Tribute by David Foster .
Sakeji School, Zambia. October 1967 – 1995.
Long before Mary went to Sakeji School, God had been preparing her for what He wanted her to do there. She had come to know the Lord as her Saviour in her teens, was baptised and really challenged about committing her life to serve God by the death and martyrdom of the five missionaries in Ecuador in the 1950’s. She worked in a grocer’s shop for four years, trained in child care in the National Children’s Homes and went to Capernwray Bible School before sailing for Africa, Zambia and Sakeji in October 1967.
Mary, like so many others, was greeted by the red and white WELCOME flag when she arrived after the long 400 mile road journey. She quickly got down to the task of ‘language learning’, showed her skills in dormitory care and became involved with the tuck shop!! She soon got the feel of the supplies needed, buying local fresh fruit and vegetable produce, and keeping track of the stock required for the home side of the school. In those early years she worked alongside Joan Hoyte and learned the ropes until later she took on the major responsibilities herself. Because of Mary’s home-side involvement it was especially important that she was able to communicate with the local people in the Lunda language. The local Lunda dorm, kitchen and laundry staff all needed supervision and she very ably kept things running smoothly. Like a number of other staff she would go out on a Sunday morning on her week-ends off to take a village Sunday school and several long standing relationships were established through those contacts.
Mary was a gentle, shy person at heart – she was more than happy to get on with things behind the scenes – No fuss and bother but the job getting done. There were no 9 – 5 expectations! She came to give and do – she was essentially a practical person and that fitted well with so much of what she was called to do.
With other home-side staff away for furloughs there was the need to fill in and take on new things and over the years she became very able at looking after the kitchen and organising the local Zambian staff.
Some of the dorm. activities were quite thankless tasks! The Laundry side involved sorting a mound of dirty clothes into piles for washing and then sorting and putting away the clean clothes or putting out the twice a week clothes change. Nobody saw much of it and maybe there was not always a lot to show for it – but these were times when children wanted to help – and behind that probably the need to have someone to talk to who wasn’t going to be on them like a ton of bricks because their school work wasn’t what it could have been. Maybe they hindered rather than helped – but they always knew that Mary really cared about them and loved them. She was no soft option and had a very clear idea of what was and what was not acceptable behaviour. With up to 60 children in the dorm they had to know who was in charge. But she was able to provide that place where school life and home life were kept separate and a bad day at school could be put aside when they walked into the dormitory.
There are hundreds of children who went though Sakeji and who had the benefit of Mary’s care and attention day after day in the dormitory. They had their hair washed (and scoured for nits if necessary and then treated if found!) and their nails cut and their minor scrapes and scratches patched up; they were sent out into each day looking clean and neat and tidy – though they may have arrived back at the end of the day looking just a little different!!!! Sometimes there wasn’t enough hot water to go round for baths but somehow she persuaded them to get clean again. Mary encouraged them to care for themselves and to be thoughtful for others.
Mary had committed herself to long-term missionary work – she came to Sakeji to stay –and what a blessing it was to the boys and girls to know that when they came back from the school holidays – or even from a long time away on furlough in their home countries – there was someone they would know and who would welcome them and make them feel at home again as quickly as possible. That continuity and long term commitment that Mary gave was of particular benefit and help to the children.
If term time was busy for Mary – up in the dorm at 6.30 in the morning and often not clear of it until after 7.00 in the evening – she also shared in the holiday tasks that had to be done. Work did not finish when the children left for their holidays! There was a mountain of tidying up to take care of at the beginning of the holidays, and the last week of the holidays was busy making lists, getting the beds and lockers arranged, and the local dorm staff organised. The arrival of the 100 or more children also brought the parents and guests who needed to stay overnight –there were often as many guests to be accommodated as there were children in the school. All of this provided Mary with the opportunity to use her considerable skills to the full.
Holidays were the time when supplies for the new term had to be obtained – it was not like the home countries where we go round the corner to the nearest store or supermarket.– it involved a long 400 mile trip to the towns. The ‘buying trips’ as they were called were really important and Mary would check the stock of supplies, make the list of what was needed and then accompany the school lorry and ‘do the buying!’ One of the musts was to restock the school Tuck Shop. In term time the children could visit the tuck shop on a Wed or Sat. afternoon and spend their ‘pocket money’. They were almost certain to find Mary behind the counter to deal with their requests – no wonder she was popular!
During the time when Mary was at Sakeji there was an overlap between the home side and teaching side. So teaching staff sometimes helped with home side duties and home side staff helped out in the teaching side. It worked well and Mary took her share with games in the afternoons, with PE after breakfast and with the twice weekly gardening sessions where the children were encouraged to help grow produce for the school; she gave invaluable help with Saturday handwork lessons and took short evening prayers before supper, just to mention a few of these extras.
Some of the children brought pets to school and it was Mary who took the main responsibility for helping take care of them. There were mongooses, a chicken, guinea pigs, a white rat, and most endearing of all the little bush babies whose heads were just the right size to pop out of the ink well hole of a school desk or to appear round collar of a shirt or blouse. And Mary had her own pets too – she was a great dog lover and had several during her stay at Sakeji – Candy the Labrador being with her longest. I must have had a bad day on one occasion because I tossed a stone (a small one – really!) in the direction of her dog and – well – I never ever did that again!!! It was probably the only time Mary raised her voice! She even had a pet monkey on one occasion but it didn’t survive very long!
April fool’s day was entered into by both staff and pupils and Mary enjoyed a bit of fun too. One April 1st day Mary and another staff member, dressed up as a ‘schools’ inspector’, visited the classroom of the senior pupils. The teacher was told by Mary that the inspector had unexpectedly arrived to inspect her class. The pupils were politely standing and hands were shaken and suitable questions asked. – it was several minutes before it dawned that the inspector was none other than Mary’s fellow dorm parent, Pauline Foster. They all had a really good laugh together!
Mary had a deep concern for the school and for the many ways in which it functioned. There were times when particular things were happening that were the cause of considerable concern and she and one or two others of the staff would get together whenever they could find a few spare minutes to pray about these matters. God brought about definite changes and blessings because of those specific times of prayer.
Mary arrived at Sakeji in late 1967 and it was of course not the same Mary who left in late 1995, 28 years later. God gave the opportunity to change and move on as she faced the pressures, uncertainties and challenges of life on the mission field. We were not completely cut off from what was happening in church life over here in the UK during the 70’s and 80’s and several at Sakeji, including Mary, were much blessed by a deepening experience of what the Holy Spirit could bring into our lives.
Finally, in closing, Mary was a special fellow staff member and a friend to all of us as a family – to Pauline and myself and our four children – now grown up. Pauline and Mary shared the dorm responsibilities together. Because we were at Sakeji during the school holidays Mary often joined us as a family – the switch from Miss Eastbury to Aunty Mary coming very easily. She would join us for a picnic or a week’s camping beside a local river; or for a game park safari.
There has not been time to obtain comments from Sakeji pupils who were helped and blessed and who will remember what Mary meant to them. I am sure there will be those comments that will be sent and that they will be a special comfort to her brother Bill and other friends in the days ahead.
We talk about a round peg in a round hole. Mary fitted Sakeji so well and was a person greatly fulfilled and used by God in her time there. So many today are thankful to have known Mary. Some of us worked alongside her at the School; others were helped and guided in their early years at Sakeji and are what they are today because she loved them and cared for them.
We thank God for her years of devotion to God and for her service to others at Sakeji.
After Mary returned to the UK it was necessary that she should find a job for a few years before retiring. To begin with she lived with her brother Bill and sister-in-law Ann. Not surprisingly, she found the opportunities to come alongside and help people. Among other things, she looked after a family of three teenagers after their mother died and worked in a house and was provided with a flat alongside where she lived happily with her dog in the open countryside of Warwickshire that she loved so much. Mary was diagnosed with cancer in 2005 and chemotherapy treatment was followed by surgery. It was a difficult time for her wondering what the future held. She was able to move into a flat not far from her church, Widney Evangelical Church, and continued to enjoy their fellowship and encouragement. But the cancer returned and further treatment proved impossible. Over the last year Mary had found a deeper peace and many were blessed through her witness and obvious love for her Lord. He called her home on August 28th. A cremation service was followed by a Service of Thanksgiving at Solihull Gospel Hall and at both of these, those present gave testimony to the way their lives had been touched and blessed through knowing Mary.