Adrian Atiman was a saintly doctor-catechist who worked for 67 years in and around Karema, western Tanzania. He was born at Tundurma on the river Niger in what is today Mali. His father was called Jucda and his mother, Tandumosa and were probably Muslims. He was less than ten years old when he was captured and enslaved by Tuareg raiders who sold him to an Arab in Timbuktu. In 1876 he was ransomed for three hundred francs, along with five other African children, by a Missionary of Africa (White Father) who found him in a slave market in northern Algeria. He was taken to Algiers where he met Cardinal Lavigerie, founder of the Missionaries of Africa, who arranged for his education. Lavigerie himself baptized the teenager in 1882. Shortly afterwards, he was sent to a medical institute in Malta to study for a diploma in medicine as part of Lavigerie’s scheme for training doctor-catechists. Atiman spent seven years in Malta, after which he made a pilgrimage to Rome and had an audience with Pope Leo XIII.
In 1888 Atiman, now aged 23, and two other Malta graduates joined the seventh caravan of the Missionaries of Africa to Equatorial Africa. From Zanzibar, the missionaries crossed to Sadani on mainland Tanzania where they joined a caravan led by Charles Stokes, then still a member of the Anglican Church Missionary Society. The journey was made on foot to Tabora and Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika. Karema, formerly known as “Fort Leopold” had been a settlement of Leopold II’s International African Association. It was relinquished to the Missionaries of Africa after the 1885 Berlin Conference designated Lake Tanganyika as the eastern border of the Congo Free State. Barely six months after his arrival at Karema, Atiman married Agnes Wansahira, daughter of Mwami Mrundi, Chief of the Bende tribe on September 5th 1889. This marriage which was seen as a political alliance between the Catholic mission and the Bende was not an entirely happy one, but, to the great joy of his parents, their only child, Joseph, was ordained a Catholic priest in 1923. Agnes died in 1939.
Although Atiman began his medical apostolate within days of his arrival at Karema, he was obliged to join the Christian militia and was caught up in skirmishes with slave traders in the Karema area during his first five years there. In 1894 he personally welcomed the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa (“White Sisters”) to Karema, and worked closely with them in the medical apostolate thereafter. In 1897 he was posted to Zimba where he helped to found the Catholic mission, but returned two years later to Karema, when he was asked to start a catechist training centre at nearby Usoa. This school had an eventual enrolment of sixty pupils. He also trained nurses to help him in his Karema clinic. Atiman used western medicine, but also experimented successfully with traditional remedies. On the silver jubilee of his arrival at Karema, Atiman was awarded the papal medal Pro ecclesia et Pontifice. In his old age Atiman was much decorated, receiving the Legion of Honour from the French government, the papal Bene Merenti medal, and several British awards, among them the Wellcome Medal in 1955, the first African to be so honoured.
Aylward Shorter M.Afr.
John Kabeya,* Daktari Adriano Atiman * (Tabora: TMP Book Department and Arusha, Eastern Africa Publications, 1978).
R. Fouquer, Le Docteur Adrien Atiman (Karema: Spes Publications, no date).
Walter Breedveld, Atiman der Negerdokter bij het Tanganyikameer (Gottmer, Nijmegen, The Netherlands, no date).
This article, submitted in 2003, was researched and written by Dr. Aylward Shorter M.Afr., Emeritus Principal of Tangaza College Nairobi, Catholic University of Eastern Africa.