It had been my wish to be a missionary from a
very early age. I remember having "nursing sets" as
presents, and bandaging-up my dolls and teddies. I knew I wouldn't
be a missionary nurse for all my life; so I decided that, after
being a missionary, I'd like to run a sweet-shop at a busy
crossroads, where I'd also be able to care for anyone who might be
involved in a road accident.
My mother had wanted to be a missionary (she was a
midwife), and my parents were always very supportive of
what I wanted to do; but they never sought to influence me in any
When I was 17, I started in orthopaedics at Lord Mayor
Treloar's in Alton, Hampshire. I was too young to start
General Nursing Training. Then I trained as a nurse at St Thomas's,
London, and went to Southampton to train as a midwife - partly
because my parents lived locally, but also because I knew that
there would be more opportunity to be involved with more
complicated cases, as there were no medical students doing
maternity training in that locality.
It was very similar to Call the Midwife
[photo inset]. I was working in the docks area of
Southampton in the 1950s. Many of the slums had been destroyed by
bombing in the war, but the area consisted of quite basic living
conditions, and I identify very much with the scenes and situations
in the series.
Looking back, I wish that I had contacted a
missionary society first and sought their advice before commencing
my nursing and midwifery training. But I trained and then contacted
the Church Missionary Society (CMS). I'd have got to know people,
and had more time to discover if it was what God wanted. I suppose
I had always been so set on it, I hadn't realised that it had to be
the Church's decision, not just mine. Also, CMS is a community; so
it's important to get to know the community before going
I had wanted to serve as a missionary in Japan.
But they have quite enough well-trained nurses. It was CMS who
suggested Sierra Leone, as they knew of the need and that I had the
skills to meet it.
I first served in Sierra Leone in 1958. It was
for a year, then six months in Nigeria, followed by 12 years in
Uganda, and ten years in Congo.
Getting off the boat in Freetown, Sierra Leone, was like
stepping into a steamy bathroom. I asked the bishop how
long it took to get used to the climate. He said that he'd been in
Sierra Leone for 30 years, and he wasn't used to it yet. Because
the climatic conditions were so difficult, the maximum tour we
could do was 18 months, whereas in other parts of Africa it would
be four or five years. As I'd expected, the medical facilities were
rudimentary and basic. We ran simple clinics.
There was friction but not fighting, and we
hadn't got AIDS, which decimated the mid-life age group later. But,
in the Congo, the rebels were systematically trying to get rid of
the intellectual people. Most of the trouble came afterwards.
It was Uganda that was challenging at times.
The soldiers were wreaking havoc, and that's when midwives were
attacked and raped. My work was visiting village clinics staffed by
Ugandan midwives and health visitors. My pulse would rise a little
as we came to a road block, and I got expert at jumping out of the
car before someone stuck a gun in my middle.
One Whitsunday, I was sent with a police escort to
evacuate the midwives at a clinic. We'd met dead bodies on
the road where it had been forbidden to bury them. The midwives
were in danger and had hidden their car among the banana trees in
case they had to leave. There was no communication.
But they were frightened to go to Kampala,
because they'd heard such terrible stories about what was going on
there, and they didn't want to leave the people they were caring
for. So we decided we should leave them. And they were all
Children always ask me, "Have you ever been bitten by a
snake?" I was only ill once in Uganda. In Congo, near the
end, the malarial parasites were becoming immune to the medicines
we were using, and I must have had malaria. But I got better, and
that was that.
There was tremendous protection. It amazes me
in retrospect. My Land Rover never broke down, or, if it did, a
villager would just mend it with something. One night, I heard a
man at the window shouting that there was a woman in labour
outside, very sick. . . But I knew that, if it had been genuine,
the watchman would have come with him. In the morning, I realised
that it was thieves, and, if I had gone out, they would have
ransacked the house and taken everything. But it didn't worry me at
all. It's Jesus who's got nerves of steel and keeps his arms round
It wasn't difficult to be accepted there,
because I was carrying on with something that had already been
started by other missionaries. In those days, being white was
actually an advantage in being accepted.
I was only truly homesick once. I was in Congo
and was alone on one Christmas Day. I started to cry. I then
noticed that my two little kittens seemed greatly perturbed by my
crying: they were arching their backs alarmingly. I started
laughing. I thanked God for that little sign that he was there with
me, and for his sense of humour.
I've never been good at languages. I only
learned to say "welcome" in Nigeria; but in Uganda I jolly well had
to learn, and in Congo it was another Bantu language, but
different. I complained once: "These women won't do what I tell
them," and the Sister said: "But that's just as well, because
you're telling them to kill their children with maize and beans!"
"Kill" in the Congo was the same word as "feed" in Swahili. I had
to find the French I learned at school in the Congo, but it was
useless in the villages.
I've not a clue about how many babies I
delivered. When I was in Southampton as part of my
training, I had to deal with complicated births, such as unusual
presentations, etc. In Uganda for much of the time I was advising
local midwives, but would step-in if the birth was scheduled to be
complicated. I delivered babies at weekends in one of the hospitals
in Kampala, Uganda, and am still in touch with some of those
Half of the children died before the age of five
years. It wasn't uncommon for mothers with complications
to die on their way to hospital. But I was talking once to someone
who said: "Clinic children don't die."
It was always a great culture-shock when I
returned for home-leaves and when I came back permanently - far
more so than going to Africa. The changes in fashion, the
introduction of new technologies, and the materialism of Britain
always took some time to get used to.
When I returned permanently to Britain, I spent
seven years working at the Crowhurst Christian Healing Centre,
because I wanted to continue my work in holistic healing - where
all aspects of the person are ministered to, not simply a physical
I was 80 in August. I'm a Reader, and I
volunteer at the local hospital, where there's a tea-bar that we
staff. It keeps me rushing round on my bike. My sister is in
Oxford; so we're able to keep in touch. I take great delight in my
extended family of nephews and nieces, great-nephews and -nieces,
and great-great-nephews and -nieces.
I'm happiest when surrounded by family and
friends, or when enjoying the tranquillity and beauty of
I regret that, when I went to Africa, I hadn't learnt
all that Africa subsequently taught me. The tremendous
friendship and generosity, having time for people, being far more
interested in people than sticking to a timetable. There's that
terrific sense of humour - they enjoy life so much. I was far too
occupied in doing my work and not so interested in the people. In
retrospect, frankly, I could have done with that spirit. I think a
lot of people say that. I learned to care for the person.
There's such antagonism or indifference to spiritual
things in the UK. In Africa, people expect a spiritual
dimension, and they're very happy to talk about faith.
I'd like to be remembered for teaching anyone who would
listen the importance of nutrition, hygiene, how to treat
common illnesses, having children and adults vaccinated, and
Most favourite part of the Bible: Isaiah 43. I
don't like the bloodthirsty bits or the long lists of names.
Those who inflict suffering - especially on
children - make me angry. And injustice: I feel particularly for
refugees and asylum-seekers.
I receive information from many mission societies that
are dear to me, and I seek to pray for the needs expressed
there. But I like to devote half of my time to praying: being still
before God and wanting his blessing on what I've been praying
I'd choose to be locked in a church with my
brother-in-law's brother, Canon John Sweet, formerly of
Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was a great man and a great
theologian, and I never had the opportunity to talk in-depth with
him. It would be the perfect opportunity for an extended
Eve Vause was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.