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The Desert Doctor

As we approach the Christmas one may ponder the challenge of living by Jesus’s example. Of course the Bible is full of passages about our sinful nature, e.g. (Romans 3:23): “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

There are, nonetheless, at least a few among us who do stand out for their humility, service and seeming ability to perform miracles. One such figure that comes to mind in this season of giving is the late Rev. Dr. Alfred Musgrave Merriweather (1918-99). For five and a half decades the “Desert Doctor” devoted himself tirelessly to the collective body and soul of Batswana.

Also known “Rramosesesane” (“the thin one”) and “RaBoitumelo” (“father of Joy”: his daughter), Merriweather among other things served as a member of the Legislative Council before becoming the first Speaker of Parliament, was the founding President of the Botswana Medical Association and in 1979-80 held the position of Moderator (Worldwide Leader) of the United Free Church of Scotland.

But, he is best remembered for his local efforts to bring health to all, as reflected in his pioneering mobile health clinics and 1955-56 nationwide inoculation campaign.

While his 1999 autobiography, Desert Doctor Remembers, contains a fuller account of his life, the following is from his reminiscences collected by this author for his 1994 Golden Jubilee in Botswana:

 “I remember at Dutlwe how the small mud walled church was set out as a clinic with our bottles of medicine and our dressing and injection table, seeing a large number of patients and then at midday, having seen the last patient we would transform this clinic into a church and I would change into my clericals and bring my mind from medical matters to spiritual ones as the eager congregation, small of course in numbers, would listen intently to the preaching and wait with hungry hearts for the sacrament and communion. Then quickly we would be up and away west to Motokwe and Tsetseng.”

At first lack of money and transport constrained Merriweather’s efforts. His first expeditions were made in the “ancient three ton Chevrolet” of a Molepolole blacksmith named Fourie. There were lively moments:

“After struggling all day through deep sand, a front spring broken by a fall in an ant bear hole bound up with wire, we stopped at Boritse pan in the twilight, and there standing looking at us was a huge lioness with tail erect. Fourie ran quick for his torch and gun, asking the quaking Morutwana Mogwe to hold the light on the animal, which in a few seconds disappeared.”

A breakthrough occurred in 1954 when the World Health Organisation (W.H.O.) agreed to finance Merriweather’s ambitious proposal to eradicate Endemic Syphilis, commonly known ka Setswana as “dichuchwa”,

through a Protectorate wide campaign using the then new wonder drug penicillin.

The doctor had contributed to the scientific identification of this disease, which is similar to Venereal Syphilis, but not spread by sexual contact. In Molepolole he found that the sero-positive rate was 30%, rising to a staggering 70% in some Kgalagadi communities. With the W.H.O. support he planned to give every Botswana resident an injection.

To facilitate this goal his church relieved him of his normal responsibilities for two years. From Molepolole the inoculation campaign was initially carried across the Southern half of the Protectorate including the remotest communities in the Kgalagadi district.

This gruelling tour was also the Desert Doctor’s “honeymoon”. Before setting off he had married Miss Winifred Ashby, who had been a missionary teacher at Tiger Kloof. Fortunately for the young couple W.H.O. had allocated to the project a “Caboose”, as well as two Chevrolet four wheel drive vans. Locally constructed by P.W.D. workshop in Gaborone, the Caboose consisted of a large cabin mounted on a 5 ton Bedford chassis. Inside were two bunks, a folding table, some drawers and cupboards. Winifred is said to have turned this modest luxury into a true home on wheels, though it was hardly easy going:

“Travel was hard, especially in the Kalahari areas where there were few roads; we often stuck deep in the sand having to dig the Caboose out; we cut thick bush in places to allow the Caboose to pass; after rain we stuck in mud; we stopped to shoot a hartebeest or springbok now and again for food and we slept where we happened to be.”

In October 1955 the Merriweathers spent 3 months in Gammangwato. The Serowe D.C., Bruce Rutherford, had predicted failure as the Bangwato were still waging a non-cooperation campaign in protest against the enforced exile of Seretse and Ruth Khama. But, probably for the first time since the 1953 riot, a large crowd turned out at the Serowe kgotla to see the Ngaka.

On the first day alone over 2,000 injections were given. The Merriweathers arrived home in Molepolole on Christmas Eve. There it soon became clear that the doctor was needed at the Hospital. In 1956 a government medical officer was seconded to complete the campaign in Ngamiland, Chobe, and the Northeast. Endemic Syphilis was thus virtually eliminated, along with many other afflictions. In his later years Merriweather also credits the tour with bringing him “closer to Botswana life.”

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