An Ex-Slave -- Dr. Adrien Atiman

The Life - Story of Adrien Atiman: Part Two

By Denis Starkey W.F.

Adrien Atiman, the ex-slave who had been in close contact with Cardinal Lavigerie, wrote in his autobiographical notes, "I arrived with Father Carmoi at Karema, 3rd. March 1889, the journey having taken nine months from Marseilles."

Of the journey itself, Adrien said very little. It certainly was fraught with dangers of all kinds in a harsh land under constant threat from hostile tribes, slave-raiders, wild animals, tropical diseases, theft, hunger and thirst. A comment Adrien wrote about this episode was, "I gave much treatment to my companions and to our porters, who, attacked by serious illness, gave the missionaries the opportunity to make their first baptisms. The caravans of slaves we passed reminded me of crossing the Sahara to Algiers."

The horrors he encountered on the journey inland sound unbelievable to us today, "At about 8 a.m. we came upon an abandoned slave-camp, just deserted by the slave-drivers. A most appalling spectacle presented itself. There were about twenty people at the point of death and already there were two or three vultures to each one. This was an example of Arab civilisation and of their African followers who, although themselves liberated slaves, dared to uphold and practise it."

ati305aMpala and Karema, on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, had been forts established by the Belgians. Both were handed over to the White Fathers four years prior to Adrien's arrival in 1889. They were in the centre of an area ravaged by war and slave-hunting and, within the brick built fortification at Mpala, Adrien found four or five hundred ransomed slaves and orphans in residence. Outside were villages of two or three thousand people, who, when the alarm was given, would run quickly for safety to the fort. Adrien was given a room at the gate so that patients could easily reach him. He described it as "... a room so full of ticks and bugs that I hung my bed from the ceiling."

His first task was to try and establish a minimum of hygiene in this abject poverty in which the missionaries found themselves. Scientifically speaking, he had nothing, apart from his knowledge. He began his day with the Eucharist followed by a lengthy thanksgiving. After a quick breakfast he would commence his rounds, beginning with the orphans. He managed to encourage some older women to help him is such tasks as searching for rags to be boiled and reboiled to use as bandages. His whole day was spent in visiting the sick with scarcely any time to eat.There was so little food that the missionaries themselves were walking skeletons. His evenings were spent teaching catechism to all who were interested.

After only one year's stay at Mpala, Bishop Bridoux called Adrien to Karema to continue his good work. There he was to spend the rest of his days. The building and the situation of the people was a replica of Mpala and for nearly seventy years Adrien found himself fully occupied. He always looked upon himself as a man of religion as well as a man of medicine. Thus, when he travelled around to treat his patients he was concerned with the spiritual as well as the physical. No one can say how many Africans became Christians because of his influence.

An interesting and important event took place during Adrien's first year at Karema and he described it in the following way, "Six months after my arrival at Karema, I was married to a girl of the family Mrundi who succeeded to Mwami Chata, Chief of the Wasowa (the royal family of the Wabende tribe) in order to enable me to catechise the Wabende." Elsewhere he wrote of this episode, "The Wabende is a tribe of brigands who spread terror around them. They occupy the Eastern border of Tanganyika from a spot three hours from Karema right up to the Malagarzi river. It was to try to evangelise the Wabende, originally of the area surrounding Albertville ... that I married a cousin of Mrundi. This girl was called Wanshira. ... Being the son-in-law of the Royal family of the Wasowa, I could go amongst them without fear." A marriage of convenience if ever there was one!

Adrien believed, after consultation with Bishop Bridoux, that what amounted to an inter-tribal marriage would bring peace. It did bring peace to the community, but havoc to his own domestic life. About a year after the marriage, they had a son, Joseph, who was ordained priest in 1923. Wanshira was baptised "Agnes Isabella" in 1892 and died in July, 1940.

As a doctor, Adrien should have received a salary but he refused to accept more than five pounds a month. After his wife's death he declined any further payment. Similarly, he would not accept renumeration for his services to the Europeans or from the Belgian Government for treatment of soldiers fighting in Africa against the Germans during World War I.

Despite the fact that he was not a surgeon, he learnt surgery from medical journals, and thereby saved many hundreds of lives. His knowledge of the medicinal value of local plants, which he gained from the indigenous people, helped him to find substitutes for medicines which were slow in arriving from Europe, enabling him to suppress numerous epidemics. He could not be lured by the Belgian, German or British Governments into accepting well paid medical positions. All payments made to him for his service he gave to the Church.

During the course of his life Adrien received numerous decorations: the 'Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice' from Pope Leo XIII; three awards from the Belgian Government for medical services to their troops in World War I; the Jubilee medal of King George V; the 'Bene Merenti' from Pope Pius XI; the Wellcome Medal of the Royal African Society - the only other medical missionary ever to receive it was Albert Schweitzer.

Adrien died early in the morning of the 24th. April 1956. In a letter to the White Sisters he once referred to his own life, "I am getting old now and going grey, but as long as my legs can move me I shall not cease to move, and I shall try to do my possible best to please God and to love his flock of little and big black sheep which he sends in my path. For myself, I want to say with Cardinal Lavigerie, 'We shall have all eternity to rest in.' " Adrien was true to his word.

ati305b


Pictures used are from the White Fathers' archives.
Picture One: Dr. Adrien Atiman when he was about fifty years old.

Picture Two: Karema as Adrien would have known it.

This article first appeared in "White Fathers - White Sisters" (UK), issue 305, of August-September 1992.
It may be published freely with due acknowledgements to the "White Fathers - White Sisters" magazine.

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