Single and Happy as a Pioneer
As told by Margaret Stephenson
MOMBASA, East Africa, 1958. The tropical heat bore down, covering everything with a shimmering haze. Flies buzzed irritatingly around me. Under the tin roof of the customs shed at the harbour, the temperature was nearing 40 degrees Celsius (104° F.). As I waited patiently, the perspiration rolled down my cheeks. The humidity hung over us like a steamy blanket, and the air—dank and stuffy—was almost too thick to breathe. Was all of Kenya going to be like this?
I began to wonder whether this was a good place for a single woman. I had seen pictures of vast rolling plains filled with game, lush forests, even snowcapped mountains, but here . . . “Oh, what have I done?” I asked myself. “What have I let myself into?”
It was all so very different from Ottawa, Canada, where I had been living. The trip by sea had taken five weeks. Ten thousand miles just to get here! Would there be anyone to meet me? I did not know whether there were any Jehovah’s Witnesses in Mombasa, so you can imagine my surprise and relief to see a group of smiling faces. It was so heartening! And what a warm welcome!
The first meeting that very night also did much to allay my fears about this land so new and strange to me. Just two families—how appreciative and encouraged they were to hear experiences and to have some company. There is such a great work to be done here, I thought. How could I possibly leave these few brave people to do it all by themselves? That first night helped me greatly to be determined to stay and help as long as I could.
Answering the Call
“Step over into Macedonia!” was the invitation extended by the speaker almost 18 months earlier at the 1957 assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Seattle, Washington, U.S.A. We had all been asked to consider seriously whether our personal circumstances would permit us to answer the call for more workers in the field, helping as preachers of the good news of the Kingdom even in foreign lands. I thought to myself: ‘Is there really anything holding me back? Is there any reason why I cannot make myself available? I am single with no one to support. I have always been a person who likes to do things with a whole heart, and here is a direct request from Jehovah that I should respond to.’ Hurriedly, I started to write down all the places the speaker designated as modern “Macedonias,” in memory of the place of great need to which the holy spirit invited the apostle Paul in the first century.—Acts 16:9, 10.
You may wonder what makes a somewhat fragile woman over 50 years of age take courage and strike out on her own to a distant part of the globe. Adventure? No, not at all; I am definitely not the adventurous type. Perhaps it was the influence of elderly Sister Bartlett, who so patiently and lovingly taught me the truth up to my baptism in 1954. She was always encouraging the full-time service, stressing its joys and blessings. But what changes that would mean for me! My father had already shown deep respect for the Bible and The Watchtower, but he had never come to the point of taking a clear stand for Bible truths. I, too, hesitated for a while. For two and a half years Sister Bartlett had tried to encourage me to take part in the house-to-house preaching work. I understood why this work was necessary, but I was terrified. Finally, after covering four large study books and while I was still offering lame excuses, she urged me into magazine street work. “If you’ve any pride left,” she said, “that will get rid of it.” How marvelously Jehovah supplies to all of us the power we need to accomplish his will!—Philippians 4:13.
As I look back now, I am so grateful that the pioneer work and its rewards were always set before me as a goal. Having tasted and seen that the ministry was indeed a truly satisfying work, in 1956 I decided to do it full time as a pioneer. Since I was due to retire from my work the following year, I decided: ‘Why not do it now, straight away?’ So I did—and loved it. “Should I apply for Gilead missionary school?” I asked a mature couple. “No,” came their reply, “you are too old!” “Well, then, should I apply to work at the Society’s headquarters?” Again came the reply, “You’re too old, Margaret!” ‘Oh, well,’ I thought, ‘I’ll just have to serve where the need is greater.’ Wisely they encouraged a move within Canada first to see how I could adapt and get along with changes before trying another country.
After receiving an assignment, I packed up and travelled the 2,500 miles (4,000 km) from Vancouver right across Canada to Ottawa. There I met Aubrey and Eunice Clarke, just assigned from Gilead School and going to Kenya. They were positive and kindly offered to write and provide all the information they thought would be helpful to me. After a number of letters filled with practical advice, encouragement, suggestions, and warnings, and many other things that would help me in deciding whether I could make it, I was off.
Was I scared? Oh, no! . . . not until the moment I arrived in Mombasa. But the warmth that the local brothers showed, and the efforts they all put forth to make me feel welcome and wanted, soon helped me to settle in. After only two days at the coast, I travelled up to the capital, Nairobi, 300 miles (480 km) inland.
An Enlarged Field
At first, our witnessing was mostly informal and only among Europeans, as our work had not yet been legally recognized in Kenya. Under these circumstances, the challenge was great indeed. We had so many people to reach with the good news and few people to do it! Still, a foundation was being laid for greater expansion. What a happy day it was in 1962 when total recognition and acceptance as a Bible association was granted! With this new freedom, we could go from house to house and witness to the local African people.
So we started, armed with great excitement and rather limited, memorized Swahili sermons. The reaction really gave us a thrill. Many new Bible studies were started, and the people were so pleased to learn! But the conditions were very different from what I had been used to, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, how people need the life-giving message of the truth!’
The hospitality of the people especially was an endearing quality. How many cups of tea we drank I cannot remember. And now and then in the midst of it all a spark of interest would be kindled, and the appreciation the new ones showed for the truth was a great stimulus to all of us to stick with our work.
Was I lonely as a single person so far from home? Not really. There were so many friends and such a lot of work! We did things together, visited one another, and kept busy. There have been opportunities for marriage in my life, but I just never got around to it. Instead, I was able to use the extra freedom and mobility that singleness affords to keep busy in the ministry, and this has brought me great happiness. Admittedly, when making return visits on interested families, I used to think, ‘Well, I suppose a husband would have his uses!’ Since certain families kindly included me in things they would do, I was rarely on my own. Here in Kenya I have a spiritual family made up of about 15 different ones I have been privileged to help along to dedication and baptism. Even now, as I look at the congregation, I see that one of these individuals and her five children are publishing the good news too. Surely, this is what makes all the sacrifice and effort worth while. These new ones, along with my dear spiritual brothers and sisters, have so filled my life that there is always something to do and not too much time for loneliness.
Work Banned! Stay or Leave?
What a shock! Like a bolt out of the blue, one morning we awoke to a total ban on our work. No preaching, no large gatherings, missionaries soon to be expelled, and literature proscribed. The future looked quite uncertain. What was I to do? I went to see a brother in the Watch Tower Society’s branch office. He himself was packing to leave. “Should I go or should I stay?” I asked. He replied: “If you can, you had better stay. You might still be able to help.” ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘I have come to serve the people and to preach the good news as best I can, and for me this is still possible.’ So I stayed. But what a loss I felt as I waved good-bye to the missionaries at the airport! So many fine friends and associates gone, and all at once! I missed them greatly and still do.
When I look back, how thankful I am that I had taken the initiative to make friends and build up relationships with the local brothers and others who remained! Had I not done this, I would have been totally on my own. Together, we weathered the storm. And how thrilled and relieved we were when, just a few months later, matters were cleared up, the ban was cancelled, and our work was legally recognized again!
Slowly, more help arrived. How that gave all of us and the work a boost! What a joy to see how the work has progressed! When I first arrived in Kenya, there were only about 30 brothers and interested ones struggling to bring the light of truth to the people. Now we have some 3,000 Kingdom publishers and well over 4,000 Bible studies in the country. I used to know everyone at our small assemblies. But as I look at large, colourful, and packed grandstands these days, that is impossible. I remember, too, the first little branch office. Now, instead of a small two-room office, we have a fine new branch office and printing facilities.
Jehovah’s Sustaining Power Always Evident
Not too long ago my eyes began troubling me, requiring some rather costly operations. This would have put quite a strain on my already dwindling resources. Here again, I had to decide whether to return to Canada or to try to stay in my pioneer assignment. I made this problem a matter of prayer. So you can imagine my excitement when I heard the news that the Canadian government was just changing the laws to allow pensions to be paid to citizens even though they were not residing in Canada. Jehovah had shown me the way out, and I was thrilled, for I had made Kenya my home and really wanted to stay.
Over the years my relationship with Jehovah has deepened. As a single woman in an African country, I have seen him as a Protector. He sustains us, too, for at 77 I am still pioneering and have now been doing so for the past 27 years. I have also learned to stick with what is right when problems arise. Eventually, things always change; they do not remain the same forever. And then how glad you are that you remained faithful! As for me, well, just as long as I can, I hope to continue serving Jehovah as a happy pioneer.
“Happy is the one who has the God of Jacob for his help,
Whose hope is in Jehovah his God,
The Maker of heaven and earth,
Of the sea, and of all that is in them,
The One keeping trueness to time indefinite.”
[Picture on page 25]
‘The reaction to our Swahili sermons gave us a thrill’