Dr. Walter Gwenigale, former Medical Director of the Phebe Hospital near Gbarnga, Bong County, was over the weekend laid to rest on the grounds of the very hospital he loved and served with credit and distinction for so many years, nearly half a century.
How many of our so called Honorable men and women of Bong can be likened in similar stead to Dr. Gwenigale who served his county and country selflessly and with such distinction?
Mr. Kenneth Y Best, his former classmate at Cuttington, recalls that the Lutheran Church of Liberia, of which the late Dr. Gwenigale was a member, awarded him a scholarship to study medicine in Puerto Rico. Following his graduation as a medical doctor and surgeon, Dr. Gwenigale returned to Liberia to serve his people.
However, according to Mr. Best, Dr. Gwenigale was later hit with distressing news when he was informed by the Lutheran missionaries that the Lutheran Church of America, owing to high costs, could no longer afford to keep the hospital operational. Therefore they were shutting it down but would instead maintain a clinic to serve the needs of the people.
Feeling downcast and disappointed, Dr. Gwenigale sought the advice of his friend, classmate and by then his brother in-law who was a prominent journalist working with the Ministry of Information. Having listened patiently to Dr. Gwenigale’s story, Mr. Best decided to drive up to the Phebe Hospital to ascertain things for himself.
Fortunately, when Mr. Best arrived on that Saturday, he met the hospital’s Board Meeting already in progress discussing the fate of the Phebe Hospital. He sat in the Board meeting patiently, listening carefully to the ongoing discussions.
At the end of the meeting he held discussions with hospital staff which was followed by discussions with local residents of the area on what the closure of the hospital would have meant to them. He then returned to Monrovia and wrote a story which appeared in two local dailies, the Liberian Star and the Daily Listener.
President Tolbert, upon reading the story, sent for his Minister of Health, Oliver Bright and inquired of him whether he had seen the story and he answered no. He (President Tolbert) followed with a question asking how much was required per annum to run the hospital. But the answer was right there already, in the story Mr. Best had written.
Right away, according to informed sources, President Tolbert commanded the Health Minister to write to the Minister of Finance, Stephen Tolbert, instructing him to find the money to keep the hospital open and running. “Phebe Hospital shall not close down” the President is said to have declared. And true to his word, the Phebe Hospital was not closed down, thanks to Dr. Gwenigale’s simple but honest lamentations to a true friend.
But President Tolbert, as leader of the nation, was fully aware of the range of services that Phebe hospital was providing to not only people of Bong County, but other nearby counties and much further afield from neighboring Guinea. More to that, President Tolbert had a close relationship with the people of Bong County.
He had established a very large rubber farm at Gbalatuah, near the border with Guinea and had sired several children by native Kpelle women. With Phebe as the only referral hospital serving central Liberia, it was only natural, therefore, that some of his relatives would have sought good but affordable treatment there.
And Dr. Gwenigale kept his promise by remaining true and faithful to the cause of Phebe Hospital, the people of Bong County and the people of Liberia. He never abandoned the hospital even during the civil war except for one occasion. It was when he fled to a secret location away from the hospital after having been warned of an impending attack on the hospital by fighters of the Taylor led National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL).
The NPFL, in 1994, attacked the hospital killing doctors, nurses, staff and patients alike. Media accounts of the Phebe Massacre, as it came to be known, said the mother of female activist and former local head of ActionAid Liberia Korto Reeves Williams and both parents of Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor were among those massacred on the grounds of the hospital.
They were all buried in a mass grave on the same Phebe Compound where Dr. Gwenigale was laid to final rest. Dr. Gwenigale’s funeral ceremony was attended by an array of distinguished personalities including former Vice President Joseph Boakai.
However, notably absent, according to informed sources, was Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor. Neither were any of her sisters including the one who currently serves as Deputy Minister of Health. And lest it be forgotten, Dr. Gwenigale also served as Minister of Health of Liberia.
Her absence (Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor), according to observers, was due to what they called burdens of the prolonged 14 yr. civil war, a failure — a deliberate refusal to come to terms with the past — a failure to acknowledge that forces loyal to her husband condemned and sent her parents and others to their early graves. But the Vice President does not stand alone in the ranks of the remorseless.
There are others as well, some of whom have since departed this earth without ever having to account, while others continue to occupy high offices and share podiums and high tables with powerful world leaders- the movers and shakers of this world.
Disappointingly, former Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor who also hails from Sanoyea District as Dr. Gwenigale, was notably absent from his funeral and interment. Did she, as some suggest, fail to show up because she is yet in a state of denial failing to come to terms with the fact that it was armed men loyal to her husband Charles Taylor who murdered her parents, nurses, doctors, staffs and patients at the hospital?
Nonetheless, the people, ordinary people of Bong County and others from afar turned out in their numbers to pay homage and last respects to a revered son.
Adieu Dr. Gwenigale, revered and respected servant of Bong County and Liberia!