This story is by Mary Derksen and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
We stumbled out of the jeep on this moonless night. Oh, for a cozy place to sleep in this strange land. Our day had begun with an MAF plane trip from Kananga, Zaire, to a small outlying village where our children had lived during their first years as missionaries in Zaire. As we skimmed the forest, I felt as if we were going to take off the tops of the trees below us. It was too close for comfort. But our pilot knew what he was doing, and we landed safely on a small strip of the grass runway.
My husband and I had spent 34 of our married years in Japan as missionaries. We had raised our six children there. Life was busy with people coming for counseling or visiting from morning until night. We seldom took vacations. My life was too crowded. Ever since our son and his wife followed their call to Africa, my dream was to visit them someday. Now in the summer of someday, the impossible happened, and here we were in the middle of Africa!
Those were the days before the internet, and our kids had not received our letter letting them know when we would be arriving. No one greeted us at the airport. We spoke no French, the official language, and had no money to pay the eager men who grabbed our suitcases. Some returning American missionaries on the same flight rescued us. Thus when our children returned a few days later from a conference in a neighboring country, we welcomed them at the airport! My daughter-in-law screamed when she saw us. She thought she was seeing ghosts!
Africa had always held a dread of wild animals for me, but we didn’t see a single one during our month-long stay. Now we were in the small village of Tshikapa where they had first worked. After our arrival, our son took us on a walking tour of the village. Neat grass roof huts surrounded us on every side. The hospital where our grandchildren were born was on one side of the village, and a school on the other side. In the centre stood an enormous church. We had been in a small churches with a tin roof, and one with a grass roof. This church was built more in the American style of churches, a roof with shingles, and the inside with a high vaulted ceiling. It had a big stage in the front.“How come the church is so big when there are so few people in the village?” I asked our son.
“People come from all the surrounding villages,” he said.
The pastors and leaders of the community met for a welcoming lunch. The first thing I noticed was the large plate of fried caterpillars. After welcoming speeches and prayer, the food was passed. My husband who is a vegetarian was sitting on my left, our son on my right. He had no trouble passing up the monkey meat. But the caterpillars? Mary is always brave, so I better take a few, he thought. I just closed my eyes and passed the caterpillar dish to my son without taking any. Now he had to eat them. He tried to swallow them whole but they just wouldn’t go down, so he had to chew them. Mixing the bites with vegetables, he finally managed.
In order to get to our “home” for the night, we had to ford a shallow river. That was quite a common occurrence. Sometimes the rivers in the outlying villages had bridges with slats missing, but drivers were used to putting up with inconveniences. We followed the trail that led to the fording spot, only to discover that it was already occupied. Two large trucks stood nose to nose in the middle of the little river. We had no choice except to search the bumpy trail for another possible spot. I raised my camera to take a picture, but my son said, “Mom, I’m not going to bail you out if you get in trouble.” I debated, then quickly moved my camera to the window and clicked. Made it!
As we jerked through the pot holes, my husband’s clasp on the bar in front of him grew taught. “Are you o.k?” I asked. He was not. Severe pains gripped him with every bump. By the time we reached the former missionary home in the village for night, he was in agony. He must have eaten something that didn’t agree with him. Or he might have taken a drink of water. We had been warned not to drink water that hadn’t been sterilized. Fortunately a doctor travelling with us took over.
When we got out of the vehicle, I stopped. Someone was singing in the distance. Music always drew me like a magnet. “Who will go with me to find the singers?” I asked. It was 10 p.m. and all were exhausted. My husband was too sick, and my son was too tired.
Forgetting my dread of wild animals and snakes, I started out alone with a tiny flashlight. There was no electricity in that village, and unfortunately there was no moonlight that night, either. I walked through a grassy field in the direction of the singing. We had walked through the village in the morning so I thought I knew the layout. As I got closer, I realized the singing came from the church in the centre of the village.
Oops! My feet slipped and I tumbled into a dry gully. I clawed my way out, but slipped back once more. This time I kept my footing. Now I could see a sliver of light and knew it had to be the church. I stumbled up a few stairs, and tried the door. Locked! I peeked through the crack. About fifty women were swaying and dancing and singing on the platform in front. Slowly I moved around the building and found a side door. Locked! I moved slowly around to the next side. Finally I found an open door and slipped in.
Amazing sights and sounds greeted me as I stood beside one of the ladies. They were barefoot on the cold cement floor. Babies were lying at their feet on little cotton sheets. I recognized some of the hymns, but could not understand their language. After a singing session, they sat on the floor, and a leader read from Scripture. The reading and singing was interspersed with prayers. My heart was touched, but I was also tired and wondered when the meeting would end. I had arrived at 11 p.m. At midnight I gave the lady beside me a little wave and left.
Now which way was “home?” I looked around but my flashlight was no help. A tiny light in the distance beckoned, and I headed in that direction. Fortunately it was the right one. I crawled into bed exhausted, but was awakened every hour until 7 a.m. by the singing.
These women, so burdened daily with heavy loads on their heads and in their hearts, found release through their monthly song celebrations. Renewed and refreshed they go from the church to work their fields with their babies strapped to their sides.
My life in Japan seemed easy by comparison. I too had found renewal and refreshment through the songs in the night. I was ready to return to my home in Japan.