Jean Castledine recalls her life and work as a UMCA missionary nurse in Masasi


When I was ten years old, a missionary came to our Sunday School to talk about his work in China, and God spoke to me: I was going to be a missionary. This would not be in China, please God, as the language was too difficult and it had become obvious that I was not going to be a linguist. But how about Africa – Mary Slessor country, who was my heroine at that time? Then followed five years of nurse training, ending in Poplar and midwifery with the Sisters of St John the Divine – now of ‘Call the Midwife’ fame.

Every summer was spent at missionary summer schools around the country with SPG (the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) and UMCA (the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa), and it was at a UMCA summer school in Malvern that Mark Way, Bishop of Masasi in Tanganyika (as it then was) asked me to go and work with him – even though I didn’t play Bridge! I was now a missionary candidate and spent a year at the College of the Ascension in Selly Oak, Birmingham. We learned Swahili (an easy Bantu language!), church history, doctrine, etc, but mostly how to preserve our spiritual life when away from home and isolated. The Chapel, with its daily mass and offices, the inspiring lectures, and like-minded fellow students were all ingredients for a fulfilling time and preparation for the Mission Field. I very much appreciated the 7 am visits to other colleges in the Selly Oak complex, silence after Compline, and a non-talking breakfast on Fridays!

The great day arrived, and forty friends and family came to Central Africa House in Great Peter Street to pray with me at the departure mass, where I made the three simple vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience (married people were not allowed to work in the Mission in those days, but more of that later). Four of us sailed from George V Docks (now the City Airport) on the Rhodesia Castle, calling at many ports on the way, and ending in Dar-es-Salaam. It took four weeks, and we were lucky enough to know someone in Cable & Wireless, so a car was waiting at each port to take us around. I also met up with my brother, who was a naval officer, in Gibraltar.

The Universities’ Mission to Central Africa came into being after David Livingstone made a moving appeal to students in Oxford and Cambridge in 1857. He said, ‘I go back to prepare a pathway for Commerce and Christianity; do you carry out the work I have begun.’ Four or five men answered the call and made their headquarters around Lake Nyasa (now Lake Malawi), but within two years three of them had died of malaria and dysentery, so they moved to Zanzibar Island – the present high altar of the Cathedral there was the area of the slaves’ whipping post. I was privileged to be in the Senate House in Cambridge in 1957 to celebrate the centenary of David Livingstone’s appeal.

Masasi Diocese was formed in 1926, when the Diocese of Zanzibar was divided after the death of our most famous bishop and father in God, Frank Weston. It occupies an area the size of Kent and Sussex in the South of Tanzania, close to the Mozambique border (Government folk looked upon postings there as a punishment!). The area is very poor, with roads impassable for several months of the year – especially in the rainy season – but lovely, friendly people, who made European missionaries very welcome.

The Bishop met me at Lindi in his long-wheelbase Land Rover – no tarmac in those days – and we travelled many miles on the unmade roads with potholes and other hazards. When we reached the hospital and station where I was to work and live, it was just as beautiful and primitive as I had imagined. The Europeans consisted of a priest, a lady doctor who had been there since 1927, and three nursing sisters. We each had our own mud and thatched house but ate communally. There was no running water or electricity and I felt like Florence Nightingale, swinging my hurricane lamp as I did the night round in hospital.

A bucket of hot water was put in each house at 6.30 pm for ablutions in the tin hip bath. It was forbidden to wear uniform at 7 pm dinner. The loo was a separate hut outside the back door, and one got used to the tickle of cockroaches as we sat over the 10ft pit and avoided the occasional snake curled up in a corner. It took me years to stop banging my shoes before putting them on, in case a scorpion or centipede had got into them.

Personal relationships can be severely tested if someone has a persistent sniff or noisy eating habits, but on the whole we got on well. It was essential to keep up appearances, as we were waited on at table by ‘house boys’ – usually older men who had worked for the Mission for years and, although not admitting it, could understand English quite well. It was a sad day when the Government brought in the minimum wage and a lot of our faithful folk had to return to their homes as we could not afford to keep them on.

We all seemed to be in separate units, and although we ate, worked and prayed together in church, we did not pray and study together, although I did start a Bible/English class with the nurses, and spent many happy hours talking with the women and children in their back yards. (Only the men sat at the front.)

However, work in the hospital was wonderful. I will not go into too many details, but it was rewarding when the patient got better or came back for necessary treatment – often walking many miles, and resting under the mango tree for the evening medicine before the long journey home. It was depressing when they failed to return or went to the witch doctor; frustrating because of the lack of drugs and equipment; fulfilling, because I was doing the work God had called me to do.

I had charge of the Midwifery Unit, the Children’s Ward, and Out Patients. The first day, I was diagnosing and prescribing in Swahili! We were also a training hospital for male and female nurses and medical assistants. One of our first African bishops was with us as a nurse before ordination.

As already mentioned, the UMCA had a policy of no married European staff, which changed many years ago. Bishop Mark and Dr Marion Phillips fell in love and had to leave, so we lost not only a much-loved Father in God but also a very good doctor and surgeon. In the interregnum, we were privileged to have Archbishop Michael Ramsey for a three-week stay. He lived as one of us, and travelled around the Diocese and confirmed. His Swahili never ‘took off’: when he was greeted with ‘Shikamoo’ the answer should have been ‘Marahaba’, but he could only mumble ‘Mother Hubbard’. At a garden party at Lambeth Palace, his wife Joan came over to our group from Masasi to thank us for ‘some of the best weeks in his life’.

Our next bishop was to be Trevor Huddleston. His consecration was to have been in our cathedral of St Mary and St Bartholomew in Masasi, but we had a very big epidemic of meningitis and it would not have been sensible for the many people who would want to come, so he was consecrated in Dar-es-Salaam and enthroned in Masasi when the epidemic quietened down. We benefited from his many well-known connections, who would fly to Masasi in a private plane to see him and often offered one of us the spare seat back to Dar for shopping and more social life.

I still think the best two years of my life were when I was asked to go to Zanzibar Diocese to prepare a 60-bedded hospital for women and children for ‘Africanization’, as it was called. Even the fact that my trunk was stored in a hut, awaiting the end of the rainy season, and I had to buy material to make some clothes did not spoil things!

I was the only European. A doctor came once a week from the Government Hospital five miles away, or I could take patients down to her in the back of the Peugeot 403. The African staff were quite often more experienced than me, but we all got on well together. With the financial help and prayers of several parishes in the UK, I was able to plan and build a new clinic and ward, and also get some much-needed equipment.

Outwardly it was wonderful. I hardly ever had a day off, went to every service in the church from 6 am to 9 pm, put in longer hours than I needed to in the hospital, and found plans and accounts fascinating when I should have been studying and praying privately. Fr Sylvester, the parish priest, did not speak English, so my confessions did not give the sins an urgent meaning. The handover day came too soon, but it was a happy occasion, with the Bishop and Government officials taking part.

So, back to Masasi, where things had changed – no doubt for the better. There were four doctors from Holland, six nursing sisters, a telephone, and other mod. cons – all good in their way. It was always the aim of the Mission to hand over the work of priests, nurses, teachers, etc to the well-trained African staff, so we were all ‘Africanized’ one by one. One witty Sister said, ‘Last one out buys their own present!’

I have so many happy memories, and I continue to thank God for the experiences that I had. (This all happened some fifty years ago; if my personal reminiscences differ from others’, I apologise.) We keep in touch and meet once a year, and also continue to entertain African visitors on their visits to the UK.


Jean Castledine lives in retirement at Morden College, Blackheath.