by Mary Ratter
It was a cold day in November 1965 and dear friends had kindly offered to drive us from Whitley Bay in the North to Southampton where I was to board the Edinburgh Castle, a liner of the Union Castle Line and I would set sail on an amazing God-driven adventure to Africa. I was blessed to be meeting up with a friend, Mira Masters, for this part of the journey. Mira worked with Scripture Union in London and was going out to Johannesburg, South Africa, to spend time with her family.
It all began on a Tuesday evening a few years previously, I was 16 years old and working as a cadet nurse at the Royal Victoria Infirmary children’s outpatients until I was old enough to begin my nursing training. I hurried home because that night was to be a special missionary meeting at Whitley Bay assembly with Gordon Jones speaking and showing slides of his work in what was then Belgian Congo, later Zaire and is now the Republique Democratique du Congo. Gordon spoke of the need for a nurse at Katoka. I felt God calling but practically, what could I do? I wasn’t even trained yet! I reasoned that by the time I finished training others would have stepped into the breech and I would not be needed. However, when I returned home and talked with my family, my mother said she too had heard God speaking to her: not to go but to be willing to let one of her three children go to Africa – so began my mother’s lifelong and amazing support of Katoka.
I duly started my general training followed by midwifery in Scotland, a theatre course with anaesthetics in the North East and a Tropical Diseases course in London. I also spent time at the Leprosy Hospital in Redhill before going to Belgium for several months to improve my French. It was to be over eight years in preparation and during that time I enrolled at the Glasgow Bible Institute to follow their correspondence courses, which I found to be a real help and encouragement.
Journey to Congo
Finally, on 5 November 1965, Mira and I set out for Africa. A fascinating three-week journey ensued before we arrived at Cape Town. We were met by friends who took us on a whirlwind tour of the city before depositing us back at the train station to leave for Johannesburg where I enjoyed a short stay with Mira’s family. Then it was time to embark on the next part of the journey up through Zambia to the border with Congo. While on the train, it was announced that there had been a military takeover in Congo and that Mobuto was the new leader. When we chugged into the Lubumbashi station, I was met by Mr and Mrs Rew senior who were running the missionary guest house in the city.
I had to do a course in Lubumbashi to be registered as a nurse and to be allowed to take charge of a medical facility. The course involved doing smallpox vaccinations1 and recognising the types of mosquitos responsible for malaria cases. This took place around Christmas and it was a wonderful opportunity to meet many of the missionaries who would not have been there in the normal run of things.
Newly arrived from the UK, night duty in the maternity section of one of the large general hospitals was a distressing experience. There was a constant string of admissions with no available beds, women delivering on trolleys in the corridor or on a mattress on the floor with little pre-delivery supervision and even less aftercare as the mums were encouraged to pack up and go home with their babies as soon as they could. I felt grateful when that part of the course was over.
Then it was time to embark on the next part of the journey up through Zambia to the border with Congo.
In His Hands
Looking back on 58 years serving as a nurse at Katoka, a rural mission station, I can only praise God for His guiding and sustaining power over the good and bad times: wars and evacuations, witchcraft accusations, weddings and wonderful answers to prayer. The woman with the ruptured uterus who survived the 90km drive to Kasaji to be with us today and active in the church. Daniella, the baby with a cephalocele2 who survived an even longer journey to Lusaka, Zambia, by motorbike, car and lorry to be operated on; her parents send us photos so we can see her amazing progress. The family of the hydrocephalic baby who made the same long trip but did not survive, yet they still made sure to thank us for helping them in their difficult time. The elderly gentleman who came to the house and asked to pray with me, giving me a huge gift of pineapples. I wasn’t sure why he was there but as we talked it became clear: he said, ‘The thing that touched my heart that day, was your tears when I told you about my son’s situation in Angola, you cried as you prayed.’ The student on the sponsorship programme who passed his state exam and came to say thank you with pineapples, a chicken and various other things. The lady who turned up, baby on her back and another child beside her, having walked 45km to bring me a chicken and a bowl of manioc flour to thank me for looking after her child when she was so ill with cerebral malaria. These are such humbling experiences and we praise God for giving us the privilege of working for Him here.
Zango, one of our senior nurses, was devastated by false accusations of witchcraft and accused of killing his nephew’s wife. His house, mill and shop were all burnt to the ground and they lost everything they had that night. His life was spared by the miraculous appearance of a man on a motorbike who took him to safety. I believe that that man, who after the event couldn’t be traced, was an angel sent by God at the crucial moment of need. When I gave Zango a financial gift from the UK, he went straight to the Bible book shop to replace the Bible commentary and study books that he had lost and proceeded to praise God for His goodness to him.
Interactions with police and military, especially in a war situation, can be problematic but it is amazing what the offer of a Bible can do to bring a smile to a face. The assurance of God’s presence with us at all times is great to calm the nerves. I was travelling to Kisenge, a mining town, in the middle of the night with a woman who needed surgery when the car broke down. There was little we could do until daylight so a local man made a fire for us and we sat by the roadside talking together. Suddenly, we heard a car that turned out to be military. The possibility of them being drunk was high so we prayed for help as they drove up. The man in charge listened to our tale and immediately ordered three of his men out of the car and transferred our patient, her mother and me into their places. Off we set for the hospital at a great rate of knots and they could not have been more helpful, despite their various guns being pushed in beside us. Another time soldiers arrived at night and told us they were to escort us to Kolwezi because the war situation had worsened. We had five minutes to grab what was needed before setting off in convoy with the commander in our car. As we travelled, I heard my missionary colleague, William Rew, calmly explaining his faith to this man who said that for him, life was work, women and drink. We arrived at Kolwezi at about 2am and the soldiers left us to continue on to Lubumbashi at our own pace. Later that morning, we saw evidence of a huge road accident. A soldier explained that the commander and two other soldiers had been killed in the crash. As I praised God for keeping us safe, I wondered if that man remembered William’s words and called out to the Lord for salvation.
Truly it has been an amazing experience to work and witness at Katoka. One thing is certain, God never changes and His promises never fail. It is our joy to follow Him. Great is His faithfulness!