Growing up in Africa

South Sudan

Tall waving grass surrounded me, isolating me on the well-trodden path. In the distance I could hear the other kids still playing on the soccer field.

I’d left them and headed home, only the chuff of a leopard froze my blood and my body.

If I yelled would the others hear me? No.

How far was the house? Could I run fast enough? No.

Woof! Woof! Woof!” A black shape sailed past me into the long grass followed by the sound of a scuffle and a big cats scream.

I leapt into action making a wild dash for the house. Pal, our Alsatian dog, caught up with me as I opened the screen door and collapsed inside.

“Good boy, Pal! Did you give it what for?” He flopped beside me, tongue lolling, a happy grin on his doggy face.

Episodes like this were common, the critters were different, a loose bull, a lion, a snake, a crocodile, even a hippo once!



I grew up in the back of beyond – South Sudan, Africa in the 1950's. No T.V. No radio. No books - except the King James version of the Bible.

Daytime activities included learning the oral history of seven African tribes who attended dad's school and playing with their children. Our toys? empty tin cans - kick the can - telephone (a string tied through a hole in two cans). Sardine cans made awesome boats when dad flooded the irrigation channels in mum's orchard. First Responders - rescuing ants and bugs from the waters in our 'boats' and getting them to dry land. But best of all, the native children taught us to make animals and people from the mud along the banks of the channels. We used acacia thorns for the Brahma bull’s horns and the men's spears. We built roads and villages and filled them with people, the men waging war on the next village and destroying.

Then in the evening, Dad entertained us with stories of his first years in Africa as a British pioneer missionary. He also told stories about the wild animals around us and created stories about children like us. One of his Christmas stories was about a little boy, the son of a wise man who went to see Jesus. That story was the catalyst that started my writing experience decades later.

All In A Name

When Dad asked Mum to marry him, he gave her an engagement ring with three emeralds and two diamonds in alternating order. Mum asked the reason behind his choice. He responded that the emeralds and diamonds represented the children he wanted: three daughters and two sons in the same order. Much later Mum would laugh about it, saying she did indeed give him three daughters and two sons – in that order. When she was pregnant for the fourth time, she decided that Jessie, the oldest would join in the naming of this child.

Now, if you remember from my first post, the only book in the house was the KJV of the Bible.

Jessie began searching for names and came up with several she liked: Hezekiah, Mephibosheth, Zachariah, and her favorite, Zerubbabel. In horror, Mum casually asked her why that last name.

Her response: “So I can call him Rubber Ball for short!”

“That does it!! Alan!” She Hollard. “We have to find some other books for Jessie to read!”

The first book that arrived was the legend of Robin Hood – an English hero some Americans may know little about, best known for robbing from the rich to give to the poor. In short, Jessie fell in love with this English hero.

“That’s it!” She cried. “He will be called Robin!”

“But what if this baby is a girl?” Asked Dad.

“She’ll be called Marian, of course!”

And so, on cue, Robin dutifully came forth and I followed about two years later.

All In A Name, Part 2

I have told you how Robin and I got our names, but the choosing of my names does not stop there.

After Robin was born, delivered by Dad in a mud hut, Mum was told she should not have any more children. But she had promised Dad five children and she still owed him a daughter. And besides, Jessie was expecting to have her Marian. So, in due course, Mum got pregnant.

Toward then middle of her eighth month it was determined that she needed to be in hospital for this delivery. That meant going down river to Malakal to get passage on the post boat which would take her further down river to Khartoum where the nearest hospital was. The journey would take several days, and so she wouldn’t be alone the two single women on our station went with her. One of the ladies was named Marion and the other Dorothy.

Marion was a gentle soul, easy going and eager to please. But Dorothy was feisty, mischievous and contentious. She kept badgering Mum about the name for this child if it was a girl.

“You’re playing favorites!” She would pout. “Why call her Marian when you could call her Dorothy?”

Finally, Mum had had enough.

“Very well!” She exclaimed. “We will call her Marian Dorothy. Marian when she’s good and Dorothy when she’s bad!”

Someone asked what my middle name is. Why Dorothy, of course. Dorothy is mostly just mischievous, and her harsher side doesn’t come out to play very often, but she has whiplike reactions when she senses abuse or danger in, by or to another person.

4th of July - Maybe - Maybe Not!

The saga of my entry into this world didn’t end there.
Mum was determined she would deliver this baby on the 4th of July so she could have a Yankee Doodle Baby. (Why I don’t know because we are British!) How delighted she was when she went into, possibly on the third or perhaps the fourth of July.
The Islamic Ramadan was in full swing, and the night nurse assigned to Mum was exhausted. She sat dozing through the night hours. Finally, Mum called to her.
“Nurse! The baby’s crowning!”
Which meant my head was pushing through the cervix and I was about to enter this world. Grudgingly the nurse got up to check, shook her head and responded grumpily.
“You have a long way to go, yet.”
“I’m a Midwife!!” Mum responded. “And not only have I delivered many babies, and this is my fifth! child! I tell you it’s coming!”
The nurse settled back in her chair and dozed off again.
Outside the hospital the wind had kicked up, howling around the building like an Irish Banshee. A Haboob – mighty dust storm - descended upon the city.
About an hour later, Mum called out to the nurse once more. She opened one eye and looked at Mum.
“I wonder,” said Mum. “Could you possibly get a couple clamps and a pair of scissors to cut the cord?”
The nurse jumped up and ran to the bed. Seeing Mum had delivered me herself, she promptly fainted!
The next morning the doctor arrived, checked Mum and me and praised Mum for her courage and strength to deliver me by herself. He also made a statement.
“It is said of one that is born during a Haboob that they will become a great person. It is a girl-child,
but. . .” he shrugged his shoulders like a true Arab.
Two things remain ambiguous:
Since Mum delivered me herself late that night, was I actually born on the 3rd, 4th or 5th of July. Only Mum knows, and she’s gone on to the next life without ever telling.
Second. Did, is, will the doctor’s prophecy over me come true?

Lions, Leopards and Hippos! Oh My!!

Our sleeping arrangements at Obel for the five of us were two bunk beds and one single bed. Jessie, the oldest got the single bed. David and Robin got the top bunks, and Nellie and I were relegated to the bottom bunks. Because it was so hot all year round, we slept on a screened in porch that allowed for any zephyr from three points of the compass to pass over us. The porch was surrounded by a four-foot brick wall topped by screening which was backed by chicken wire. That was all that there was between us and the hippos which had taken a liking to Mum’s vegetable patch not far from the porch, plus lions, leopards, cheetahs, or anything else that might decide to wreak havoc. They were real, we could hear them. The hippos in the river laughing their unk, unk, unk; Lions roaring in the distance; the sudden quiet of the night insects warning that something was moving about; the hiss and slithering sound of a large, legless body moving across the dirt.
Typical boys, my brothers took advantage of the near proximity of the dangerous animals by telling me – Jessie and Nellie knew better – that there was a lion, crocodile, python or even a hippo under my bed and that if I even moved, it would grab me and tear me limb from limb, or, because I was so small, just swallow me whole.
One night I’d had enough, so terrified of dying that the fear of Dad being cross because I disturbed his Bible study with his students paled in comparison. I screwed up my courage, stood on my bed and jumped for the steps to the house door, then raced through the room to the front porch, stopping only when I could grab Dad’s arm and hang on for dear life.
“Marian! What are you doing here? You should be in bed!” “Tuan(sir), she look like she seen a ghost, Tuan!” “Did you have a bad dream?” He took me on my lap. I shook my head, then thought better of it and nodded.
“Daddy, I am so frightened! I must make sure I belong to Jesus!”
“Of course!”
"If the lion under my bed gets me before I’m sure, I won’t go to heaven!”
“Lion under her bed, Tuan?” The students jumped from their chairs and ran for their spears they had left by the front door.
“Hold it! Hold it, Deng!” Dad waved them back to their chairs. “I doubt there’s a lion under her bed. It’s most likely the boys teasing her. Isn’t that right, Marian?”
I swallowed hard. “Daddy, please! I want to, I have to ask Jesus into my heart right now!”
“Very well!” He waved the students back to their chairs, then together we prayed the Sinner’s Prayer.
“Are you ready to go back to bed now, Marian?” He asked gently. I hesitated, drew a deep breath and squared my little shoulders and nodded. “You just tell them you don’t care what’s under your bed because Jesus is on top of it!” I giggled, jumped down off his lap and scampered to my bed.
“I don’t care what’s under my bed!” I yelled as I scrambled under my sheet. “Because JESUS is on top of it!” Nary a word from my brothers, but I did hear the chuckles of the men on the front porch. And never again was I teased about animals under my bed.

Make it work! A Christmas Tree?

Needless to say, in the savannah stretching across South Sudan only about five hundred miles north of the Equator, conifers do not grow. But the older kids – Jessie, Nellie, David and Robin had experienced a white Christmas with a Christmas tree and all the fixings in 1951 when the family spent a year in the US. I was born in 1950 so, yes, I was there, but just a little too young to notice such things.

This year I was old enough to understand they were begging for, but very curious as to what a Christmas tree was.

Dad scratched his head, a frown creasing his forehead.

“I guess I could cut a tree from the orchard . . .”

“Oh, no, Alan! Not one of your trees. There must be something else, surely!” Mum.

“I’ll go see what I can find. In the meantime, can you come up with something to decorate it with?”

“You get the tree. We’ll decorate. We’ll make it work!”

An hour later we heard the back screen door open and eventually slam shut. Dad appeared from the hallway, a huge grin on his face.

“Children, you wanted a Christmas tree and I have found one for you!” He turned and pulled into view a tree, that for a moment looked like a Christmas tree. A united gasp was followed by silence as Dad set up the tree in a corner.

“That’s a thorn tree, Alan.” Mum was dubious.

“What was it you said when I left earlier? Make it work? I have faith in you Phyllis!” He chuckled as he stepped back to examine his find.

“That we will! Children, lets drape the paper chains and snowflakes we’ve been making on our tree!”

With cheers, giggles and cheeky comments, the older kids began to decorate the tree. Mum helped me add the crookedy chain of children holding hands that I had laboriously cut out. When done, Dad opened the old pump organ and Mum began to play Christmas Carols. Some of the students heard us, gathered their families, and slipped in, settling around us.

“I think the Angels are jealous,” I whispered.

“Why?” Mum.

“We’re singing better than they can!”

Great White Croc

Today my mind has returned to life in the South Sudan. My memories hover over the river about six hundred feet from our front door. I can see Dad’s motorboat moored to its pier. A little way down stream is another jetty with several dugout canoes tied to it. A lone figure stands guard while above, on higher ground are the buildings of the school. I can hear the boys – the word student isn’t in any of the languages spoken here, so there are as many adult men and teens as there are young boys - reciting in their sing-song style. I can smell the smoke of the cooking fires in the villages behind the school.

A sound draws me back to the river. It’s the dip and swish of paddles. The sentinel has already seen the approaching canoe riding low in the water and what it holds. He raises the alarm, and we are engulfed in cheering male bodies.

Why are they cheering?

I look back at the canoe and see Dad and another missionary precariously sitting on the cone’s side, balanced by two natives across from them. In the center of the eight-foot dinghy, facing us, is a white crocodile, its head with gaping jaws hanging over the prow, it’s tail almost touching the stern. Its body fills the width of the canoe, hence the men sitting on the edges.


Dad has killed the Great White Croc that has roamed the Sobat River, dragging down full-grown Brahma cattle as well as any human caught in its way. There will be feasting tonight in all the villages as the croc is divided among them.

In the clinic word reaches Mum. Feasting means drinking. Drinking means fights breaking out among the tribal villages. She sends runners to warn the other missionaries and to her nursing students to assemble and help prepare for the casualties.

Will there be missionaries caught in the fights this time?

The Aftermath of the Great White Croc Feast

It was well after midnight. Dad was still not home, but Mum had come home to be with us. We kids were all in our bunkbeds on the sleeping porch – a screened an affair with chicken wire added outside the screen to ward off wild animals of any sort. I can’t say we were asleep as we could hear the merry sounds escalating into angry shouts and clashing of spears.

The house was built in a rectangle with one large room in the middle. On both sides wide hallways separated Dad’s office, a storeroom, and the kitchen on one side and the other was our room, Mum & Dad’s room and the bathroom. At the front the area was expanded to create sort of a screened in logia. The screened back hall was sort of a service porch.

The door to the back porch slammed open and shut.

“Phyllis! Phyllis!” It was another missionary – father of the other four kids on the station. “Need help, Phyllis!”

We could hear Mum responding and their voices drawing nearer as Mum led him to the bathroom to clean him up.

I couldn’t resist! I slipped out of my lower bunk and crept to the bathroom door. Uncle B (all adult missionaries were considered our aunts and uncles) was sitting on the toilet lid, his leg stretched out in front of him. A gash extended from on corner of his knee to the opposite side of his foot, blood flowing freely as was the adrenaline. Uncle B’s arms waved through the air, threatening to knock over the surgical try balancing precariously on the sink’s edge.

“B. you have to sit still! I can’t sew this up if you keep waving your arms about!” Mum scolded as she knelt beside him and attempted to pull the wound together.

“Daddy! Daddy! Is Daddy OK?” I forgot myself in my fear that Dad might have been injured, too. Mum and Uncle B stopped to stare at me, a scold forming on Mum’s face as her lips began to form the words.

“Mr. Webb has quelled the fighting. He said to tell you all is well and he will be home soon.” Little more than a whisper, but I spun around in fear. It was only Deng, our servant whose habit of approaching soundlessly had frightened me on many other occasions.

“Marian get back to bed, you naughty girl! I told you to stay put!” I scampered back to the sleeping porch and scrambled under the mosquito net, pulling the sheet up over my head and making myself just as small as I possibly could.

The next morning as the sun rose I could here the boys singing in the chapel. Chapel over, I watched them line up four abreast and march off to the sports field, singing in time to their steps.

Perhaps last night had only been a nightmare?

Near Escape!

As my mind wanders back over my childhood years in Sudan it stops on the day after Dad brought in the Great White Croc. The atmosphere was still tense, but as a little girl of about five or six, I wasn’t aware of it. Besides, the house was all in a bustle as some big muckity-muck was due in on the Post Boat and Mum was planning a big dinner for him. The table was set with her fine linen and best dinner and silver ware for a formal five course dinner. I heard her returning from the kitchen and decided I was going to hide behind a cabinet and jump out and scare her.

But it wasn’t Mum. It was Deng, our house boy. When he saw me, he stopped dead in his tracks and just stared at me. I put my finger to my lips, and he did the same, then slowly backed out of the room.

“Deng!” Mum called from the back porch. “What on earth –“

Deng rushed past Mum with a cricket bat raised above his head. With his free hand he grabbed me and pulled me up and away as the cricket bat whizzed by my head and crashed against the floor. Mum’s scream and the crashing of the dishes she was carrying deadened the sound of the bat hitting the floor.

“Deng! Deng! What have you done?” She cried, running over to grab me from him.

“Bad snake, Mrs. I kill.” Deng continued to smash the bat against the floor. After several blows, he grunted and stepped back. I squirmed round in Mum’s arms to look.

Where I had been crouching, were the remains of a female swamp viper and her brood of babies.

Swamp Vipers live in the lowlands of East Africa, especially in swampy areas such as the many small tributaries of the White Nile in what is now South Sudan. The female incubates the eggs within her own body and delivers live babies. The Swamp Viper’s venom is hemotoxic – it ruptures red blood cells and platelets, disrupting blood clotting and organ failure. In those days, there was very little that could be done to save a person’s life if bitten.

Who Stole My Roof?

A new missionary had arrived from the States. We were quite excited to meet him and dutifully scrubbed up and donned our best clothes so we could sit to the dinner table with the adults. We knew when he would arrive because Dad’s Criss Craft with an inboard v8 Rolls Royce engine and no mufflers could be heard two miles - as the crow flies - across the peninsula. That meant he had five miles of rivers to cover and we had about ten minutes before he docked the boat.
Mum lined us all up on the screened front porch. We held our breath as the we heard the engine cut off. But the silence we expected didn’t follow. Instead, we heard a very loud voice that got louder as two men approached the verandah. Dad was walking with his head slightly bent forward, his pith helmet shading his face. But the man beside him – wrong, the giant beside him was waving his arms in time to his bellowing monologue.
Dad opened the door for him and took off his had as he entered behind him. The giant kept talking, wide brimmed had still in place on his head. Dad stepped around him and put his hand out for Mum’s hand, preparing to introduce her.
“Well, ain’t ya the prettiest little filly!” The man hadn’t even taken a breath as he switched subjects. I could see Mum’s hair lift as his bellow overflowed her. Her knees jerked as his massive hand engulfed hers in a crushing embrace. “Why in Texas Al wouldn’t have a chance at keepin’ you, you know! Haw! Haw! Haw! And these your kids, ‘spect. Good lookin’ bunch they are _”
“I expect you would like to have a wash and tidy up before we sit down to dinner,” Mum managed to get the words out. “Alan, would you show our guest the way?”
Dad managed to usher the man down the hall to the bathroom and return to drop into a chair. Jessie hurried to get him a cool drink as we crowded around him.
“Where’s he from?” Asked David.
“He’s awfully big!” I chimed in, trembling with angst.
“Texas,” sighed Dad. “And everything is bigger and better –“
“Hush!” Gasped Mum as we heard him lumbering along the hall toward us.
I watched him throughout dinner in an appalled fascination. He broke every single dinner table rule: elbows on the table; talking with food in his mouth; shoveling food in his mouth with his fork upside down and banging it against the plate; leaving his fork askew on his plate, and not wiping his mouth before slurping a drink from Mum’s best glassware.
I was so relieved when we were excused to go to our room. His voice followed us and kept me awake for what seemed to be hours.

The next day Dad took our guest around the school. Several of us children followed him, the native children joining us as we went. We chattered in a mishmash of languages, giggling as the boys tried to copy his bowlegged swagger. We caught him glancing at us and quickly sobered up.
“Al,” he lowered his voice to what I would call normal. “You don’t let your children play with the Darkies, surely! I mean, lice and ticks and –“
Dad turned and wrapped his arm around one of Deng’s sons. “Phyllis delivered him and his brother – twins, you know. These boys – and girls are bright and talented. They are destined for college in either England or the States. I’m proud my children can play with them!”
“Well, in Texas, that’s just not done!”
“We’re not in Texas now. Here’s our chapel. I designed the stained-glass window myself. . .”
We heard the irrigation pumps come on and forgot all about this strange man as we dashed for the water channels in the orchard.
That night several other missionaries from other stations arrived for dinner. We thankfully had eaten our supper earlier and were safely in our room or on the sleeping porch. But that voice still invaded our space until it was drowned out by a sudden thunderstorm. As it passed, Mum came in to check on us and invite us to come out for a moment to say hello to the other missionaries. We were torn by our desire to say hello to our “aunts” and “uncles” and the fear of being pinned by that voice.
When we arrived, the voice was in full vocalization. I watched Dad as he raised his eyes to the ceiling, then got that mischievous look on his face. He slapped his neck as if a mosquito had bitten him.
“You do have a problem with mosquitos don’t cha? But, heck! These ain’t nothin’ compared to the ones we have back in Texas! Why –“
But Dad actually interrupted him as he pointed to the roof.
“Say, did you notice our new tin room?”
“What, yeah, it’s nice. As I was sayin’ –“
“I had to replace it just a couple days ago because of the mosquitoes.”
“Hmm. We’d gone to bed, and I could hear them on the roof, their little proboscis trying to drill through the tin. So I got up, grabbed my slipper and a flashlight and waited for the next one to poke through. I slapped it with my slipper and bent that proboscis so it couldn’t fly away. Kept that up all night, I did, all over the house.”
“Wal ya know –“
“Come morning, there were so many of them, they just flew off with my roof!”

It's Not A Deer!

A story Dad told with relish that is along the same line – new missionaries who had a wakeup call upon arrival.
Once or twice a month Dad took several of the students and went out to hunt for meat for the tribes and for us. He invited a new missionary to join him since the fellow was a self-professed excellent hunter. The fellow was ecstatic at the chance to show off his skills and his knowledge.
As the loaded the flatbed truck with their equipment, Dad placed his rifle and elephant gun in the rack behind the cab and holstered his handgun.
“Is that all you’re taking to hunt with? Fire power is most important!” The man said as he loaded several different guns in the rack, explaining each as he did. Dad waited patiently as the man then carefully stowed all his gear, making appropriate responses with a grin.
Finally they were off. It was mid dry season, the grass tall, tasseled and golden yellow. They stopped in the shade of a massive Banyan tree and got out.
“Why here?” Asked the fellow.
“There’s a watering hole about three hundred yards from here. The gazelles, antelope and zebras come to it. Elephants, too. That’s why we stay back here in the shade and roots of the Banyan. Also, should we need a quick escape, it’s easy to scale. And its wide, flat branches make a good bed. However, the lions and leopards use them, too, so be careful.”

With binoculars at the ready they settled to wait for the arrival of the evening gathering of animals. After some time, one of the students spoke softly. Dad glanced his way, picking up his rifle. The student pointed to an area behind their tree. Dad and the new fellow moved very quietly around the tree, studying the grass for movement. Dad spotted a pair of ears first about 50 yards out, and pointed. The fellow raised his gun and was about to fire. “Wait!” Dad whispered.
“Why? It’s a deer! Let’s get it!” The fellow began to move toward the ears.
“It’s not a deer! Wait!” But the fellow was already halfway out when the animal stood up - a magnificent male lion. With a cry of shear terror, the fellow dropped his gun and bolted for the back of the flatbed, almost clearing the back gate in one leap. Well, he did clear it, only his trousers didn’t!
v When the students – and Dad, he confessed - were able to control their laughter, Dad checked on the new missionary.
“You all right, mate?”
“Uh, yeah.” Sheepishly. “Why didn’t you warn me?”
“I tried, but you weren’t going to listen.” With a sight. “If you’re not hurt, we’ll get moving now.”
“Why? I thought we were staying the night here.”
“The lion wants his tree.”
“The lion wants his tree? Seriously?”
“Emm.” Dad pointed to the lion who was now surrounded by his pride.