A Fallen Angel of MercyPrint
Did her good works expiate the sins of her dark past?
By Michela Wrong
March 5, 2018
In Full Flight: A Story of Africa and Atonement by John Heminway; Knopf, 336 pp., $27.95
Follow any contemporary television drama long enough, and you’ll notice the plot twist. Frustrated and heartbroken by a series of mishaps, a character quits the job, gives up the apartment, plans to leave forever. “Where to?” friends ask, aghast and vicariously excited. “Africa,” comes the answer, although it could just as well be Brobdingnag, El Dorado, or Mordor. What’s required is a nebulous destination offering personal obliteration.
Exile—or rather, self-exile—to Africa has become a fictive trope in the West because the continent so often served that purpose in reality. For centuries, bankrupt farmers, disillusioned soldiers-for-hire, restless explorers, and despairing preachers saw the continent as promising both a fresh beginning and resounding end.
Kenya, in particular, has been a lure for adrenaline junkies, disgraced fraudsters, and debauched aristos. General George Erskine, sent in 1953 to command British troops during the Mau Mau uprising, famously described the East African colony as “a sunny place for shady people,” adding—in a reference to the white settlers, rather than any locals—“I hate the guts of them all.”
For most of her life, no one would have dreamed of including Dr. Anne Spoerry in this category. A macho, gruff little French-born medic who had won the nickname “Mama Daktari” for her work with the Flying Doctors Service, she seemed beyond reproach. In fact, she was one of the Running-Away-to-Africa genre’s most lurid exemplars. Hers is a gem of a story, and John Heminway handles it with both empathy and investigative rigor.
By the time Heminway met Spoerry, she was in her 60s and on her way to becoming a local legend. Flying her beloved Piper Lance to remote airstrips on the shores of Lake Victoria, along the Swahili coast, and to Kenya’s bleak border with Somalia, she administered vaccines, sutured knife wounds, delivered babies, and disinfected hyena bites, doling out diagnoses as rough and ready as her flying technique.
One colleague later estimated that Spoerry had “single-handedly performed the work of a hospital,” caring for no fewer than 1.2 million Africans during 30 years of relentless work, a career part-subsidized by her considerable private income. She usually flew solo and often spent the night sleeping under her plane’s wing, thornbushes dragged around to protect the tires from scavengers.
The stuff of heroes, seemingly. But why such a self-flagellating routine? And what explained the original decision to base herself in Kenya?
As Heminway discovered, it was a choice made not out of idealism or principle, but necessity. After World War II, the young Spoerry was not welcome in Europe. A military court in Switzerland acquitted her on war crimes charges, but in 1946 a Court of Honor set up by former members of the French Resistance found her guilty of treason and inhumane behavior. She was banished from France for 25 years.
Spoerry had been born into a rich Alsatian family, attending a respectable girl’s school in London and vacationing on the Riviera and on the Swiss lakes. When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, she joined the Resistance, turning her Paris flat into a safe house for British spies. From Heminway’s account, she was clearly a brave—if incompetent—agent. Betrayed and arrested, she was sent to Ravensbrück, the infamous German concentration camp, and it was there that Spoerry seems to have lost her moral compass.
She was seized upon by a Blockova, a prisoner selected by the Gestapo for her willingness to collaborate and inform on other block inmates. Carmen Mory, who was sentenced to hang after the war, relished her role as surrogate bully. She made Spoerry—who almost certainly became her lover—a trusted accomplice.
“Fellow prisoners claimed the pair helped make death transport selections for SS guards,” writes Heminway. “When standing at Appell, the two were seen identifying prisoners they wished to have executed.” The duo’s role went further. At trial, other prisoners testified that Spoerry abused her medical training by delivering lethal injections to scores of women confined in the lunatic ward and took part in vicious beatings.
Heminway is not the first writer to set out to pen a hagiography only to discover his heroine had not so much feet of clay as a cupboard full of skeletons. In Full Flight is laced with the growing dismay of an author who may have still liked his subject by the end, but no longer revered her.
His prose can be clunky and old-fashioned—the last time I read the phrase “a buck-naked warrior” was probably in an H. Rider Haggard novel—and Heminway, who himself ran off to Africa in his teens, is rather too enamored of a raffish white Kenyan set that has already claimed more than its fair share of book titles and films. But he certainly knows how to stoke dramatic tension, expertly taking his time over the central reveal.
Most of us will never be put to the test as Spoerry was, and it’s all too easy to imagine how courageous we would prove in extremis. Behaving decently, in ordinary circumstances, is easy because it costs so little. Primo Levi’s writing stands as a brutally honest testament to how rare nobility becomes when survival is at stake. Nevertheless, it is hard to read Spoerry’s Ravensbrück record without a sense of repulsion. And wonder, too. It seems extraordinary that a woman could garner so much attention, yet keep her past so secret. Perhaps frontier communities learn to be discreet, knowing that they harbor so many insalubrious characters.
Heminway clings to the belief that Spoerry’s punishing work routine represented atonement for past sins, referring at one point to a “life sentence.” Maybe. The concept of atonement surely goes hand in hand with guilt, and while Spoerry lived in terror of being publicly exposed, her steadfast silence renders uncertain how much remorse she may have felt for the deeds themselves.
Being regarded as something approaching a living saint by thousands of African patients can’t have been unpleasant. Many less flamboyant doctors find their jobs so rewarding they would happily work till they dropped if only medical boards would allow it. Crossing the Rift Valley in a small plane, as Spoerry did repeatedly, is such an exhilarating experience that I have no trouble, either, understanding why she was determined to keep flying into her 80s, prevented from doing so only by her final stroke.
So perhaps Mama Daktari was atoning, or perhaps she simply had the luck, private funds, and foresight to invent a second life for herself, having comprehensively ruined her first.
Michela Wrong is the author of In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo and three other books about Africa.