of Schweitzer's regarding the African as a child is correct—namely, that Schweitzer deliberately reduces an adult African to a child so that he can justify the superimposition of European authority on the African. It is an insult for one man to regard another as a child. This attitude of Schweitzer is even more clearly shown in his "elder brother" theory.

Schweitzer admits the fact that the black man and the white man are brothers, but he qualifies this by saying that the white man is the black man's elder brother. The concept of elder brother is inconceivable in the absence of a younger brother. In this case, therefore, the black man is the younger brother of the white man. In African society the elder brother is looked up to by the younger brother in this life and the life to come. The African construes Schweitzer's elder brother theory only in this sense. In other words, the elder brother, according to African custom, holds sway over his younger brother indefinitely. In politics, therefore, the elder brother theory means domination of the African (younger brother) by whites (elder brother). The African sees in this theory not temporary but permanent domination of the African people, since, chronologically, the younger brother never can catch up with the elder brother. This means white domination and African subjection in perpetuity. While Schweitzer's acceptance of the concept of brotherliness between black and white commends itself to the heart of the African, yet its elder brother aspect strikes deep fear in the heart of the African. It suggests very strongly to the African that at the back of Schweitzer's mind is indefinite African subjection. His three theories—namely, abridging some of the fundamental human rights of the African, that the Negro is a child and therefore the white man is his father, and that the white man is the black man's elder brother—strongly support the common view among the African thinkers that, fundamentally, Schweitzer is opposed to racial equality in any form. This view of Schweitzer's is, moreover, shared by many white people.


* Reprinted by permission of The Oxford University Press; London, England, from African Nationalism.

1 Inside Africa, p. 732.

2 Slobodan M. Draskovich: Tito, Moscow's Trojan Horse, pp. 32‑3.

3 Charles R. Joy: Albert Schweitzer: An Anthology, p. 85.

Christianity in Africa as Seen by Africans

Table of Contents [9]

Preface 5

Acknowledgments 8

1. Christianity in Danger, Ram Desai 11

A. Background 11
B. An Historical Perspective 12
C. Africans—The Early Missionary Image 13
D. Motivations behind Conversion 14
E. The Role of the Missionary in the Conquest of Africa 16
F. Missionary Contributions--Real or Apparent? 18
G. Positive Contributions of Christianity 27
H. Christianity and African Nationalism 29
I. Islam—The Cross and the Crescent 33

II. African Life and Ideals, Prince Nyabongo 37

III. Religious Life in Africa, Mbonu Ojike 49

IV. Christianity in Africa, Mbonu Ojike 60

V. Imperialism and the Spiritual Freedom, Ako Adjei 67

VI. Christianity and Clitoridectomy, Jomo Kenyatta 84

VII. Christianity and the Bantu, D. D. T. Jabavubu 89

VIII. Christianity and Ashanti, K. A. Busia 94

IX. The New Religion in East Africa, Jomo Kenyatta 99

X. Albert Schweitzer—An African Image, Ndabaningi Sithole 103

XI. The Contribution of African Culture to Christian Worship, J. H. Nketia 109

XII. The Christian Church and African Heritage, E. A. Asamoa 124

SOURCE: Desai, Ram, ed. Christianity in Africa as Seen by Africans. Denver: A. Swallow, 1962. 135 pp.

SOURCE: Sithole, Ndabaningi. "Albert Schweitzer—An African Image," in Christianity in Africa as Seen by Africans, edited with an introduction by Ram Desai (Denver: A. Swallow, 1962), pp. 103-108.

Note: Footnotes have been converted to endnotes and renumbered for facility of reference.

This book dates from the period of decolonization, hence the emphasis on debunking the "civilizing mission" of Christianity. I remember only two essays from reading this decades ago. Jomo Kenyatta's ridiculous defense of clitoridectomy earned my disrespect of him. Mostly I recall Albert Schweitzer's racism, which justifies colonialism.

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