Elim Hospital 1899 - 1906. A Swiss Mission Hospital in the Transvaal

Staehelin, Sarah. Elim Hospital 1899 - 1906. A Swiss Mission Hospital in the Transvaal. 2008, Master Thesis, University of Basel, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

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Elim Hospital, located in the northern part of South Africa, was the first hospital that the Mission Romande set up. Its founder and first director was Georges Liengme, a doctor whose education had been paid for by the mission. He was a remarkable personality, a very skilled doctor and a man with great entrepreneurial capability. He founded the hospital under very difficult circumstances, politically as well as financially, and succeeded in establishing a hospital that exists until today. This paper traces the hospital’s history from its beginnings in 1899 to 1906, when Georges Liengme and his family left Elim Hospital to return to Switzerland.Elim Hospital would not have been possible without the great discoveries made in the field of medical science. Tropical Medicine was the field that attracted the most popular attention during the second half of the nineteenth century and will serve here as an example of the general rise in knowledge and status that medicine experienced. When Patrick Manson and Ronald Ross discovered how Malaria was transmitted, they opened up a new chapter in medical science but also in imperial history. Their discoveries allowed the white man to go to Africa and other parts of the world without having to fear imminent death. “The white man’s grave”, the popular picture by which Africa was referred to, was an image that grew more and more pale as the measures taken to fight Malaria and other tropical diseases became efficient.Manson’s and Ross’ work stands for a great leap forward in medical science. Not only tropical medicine but many other branches of medicine experienced breakthroughs towards the end of the 19th century. This of course gave rise to the social status of the medical profession. Before, the doctors had not occupied a high place in society. This changed considerably when medicine underwent great changes. Discoveries in many different branches of medicine allowed this science to work for and help patients more efficiently. As such, the social status of doctors rose increasingly and their reputation changed accordingly.The 19th century was also characterized by a strong urge to do good. Charity organizations, orphan’s homes and other institutions were founded to help the poor and unfortunate. This movement also touched the missionary societies, themselves charitable organizations that experienced a great push forward. As the medical profession gained in acceptance, so did the medical missions. The medical missions had existed from the very start of the missionary movement, although they had not enjoyed a great popularity among the missions. Mission boards were of the opinion that the care of the physical pains would divert the missionary from his true duty – the winning of souls and the conversion to Christianity. But the medical missions held a key that no other mission had: the doctor in missionary service could access communities that a regular missionary could not. This opened up previously inaccessible fields to the missions and the medical missions underwent a change in social acceptance. Despite this rather skeptic 19th century attitude towards medical missions, there was hardly any mission station without a doctor to be found by the middle of the 1910s.
The Mission Romande had from its very start supported the idea of medical mission. The Mission Romande had come out of the réveil, the awakening movement in Switzerland. Coming from Geneva, the movement had spread across Western Switzerland and the Jura to Bern and Basel. The réveil was an evangelical movement that fought the all too rationalistic tendencies in the church and was very much opposed to the close connection between state and church. When the canton of Vaud ordered its pastors to read political propaganda in their sermons, they left the church and formed their own church, the Free Church of the Canton of Vaud.It was this church that brought forth the Mission Romande. Ernest Creux and Paul Berthoud, two young members of the Free Church, proposed the foundation of a missionary society that would send out young missionaries to South Africa. The Transvaal, and later Mozambique, became the mission’s primary fields. Paul Berthoud especially embraced the medical work and gave out medical care in his stations. He was also the mentor to Georges Liengme, a poor young man, who had been caught up in the réveil and because of this changes his life from that of a young “ne’er-do-well” to a believer and missionary. Georges Liengme, whose education was paid for by the mission, became the first medical missionary of the Mission Romande.He was first sent out to Gaza, the last independent kingdom in Mozambique, where he set up his first hospital in Mandlakazi. He and his family had to leave Mandlakazi when the Portuguese overthrew the King Gunguayana. Georges Liengme then went on to Elim, where he soon set up his first improvised hospital. This was a success and the doctor was overwhelmed with work, as the patients, glad to finally have a doctor close to them, arrived in great numbers.Georges Liengme went to Switzerland in 1898, to talk to the mission board and propose to them his idea of setting up a hospital in Elim. He was successful and when he returned in 1899, he immediately started to build his hospital. The mission board, however, had laid down that the hospital had to be self-funding. Its income had to be mainly made from the white patients, the native patients did not have to pay as much as the whites for treatment. But the time to start the hospital was not well chosen: Liengme had only just started the building on his hospital, when the Anglo-Boer war broke out in 1899. The war threw the Transvaal into economic ruin and brought the people living there on the edge of desperation. The notorious farm burning campaign was to have serious consequences for the Transvaal, as the crops were destroyed and famines tormented the country in the years after the war. Nevertheless, the hospital took off in 1899 and the work went well. Great numbers of patients came from far away and kept the doctor busy. Georges Liengme was confronted with a great range of diseases: he dealt with Syphilis patients, he treated Malaria, he operated on broken legs, he assisted in births – in short, he had a tremendous amount of work to do and had to carry out a great range of medical care.But he was not only active as a doctor. Elim Hospital had to be self-funding and as such, it also had to be a successful enterprise. Food had to be grown on the grounds. Elim Hospital had many fields, where potatoes and sweet potatoes, bananas and corn were planted. They kept animals, like cows, chickens, goats and sheep, to meet their needs of meat and milk. Georges Liengme had to take care to get enough donations from both Switzerland and Africa to make sure his enterprise always had enough money. This great amount of work called for a large staff, both Swiss and native. In this way, the Swiss missionaries and the native staff came to work very closely together and they came into close contact with each other. For them, and for many others, Elim Hospital was a shelter. The many patients who came to the hospital, also came to a sheltered place. They were treated and often healed from their pains and ailments. Disfigured Syphilis patients found treatment for their ulcers, Malaria patients found some relief in Quinine. Mothers giving birth found a safe place to deliver their babies, free of the traditions that were not always to the advantage of the women. Soldiers found a place of peace during the war, when British and Boer soldiers lay next to each other in the white hospital. Homeless Boer families found a shelter in the Boer hospital, where they could recover from malnutrition. But Elim Hospital was also an escape for all those who did not fit in  their own society – be that disfigured Syphilis patients or Christians who did not want to stay with their non-Christian families. It was also an escape for those who built it, namely the Georges Liengme family. Georges Liengme had his nephews and his cousins come to Elim Hospital, so that they would not get into bad company and thus could escape from the vicious circle that would have shaped their lives otherwise. He himself escaped from this background, when he joined the mission and came back to Switzerland as the successful director of a hospital.The enterprise and the shelter that Elim Hospital was, in addition to its primary function as a hospital, attracted many people from very different backgrounds. This led to a mix of people that would not have met otherwise. The hospital was also an area where European principles were taught, much in line with the assumption that a medical missionary undertaking could do much more than a regular missionary station. The hospital staff did not only undertake Europeanization of the natives, in teaching them discipline, punctuality and temperance. They also saw it necessary to re-europeanize some of the whites, especially the poorer classes. This inevitably led to clash of different values, cultures and lifestyles. Elim Hospital was a place that united many people and many cultures and brought them together. As such, it was also a place where cultural clashes were very easily visible. The political, economical and social turmoil that South Africa had been subject to from the very beginnings of Elim Hospital, and the country’s slow and not always successful regeneration of it, also left its imprints on Elim Hospital. Decisions taken at Elim Hospital had to be in line with political decisions, and thus the laws affected the people living and working at Elim Hospital directly. This mix of decisions of great political importance and daily life on one level and the different cultures that met before this backdrop on another level made Elim Hospital into a microcosm of South Africa and reflected the country’s changes.
Advisors:Harries, Patrick
Faculties and Departments:04 Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences > Departement Geschichte > Ehemalige Einheiten Geschichte > Geschichte Afrikas (Harries)
UniBasel Contributors:Harries, Patrick
Item Type:Thesis
Thesis Subtype:Master Thesis
Thesis status:Complete
Last Modified:05 Apr 2018 17:39
Deposited On:06 Feb 2018 11:29

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