As we approach Mission Month, Lily Gaynor describes life as a lay Christian missionary in West Africa.
In those early years, mornings were usually spent learning the language, while sometimes in the afternoons Domingos and I would visit the neighbours and people in the nearby villages and in the evenings I would do language study. Domingos would share the Gospel, translating for me as I told the stories in Portuguese. We were always welcomed, offered a low, carved, wobbly stool, and they would gather to listen.
I was distressed to see, in almost every home, someone very sick and often dying. Tuberculosis was rife. There was hardly a home where I didn’t see someone with obvious TB. Of course, there was malaria, which affected everyone and many children died of it, plus the tropical diseases and parasitic infections, such as tapeworm, roundworm, and hookworm. Most children had huge distended bellies from malaria, malnutrition, and parasites.
The gross malnutrition of toddlers was largely due to ignorance. “He won’t eat the rice – he just spits it out,” was the explanation I received when I talked to a mother about weaning her toddler. The real problem was that he, like all the little ones, had been totally breastfed until two or three years old, or until the next baby was born. Suddenly, he was taken off the breast with no weaning. Then the screaming baby had boiled rice rammed down his throat, which of course he would spit out. Also, they reckoned that children shouldn’t be given any grown-up food such as meat, fish, eggs, sour milk, peanut sauce, and other proteins as it would make them conceited, arrogant, and cheeky.
Another problem was the awful tropical ulcer leg wounds. These horrible sloughing ulcers could extend right round a leg and end in death. The medicine the witchdoctors gave only speeded it up. All this suffering made them and the spirit mediums rich from the payments for animal sacrifices and their incantations. The people believed that all sickness and suffering was the result of curses put on them through malignant spirits or neglected ancestors and had to be appeased.
I began to see how their whole lives were controlled by voodoo. One year the rains came late, which called for the sacrificing of many cows. The villagers tied up the legs of cows, rowed them out to sea in canoes, and threw them overboard alive, as a sacrifice to the spirits. In the rainy season no one could begin to plough, plant, or harvest until the head shaman got the right omens. This sometimes meant a long delay so that they missed the vital rains and lost their harvest, resulting in semi-starvation.
“Dear Lord, how can I cope with all this?” I’d find myself saying as I was aware of my total inadequacy. Late one night as I walked up and down the verandah of my little house the hopelessness and loneliness overwhelmed me. “Have I made a big mistake?” I cried out. But I was reminded what God had promised me on my 21st birthday: “Ask of me and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance” (Psalm 2:8, KJV). I knew there was no going back. As a translator I had been sent to Biombo by my field leader to turn the New Testament into Papel, but as a nurse couldn’t just stand by and watch the people suffer. “Dear Lord, you must have an answer,” I prayed.
One afternoon I was in a neighbour’s home where a mother was nursing a very sick toddler. He was struggling to breathe, obviously with a severe chest infection and malnutrition. I asked the mother to bring him to my house and I would give him an injection, though I wondered if he could survive the night. When they failed to arrive I took the penicillin to her house, and before she realised what I was doing I injected the baby’s bottom. I was aware of the annoyance, or maybe the fear, of the mother and the other women.
The next day when I went back I found, to my surprise and joy, that the baby was greatly improved. The mother and the other women gathered around smiling, and no one made any objection to me giving him another injection, and then finally finishing the course. Each day as I went they happily brought out a stool for me and sat around to listen to what they called “the tasty words” as I struggled to tell them the good news about Jesus. They would try to help me out when I couldn’t find the right words.
Very gradually, just one by one, women would come to me to ask me for help with their sick children, so I decided to start a little clinic under the mango trees by my home. Every morning, six days a week, from 8am until lunchtime, I would take a table and chair and my basic medical equipment of penicillin and medicines, some dressings, and a few instruments, including forceps, in a jam jar containing alcohol and sit down under the mango tree and wait for the patients to arrive. Word soon spread and dozens of patients came as I dealt with malaria, worms, fevers, infections, and pregnancy problems. On top of that patients came who had been attacked and wounded in a fight or bitten by a scorpion or even a snake. Once I even had to treat a man who had been mauled by a leopard and another who had been bitten by a shark.
In one home I saw, and smelled, a lady who had a large tropical ulcer. She let me take off the leaves that covered it, revealing an extensive black mass that went almost all around her lower leg. She was feverish and ill. I suspected septicaemia and that she wouldn’t have long to live. The other women stood around watching but saying nothing. I was not aware of any disapproval, but I didn’t ask any questions. They were probably grateful for the dressing I put on which obscured the smell a bit. She accepted an injection of penicillin and I went back each day to repeat it. On the third day, the women and children all gathered round to watch, I took off the dressings, revealing a delightful, red, healing area all over her leg. They all squealed and cried with astonishment, “Koo! Koo! Koo! I guja Kristu!” (Wow! It is God’s needle!) Thank God for Alexander Fleming and penicillin!
I also had a run of very sick babies, nearly dying of measles and its complications. They were clutched from the jaws of death by this wonderful penicillin and saved from blindness with injections of vitamin A. Never a day passed without my heart being lifted up to the Lord in thanks and praise for these wonderful drugs; we will never know just how many lives have been saved through them.
That was the beginning of the frame of God’s needles, and the start of us being accepted by the villagers. Perhaps they were starting to understand why we had come to their country as we talked to them about Jesus and his love for them.
Extract taken from Lily Gaynor’s book God’s Needle published by Monarch Books. Lily, a nurse and midwife, spent 35 years working among a remote tribe in Guinea-Bissau in West Africa, one of the poorest countries of the world. Today 86-year-old Lily is retired and living in Liverpool.