Martyrdom in Africa

Maud is pouring afternoon tea for us up at the big house on the compound. The temperature is in the high seventies, Fahrenheit that is. The sun is about two meters over our heads. But all is well because Maud has cooked pastry rolls with sultanas in them. Later in life I learn these are called Escargots, the French pastry snails. In darkest Africa, when you are sick of eating rice, then a pastry snail is heaven. The tea and the coffee come out, and there is general chatter about the boys and girls. Maud strode into my classroom earlier that day, glaring at everyone and no-one in particular. It takes a special kind of stubbornness to be a missionary, to put in those years under the hot skies dealing with a slow moving culture and seeming incompetence at western tasks. Thirty or forty years of it, and you know too much. You haven’t forgotten your own background, you cling to it like a sacred garment. It has changed while you are away, but you don’t accept it.

Maud walked into that classroom looking for someone to cut to pieces, and Murphy Dahn happened to be there. He came out from town every day to attend mission school.

‘That Murphy Dahn, he should be beaten,’ she said without warning before turning on her heel and heading back to check that the dough was rising for the afternoon’s snack.

‘What I did, what I did?’ his wide African eyes rolling delightfully, looking like some character out of a Steven Spielberg movie on runaway slaves.

The rest of the class crack up at this superb clash of cultures. White people are so strange, even though they have all the breaks in life, all the money and the power, they are so peculiar.

The pastries are brought out. I love these pastries and will endure any religious instruction to obtain one. Maud is in full flight this afternoon having offloaded onto Murphy Dahn that morning. She is in hysterics telling us about when she and Dave, her husband, the sixty eight year old patriarch missionary, first met on the ‘mission field’. ‘Do you know what?’ she shrieks excitedly at us. ‘Do you know what Dave was like when I met him?’

This is obviously a big deal, and I’m not about to spoil it by coming out with some ridiculous comment even though it is begging to be said. There are pastries at stake. So Robyn and I munch in silence. Waiting for the blow. ‘He didn’t wear singlets under his shirt!’

She is rolling around on the couch, beside herself. Robyn looks at me, and I gingerly pull my chest in, letting my shirt droop forward so she cannot see that in the blazing African dry season neither do I wear singlets under my shirt. Dave smiles broadly, happy to accept some blame for this misdemeanor. Reveling in rebellion.

The next day we sit in church. It is a Sunday, and the men sit on one side, and the women on the other. I always grab a window seat. No air conditioners, and at least you get a view. These church meetings are classic. African ladies, worn out from a week of raising children, washing clothing at the river, planting rice, cooking meals over a fire, and the other thousand tasks of village life, tend to fall asleep on Sunday morning in church. So there is a guy at the front with a stick, prodding them awake. He runs around helping out this way.Robert is preaching. He can’t speak English, but he has class, this guy. He is a performer, he is marching up and down, really giving it to them there. We get an English interpretation from one of the schoolboys, a stiff unemotive boy who is rolling out the phrases very well. Should get a job in the diplomatic corps one day.

I happen to think Robert has gone astray in the sermon somewhere because I cannot follow his line. He started with Samson pushing down a temple and ended up with how many petticoats the women should wear. His general theme seems to be that the ladies ought to have on at least a couple of pairs in the event of a car accident. Then when rescuers come and see the bodies, living or dead, they will see this one has multiple underwear on, and know that there lies a Christian.

Thing is, the whole congregation is deep into it. Like I mean deep. They murmur assent at every finger stabbed through the air, at every spiritual lesson driven home.

Later on Robert and his wife come round for lunch. She doesn’t speak much English, and he only has about fifty words. Somehow we manage to talk for several hours, juxtaposing those fifty words around into different combinations. His wife is flat out on the sofa, snoring. We don’t mind, it is so cute watching them. I ask him if he minds if I see him during the following week. We decide on Thursday.

Come Thursday, Dave wanders down and tells me maybe I should take a couple of the boys with me if I want to visit Robert. I don’t really know why, but he says, ‘well you never know what is going to happen.’

Eventually he handpicks a couple of nice kids, friendly guys, and we pile into the Landrover. Robyn stays behind because I think well, we are only going over for an hour or so, chew the fat. No big deal. We drive on through the African bush, along the gloriously potholed roads of West Africa. The red dust, the green trees, the blue hazy sky. As we pass along a hill section, the view extends out over the endless forest, the emerald fading into the shimmering horizon, an occasional village visible as a brown patch in the middle of that unchanging scene. It is timeless.

It is wonderful being there, bouncing along in my Landrover, in a completely foreign land, thinking I am helping these people, loving their acceptance of me. They are so friendly, their wide warm smiles, their pride, their desire to be part of the white man’s world, while I, twentieth century boy, recalling Bob Dylan and Don McLean, try to tell them development is not where it’s at. As I drive my Landrover. A vehicle they can’t afford. Then we draw near to the village, and blow me down, there is Robert waiting on the outskirts for me. Waving away. Oh my, I begin to think. This is not a good sign. We welcome him into the Landrover and drive on into the compound. Park and get out. He is so enthusiastic. ‘Where is your wife?’ he is asking excitedly.’Well, she needed to do some work, she sends her apologies,’ I lie away to him.

We go for a walk. Into the forest, along the banks of the man made swamp banks that the villagers built. These enable them to reclaim rice padi land, a more efficient way of farming rice like the Asians do. It is fascinating. My learning curve is so high, absorbing all these sights, wondering if I have enough brain to store it all.

After an hour or two we wander back. Robert greets every single person he walks by. This is small town stuff of course, people he has grown up with. There are manners, politeness, etiquette and culture all tied together here. He leads me to the best house in the entire village. The evening meal will be served there. People start to crowd in as dusk comes. The picture unfolds for me. I am the honoured guest. He has arranged a large banquet in the best house in the village for me. Because I said I would visit him. The white man. I feel deeply honoured at this action, but also angry at the responsibility and fortune of my own race. We are screwing up the environment at an alarming pace of knots, and these villagers want to join our world. They take on our religion, with all its paraphernalia of churches and rules and social behaviour. God, why must it be like this? Why can’t we move ahead in Christianity? I didn’t come to Africa to be a bwana.

But the meal was great anyway. We talked like there was no tomorrow, the lights of the lanterns shining off the faces and laughs of those African men as we talked about hunting and guns and all the boyo things that men talk about the world over. I cruised home on a high, the lights of the Landrover weaving through the dark night. Felt like a drug. That is until I ran over a raccoon and the boys forced me to stop, tumbling out of the car to despatch the hapless creature before my very eyes, gleefully dragging it’s carcase back into the vehicle.

They would dine on meat the next day.

I am down at the local garage with Dave. Getting my tyre fixed. There is a lot of banter going on between the lads, but they know how to use wheel braces, so all is well. This garage, really a shed, is next door to the mosque. Islam. That religion of fanaticism. That scourge of world oil prices. The infidel. People that must be converted from their heathen ways leading them to hell.I wonder what it is like inside a mosque. I wonder what Muslims are really like.

A lady steps out of the mosque as our group is slightly dispersed, some working on the vehicle, others standing around. Somehow we start talking for a few minutes. She is wearing Islamic headgear, and the gently flowing robes of the Mandingo tribe. She is older than me.

Kindness shines from her face.

I am transfixed by her look.

She is not beautiful in a physical sense, perhaps she was pretty in her youth. She talks briefly with me, delighted that I am in their village to assist, to help the people of their district.

I watch her walk away. She seems to be the loveliest person I have met in Africa. But she is a Moslem.

The revolution was coming. Youth everywhere were emboldened to speak out about injustices. Underground newspapers appeared. It was not like New Zealand, there was deliberate corruption, blatant deceit and police buyoffs. Voting took place, but there was only one party. So I could understand why they were discontented. As I welded my Landrover back together each week, an unending requirement due to those bone shattering roads, they would tell me how they were going to line all the current leaders up against a wall. And shoot them.I was so excited. In the middle of a third world revolution. This was where the rubber met the road. Rumours started to spread. Government troops masqueraded as the opposition and created bad news scenes. The official newspapers would then print misleading stories about the atrocities committed by the rebels. But it was unstoppable. Led by an educated left wing ex professor, the revolution looked like it might change things. Justice might prevail.

But opportunism did instead. Nineteen guys led by an unknown corporal took the chance of their lives. They broke into the presidential mansion, killed a few guards, tortured the swiss bank account numbers off the aging President before cutting his throat, then declared martial law. Immediately they then shut down the radio stations and waited. Sweating it out for a couple of hours. Would the generals move?

On their part, the military leaders were in their own quandary. If they didn’t swing in behind, would they swing another way because their troops were being promised higher pay by the revolution?

And so they broke. A new government was sworn in. Nineteen jokers. That is all it took. The revolution got derailed before it hit the junction. Although the professor was invited in, it was merely to a PR position. Then that corporal knuckled down to the real job. Cementing his place in power. And the older government figures did get their day although it was on the beach, not against a wall. But it was still televised, the gruesome inhumanity of it, aged men at the receiving end of a machine gun.

Inevitably the professor fell out with the corporal, and the academic took to the bush. Guns were provided to both sides, to soldiers, then to villagers, then to twelve year olds. CNN ran stories on child platoons, their fearlessness that nothing could touch them, their coldbloodedness.

Tom and June were the most respected missionaries in the country. He had been there for thirty years, and could speak the language like a native. He earned his stripes the hard way, through rejection and stickability. Got to give it to those missionaries. Wherever they went in their later years, the peoples welcomed them and hung on their every word. Tom was a man of humility too. A man who loved to be with his African church people, to sit with them and joke and laugh.One day the rebels came and got him and June. They knew that any vehicle containing these two would have an instant passport through any roadblock in the country. Nobody else had thought of that, least of all Tom. He was put next to the driver so the government troops could see him as the jeep approached. But it didn’t get that close. As they came around the corner, the machine guns were already aimed, the deadly spray hitting the windscreen and those behind it. Legend has it that Tom managed to climb out of the stopped vehicle and speak.

‘My sons, you’ve killed your own father.’

And dropped down dead.