Dr. Robert Mofett. The unique opportunity

At age 84, he thanks God for the almost unique opportunity to have worked as a doctor for sixty years in Africa.  He shares with us his story. 

I was born in the North of England. For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a doctor and to go to Africa more specifically, Uganda. On qualifying as a medical doctor, I wrote to a London-based organisation, the “Sword of the Spirit”, an organisation, which in the 1960s placed voluntary workers in different climes and I indicated that I wished for a posting in a Catholic mission hospital in Uganda. “No vacancies” was the response, but there were opportunities in Ghana and South Africa. At that time, Ghana was in upheaval, coming to terms with its recently acquired independence, and Apartheid in South Africa was reason enough not to consider it, so my response to both, was a “no, thank you.”

However, the “Sword of the Spirit” persisted: “Would you consider a short-term commitment to South Africa, say three years?” A Comboni Bishop Anton Reiterer from Witbank Diocese had recently visited their office saying there was a desperate need for a second doctor for his 250-bed hospital: the present incumbent was alone and under considerable strain. I could not resist the challenge and I immediately took up the offer.  I was only 23 years old and my medical experience was limited to my academic training and my one-year internship in the Teaching Hospital.

On 3 September 1960 I was met at the airport in Johannesburg by Fr Frans Koch, Rector of a large mission, Glen Cowie, set in what was then Northern Transvaal (now Limpopo Province), about 70 km from Lydenburg in the northernmost province of South Africa.
The mission was established in 1927, it was comprised of a large productive farm, a mill, a large market garden, all to support a dynamic missionary outreach with schools, a boarding establishment and a 225-bed hospital together with a nurses’ training school.

St Rita’s hospital began very modestly with a Spanish Loreto nun, Sister Rita, acquiring a widespread reputation as a dentist. The missionary priests and brothers were of the Comboni congregation and the supporting nuns, Loreto Sisters. There was also a specifically instituted congregation for African nuns.

The lone doctor and medical superintendent was German Dr Kurt Huebner. He was rather surprised on my arrival at the mission that he made no particular effort to make my acquaintance. However, the joy and excitement of youth was with me and my reception at the mission by the priests and nuns was most heart-warming.  I was very pleasantly accommodated in a small flat next to the TB block and recall that on my first night, there was no twinge of homesickness. I felt totally happy and certain that I had made the correct decision. The naive innocence of youth!

Soon, I enjoyed the medical work immensely. The patients were chiefly women and children as the majority of able-bodied men were away working in the mines in Johannesburg and perhaps only came home once or twice a year at the principal holidays of Easter and Christmas. The maternity unit was very busy with over 1 000 deliveries every year. The hospital was a registered training school under the direction of Loreto nuns, a matron, Sr Deirdre and a Sister tutor, Sr Jacinta. It was an outstanding school and the many hundreds of African nurses trained over the years have surely had a lasting, uplifting effect on society in general.

My own work was multifaceted: diseases of children predominating with diarrhoea and chest infections very common. However, the maternity department provided many alarming moments, as the majority of women had not attended any antenatal examinations and only presented when they were in actual labour. Tuesday was set aside for operations that were within our competence, many gynaecological procedures, tonsillectomies, fractures and in the cold months, severe burns. It was a demanding medical initiation and Huebner left me to do the majority of the work, having given me some very basic instructions.

Fortunately, there was a ready supply of textbooks, each one dealing with a special aspect of our work. There were many outstation clinics, mostly held under a convenient tree, on appointed days, every day except Tuesday. The clinics could be extremely busy, occasionally up to 500 patients being seen on a single day, quite apart from the number seen in the hospital outpatients.

Two years later,  Dr.Huebner and his family—he had a wife and four children— decided to return to Germany. I had a spell of leave in England where all my friends had married in my absence and on my return to Glen Cowie felt that the chances of my finding some like-minded partner in the bush were rather limited! I vaguely toyed with the idea of joining a secular Institute, without any strong vocational sense, when a most remarkable event occurred.

Quite unknown to me, a young German girl had had an enthusiasm for coming out to Africa as a mission worker while she was waiting for one year before completing her pharmacy degree at the University of Münster. Her father, a pharmacist, had been a generous benefactor to some missionary priests in South Africa. One of them visited  Hadmud’s father to thank him for his generosity as a benefactor, and planted the seeds of working particularly in South Africa as a mission worker in Hadmud’s mind—a great need for young people, and so on! However, when Hadmud arrived, aged 22 at Jan Smuts airport, she was in for a shock: “What are we going to do with you?” said the priest.  A panic compromise was reached: Hadmud would work as a cleaner in the white maternity hospital in Johannesburg!

After six weeks of questioning what on earth she was doing in Africa, the priest leant on her ear and suggested she work for him as a housemaid in his newly built house in Groblersdal. She was occasionally given the opportunity to visit outlying villages with him, providing very basic medical services, but not surprisingly, quite soon tongues began to wag, with an attractive young girl staying in the house of a Catholic priest, so another move was necessary.

One of the priest’s friends was staying in Glen Cowie learning Sepedi. Hadmud had met him in Germany, so she demanded to be taken to him to discuss her future. Groblersdal was 70 km from Glen Cowie, pitted sand roads marking the way. That is when my new life began.  When a tearful Hadmud arrived in Glen Cowie to explain her predicament, I happened to be in the vicinity and suggested she could perhaps be employed in the hospital pharmacy.

This appeared to be an acceptable solution and within a couple of days, Hadmud found a meaningful life in Africa. She showed herself a most proficient assistant when I performed operations and on occasions when I was unable to travel to clinics, Hadmud deputised for me. She acquired remarkable dental skills. There were varying numbers of doctors after Huebner departed, sometimes two or three and on one occasion, I was alone for six months. Apart from helping me in my medical work, Hadmud would spend some hours alone in an isolated village, instructing a woman in the management of her second-hand knitting machine.

Within a few months of Hadmud’s arrival, we were engaged and within a year, married in Germany. Medical and family life thereafter, followed a course of delightful, uninterrupted normality, blessed with the arrival of four delightful children. Doctors of varying degrees of enthusiasm and commitment came and went, and the hospital and the nurses’ training school acquired an enviable reputation in the area. But after 14 years working at Saint Rita’s, life began to change.

The Government was intensifying its Apartheid policy and, in 1974, decided it was time for the so-called Homelands to take over management of certain vital portfolios, specifically hospitals and roads. As our four children, one after the other, approached school age and only boarding school was an option, it was clear to Hadmud and I, that events were coinciding so that, in spite of our youthful, naïve commitment to work indefinitely in the mission field, our time was coming to an end. We decided to return to England, where, as an only son, felt I needed to be close to my elderly parents.

Our return to England, necessary as it was at the time, was not particularly fulfilling after our challenging, exciting years in Africa. Medical life was rushed and boring and Hadmud found it very difficult to settle in a foreign clime. My mother died unexpectedly, and my father took up the idea that he should accompany us back to South Africa. Fortunately, the change was not too great for him at 77, for he and my mother had visited the large mission at Mariannhill several times and I obtained a post as a medical officer in Saint Mary’s Hospital. Quite a change from the rural hospital setting I had been used to. I worked there happily for five years until the arrival of our fifth child brought more practical issues to the fore and at age 48, I joined a local general practice and worked there happily for another 35 years.

At age 84, I am now in my second retirement year, thanking the good Lord for the many exciting years Hadmud and I have shared and the almost unique opportunity to work together for so long in the very special missionary environment that was Glen Cowie, an everlasting memory. I was made a Knight of St Sylvester in 1974. A Knight of St Sylvester is an honour conveyed directly by the Pope on the advice of a Bishop to honour Roman Catholic lay people who have been actively involved in the life of the Church particularly as it is exemplified in the exercise of their professional duties. I have always regretted that there was not a similar honour for Hadmud.