(Photo – Rufaro Mission house in 1949)
During the last years of my mother, Florence Wilson’s life, she recorded many of the experiences that our family dealt with in the early years as a missionary family in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Africa. This week I received a “treasured gift” from my eldest sister Suzanne Coetzee. She sent me copies of mother’s hand-written notes that had been transcribed into a typed document. Many of the accounts that she recorded I have already shared in some of my “Nuggets”.
As I poured over her memories, life as a child in Rhodesia became alive in my own heart. Reading my mother’s own words was such a moving experience and I felt like a window into my own early upbringing had been cracked open bringing profound joy to my soul. I want to share with my readers my mother’s account as our family moved from the very isolated Mission station called Gobatema to what would become my second home on Rufaro Mission.
In 1949, the General Superintendent of the church came up from Johannesburg, South Africa for a visit to Gobatema Mission. While there he told my parents that their Headquarters in South Africa had bought an old farm with farm buildings on it, located in the low-veld area of Southern Rhodesia. He went on to say that as the work at Gobatema was well establish and had several trained missionaries on staff, he felt that my parents were the ones who should go head up this new Mission Station. This place was a full day’s hard journey from Gobatema Mission.
My parents decided to visit the place before making a final decision.
The name of the derelict farm was “Rufaro” which in the Shona language means “joyful” Mother records that upon arriving there they found that the place was “anything but joyful”!
The old house was so dilapidated that the windows were falling out and the bats were flying in and out at will. The floors were dried mud except for one bedroom, that had the broken remnants of cracked cement flooring that heaved up and down when it was walked on. The doors were hanging askew on their hinges. In other words, the apology for a house was unlivable especially for a family with two young girls. My sister Suzanne was 7 years old and I was 5 years old. Our eldest brother, Lawrence would remain at Boarding School in Bulawayo.
The next reality check came when my parents asked where the toilet facilities were. The family was told to take a path outside the kitchen door and wend our way up the rocky hill, where we would find it. So, the family gingery picked our way up the very rocky path, keeping a sharp eye on each place we stepped because this was a snake’s paradise! To our horror, we saw a door-less hut with a box over a big gaping hole and another big hole to catch the overflow. Very hygienic, l must say!
Mother decided to cook something to eat as we saw an old wood stove tucked into a huge big chimney in the so called “kitchen”. After much coaxing, plus a lot of prayer and elbow grease, mother got the semblance of a stove going. Leaning into the black hole of the chimney opening, that the stove stood in, was an exercise in futility. Black smoke belched into my mother’s face, filling the kitchen and choking us all. The meal was a total disaster. Right then mother declared that if the family moved to Rufaro then the good wood stove that she cooked on at Gobatema was coming with us! The Full Gospel church in Mars Hill, Maine had provided enough money to buy a beautiful stove for mother to cook on and she wasn’t about to part with it.
While there was still sufficient light our little family left the depressing house, to explore what lay outside the house. We walked among the beautiful Eucalyptus trees and the cedars that towered alongside the house. Then we walked through a large orchard of fragrant Lemon, Orange and Tangerine trees.
The peace of the place descended on us. What a contrast in beauty to the surroundings of Gobatema Mission, which was barren except for some Mahogany trees and scrub bush. Gobatema house was built on the top of a hill which was nothing but rocks and it was virtually impossible to grow a plant of any kind. So being among so many trees was a touch of Eden to us.
My parents felt a stirring in their hearts that despite its inhospitable living conditions, there was immense potential to make the place become something good and live up to its name Rufaro, meaning “joyful”. The need for teaching and guidance was very evident and they felt strongly that God was leading them there to do a work for Him.
The farm bordered on an African Tribal Trust Land of 54,000 acres. It would be a mission field right on our doorstep!
The family returned Gobatema with a great vision for the new open door. There was much consternation among the missionaries, when Dad announced that we were moving.
Moving to what?
A Derelict house and a rundown farm?
My parents did not look at the present state of things but to the future, to what it could be.
We loaded up the 5-ton Mission truck with our few bits and pieces plus my mother’s most prized possession, the beautiful wood stove! After a long tedious journey in the big truck, we arrived at dusk, weary and hungry. Having no electricity, we all pitched in to hurriedly unload the necessary things before night settled upon us. There is no twilight in Africa.
Suzanne and I pitched in carrying smaller things that we could manage. Suddenly the air was pierced by a shriek coming from mother, as she was going up the steps with an armful of things, a snake slithered across in front of her into the long uncut grass.
What a welcome!
The Africans would say that it was a “good omen” for it meant that one of our ancestors had welcomed us to our new home! Mother’s encounter with the snake shook her up a bit and she comment to Dad: “Is this what I must-expect in this unkempt place? What about our children playing among the trees and through the grass?” Dad re-assured her that those fears were just the whisperings of the enemy. God had sent us there and He would look after us, no matter what hardships we as a family had to endure.
Mother already knew the condition of the dilapidated stove, so she had prepared a meal that could be eaten cold. We off loaded a small tea wagon and a little oil burning camp stove which was fine for making tea. In the light of a candle we ate our meagre first meal sitting on grass mats placed on the dirt floor. This new chapter in the life of our family would prove to be a great challenge to our faith and trust in God!
First order of business was to make a suitable place for us to sleep on our first night. Before we even set up our few bits of furniture, the African Teacher that we brought with us, insisted that she first clean the floors. Quickly she ran to the pasture and got a pan of fresh cow manure. Watering it down until she could make a paste out of it, she began to smear it on the floors like wax, after having covered all the floors with the manure paste, she let it dry. Then she swept out the residue. With a big smile, she announced to the family that the floors were now clean! Together we gave thanks to God for bringing us safely to our new home and even gave thanks for the “clean” floors!
It was decided that Suzanne and I would sleep out on the open veranda (porch) until a suitable bedroom could be prepared for us. There was no money available to make repairs to the house, so our makeshift bedroom, the veranda, became our sleeping quarters for some time and when it rained mother covered us with raincoats!
We two girls were having the adventure of our lives!
The old farm did have a herd of cattle that gave a pint or two of milk each, so Dad decided to save the cream and sell it to get money to repair the house. It proved to be a success and eventually the house began to take on a fresh look as Dad lay cement floors and repaired windows and leaks.
There were old sacking bags draped over the rafters to act like a ceiling and they were rotten causing dust, dirt, along with scorpions and insects to fall through the holes. It was quickly decided to pull all those rotten sackcloth bags down. The first night after accomplishing this task, mother felt something run across her chest. It was a scorpion. It stung her on her arm before she could kill it. God’s protection was true, as other than a bit of pain mother was not harmed. Obviously by tearing down the sacking we had disturbed a nest of scorpions!
In due course the house was becoming quite livable.
We still did not have a bathroom or toilet. So, Dad built a small toilet, outside the house, near the kitchen. Then he placed a large tank on its roof, built a septic tank and finally installed a flush-able toilet. This was luxury indeed! No more climbing the hill or being on the alert for snakes, and we had running water too. Mind you, the water had to be carried from the well in a bucket and up a ladder to the roof and poured into the tank but it was a vast improvement from the door-less shack on the side of the rocky hill!
God had proved Himself so faith during these tough times of adjustment but my parents’ faith was strong. They believe that He would continue to work miracles as they poured their hearts into the lives of the people God had called them to minister to.
They “modeled” their faith to us children in such a way, that to this day, their sacrificial examples are imprinted deep within my character.
Do you wonder now why my heart belongs to Africa? Especially after you read the idyllic childhood I had where God’s love and provision reigned supreme in our home.
My heart is full as I look back over the years and am truly humbled that God called me and my husband, Glyn, to follow in the footsteps that our Godly parents walk before us!
The scripture is so true: Proverbs 22:6 (NKJV) “Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it.”