John and Dorothy Marsh, Missionaries to Rhodesia for 30 years, 1926-1956

John and Dorothy Marsh, Missionaries to Rhodesia for 30 years, 1926-1956

John and Dorothy were missionaries in Rhodesia for 30 years, 1926-1956, for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, predecessor of the Global Ministries.

John and Dorothy were missionaries in Rhodesia for 30 years, 1926-1956, for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, predecessor of the Global Ministries. This writing is excerpted from John’s journals.

JOHN (mother Lillian, a Sawyer), graduated from Mt. Hermon School, Mass; attended Oberlin, Hartford Seminary, Yale; married Dorothy (father Frank VanWie); was ordained with Dorothy at Naugatuck Church and sponsored by it.  John met Dorothy at Hartford Seminary.  Became missionaries for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, 14 Beacon St, Boston, predecessor of the UCC Global Missions.  (On furlough leave between 6-year tours, spent happy time at the Walker Missionary Home in Auburndale, Mass.)   On boarding ship they were accompanied by returning missionaries  Dr. and Mrs Thompson, Columbus Fuller, and Ivy Craig.


The greatest experience of the day, really the most thrilling experience of our whole journey into Africa, then unfolded like a delightful denouement to an absorbing drama.  As we caught sight of the peep of light at the end of the long, dark corridor through the forest, we heard the sound of singing.  There, lined up before us were the students of Mt Silinda Institute, plus, of course, the missionaries and the African teachers of the Mission.  As I recall, we got down from the cars and walked down that line of dark faces smiling and cheering us. Feeling like veritable royalty, and inwardly rejoicing in this cordial and gratifying welcome.  Surely to live and work among these young people, who seemed so friendly and who sang so joyfully, could only be a great privilege and an exciting adventure.  We learned afterward that this was one of the happy traditions of Mt Silinda life: whenever new missionaries came out, there would be a welcome just at the forest entrance.  Even so, this was a particularly warm welcome, for our group consisted of four returnees and the new missionary couple.

The excitement of our welcome by over 100 students, teachers and missionaries rather closed our eyes to the natural beauties of the mission station itself.   The next day we soon realized that the Mission was located in a U-shaped clearing which was surrounded by those soaring trees of mahogany, ntambabungu, muvangazi and many others.  They covered Mt Silinda to the south and Gungunyana to the north, and the bottom of the U to the West.  But the U opened to the East upon a great view of the Zona valley, through which ran a small stream which had its origin in the forest.  Beyond were the low hills of Serere, where we had a school, and on beyond Spungabera Hill, which was over in Portuguese Territory.

The Mission buildings were distributed on the grassy hillsides of the U clearing or opening.  Mission dwellings along the slopes of Mt Silinda.  The road running down through the U to the school buildings in the center, and eventually the beautiful brick church.  Further down was the Shop and the woodworking shop and power plant.  Nearby the Boys Dormitory and athletic fields.  It was a fair-sized self-contained community.

Although Mt Silinda was later to become our home for a number of years, our first endeavor was to learn the language of the people of our area, Chindau.  So off we went to our sister mission station at Chikore, some 25 miles away by road, or 13 miles as the crow does it.  Mr Columbus Fuller was to be our teacher and missionary father, and Dorothy was to be introduced to African housekeeping at Farview until Mrs Fuller returned somewhat later on.  Fortunately for Dorothy she had the assistance of Mbiri Malamba, who knew the Fuller family well, and who had had experience also in teaching.  So she was able to help Dorothy over many of the hurdles of running a ménage in a strange land.

For example, Dorothy learned that you used salt instead of money.  That is, you did at the back door where African women would bring their chickens, or eggs, or peanuts, or “uswa” (corn flour) for sale.  At that time, they were very eager to get salt, so we would buy a bag of salt at the local store (or a nearby farm) and a small cup was the equivalent of a ticky (3d or about 5c in those days).  Mr Fuller had a shotgun, and would lend it out to one of the trusted native helpers, with four or five shells.  He would shoot one of the antelope which came to raid our vegetable garden, and would be given some of the meat for his pains.  Dorothy learned that the antelope meat was to hang in a bag on the back veranda for several days to ‘cure.’  It was cooked with flitches of bacon, as it was rather dry otherwise.  It was as good as our venison here, and we were always glad when we had some buck for dinner.

We went to Chikore to study the language.  Mr Fuller was quite a teacher.  He was also quite an able administrator.  I sometimes thought he was a bit hard on the Africans, and I did hear some stories of his harshness in his earlier days.  However, there was no doubt that he truly loved the people and was desirous of helping them to progress and to know their Lord.  He secured Christmas Sitole to be our Chindau teacher, to come and talk the language with us.  Christmas was the head teacher at Shekwa School, some three miles from the Mission Station.  Dorothy and I one day visited Shekwa School, and enjoyed the walk by a Native path across the fields, past the Mazhanje forest, where the people, and sometimes the baboons, eagerly gathered the piquant fruit in season.  We passed several African homes, most of them huts of sticks set up in a wall and bound together by vines, and the interstices filled in with mud, topped by a thick grass roof.  The people would greet these new missionaries with their “tam u onas” (we see you), and we would laboriously try out the Chindau which we were learning: “Mawakadini?” (how are you?).   They would acknowledge our efforts with smiles.

It was most interesting to visit out first “out” school.  We had seen the Chikore School, of course, where Agnes Gumede, a Zulu missionary from the Southland taught.  There was a Boys and Girls Boarding where the resident students lived.  Others came in from the homes on the Mission Farm around.  Shekwa School was one of the larger outschools, having three teachers.  I believe that Christmas’ wife was also one of the teachers, so that between them they got a fair income for those days.  How much?  Well, it is hard to recall now, but I would say that he got about L-3 a month, and his wife perhaps L2.10.0, which at the rate of exchange then (about $4.75 to the L) [pound] would have made it somewhere around $25 a month.  The pupils came in from the homes on the Mission Farm around.  The school was named after the local Headman, whose name was Shekwa.

Everything was very interesting and new to us.  The school building was a glorified native hut.  The walls of sticks and mud, the roof of grass thatch.  Usually the local people, in order to have a school, were required to put up the building.  Most of them were enclosed in those days, nor did they have windows, so they could be rather chilly when the wind was blowing.   I am sure that we were asked to say a few words to the children at the opening exercises or prayers.  I do not recall whether Dorothy told the children a story, as she often did when visiting a school.  If she did, she would have asked Christmas to translate for her, as we were not yet able to talk freely in this new language.   Probably I led in prayer or gave them a few words from the Bible.  We were much impressed by the quiet orderliness of these African boys and girls so eager to get an education; although at recess time they could be noisy enough and full of play.  No school afterward was quite like this first introduction to the instrument of progress and development for the Black folk of Africa.  What a work these many little schools have done down through the years in so many places to open the minds and enlarge the horizons of  African boys and girls who were to be the men and women of the morrow, the new Third World.

Another experience of those early days stands out in memory.  Since our arrival at Mt Silinda in November (2nd) we had not been back, and so Dorothy and I decided we would walk the 15 miles between our stations.  To do so, we had to go down the gradual grade into the Umzilizwe River valley, cross the river, follow along the high grass of the valley, and then climb up a steep climb to the 3,600 ft. level of Mt Silinda.  Mr Fuller thought that his donkey might provide a ride for Dorothy.  I thought of another man going along with his wife on a donkey back in Bible days.  But our donkey was more of a burden than a help, just getting the obstinate creature to move along.  Probably we did not know the secret of moving it.  We did have the exciting experience—some of it rather laborious—of the walk to Silinda.

I recall how down in the valley we heard a most unearthly noise.  Walking alone as we were, and unacquainted with the country, we could not help wondering whether it was a lion.  I am sure that no respectable lion would ever have claimed the sound we were hearing.  For in spite of our fears and trepidation (it has to be a big word to describe our feelings), as we rounded a corner the sounds were coming from—now get ready for a laugh—a herd of goats.  We did occasionally see, not on that jaunt however, a troupe of baboons, and they were something else.  They usually ran away from you, but they had some very terrible teeth, and I would not have wanted an encounter with them.

Poor Dorothy got a bit of a start when Mr Orner told he that it was his Sunday to preach in the Mt Silinda church. But that he had been too busy to get a sermon ready, so she would have to do it.  She demurred heartily, but he said that she would have to start back to Chikore walking if she would not help him our Dorothy was the first of us to preach at Mt Silinda, and, what is more, to the Native Commissioner.  I am sure that had she knownthat the leading government official of the area, the Native Commissioner Mr Neilson, was to be in the congregation, she would much rather have done the long walk back to Chikore. Mr Neilson listened attentively, and of course the Mt Silinda Institute students were quite intrigued by hearing a woman minister.  It was somewhat amusing, although I do not think Dorothy found it so, to have Mr Neilson tell her afterward how he would have developed the sermon subject she chose.  He was like that, he always knew a bit better than anyone else.

One of the best ways to get acquainted with the people of the land was to visit them in their homes.   Our Chikore Mission Station was located on our Mission farm.  This consisted of some 18,000 acres which was quit rent to the Mission through the kind auspices of Sir John Cecil Rhodes.  It is worthwhile pausing here to tell how this came about.  Two of our early missionaries were on their way up from Natal in South Africa to start a new mission work in Gazaland.  On shipboard happened to be Rhodes.  When he overheard them talking about a site for a Mission, he told them that if they would make an application for a site on the Eastern border of the region that he would see that it was granted.  This led to the securing of the Mt Silinda Farm and later the Chikore Farm.  One hesitates to add that in this way the missionaries became an unwitting part of Rhodes’ scheme to secure this land for the British from the Portuguese who were pushing in from the coast.

Dorothy and I found it a pleasant occupation to go out to the homes nearby.  Many of the people there were Christians. And quite a few of them had been to school, as the missionaries first settled in 1893.  They were most cordial in their welcome, appreciative of our awkward efforts to speak their native tongue, and very often sent us away with a present of a few eggs or a bit of fruit.  The more progressive people lived in square houses, the more primitive in the round hut.  Some had a cow or two, or several, with a cattle-kraal or fenced-in area where they were kept during the night.  During the day, one of the children, usually a boy, would herd to cattle or cows out in the grassy places. 

Mr Fuller informed me one day that he was planning to send me out to inspect the outschools.  He said that it was not only a good way to learn about the country, but one of the best ways to learn the language.  He was so busy with the affairs of the Mission that he did not have time to do it.  Although I was greatly troubled and wondered how with my limited experience I could satisfactorily  do school inspection, I felt that it was a great and exciting opportunity.  I had been introduced to traveling in the bush by an experience in the very first month at Chikore.  Word had come by runner that a BSAP policeman who had been on patrol to the South of us had been clawed by a lion and needed medical attention.  So our Dr Lawrence has been notified at Mt Silinda and he came in his car across to Chikore and spent the night there.  The next morning, at his invitation, I set out with him and his helper boy (no European set out on a journey without an African to help cook and assist).   A road had been cut through not long before over the 25 miles to Zamchiya, where we had a school.

That was the end of the road, and so we had to collect carriers to take our cooking and sleeping supplies.  In a couple of hours we were on the track to Jenner’s Store, a walk of some 18 or so miles.   Dr. had brought along a bicycle, which could be ridden in most places, as the paths were smoothed by many feet.  We would ride and tie, as they used to say, with one horse shared between two riders.  He would ride for a ways, leave the bicycle leaning against a tree, and go on walking.  When I reached it I would mount the bicycle, ride past him and after a suitable distance leave it for him

It was dark before we climbed up the slope to the Makoho Store.  There we found Trooper Moore.  Dr Lawrence, without any rest set to work to examine his scratches and to treat them for the trip in to the hospital next day….

Back to school visitation.  No trip was ever quite like that first one.  Mr Fuller, in charge of the Mission farm, was able to call in men for work (they were paid at the going rate of 1/- per day: it hardly seems possible now.)  With his help in planning, my kit was made up for a week’s trip: folding bed and blankets, food, some letters and materials for teachers in our “bush” schools, and clothing, including a rain cape.  I had three African carriers: Jacopo, the cook, who had been out with Mr Fuller many times, who knew some English; Nzigaha, a tall young fellow with a saving sense of humor; and Alfred, somewhat older and a bit less talkative.  Jacopo was a great talker and a good storyteller.  As Mr Fuller said, there was no better way to learn the language.  On the long hikes and around the camp fire at night I heard Chindau and gradually it began to make sense.  I could try out my rudimentary knowledge of it, and my African friends were very patient with me nd did not laugh too much at my mistakes….     There was something very special about the camp fire in the African darkness.  As we were in the tropics, about 20 degrees South latitude, darkness came very soon after sunset.  African darkness is like a curtain drawn all around you which closes you in with your camp fire and those who happen to be with you.  It was then that I could talk with my carriers and listen to them talking.  Quite often we would invite the teacher, or teachers, and perhaps some children, or near-by neighbors would come along and we would have prayers together. Mwari (God) seemed very close out there…

When I was away from the central station for a week or so, Mr Fuller, and of course my dear wife, would send out a carrier with fresh food, a cake (oh boy), and some fresh bread, and any letters of importance that they thought I should have, as well as the news of home.  This carrier was always most welcome.  I think of something else that was welcome.  When at last my trip was about over and I turned my weary steps, or later my car (not weary, of course) toward home, I would come up over a rise and twenty miles away I would see the “Big Tree” at Chikore Mission, away to the North.  The Big Tree was a very large parasitic fig which had grown up over the original tree and become an outstanding landmark right by the corner beacon of our sizable Chikore Farm (16,000 acres).  Some years ago the Paramount Chief Musikavanhu had his kraal, or cluster of huts, by that tree, which even then could be seen all around.  People came with gifts to him so that he would pray to the spirits to send the rain.  He was the great “rainmaker” of the whole country round.

A part of this “getting to know” was the continuing study of the language of Chindau.  At last, at Chikore I was to preach my first sermon in Chindau.  I worked it over carefully with one of our teachers, it may have been Bennie Dube.  It was not a long sermon, but it was quite an event in the life of a would-be missionary.  I always disliked to use an interpreter, however excellent he might be.  He always seemed to be standing between me and the people.