Written by Marjolein Westerterp; OOG VOOR AFRIKA Magazine
“I want to continue to work for the greater good of mankind until my last breath. That’s where I get my strength and energy from,” Harold Robles (2019). Harold then had been diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer. Initially, his illness could not hold him back. “My job is not finished yet; there is still so much to do in the work I live for. In Africa, my team says I will live to be at least 100 years old. My father was 94 years old, and my mother passed away when she was 86 years old. So, I still have at least 30 years to go, and I still have an awful lot to do in this world. Heaven will have to wait!”.
However, heaven was not as patient as Harold had hoped. His last public appearance was on 8 July 2020 when he attended a presentation of the “Harold’s wine” of the African Wines in Scheveningen, the Netherlands. On July 31st, he breathed his last, and on August 8, a hundred relatives and friends accompanied him on his last journey.
During his travels, Harold always carried a special card with him. It had been given to him by Mother Teresa. A card with a dried rose. At home on his desk, he kept another relic; a jar of African soil received from Nelson Mandela… “So that I would always have Africa with me”, he once remarked of this gift.
OOG VOOR AFRIKA, a Dutch based newspaper, spoke to Harold two weeks before his death. Frail as he was, his voice was “full of fire” when it came to the Health Promoters and the chance for a better life for the people he has fought for all his life, in imitation of his great idol, Albert Schweitzer.
A Jewish boy born and raised in Paramaribo, Suriname, Harold made a choice at the age of eight to go the humanitarianism way, thanks to a story about Albert Schweitzer he heard from his elementary school teacher. His destiny in life was discovered there and then. In 2019 he celebrated his 50th anniversary of selfless service to the world. “The work I have been doing for 50 years is largely based on the philosophy of Albert Schweitzer. In essence,
he called it: Reverence for life. His philosophy was based on the statement ‘I am life that wants to live, in the midst of life that wants to live’. And this is also my sacred mission. Unfortunately, I have to say that we have not understood Schweitzer’s plea for harmony. We still have no respect for life. We squander it.”
Reference for life
Harold was the eldest of three sons. “As a child I was always trying to find ways to help others. My brother still calls me the “the professor” because of my investigative attitude. I remember very well that the teacher at school read a story from ‘the Libelle’ (a dutch magazine), about the German philosopher, theologian, doctor and musician Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer went to Africa and had set up a medical center with his wife who was a nurse. I was so impressed with that story, wanted to be like him. The teacher asked us to write an essay explaining what Albert Schweitzer meant to us, so I started want he meant to me. The core of my argument was that one man can make a difference in the lives of many others. I had found my calling. Like Albert Schweitzer, I wanted to serve those in need.
At home I kept talking about that important man in Africa who did so many wonderful things there. At one point my father said: “Harold, if you love that man so much, why don’t you write him a letter?” Could that just happen? I wondered. With the help of my father, I wrote a letter in German, and we sent it to the hospital in Africa. In the letter I wrote that I would do odd jobs and send the money I earned to Schweitzer. I also wrote that when I grow up, I wanted to come to him and work for him as a doctor. To my surprise, I got a letter back after six months. Albert Schweitzer wrote that I was very welcome of course, but that I had to finish my school first. I was so delighted.”
And how did you end up in Africa?
‘At the age of 14 we moved with our family to the Netherlands. There I founded the Dutch Albert Schweitzer Center. In 1981 I emigrated to the United States, where I founded the Albert Schweitzer Institute for the Humanities (ASIH) with Albert Schweitzer’s daughter, Rhena Schweitzer Miller. This organization was committed to putting Schweitzer’s philosophy into practice around the world. Years later, I started the Health Promotion South Africa Trust, together with my good friend Dr. Jelle Braaksma. Health Promotions South Africa is focused on health education based on the idea that healthcare is a universal human right. The head office is located in Kayamandi near Cape Town in South Africa.”
It sounds so simple, but it wasn’t. Harold was like a bulldozer trying to reach his goal at all costs. He tirelessly traveled the world to provide help where it was needed and to win people to his cause. At Desmond Tutu’s request, he founded the Health Promoters that are active in South Africa, ‘but eventually all over the world if it’s up to me. The biggest mistake we’ve ever made is bringing suitcases full of medicines to Africa. A suitcase with education would have been better. Then there wouldn’t have been so much AIDS and other misery now.”
He said it several times: “Health education is a human right. The poor in South Africa also need to know what they can do to prevent preventable diseases. I believe in the power of the people. We make use of the talents that are available. We increase self-reliance through education. And that is desperately needed because the situation in South Africa is anything but prosperous. Two generations have had little or no education because of the Apartheid regime. It is a country of great wealth and unprecedented poverty. First and third worlds exist side by side, sometimes merge into one another. Diseases that can be prevented with good prevention and education, such as diarrhea, TB and AIDS are leaving a devastating trail through the country. 900 people die every day. That’s three planes full. And all because for years we have done our best to keep the people there stupid. They could have been saved if we had taught them.”
In his office, you could see him in photos with such luminaries as Mikhail Gorbachev, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, human rights activist Bianca Jagger, anthropologist Jane Goodall, the Dalai Lama and opera singer Luciano Pavarotti. Two large folders, which he called The Happy Files, contain correspondence with Mother Theresa, former presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, many US senators and Nobel laureates such as chemist Linus Pauling, actress Jane Alexander and Coretta Scott King, the wife by Dr. Martin Luther King. ‘With Health Promoters, we provide basic training to mothers, the elderly, young people and children in collaboration with other organizations. We want to teach people how to get and stay healthy, so that they can be of great economic value to their country later on. “We do this in several countries and more will be added in the coming years. Thanks to all the friends of the Health Promoters led by Regina Eggink in the Netherlands and George Arrey in South Africa . I can’t do it anymore, but I look to the future with confidence. The organization will mature even more than now, create jobs and thereby generate financial security for the future. For example, I firmly believe in the successful golf events that Regina has set up in the Netherlands.”
How do you shape respect for life?
“For me, that means promoting health education. Corona shows how important attention to health and hygiene is. Prevention makes us aware of what our body needs. We are doing too little about it, more needs to be done. And listen, children are the future, but we need to educate parents about health and hygiene so that they can ensure that their children are healthy. What I would most like to achieve is a health education chain from Cape Town to Cairo. Provide young women across the continent with health education, enabling them to pass on their knowledge to others. We have planted the seed with the Health Promoters and that can now start to spread. We have shown that it really works.”
Does that make you proud?
Hesitant. “Yes, it makes me proud, it makes me happy, but it also makes me sad that I have to get out so soon. That I can no longer see what I have caused.” His voice breaks for a moment. “But luckily it’s in good hands.”
Couldn’t you have done better?
“Everything can always be better, but I am proud that I already saw it at the time in the Schweitzer hospital in Lambaréné (Gabon); the importance of health education. I understood at a very early stage that this would be the key to a better society. For a healthy economy you need healthy people. That is why it was better that I did not become a doctor, but a health scientist. I am proud of my honorary doctorate, Doctor of Public Health. Health education should be hoisted on a statue, that’s how you save people. Where many others do not see a future or possibilities, I do see them. This is my mission, my life. I can’t do otherwise. Africa is in my blood, my bones, my dreams, but above all in my DNA. I still have so much to do. I want to finish what Albert Schweitzer started and hope that when my time comes, others will be ready to take over. That I have inspired people the way Schweitzer has inspired me.”
How do you look back on your life? Are you happy with the opportunities you’ve had and taken? With what you have meant to other people?
“Of course, it’s sad to know that your days are numbered, but I’m happy with the life I’ve been able to lead. I made a lot of friends, experienced a lot of suffering, known a lot of grief. But I’m happy with everything I’ve been able to do. I did it because I am convinced that there is something between heaven and earth. And by the certainty that the philosophy of Albert Schweitzer will take us much further. There is always one person in your life who makes the difference, for me it was him. I hope that I have also been able to make a difference in the lives of others, that I too have made a difference in my own way. Fortunately, I am absolutely not afraid of death. If he knocks, I’ll be there.”
Who do you hope to meet on the other side?
“People with whom I would like to chat further. Certainly, Archbishop Tutu if he goes to heaven too. Gorbachev, with him I have lived unforgettable times. At the time, he appointed me chairman of the Gorbachev Foundation for Children’s Health in Chernobyl. But I would also like to see my old schoolteacher to thank her for putting me on my path with her story about Schweitzer. And Mandela, of course.”
Are you going to have a nice glass of wine with them?
“Very well, but with Schweitzer you drink tea, with Mandela you drink red and with Desmond Tutu you drink white wine.”
Do you bring your own bottles?
“Yeah, of course I have to treat myself to the Harold’s Wines there.”
Thank you for who you are, Harold.
“I want to thank you. I have enormous respect for the way in which you bring Africa to Europe with your magazine. OOG VOOR AFRIKA is the best magazine I’ve seen in my life. Really! You have given Africa a voice and a face in Europe. I hope it will be available in English someday. I wish you every success and I am proud that you stand for what you believe in. Never give up. Thank you so much.”
We also thank you, Harold Robles, from the bottom of our hearts for allowing us to know you and walk part of your way with you. We will not abandon the Health Promoters, your life’s work. Out of respect for life.
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