Our Rewarding Life as Missionaries in Africa
As told by John Miles
THE scene is a game reserve in northwestern Zimbabwe. My wife, Val, and I are driving toward the famous Victoria Falls. No, we are not tourists. We are missionaries and have been sent here to work among the local African people. As we round a curve, there, standing at the side of the road, is a huge elephant. I stop the engine and lean out the window to snap a picture. I’m about to take another when Val screams:
“He’s coming for us!”
Quickly I start the engine, but it stalls. What a predicament! The elephant ends his charge and rears up to trample us. Just in time the engine restarts and we swerve into the bushes. Fortunately, there are no stones or trees to stop our escape. We decide to give Mr. Jumbo the right-of-way and proceed by a different route.
Another scene. This time we are in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, southern Africa. It is Sunday afternoon in the capital, Maseru. We are returning home after enjoying a Christian gathering with local fellow believers. Suddenly, we are attacked by two young robbers. One punches me and the other jumps on my back. I shake him off, and he turns on Val, grabbing hold of her bag. Val calls aloud: “Jehovah! Jehovah! Jehovah!” Immediately, the man lets go of her bag and with a dazed look he backs away. The one punching me also backs away—his fists beating the air. We hurry on, greatly relieved to meet fellow believers at the bus stop.—Proverbs 18:10.
Each of the above incidents lasted only a few moments, but they are among the many unforgettable memories of our past 32 years as missionaries in Africa. How did we get here? Why did we become missionaries? Has it been a rewarding life?
An American Farmhand Learns the Truth
It all started in 1939 when I met Val Jensen in Yakima, Washington, U.S.A. At that time, I worked on a farm and Val was employed as a housekeeper. She would often talk to me about the Bible. One thing that impressed me was her explanation that hell isn’t a hot place. (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10; Acts 2:31; Revelation 20:13, 14) Although I didn’t go to church, I knew what the clergy taught about hell, and what Val showed me from the Bible sounded more reasonable.
Val’s father and mother had become Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1932. Val also started to study the Bible, and she was baptized in September 1935. After we had become acquainted, Val invited me to go to meetings at the Kingdom Hall. I accepted and enjoyed the association with the people I met there, that is, whenever farming would allow me time to go. Farm life still came first in my life. Gradually, though, I began to view the meetings more seriously, and the local Witnesses invited me to share in house-to-house preaching. To do this in my hometown seemed like a supreme test to me. But I passed it.
Two memorable things happened in 1941. In March, I was baptized as a dedicated witness of Jehovah, and later Val and I got married. Then, in October 1942, we started in the full-time preaching work as pioneers in southeastern North Dakota.
We will never forget what happened the following year. It was a milestone in the history of Jehovah’s Witnesses. On February 1, 1943, missionary training commenced for the first class of what was then called the Watchtower Bible College of Gilead. Two months later we attended the “Call to Action” assembly in Aberdeen, South Dakota. The blessings of missionary service in foreign lands were described, and the desire to attend Gilead and become missionaries was aroused in our hearts.
Working Toward the Goal of Missionary Service
Nine years were to pass before we attained our goal. During that time, we had other fine privileges of service, as well as some setbacks. After pioneering for a year and a half in North Dakota, we applied for a pioneer territory in Missouri. This was approved, and we settled in the city of Rolla. Our territory included the whole of Phelps County where there was only one active Witness. We spent three enjoyable years there and shared in the establishment of a congregation.
Then we were faced with a problem that dampened our hopes of becoming missionaries. Our resources were depleted. Poor management and lack of faith that Jehovah would provide caused us to stop pioneering. It was our intention that this should be for only a few months, but it was a year and a half before we started pioneering again. This time we were determined not to repeat our previous mistakes. Our new assignment was with a congregation in the town of Reardan in eastern Washington State. Part-time work was difficult to find, so we needed to rely heavily on Jehovah to provide our daily needs.—Matthew 6:11, 33.
Our territory included several small towns in the vicinity. One day we had to make an 80-mile [130 km] return trip to visit people with the Kingdom message. We had insufficient gas but didn’t let this stop us. On our way out of town, we stopped at the post office, and what do you think we found? There, waiting for us was a letter from my cousin who had just started to study the Bible with the Witnesses. It contained a check for enough money to fill our tank and more. “We were going to make this donation to Boys Town,” they wrote, “but decided you needed it more than Father Flanagan.” How right they were!
Experiences like these highlighted the truthfulness of Jesus’ promise: “Seek continually [God’s] kingdom, and these things [material needs] will be added to you.” (Luke 12:31) This was valuable training that would help us to continue in the face of other problems.
One winter, we had only a small supply of coal. Would we allow the situation to change our determination to keep on pioneering? We put the matter to Jehovah in prayer and went to bed. At six o’clock the next morning, there was a knock on our door! It was a brother and his wife who, returning from a trip to relatives, had decided to pay us a visit. We stirred up the fire, put on the last piece of coal, and made a pot of coffee. While we enjoyed their company, the brother suddenly asked, “How are you fixed for coal?” Val and I looked at each other and started laughing. Coal was the one thing we needed immediately. They gave us ten dollars, which in those days would pay for at least half a ton of coal.
On another occasion a circuit assembly was due, and we had only five dollars on hand. Also, the licensing of our car was due immediately after the assembly. We decided to put first things first and attended the assembly. Thanks to the generous spirit of the brothers, we returned to our assignment with $15. The license cost $14.50!
We enjoyed our pioneer service in eastern Washington, and a number of families with whom we studied the Bible eventually became loyal witnesses of Jehovah. After two years in that assignment, however, I received a letter from the Watch Tower Society stating that I had been recommended to serve as a traveling minister, that is, one who visits and encourages congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in a circuit. “If appointed, will you accept this assignment?” the Society asked, adding: “Please advise immediately.” Needless to say, my answer was yes. Starting in January 1951, we spent one and a half years in a vast circuit covering the western half of North Dakota and the eastern half of Montana.
During this period, we received another surprise—an invitation to attend the 19th class of Gilead! Would our desire be fulfilled at last? Alas, another letter followed saying that the class had been filled with brothers from other countries. That was a setback, but we were not dropped! A few months later, we received an invitation to the 20th class into which we were accepted in September 1952.
From Gilead to Africa
How we appreciated Jehovah’s goodness in bringing us together with more than one hundred students from many parts of the earth—Australia, New Zealand, India, Thailand, the Philippines, Scandinavia, England, Egypt, and Central Europe! This helped us see the extent to which Jehovah was having the Kingdom message preached.—Matthew 24:14.
The time at Gilead passed quickly, and we graduated in February 1953. Together with four others, we were assigned to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) in Africa. The Society, though, kindly permitted us to stay in the United States for the international convention that was to be held at Yankee Stadium later that year in July. During the months prior to the convention and for a while afterward, I served as a circuit overseer in eastern Oklahoma.
In November 1953, Val and I, together with six other missionaries, boarded a cargo ship destined for Africa. We landed at Durban, South Africa, and traveled north by train to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Here two left us to take up their assignments in Salisbury (now Harare), while the rest of us continued to Kitwe, Northern Rhodesia.
Val and I were assigned to the mining town of Mufulira where there were a few interested families but no congregation. Jehovah blessed our house-to-house preaching work. We started many Bible studies, and soon a number of interested ones began to attend Christian meetings. After several months we were called to fill vacancies at the Watch Tower Society’s branch office in Luanshya. Later, we were given another assignment to serve as missionaries in Lusaka. While there, I served from time to time as a circuit overseer for the small number of English-speaking congregations.
A Rewarding Life in the Bush
Then, in 1960, we were transferred to Southern Rhodesia where I was assigned to serve as a district overseer among the black brothers. In part, this involved visiting congregations and overseeing circuit assemblies and district conventions. Most of these congregations were in the rurals, so we had to learn to live in the bush. We felt that if our brothers could live in the bush, so could we.
The branch office of the Watch Tower Society equipped us with a one-and-a-half-ton pickup truck. The back was covered with sheet metal with double doors for loading. The windows between the cab and the van were just large enough to climb through, and they were covered with plastic curtains. Our household equipment consisted of a built-in bed with a foam-rubber mattress. We had box cupboards and a paraffin pressure stove. We also had a portable wardrobe and tent.
Shortly after starting our assignment in the western part of the country, I was bitten by some unknown insect. It caused my leg to swell and brought on a high fever. To make things worse, the weather turned bad and it began to rain heavily. I was perspiring so much that the bedding had to be changed frequently. About midnight, Val decided I should see a doctor. She drove toward the main road, but the vehicle got stuck in the mud. The only effect of Val’s efforts to move it forward or backward was to give me a good shake-up. When she was convinced that there was nothing more she could do, she wrapped herself in the last dry blanket and joined me in the van with the rain still pelting down.
Morning brought relief. I was feeling better, the rain had stopped, and the brothers who arrived to prepare for the assembly pushed our vehicle out of the mud. In Bulawayo other kind brothers took me to the hospital, and after treatment I was able to return and carry on with assembly arrangements.
It was during this period, while traveling between congregations, that we had the encounter with the elephant. We also encountered many smaller creatures. Some of our tent visitors, besides flies and mosquitoes, were harvest ants. In a very short time, these could make holes in any clothing or fabric that was left lying on the ground. The various kinds of lizards and hunting spiders that visited us were harmless, but the cobra that came in was quickly put out. And the scorpions were also unwelcome. Val describes their sting as feeling as though a red-hot nail had been hammered into you with a sledgehammer. She ought to know. She has been stung four times!
Perhaps these things make bush life sound anything but rewarding, but we did not view it that way. To us, it was an open-air, active, healthy life, and the spiritual blessings far outweighed any physical discomforts.
It was always faith strengthening to see the effort made by rural brothers to attend meetings. One congregation was made up of two groups living 14 miles [23 km] apart with only a path connecting them. Their “Kingdom Hall,” halfway between the groups, was a large tree for shade with stones for seating. Brothers from each group walked 7 miles [11.5 km] each way to attend their meetings twice a week. We also recall the elderly couple who walked 75 miles [120 km] with their suitcases and blankets to attend a circuit assembly. These are just two examples of how African brothers appreciate the admonition ‘not to forsake the gathering of themselves together.’—Hebrews 10:25.
In some areas the local inhabitants became suspicious of our motive, some even resenting our staying in their vicinity. On one occasion, I set up our tent near the assembly site in a spot surrounded by tall grass. After the assembly session had ended and we had been in bed a couple of hours, I was awakened by a noise outside. By the use of my flashlight, I could make out the form of someone standing behind a small tree.
“What do you want?” I called out. “Why are you hiding behind that tree?”
“Sh-h-h brother,” came the reply, “we heard some people saying they were going to set fire to this grass. So we have organized a guard for you during the night.”
They had not told us of the danger in order not to disturb our sleep. Yet they were willing to lose their sleep in order to safeguard us! When the assembly finished on Sunday afternoon, they arranged to have one car drive in front of us and one behind us until we were out of the danger area.
It was also rewarding to see the value these humble people place on the Bible. One congregation we served was in an area where villagers raised peanuts. During the week, we traded literature and Bibles for boxes of unshelled peanuts. When our visit ended, we loaded our equipment, literature, and peanuts and started to travel to the next assembly venue. Shortly after leaving the area, we were asked to stop because someone was trying to catch us. We stopped and waited. It turned out to be a very old lady carrying a box of peanuts on her head. By the time she reached us, she was so exhausted that she fell to the ground and had to lie there until she could catch her breath. Yes, she wanted a Bible! We had to unpack practically everything, but it was a pleasure to satisfy her desire. One more Bible in loving hands—and one more box of peanuts in our van!
It was also wonderful to see how Jehovah raised up circuit overseers to visit the many congregations in the African bush. At that time it was difficult for the Society to find qualified brothers who did not have family obligations. So it was not uncommon for a traveling overseer to go from congregation to congregation, either by bus or on bicycle, with his wife and two or three children, suitcases, blankets, and literature. These brothers and their families really worked hard and uncomplainingly to serve the congregations. It was a great privilege to serve with them.
In the 1970’s civil war began to cause problems for the brothers, and the issue of neutrality was putting many of them to severe tests of loyalty. (John 15:19) The Society thought it best to change my assignment so as not to aggravate the situation for the brothers unnecessarily. So, in 1972, I was called to serve at the branch office in Salisbury. This gave me opportunity to help with the building of a new branch office. Sometime later I was assigned as circuit overseer for the widely scattered English-speaking congregations. This required traveling the length and breadth of Zimbabwe. In some areas the situation was so dangerous that we had to travel in convoys organized by the government and watched over by the army with plane and helicopter support.
Our Move to the Roof of Africa
Then came another major change of assignment. We were to serve in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho. This is a mountainous country, sometimes called the roof of Africa, and it has many places of scenic beauty.
Although we appreciate and enjoy scenery, that was not our purpose in coming here. We are here to help find “the desirable things” spoken of at Haggai 2:7. This is a small country with a population of only one and a half million. When we arrived in 1979, 571 Witnesses, on the average, were sharing in preaching “this good news of the kingdom” each month. (Matthew 24:14) The congregation in Maseru grew to the point where it had to be divided into two. More recently, in April 1988, we were overjoyed at reaching a new peak of 1,078 Kingdom proclaimers.
Meanwhile, the work continues to progress in our former missionary assignments of Zambia and Zimbabwe. When we first arrived in Africa some 35 years ago, there was a total of 36,836 Kingdom proclaimers in those two countries. Today, the figure is 82,229. The privilege of sharing in a small way in these increases has been a marvelous reward to us.
“Taste and see that Jehovah is good,” wrote the psalmist David. (Psalm 34:8) Our “taste” of missionary service has convinced us of the truthfulness of these words. In fact, ever since 1942 when we started in full-time service together, our lives have been filled with blessings as we have experienced Jehovah’s abundant goodness. There is yet much work to do. How thankful we are to Jehovah that we still have a measure of strength and health to use in his service!
[Picture on page 24]
John Miles with his wife, Val