What does it mean to walk by faith? For me, this is exemplified in the lives of three female missionaries: Dr Helen Roseveare, Margaret Hayes MBE and Maud Kells OBE. They all had two things in common; they worked in the medical field, and they worked for the Lord in the Congo. (The Congo changed its name several times during their lifetimes, Belgian Congo, Zaire, Democratic Republic of the Congo. I am just going to refer to ‘Congo’ throughout this article.) The Congo is a landlocked country in Africa, west of Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda which has known revival in the 1950s and great suffering in the Simba Rebellion of the 1960s.
Both Helen Roseveare and Margaret Hayes were serving the Lord in the Congo at the time of independence in 1960. Unrest and instability led to five years of brutality in the country. In 1964, the Simba Rebellion brought severe danger and both Helen and Margaret, separately and along with their co-workers, were placed under arrest and terrorised. Helen was raped. Both faced this suffering with the thought that these were not their sufferings, but the Lord’s.
Margaret was a trained midwife, converted at the age of 18, and had been a ward sister for three years when God called her to the Congo. She was at a convention and it was a speaker from UFM (Unevangelised Fields Mission) that spoke to her heart. In her book A Reluctant Missionary Margaret explains her hesitations. She had a speech difficulty, surely that would be a barrier? But God spoke to her through her daily Bible reading (something that was to be a feature of Margaret’s later experiences in captivity). ‘Why are ye so fearful?’ (Mark 4:20) and ‘Who hath made man’s mouth?’ (Ex. 4:11).
Missionary service begins
After Bible College, and time in Paris to learn French and then in Belgium to study tropical medicine, Margaret began her work at Maganga, in primitive conditions. The dispensary was a mud and wattle building, with a roof of banana leaves that leaked. Creepy crawlies populated the building at night, and the furniture was made of packing cases. Here she encountered her first leprosy patients. In return for treatment and food, they worked on the compound, and hearing the gospel, many were saved.
Margaret worked hard, adjusting to the country and the culture, experiencing what she described as ‘medical adventures’. In July 1960, at the time of independence, all missionaries were told by their embassies to leave, and so Margaret found herself back in the United Kingdom. But it wasn’t long before Margaret accepted an invitation to return to Congo to begin a medical work in a village called Bopepe. An American missionary, Mary Baker, had been living there alone. The area was surrounded by jungle, there was no running water, just a wood stove and a generator that worked for three and a half hours a night.
The first dispensary was set up in Bopepe: mud walls, mud floors and a leaky roof but the waiting room was packed most days as clinics began with Bible reading, prayer and a short gospel message. Margaret saw God at work in amazing ways, healing bodies and souls through their ministry.
Captured by Simbas
Margaret’s time at Bopepe came to an abrupt end with the Simba Rebellion of 1964.
The Mission HQ had told missionaries to prepare to leave but Margaret’s daily reading through the devotional book Daily Light encouraged her: ‘Fear none of these things thou shalt suffer, be thou faithful unto death.’ She was put under arrest at Bopepe and again God spoke to her through her Daily Light reading on 4th November: ‘Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you.’ A long walk to Banalia ended in house arrest and Margaret’s fervent prayer, based on Psalm 56:3, ‘Lord, I am afraid, therefore I am trusting in thee to help us in this special hour of need.’ The verses in her Daily Light reading for 8th November form part of how the Lord spoke to her and comforted her. For example, she read Psalm 37:24, ‘though he may stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand’ and Jeremiah 1:8, ‘Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you, declares the Lord.’
Margaret and her fellow missionary, Mary Baker, kept up their normal pattern of daily Bible reading during their time in captivity. Margaret confided to Mary that she herself kept coming across many passages that contained promises of deliverance, though she was not especially looking for such texts. Mary told Margaret that her experience was different and led her to believe that she would die at Banalia. Margaret was the only person to escape the massacre at Banalia and Mary was the last to be killed.
In the jungle
When she was in the jungle with the women and children, with nothing but insects as her witness, Margaret rededicated her life to serve the Lord in the Congo, to live or to die there. Early in December, a report on British radio stated that all white people had been killed at Banalia. This dashed Margaret’s hopes of being rescued. She spent Christmas Eve in a room filled with Simba soldiers bearing rifles and spears.
A Simba soldier told her he had been delegated to cut her throat. ‘You are a Protestant missionary aren’t you? Well then, you won’t mind dying, as you believe you will go to heaven,’ was his comment. But a major came in and told her she wouldn’t be killed as she was needed for medical work. After running clinics for the Simbas, she fled but was captured again. On 26th June 1965, she was liberated. The Daily Sketch newspaper on June 28th carried the headline Massacre Town Nurse is Found Alive. She went home, hardly recognisable, as the suffering had taken its toll.
Return to the mission field
Margaret later returned to the Congo, but also served in Niger as a Sister Midwife in a remote hospital on the edge of the Sahara Desert. She was awarded the MBE in 1987 for ‘nursing and welfare services in Niger.’ She retired in 1997.
Lessons from a life
It has been my privilege to get to know Margaret a little, to read her books and even to include her story in my lectures about women missionaries. The lessons I have learnt from her example are many, but what always strikes me is her wholehearted and sacrificial dedication to the Lord and his work. It is worth reading her books to catch a glimpse of her deep spirituality and her moment-by-moment walk with God in times of suffering. She truly is an inspiration and an example.
She sums up her testimony of God’s faithfulness in all her years of service for him in the words of 1 Kings 8:56: ‘There hath not failed one word of his good promise.’
What a challenge!
Margaret’s miraculous escape from the massacre of all her colleagues, her capture and harrowing experiences at the hands of the rebels, and her eventual release when all at home thought she was Missing, Believed Killed, is told in her book of that title.