Moments Glad and Grave
To be successful, a missionary must be unwavering in his devotion to the cause of redeeming people from evil habits, to duties of unselfish service. A missionary does not go around preaching from the Bible wherever he goes. His example of concern, uprightness, clean living, genuine neighbourliness and daily contact with all classes and tribes, counts most. Tribes had their own areas in the early days of missions. Very often they fought with great fury, burning and destroying and carrying away hostages or young people to sell as slaves. Each tribe was bound to the chief for he made all decisions in conjunction with headmen and selected old warriors. Witch doctors and sorceresses held sway over disease, deformity and mental derangement. Sometimes their mixtures of herbs, roots and secret mixtures worked. Other times the patient was doomed to die. Complete isolation was imposed upon lepers and all with deformities. The missionary did not interfere with tribal justice, but he went out of his way to seek out the outcasts and bring them to medical centres. In this way the power of the witch doctors declined almost to the point of extinction. Doctors had a good word for some African medicine; some brews from certain tree barks reduced fevers and root powders cured dysentry.
My wife and I were never afraid of disease of any kind. We took precautions but knew it was our duty to help. By concern and practical help, we started leper units: a few huts at various points away from villages. So also with people who had deranged minds. We gave them a place to stay, a simple job to do, daily food and articles of clothing. Outcasts recognized us as friends and true helpers. Polygamy was common in most tribes. Two, three or more wives belonged to one man. The wives worked and cultivated large gardens. There were many children. Parents were very fond of their children. When food was scarce the parents would go hungry to allow as much food as possible for the little ones. Children admired their parents.
The relationship between parents was very loyal. Adultery and illegitimacy was very severely punished, in some cases by banishment or even death. I'll never forget the deformity one man had for adultery, something that deprived him of contact with other people. His banishment was complete, his deformity repugnant. No one ever spoke to him and he lived like a beast in the bush, eating berries, roots, leaves and wild fruit. I built a hut for the man, gave him the job of string, mat and basket making, provided him with food and clothing and after much pressure had him accepted by a chief as one of his tribe. The man, for many years a wanderer in the wilds as an outcast, found not only forgiveness, but a new life, a sense of purpose and became a Christian. I look back upon my work among outcasts, lepers, the insane, deformed and unwanted, as some of the finest work in my life. To see the deprived redeemed is a great joy.
The Africans were a lively, happy people. Their laughter was infectious. It only required one man to mime or to say something funny to start resounding merriment. They had strange musical instruments. One characteristic was the ability to transmit messages over long distances by drum beating. One form of bush telegraph. They were experts in make-up and in making masks. No ceremony was complete without singing and a wide range of tribal dancing.
One of my duties was to see that the plateau cemetery was kept in good order. Two graves were always open, as the dead had to be buried within twenty-four hours. I have witnessed many strange rites in the cemetery. Tribes had their own ways in carrying out the ceremonies. In most cases the bed rush mat was the shroud. The shroud was tied with slip knots so that on the day of resurrection the dead would have no difficulty in getting out of the grave. Leaves of various kinds, known for cleansing properties and twigs, capable of warding off evil spirits, were placed at the bottom of the grave. After the body was lowered, an axe, spear, hoe, club and comb found a resting place at the head of the corpse and at the foot, little pots of food and a sealed calabash of water.
When a witch doctor was called in, he was well-paid to sprinkle the corpse with chopped leaves, twigs, trinkets and charms. Male relatives of the deceased took turns to fill in the grave. The final operation, the planting of a bark cloth tree. The witch doctor had professional wailers with him, also bier carriers who made a lot of goods and money out of the mourners. Such incidents took place outside the cemetery when many joined in the lamentations. According to tribal custom I have seen strange rites on the dead - bones broken, buried upside down, limbs doubled up, corpses buried in sitting up position, dead buried in scooped out tunnels at the foot of the grave. Age-long customs were carried out under the supervision of tribal chief, headmen and the elderly men of the village.
While on a fact-finding duty to the lake shore, to complete a Government schedule dealing with population density of villages, domestic animals, crops grown and approximate acres under cultivation, I had selected students to help me. Each student knew what he had to do. Like other surveys the men did not flinch in their duties.
It was agreed we should work from the mission boat. The crew men were clever and at all times ready to mix work with recreation. After all, they were fishermen, making their own nets, hooks, lines and rods. With all details complete, we set out in the boat. We had not gone far when I remembered I had forgotten to call on the chief to pay my respects and explain the purpose of my visit. We returned to find the village chief standing on the shore. He looked grim. I thought he was offended, but the usual big grin and hearty laugh put me at ease, but even as I spoke and handed over some gifts, he appeared uneasy. All at once he was stern.
'We all love you. Please do not go in your boat today. Do not go!'
All my men stood around quiet, so quiet we were aware of the waves breaking on the shore, one hundred yards away. Again, the chief spoke.
'We are very good friends, let us remain so. The sun is overhead, the waters are calm, but not for long.'
I gave orders for the boat to be pulled on to the sandy beach and at that very moment a naked man bounded towards the chief, pointing his spear to the high hills.
'Crocodiles come, they come with the storm. Hippos and snake too!' The man took a deep breath. 'The river. Beware! Beware!'
Off he dashed to tell others of the coming dreadful event. The chief watched the messenger run.
'Bwana, the man tells the truth. This event happens about every sixty moons. Vurayatas [rain makers] do not lie.'
The tension grew, rumbles were heard. All eyes faced the high hills. Louder, louder, the noise became, then a cracking, smashing, gurgling rumble. It came from the river. We were at a safe spot, so we saw all that happened. I asked, 'What do you call it?'
The chief used one word I did not understand, so one of my students said, 'Bwana, a cloud has burst.'
We saw the towering mass of water, some twenty feet tall, smashing its way down the gorge, a clay-coloured mass, carrying trees, huts, cattle, sheep, goats, fowls and tons of grain and bush. It took ten minutes to reach the mouth of the river, then under the awful pressure, spread out into the calm lake, turning it into a seething turbulent muddy mass, far, far into the lake. Soon there were waves on the waters, angry waves on which no boat, canoe or even steamer would survive.
What a blessing we turned back, for our voyage was planned to go across the river mouth. My survey was delayed by a day.
Early next morning the lake was calm, so we called on the chief. He assured us all was well, the demon clouds satisfied, the like would not happen again for sixty moons.
We sailed quietly through the flotsam. Many canoes were out trying to salvage goods and dead animals - a tricky job with so many crocodiles about. We reached our destination safely, my men carried out all their various tasks and in three days our Government schedules were completed and all boundary boulders around the mission estate repainted after an absence of ten years.
This work, Going With God, is copywrited by Ronald R. Caseby, 1993. All rights reserved. Used here by express permission.