(My mother, Florence Wilson, treating a baby with burns at Gobatema Mission, S. Rhodesia, Africa 1939)
The heritage a family passes on from one generation to another is not to be taken lightly. The investment that we pour into our children as parents and grandparents has life long lasting effects on the generation that follows. We do make a difference in the lives of our extended family whether we realize it or not. Only once an individual looks back, do they see the fingerprints of their parents and grandparents that molded their character. I consider that I have the richest heritage anyone could ask for and I am so deeply thankful for the values and life lessons my parents instilled in me from a small child.
My parents, Willard and Florence Wilson left Mars Hill, Maine in 1939 with their one-year-old son, Lawrence, to sail to Africa in answer to God’s calling to serve as missionaries in Southern Rhodesia, (now Zimbabwe). They sailed from St. John, New Brunswick, Canada arriving in Cape Town, South Africa in May 1939. Then they had an arduous 1,500 mile journey inland, to reach Gobatema Mission in Southern Rhodesia.
It must have been a torturous journey negotiating dirt roads, crossing low level bridges or dry river beds plus, protecting themselves and their infant son from wild animals when they stopped to rest at night. Added to the challenges of the primitive conditions they were traveling under, they also were dealing with a massive climate adjustment. When they sailed from the harbor in St. John’s it was 35 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The deeper they journey inland to Southern Rhodesia the more they became aware of the stifling tropical heat. I can only imagine what it must have been like for my young mother trying to be strong, brave and committed to stand at the side of her husband while caring for a year-old baby in a totally strange land; where they could not even speak the language of the local people!
It took determination and grit born out of a pioneer upbringing in Houlton, Maine along with a passion to carry the good news of the Gospel to unreached tribes that kept my mother focused on her goal.
My parents finally arrived at the very small town of Gwanda. They were met by my Dad’s elder brother, Bill Wilson, who would lead them to the very isolated and remote Mission. Once they left Gwanda and headed into the bush what vestige of civilization there was, quickly disappeared. Not even a road lay before them; just a bush track. The last leg of the long journey was negotiating the semi dry Tuli River which had no bridge or even a cement causeway. Gobatema Mission was built on a kopjie (rocky hill) which was about 4 miles from the Tuli River as the crow flies. This was a very arid part of Southern Rhodesian low-veld, with scrub bush, rocky outcrops and was a haven for snakes and leopards along with a variety of assorted wild game.
Reflecting on what must have been going to through my mother’s mind and heart when they finally arrived at a derelict Mission compound; is a very poignant memory for me. Mud huts and a couple of apologies for badly neglected brick houses stood forlornly as a welcome to their tired eyes and travel worn bodies. There was no electricity, no running water, no indoor plumbing, not even a phone line to connect them to the outside world. All water had to be hauled up from the Tuli River in 50 gallon rusty drums, by a span of oxen pulling the drums on a wooden skid. The reality of the fact that when the Tuli River was flooded there would be several months that they would be totally cut off from civilization, food supplies along with basic necessities, did not escape my mother’s thinking process! She had to cook the family meals in the terrible heat over a battered wood stove that probably was “older than dirt”! There was no turning back; this was the place they had chosen to spread the gospel to the unreached tribes.
Yes, this was to be home for my young mother and she was determined to turn it into place where love shone brightly in the midst of a harsh environment. Somehow, she found the inner strength to produce delicious meals on a meager supply of food yet we never went hungry! Little touches of “home” could be seen in the ram-shackled mission house with handmade doilies on the rough wooden table and hand sewn curtains adding an air of domesticity.
Subsequent days were spent repairing the main mission house to make it safe from, snakes, scorpions and even the leopards that visited the compound in the dark of the night. My parents set about reaching out to the villages dotted in the bush; building trust by sharing salt, maze meal and also giving some medical help to the sick. Slowly the villagers began to venture up to the Mission compound to attend church under a tree.
Mom quickly organized a weekly meeting for women, teaching them child care, knitting, crocheting skills and home remedies along with sharing the love of God. The daily rhythm of life at the Mission began to give a sense of “belonging” and purpose for the privations the family experienced.
Another challenge mom faced was to be the “nurse” to all and sundry including the missionary staff. She delivered babies in dirty smoky huts under far from sterile conditions; but many times, her skill made the difference between life and death for the babies she helped to bring into the world. The day one of the missionary men was badly mauled by a leopard, Mom stayed at his side through the night attending to his wounds until they were able to transport him to the Hospital in Bulawayo the next morning.
The next Wilson child to come along was my sister Suzanne. Now Mom had two children to keep up with along with her busy schedule. Suzanne was a placid child and won the hearts of the African staff, so Mom was never bereft of willing helpers to keep an eye on the newest addition to the missionary family. Even though Suzanne was an easy-going baby when she was a toddler she became quite the escape artist when Mom would put her in her play pen.
Then the challenge to Mom’s true grit arrived when a feisty red-headed baby girl was born – according to the tales she told me I tested all her motherly skills!
Yes, I was that little red-headed girl who spent the longest time on this Mission and became either my Dad’s “shadow” or walked with Mom and African staff members on the long treks into the villages.
Once Lawrence and Suzanne were old enough for school they were sent to Bulawayo to a government Boarding school. I know this must have been a terrible wrench on my mother’s heart. This left me alone with my siblings away for months at a time, so the “mystery of the bush” became my world to explore and fall in love with. I know I taxed my Mom’s patience to the limit as I was fearless and curious which was a bad combination when living in the bush! On more than one occasion she would catch me teasing a poisonous snake with a stick or trying to dig out a scorpion from its hiding place under a rock! These early years of my life seeing my parents pour their lives into African lives became the foundation in my own heart that grew into a love for the people of Rhodesia. Subsequently my husband and I followed in their footsteps as missionaries ourselves in Rhodesia.
Life was far from easy; added to that the family dealt with bouts of malaria, dysentery, scarlet fever and other tropical infections. Yet this did not deter my parents to keep forging ahead.
Mom’s dedication to the work God had called her to, burned deep in her heart and was not just “talk” but a living reality that radiated strongly within her. Both she and Dad were wonderful examples to my siblings and me. From a young age, they instilled in us the teachings of the Word and values that have stood with us down through the years.
Seven years passed before another sibling made his appearance. By this time, the family had transferred to Rufaro Mission which wasn’t in any better condition than Gobatema Mission. This did not daunt Mom and she took on her duties with a joyful heart. Our brother Henry was born at this mission and was thoroughly doted on by Suzanne and me. Now Mom had four children to nurture and love while she faced the challenges of once again living under primitive conditions. Serving God was her greatest joy and she instilled that same love in the hearts of her children. Whatever living as a pioneer missionary in a third world country threw at her, she took in her stride with grace and determination.
God had one more surprise for Mom with the birth of my younger sister, Carolyn, five years later. She was the baby and by us older siblings’ opinion, she was spoiled thoroughly. Sibling rivalry was alive and well even in a missionary family. By now Dad had become the District Superintendent and we had moved to Salisbury. We thought we had died and gone to heaven! We had a home with electricity, indoor plumbing and black top roads to drive on!
Fifteen years ago, this week Mom slipped earth’s gravity in answer to a call from the Lord she loved and served. Her work on earth was done and it was time to move to her eternal home.
Both Dad and Mom took wings before I could make it to their sides to say my earthly good-byes but what a glorious reunion awaits me at the family gathering around the Throne of God.
I treasure my memories of my godly parents deep in my heart and during days of trial I can hear their voices cheering me on to finish strong.