Just in time for the pre-Christmas season, we would like to give you a look behind the scenes of our "Social Responsibility" activities. Our service technician Markus Häuselmann talks about his work for the Albert Schweitzer Foundation.
Axonlab was approached 20 years ago for laboratory equipment. It was particularly important to our business owner, Roland Steger, that this project had a sustainable character and that the equipment received its annual maintenance. This also includes that the local staff is well trained and that our technical helpline in Switzerland is available to them. The project includes not only the Albert Schweitzer Hospital itself, but also associated research facilities and an outpost in Fougamou. For these sites, only the most robust and tropicalized equipment is selected together with the institution.
At a technician meeting I learned that every year a technician travels to Lambaréné to maintain and repair the equipment in the Albert Schweitzer Hospital.
I had already heard the name Albert Schweitzer, but where Gabon or Lambaréné is located at all, I had no idea.
Since I love to travel and had been to Kenya for the first time shortly before, I told the technical director "if they were ever looking for someone else, I would love to do it." A short time later this position actually became available and so I was approached. I have now been there for about a week every year for the past 10 years and look forward to the assignment every mail.
The best way to get to Gabon is to fly with Air France via Paris to Libreville. That's about 12 hours of travel time. Then I stay in a hotel in Libreville and the next day the trip continues with a 6 hour drive to Lambaréné. The road is in extremely bad condition. I was told that in 2009 a budget was allocated for repair, but this money has "disappeared" somewhere and the road gets worse and worse every year. The worst holes are sometimes filled with gravel, but that never lasts long. One usually travels with a "long distance cab", which are mostly Toyota station wagons with 7 seats. The vehicles, which have had their day in Europe, usually get their second life in Africa. From about 250'000 Km and then without end. The air conditioning works only African, so with open windows. Once I had a "cab", where the trunk was totally rusted through and the exhaust gases could get into the interior of the car. You could only stand it if you kept your head completely out of the window. Most of the time, in such extreme moments, you have no alternative for another vehicle.
For one year a river bridge on the connecting road to Lambaréné was missing because it collapsed. Since this is the only road, all vehicles had to be loaded onto small ferries to cross the river. At that time, the car trip had taken as long as 12 hours. In that very year, I was accompanied by our project manager Sylvain Gond from French-speaking Switzerland. He has this project under his supervision and wanted to see it personally on site. Despite the long journey, he lent a hand on site and supported me with the service work. That impressed me very much.
In addition to Lambaréné, I am also in charge of the field office in Fougamou, about 120 km away. There, everything is much more rustic and in the restaurants you usually only get what the people get their hands on during the hunt. I sat there in a simple restaurant, where the menu was hung on a board on one wall and on the wall opposite hung a board with the protected animals from the region. On closer inspection, I found that the two boards were practically identical and the protected animals were part of the menu that day. As I found this very strange, I spoke to the owner and we both had to laugh about it.
The people are all very friendly. It is important to follow their rules and ask before taking a picture, for example. If you want to visit someone at home, you call outside loudly "Tock Tock". This replaces the missing bell.
Since people there only speak French or tribal dialects, the language in particular is a challenge. It's been a while since I spoke French at school, but after a while you get along well again. I was also able to make many new friends. Two of them have already visited me in Switzerland. I took a few days off each time and went on excursions with them. The highlight is always the glacier cave of the Rohne glacier, where they could walk through the ice and everything glowed bright blue in the sun.
The challenge is that you never really know in advance what you're going to encounter. Some repairs require patience and good improvisation, and of course the right spare parts. Due to the high humidity, the repairs there are completely different from those in Switzerland. In addition, there are very frequent power outages.
What I learned in particular is that if things don't go any further and look hopeless, you simply have to wait. Certain situations sometimes resolve themselves or a new path opens up.
The people there do it quite well. The Albert Schweitzer Hospital even has its own self-sufficient drinking water treatment plant. If there is some money, the most important conditions are already fulfilled. Of course, it gets difficult when the hospital is in a financial bottleneck, then they improvise as best they can.
Since everything "edible" is hunted and offered for sale at the roadside, one really feels sorry for some animals. The most questionable to "eat" for me were always the smoked bats on skewers or animals that had been lying in the sun for so long that they were so full of gases that they could explode at any moment.
It is also sad to see the countless trucks loaded with huge tree trunks driving to the port of Lambaréné, where the big ships are already waiting for them. In my first years you could still find some jungle giants in the surroundings of Lambaréné, but today you have to drive quite a bit further. You always think, 'if they go on like this, the forest will soon be completely gone.'
Yes, I love going back to Lambaréné to see all the many friends again. I also always take a week's vacation afterwards. The country is very beautiful and not yet very developed for tourism. They have all kinds of animals that you can find on a safari and also beautiful palm beaches.
Africans always make the best of their situation. Many also have no comparison of what they might be missing, as their financial situation often does not allow for big trips. For them, family is the most important thing and they like to celebrate with friends. They are true masters in improvising and we can still learn a lot from them.
Wild animals are usually very shy and do not stray near people. The danger would be very great that they would end up in the cooking pot.