Since 1980 Bridget has had a multi-faceted experience of teaching in Africa, beginning at the Rethy Academy in what was then called Zaire. In September 2011, she crossed the border from Congo to take up what will be her last assignment, a teaching position with New Creation Ministries in Kigali, Rwanda. Here she shares about God’s consistent call on her life.
The end of the journey
It’s Monday morning and we’re heading out for school; I on my multi-geared pink bike and Kulube on his heavy framed Made in China black bike, with Ben, my zamu, bringing up the rear. We’re following the dirt trails in northern Zaire heading to Niangara, the Heart of Africa (as immortalised by CT Studd commencing his Heart of Africa Mission – later to become WEC). Suddenly on my left, steps from the forest a man with his bow and arrows accompanied by his shenzy hunting dog – a barkless species wearing a bell to compensate for its lack of voice. Truly a National Geographic moment. Wow! Here I am and nobody back home has any idea of where, while I bet I know what they are all doing on a normal Monday morning.
We journeyed to Niagara to carry out an inspection of the CECA-20 primary school: going through the office documents, sitting in on lessons to observe the teachers, reporting back to the parents’ committee, and inspecting the ‘choos’ – a chance for me to learn which tree gave the best anti-termite lumber for constructing the long drops.
And that’s pretty much how I spent my last year in Zaire: in my capacity as Mlle la Conseillère de l’Enseignement de la CECA-20 accompanying Conseiller Kulube in the zones of Dungu and Ango up to the CAR border, mostly by bike, and when necessary – because of distance – by chartering the AIM Air plane in order to visit the CECA-20 church primary and secondary schools.
Then came the fallout of the Rwandan genocide and the attempt by Uganda and Rwanda to deal with the problem of génocidaires taking refuge in and around Goma, and their desire to rout Mobutu for his pro-Hutu stance and replace him with their champion, Laurent Kabila. The threat of war led to the call for the evacuation of AIM personnel from a dangerous country.
Kenya became our refuge, and after a debriefing of the Zaire Branch of AIM at Kijabe in December 1996, everyone went her way. “I’m returning to the States,” said Wendy. “I can write up the Zande hymn book there”. “I’m staying in Nairobi. I’ll return to teaching missionary children at West Nairobi School,” said I. “See you some time.” So that was how we parted company after a long friendship at Rethy culminating in two years of sharing cramped living conditions in a mud hut in Dungu.
There followed two years of teaching kindergarten and junior high art & craft, junior high English and French interrupted by two spells in Nairobi Hospital following a road accident that caused a fractured pelvis which lead to surgery to detach adhesions. Back on my feet and ready to teach again, I wanted a period of stability. And I had a watertight argument: I’ve got a work visa, a job, accommodation, friends and ex-Zaire colleagues here. I’ve had enough bouleversements of late.
My desturi was to read through the Bible, a chapter an evening in French to keep my French alive. I came to Proverbs 13:10 ‘C’est seulement par orgueil qu’on excite des querelles, Mais la sagesse est avec ceux qui écoutent les conseils.’
‘But wisdom is with those who listen to counsel’ was heavily underlined by the Spirit that evening. Hmmmm.
A little later, Ian Campbell, our Zaire Branch EO-in-exile, came to visit.
“Bridget, you’re going home for Home Assignment.”
My reply? “Yes, Ian.” (but not because you say so, but because God has told me to listen to counsel!)
And thus my years in Africa came to an end. 1980-1998 : 18 years. 18 years of educating and being educated in cross-cultural living, learning versions of English and two Bantu languages, living in different locations, journeying with God in the many opportunities and challenges.
How had I got there in the first place?
Thursday’s child has far to go
I was born on a Thursday, the fourth of six living children in a small Buckinghamshire village where I imbibed faith in God and acceptance of the teaching at the Baptist Sunday School as easily as I breathed in the clean country air of the family dairy farm. Faith was abetted by a godly aunt who birthdayed me with Christian story books and a mother who read the Scripture Union daily notes after the Enid Blyton bedtime story. I grew up in relationship with God. He challenged me through the words of the Christmas carol:
“Thou didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown, when thou camest to earth for me;
but in Bethlehem’s home there was found no room for thy holy nativity
There is room in my heart Lord Jesus,
There is room in my heart”
And thus I embarked on a life journey making room for Jesus as I went.
I grew up with a distinct God-given impression that I would one day go to teach in Africa. It was not expressed or communicated but it was there. My awareness of Africa came from visiting BMS missionaries showing slides of termite hills in the Belgium Congo. The Sunday School superintendent went to train as a pilot and to fly a mission plane in Ubombo in KwaZulu–Natal. I corresponded with them and sent them a regular postal order. Later while working with a girls’ camp, I had contact with other missionaries serving in Africa.
Being somewhat bright, I passed the 11+ exam and went off to high school in the neighbouring town, passing through the stages of O and A levels and then college application. With a desire to teach, I went to Coventry College of Education to study for a 3-year teacher’s certificate. Coming from farming stock, training was to be utilitarian. A 3-year teacher’s certificate would suffice; I didn’t need lots of education. But while home that summer during my daily quiet time God impressed on me to fill in the form to apply for the 4th year of study to take a degree. It was really going against family culture but I did so. Unknown to me, God was speaking into my future.
We shouldn’t be just sending money but people. I knew that it was I who was to go.
At the end of my 4th year at college there was no opening or direction regarding going to Africa. I concluded that it had been a romantic illusion and I just had to get on with the reality of living and applying for teaching posts. I had several interviews and eventually was offered a post at the Church of England Primary School in Wallington, Surrey. The words of 2 Peter 3:9 “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness”, assured me that God was in control and his timing was impeccable.
Holy Trinity was a low, evangelical Anglican church with a great young adult’s group so I berthed there rather than joining the Baptist church in town. There were missionary connections at Holy Trinity but I didn’t get involved. I taught for three years; I learned a lot. Then I decided that I ought to be moving on to a new post with responsibility – a ‘Scale 2’ post as it was called then. So I checked out jobs in the Times Educational Supplement to see what was on offer. Then one morning my Bible reading was in Nehemiah. Nehemiah 11:2 ‘The people blessed all those who volunteered to live in Jerusalem was highlighted by the Spirit.’ I just knew something was afoot.
Then at the church missionary weekend the curate was preaching: We shouldn’t be just sending money but people. I knew that it was I who was to go. God was bringing the vision to fulfilment. But what was I to do? It was before the days of googling missionary societies online. “I’ll speak to the vicar.” The clergy used to come to take Thursday assembly and then to teach R.E. in the three 4th year classes including mine. I felt the urge of the Spirit to speak to the vicar that day. “I’m just going to New York for AIM meetings; I’ll make enquiries for you.” Unbeknown to me, Norman Issberner was the Chairman of the AIM British Council!!
One year later, August 1980, I was in Zaire with AIM, teaching at Rethy Academy, the boarding school for missionary kids in the Blue Mountains overlooking Lake Albert. The only non-North American in a distinctly American culture. But I had been prepared by Joyce Richardson, herself an MK of Rethy growing up at Adi. “Remember, Bridget, they may be white, but they are different!” They certainly were. But lovely different.
That January I had been at the AIM weekend at London Bible College (as it was) and Gill Livesy was talking of the need for staff at Juba Model School in Sudan, a school run by local Christians for their children. Now Juba was known as ‘the armpit’ of Africa and I would hate to go to a hot, smelly place. The article that had appeared in the AIM magazine about the need for staff at Rethy was appealing – cool and lush and green – but maybe I should be willing to go to a hard place. That morning my reading was 1Timothy 4 and I was impressed with how people try to be spiritual and please God by doing things that aren’t what he desires. He gives good things for us to enjoy. God reassured me that it was OK for me to go to Rethy even if it seemed such a delightful place. And those years teaching at Rethy were delightful: good, enjoyable, creative, fun, exciting, challenging.
So I taught 3rd & 4th graders for three years – my initial short-term assignment – then 5th & 6th graders for 4 years, followed by junior high health and English, 3rd-9th grade French and art & craft at the Academy with part-time English as a Foreign Language at Institut Luru – the Zairean secondary school on the mission station – for three years followed by a final year as Principle of Rethy Academy.
I didn’t automatically return to Rethy Academy at the end of each term of service. I wanted to ensure that it was the Lord’s will, and he guided in various ways. One time I received – out of the blue- a letter from a former student thanking me for being a good teacher and how teachers for missionary children were important. That was a great encouragement and an indication of what I should do.
In recent times the possibilities for education of missionary children have changed greatly with the advent of the internet so that children can be home-schooled and join co-ops of home schoolers if their parents are located in urban settings. But back in the 80s, in pre-internet days, in the Zairean bush the options were few. And if anything is important to the furtherance of the Kingdom of God by expat missionaries, it is the well-being of their children. So being involved in the provision of quality education for their children was my part in Kingdom building.
The academic year 1992-3 was coming to an end. John Hosie would be returning to the principalship of Rethy Academy. I was exhausted from teaching 50% at the Academy and 50% at the Institut which in reality added up to 150%. I loved both forms of teaching and I couldn’t choose the one over the other. I would have to relocate. Quo vado? The Zaire Branch was formulating a plan to re-engage in ministry in the north of the country which was the home of the Zande tribe. The pioneer missionaries had laboured there in their own domains but the current thinking was on team ministry to be able to bear the burden and keep it from being dependent on a ‘bwana mukubwa’. Wendy had already left Rethy and had gone to Dungu to immerse herself in Pazande language learning and someone was needed to colleague her. I spoke with the church leaders and the Education Bureau Coordinator to find out where I could be of use and was asked to work with Conseiller Kulube and be based in Dungu at the Conseillerie. So following home assignment in 1993-4, taking an SIL course in language learning, I returned to Zandeland to work in Zairean education as a Conseillère. While I was thinking through the possibilities for ministry, the Lord spoke to me through an embroidery that I had been given. It was of a clipped orange tree in a pot much as they grow in the gardens of Versailles Palace. Lovely though it was, contained in a neat, defined space, it was not real life. And though I would prefer an ordered, tidy existence which I could control, my upcoming assignment would not be so; rather it would be a wild, disorderly experience.
‘Who knows that you haven’t come to this position for such a time as this?’ Esther 4:14
So to Dungu I went, to share a mud hut with Wendy on the church compound surrounded by all and sundry with no boundaries. I was allowed the first year to study the trade language, Lingala, to prepare me for working in the primary schools in the north. (Primary education was conducted in the trade language rather than in any of the scores of mother tongues. French was the language of secondary education.) But six months into my time there I was asked to take over the direction of the CECA-20 secondary school because the préfet was on sick leave and I was the only one around with the necessary qualification. My B.Ed (hons) came into its own! Que faire? What to do? Again the Lord spoke through Scripture: ‘Who knows that you haven’t come to this position for such a time as this?’ Esther 4:14
It was indeed a wild experience. Life became a soap opera. Because the government wasn’t sending salaries to the teachers, the students were asked for a monthly contribution of one Sotexi brand soap to compensate the teachers. ‘Pas de savon; pas de cours’ (no soap; no classes) was my refrain as I ‘chased away’ those who were behind in their soap contribution. Then once the soaps had been distributed, some of the teachers disappeared. ‘Pas de cours; pas de savon’ (no classes; no soap) became the students’ cry.
It was something of a relief to hand over the préfet’s cachet, get on my bike and join Kulube on trips to visit outlying CECA-20 schools with my Conseillère’s cachet in hand. And that’s how I finished my years in Zaire, riding the dirt trails on my pink bicycle.
While much of my time – indeed my original purpose for going to Zaire – was spent in educating missionary children, I also had the privilege of being involved in the national education scene. CECA-20, the denomination that was planted by the pioneer AIM missionaries, was committed to its education ministry and the missionaries had been and were involved in education. I was convinced of the importance of the church’s involvement in education – as are the Jesuits! In 2001, I was able to return to Congo and attend the seminar in Todro for the personnel of the CECA-20 Education Bureau of which I had been a part when I was a Conseillère. I was most impressed by the Conseillers’ commitment to their task despite all the hardships and obstacles they faced during the civil unrest of the first war. These men had all studied and trained at the secondary school at Aungba under concentrated missionary input. They hadn’t only learned the content but had also imbibed the culture of professional and Christian responsibility. They had ‘une conscience professionnelle’.
In 2003, I was invited to lead a couple of seminars for the CEEC church in CAR. I was asked to help those involved in Christian education in curriculum planning and lesson preparation, and the teachers of the Zemio Bible School in methodology for teaching adults. I was very struck by the contrast between the members of the CEEC Church in CAR which did not sponsor its own schools and those of CECA-20 in Congo which did. Those in CAR seemed to be lacking an understanding of the educational process and vocabulary compared to those in Congo, which validated CECA-20’s involvement in education and the training of leaders for the church.
Ubu nagiye he?
And what more shall I say? Space fails me to tell of returning to England, working in the French AIM office in Paris, spending five years in administration at the International Office in Bristol, returning to the land of Zaire but now with a new name, a new flag, a new president, where I worked for six years at Institut Supérieur CECA-20 training teachers of English for the CECA-20 secondary schools in the Democratic Republic of Congo, then crossing the border to work with the Rwanda AIM Unit seconded to New Creation Ministries teaching English in a variety of situations, until I find myself facing another quo vado?
Returning for home assignment next year followed by retirement is a big open space with no direction. No trails to follow. But I recall another time of being in such a place. When I started my first teaching appointment at Holy Trinity, Wallington, and I joined the Anglican Church we had a church retreat and I can even now sense myself there feeling really lost. I had arrived. From the age of 11, I had been directed to study, take O levels, then A levels, then go to college, then take a degree, then get a job. And I had arrived; I was there but there was no more direction as to how I should live and what I should do. It was a very scary place. But God reminded me about Abraham who obeyed and went even though he did not know where he was going (Hebrews 11:8). So I guess I can trust the Lord to guide me through this new, big, open space that lies before me.
‘So Christ himself gave […] teachers to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.’ Ephesians 4:11-13
How many words have I written on a chalkboard in all my years as a teacher? Millions. And they have all been erased. I trust that the important words that I have spoken to students over the years have found a lodging place in their lives to achieve something lasting for the Kingdom of God.