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Interview: Eve Vauze, former missionary midwife

22 February 2013

'I've not a clue about how many babies I delivered'

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 way.

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 abroad.

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 right.

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 us.

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 parents today.

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 need.

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 nature.

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 ante-natal care.

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 for.

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 conversation.

Eve Vause was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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