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.
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.
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.
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.
“We’re singing better than they can!”
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?
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?
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.