Man of Vision
A German physiotherapist, with no personal means, builds a hospital in the heart of Sierra Leone.
His first mission to Sierra Leone would last only seven months. A longer absence would be too heavily felt at the Clinique La Lignière in Switzerland, where he worked. That visit opened the mind and heart of Harald Pfeiffer to the enormous needs of a population lacking in almost everything.
Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world. Life expectancy at birth is 40.3 years for males and 45.4 for females; the death rate reaches 20.7 per 1,000 persons; the infant mortality rate is 146.9 per 1,000 live births (2003). In regards to health conditions, there were 339 physicians in 1996 (1 per 13,696 persons); and in 1998, 3,364 hospital beds (1 per 1,250 persons).1 Other equally staggering statistics suggest widespread destitution.
Without realizing it, Harald, perhaps motivated by Jesus’ parable on service in Matthew 25:34-40, had contracted the “African humanitarian bug.” Back in safe, rich Switzerland, he could not forget what he’d seen, and he made a decision. He would do whatever he could to help reduce the suffering he’d encountered, beginning with the lepers of Masanga. He felt growing within him a call to mission that totally changed his life. Yes, he continued to work in Switzerland, but his heart remained in Sierra Leone.
Those Seven Months Changed Him
Born in 1941 at Werder-Havel, a small subdivision of a town close to Berlin (which became part of Eastern Germany after World War II), Harald was the last of four children in a modest Adventist family. His father died as a soldier in 1944. Harald’s future looked particularly bleak, and being extremely shy, he fell into bad habits under the influence of peer pressure at an early age.
Informed by fellow church members about her young son’s problems, Harald’s hardworking mother, Margarete, arranged to leave the area, eventually moving to Brunswick, Lower Saxony, in West Germany.
Life in the West did not turn out to be easy, however. Margarete worked as janitor of the local Adventist church building (where she and her son also lived). Harald, still poor, fell again into bad company and resumed his old unhealthful habits. But through a series of events too long to tell here, he eventually began attending church, where he met the lovely Karin Rickmann. They were baptized together in 1961 and married one year later.
After holding down a series of jobs, Harald finally became attracted to physiotherapy as a profession, moving with his wife to Bern, Switzerland, in 1967, following initial studies in West Germany. At first specializing in the treatment of the local soccer and hockey team players, Harald eventually was invited to serve at Clinique La Lignière, the historic Lake Geneva Sanitarium in Gland, owned and operated by the Adventist Church, and soon became head of the Physiotherapy Department.
It was after serving in this position for 20 years that a sabbatical took Harald to the Masanga Leprosy Hospital, while Karin and their two children remained in Gland. (The hospital was owned by the government of Sierra Leone, but operated by the Adventist Church.)
Those seven months at Masanga were to change Harald’s life forever.
However dismal the situation he’d found in that African country, what could he as one individual actually do about it?
The most obvious thing for him was to provide medicines, medical equipment, wheelchairs, crutches, bicycles, clothes. By 1992, after a slow start, enough donated material had arrived on the premises of the Gland clinic to ship the first container. Eventually, in order to send these items duty-free, Harald and his helpers established, in 1996, the Swiss-Sierra Leone Development Foundation (SSLDF). The foundation quickly received NGO (nongovernmental organization) status in Sierra Leone, having regular contacts with the government through partnership with the Ministry of Health.
As the project became more widely known, help and donations began to flow in—from local church members, from friends, from Harald’s patients. One patient contacted the French Swiss radio, and got them to broadcast some of the project’s specific needs. In addition, the local newspapers kept readers informed about the yearly shipment of materials, whether by containers or by caravan. (Such missions were led by Harald himself during his vacation time, usually around Christmas.)
The shipments of items mentioned above did not include food relief, a constant challenge for Sierra Leone’s undernourished population. The group decided it was cheaper to buy food within the country itself.
Masanga and its lepers remained the first beneficiaries of the help coming from Gland, especially after the hospital was destroyed and closed in 1995 because of civil war. Leprosy and polio victims, as well as other poor people, would gather in expectancy of the yearly distribution of rice and clothes by Harald himself, whom many referred to as “the father of Masanga.”
Plans are under way to help also with agricultural programs, in spite of the physical limitations of the people involved.
?Shortly after the inauguration Harald came back to Switzerland to ship three 40-foot containers. When he presented a list of needed items to the Swiss Army, he was offered some of army’s surplus materials, some of the items brand-new. The Lausanne university hospital gave 40 hospital beds. The technical elements for the mortuary, which is still in the building stages, were given at the same time by another Swiss hospital. An additional water tower is almost completed.
It’s difficult to build a hospital anywhere. But it’s even harder to run one. The costs are enormous. There is no medical insurance in Sierra Leone, and few patients can afford the hospital fees. In addition, MCH’s policies present built-in conditions for financial disaster. For example, a recently renovated old hospital, owned by another Christian denomination and located just a few miles away, admits only patients who can pay for the assistance they receive. MCH doesn’t refuse anyone. Orphans get free treatment. And the fees for the patients who can pay are about 60 percent lower than those in the neighbor hospital (a typical surgical intervention, followed by an average seven-day hospitalization, costs about $100 at MCH). Ambulatory treatment is also offered.
How then, to meet the financial challenges of running the hospital while continuing the relief operation is a matter of constant study for the Swiss-Sierra Leone Development Foundation (SSLDF) committee. But there are signs of help, such as that coming from a former Dutch patient of Harald’s, through whose efforts it’s beginning to seem likely that the hospitals of one Dutch city will choose MCH as a pilot training center for some of their physicians. Should this materialize, it would provide running costs not covered by patient fees, for the next five to ten years. MCH will appreciate help from anywhere.
By Pietro E. Copiz
A Crazy Dream?
Enter Dr. A. B. D. Sesay, an Adventist physician active in SSLDF projects, and one who’d worked at Masanga Hospital. Now living in Makeni, a town just over 100 miles northeast of Freetown (the capital) and with a population of about 120,000, he came up with what appeared to be a crazy proposal. With some patients having to walk three to four days to receive medical help—if, indeed, they could make it that far—he came up with the suggestion that Harald should build a community hospital.
After some time, in anticipation, a piece of land was purchased in the village of Magbenteh, near Makeni.
Harald consulted the SSLDF members. Was it a crazy dream? Should they pursue the project? Harald wasn’t sure. Although some of the foundation members have only humanitarian motivations (with no particular profession of religion), Harald and Karin made a deal with God in October 1996: If God wanted them to go ahead with the project, they should receive the tentative cost of $100,000 by the end of 1997; otherwise, it meant that it was not part of God’s plans. In which case Harald would just continue with his “normal” humanitarian activities. A small group of friends joined them in praying for God’s answer.
One year went by. Then one day, when Harald came home for lunch, Karin invited him to open a letter that had been delivered in the morning. Inside was a check for $100,000! A sponsor, whose wife had spent many years in one of the clinic’s rooms at Gland and who used to attend Sabbath worship services with Karin during her stay, had become aware of the plans for the hospital, and had simply decided to intervene. Upon opening the envelope, Harald burst into tears.
The procedure of making sure every new venture was according to God’s will would be repeated at different steps of the project. Harald and Karin call it the “red thread” of their faith adventure.
The Dream Takes Shape
In the beginning, only a 50-bed “bush hospital” was planned, for $100,000. But the project evolved into 120 beds in several buildings: administration with radiology, maternity, women, men, children, pharmacy, surgery, physiotherapy (of course!), and mortuary. (A school building was already located on the property.)
The contributions came in rather slowly. An Adventist family from Germany provided the funds for the essential electric generator. Through his example and consistent activity, Harald managed to motivate church members as well as other persons of goodwill in the community around and beyond. Ultimately, a total of about $700,000 came in. So far, all equipment received, including an ambulance, have been provided by hospitals, physicians, and private individuals.
The actual construction of what was to become Magbenteh Community Hospital (MCH) began in 2002, periodically interrupted for lack of funds. It was a long struggle, and eventually Harald applied for early retirement so he could personally supervise the work. (It was a sacrifice for him, since he wouldn’t receive retirement benefits until September of this year, when he reaches the required age.)
The Official Inauguration
MCH began functioning as soon as some wards had been equipped. And when a sponsor recently provided some much-needed cash, Harald decided that the time had come to officially inaugurate the hospital. This, he felt, would provide momentum and additional motivation for donors, friends, and personnel.
Perhaps a few members of the government would attend the inaugural ceremony, he and his helpers initially hoped. But what actually happened pleasantly surprised them. The president of the country, Dr. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, honored the occasion with his presence at the January 27, 2006, ceremony, accompanied by several government ministers, including Mrs. Abator Thomas, Minister of Health and Sanitation. In his speech President Kabbah heaped praise on Harald’s tireless efforts and expressed to him and SSLDF2 the appreciation of the government and the people of Sierra Leone.
The Spiritual Dimensions
First of all, it should be noted that a Bible is part of SSLDF’s logo, an enlarged reproduction of which appears at the entrance of the hospital. Each morning begins with a devotional, in which everyone participates—personnel and patients. Of the current personnel (2 physicians, 10 nurses, 30 assistant nurses, and 10 other employees for radiology, pharmacy, and maintenance), about half are Adventist. Dr. Sesay serves as head physician. Evangelistic campaigns are anticipated, and health education for both patients and the general community is part of MCH’s future. A church building is already planned on the compound, though the funds for it will have to be provided by sources independent of SSLDF.
During a recent meeting at the Gland church, Harald stated that “although the name is Magbenteh Community Hospital, it is an Adventist hospital. On paper, the owner is SSLDF, but God is the ultimate owner. We are just His instruments. This project is pursued to God’s glory.”
During his official speech at the hospital’s inauguration, Harald repeated those sentiments: “I want to ascribe all the glory to God, because He is the founder, the author, and also the finisher of this hospital…. It is God who runs this hospital.”
Even a dreamer endowed with a rich imagination could never have foreseen the extraordinary adventure of faith, commitment, generosity, courage, perseverance, and ultimate success of Harald Pfeiffer, a relatively small but determined man. In what direction will the “red thread” lead in the coming months and years? Only God knows.
–Pietro E. Copiz
served as education director of the Euro-Africa Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church before retiring in Gland, Switzerland.