LIVING LEGENDS Vida McLellan – Part 7

Ethiopian airlines at the airstrip
Ethiopian airlines at the airstrip

This series of Living Legends is about Vida McLellan, a missionary nurse who served in Ethiopia from 1955 – 1974. Vida grew up on a farm in the out-back of New South Wales. In 1955, after nurses’ training and Bible College, she travelled to Ethiopia to serve in very remote and difficult areas in southern Ethiopia. Vida, married Dick McLellan, while at language school in 1955. For sixty years Vida has served alongside Dick both in Ethiopia and after their return to Australia. The last episode told of Vida and Dick settled in to Bako to work amongst the Aari and the neighbouring tribes people. Bako Oromia Region of Ethiopia and is 1,743 meters above sea level (fairly high). Let’s continue.

Geradi was one of the Ethiopian evangelists who came from the Wolaitta province into the Bako area, along with his wife and family of two small children. They had few possessions and built their house, a little mud tukel (hut) then began to work amongst the Mali tribe.

Geradi was the eldest son of a witch doctor who was possessed by evil spirits and had an unnatural control over wild animals. He was known as the ‘Father of Snakes’. Snakes would curl themselves around him and he would talk to them and command them to do his wishes. Geradi told us that one day his father had gone away on a journey leaving the snakes to look after the house. The children had crept outside and ate some new cobs of corn from the field. They then hid the empty cobs. When their father returned they all gathered around to listen to their father tell them what he had done during the day and to their dismay, in slid the long snakes, each carrying an empty cob in his mouth. Geradi and the other children were severely punished.

While serving amongst the Mail tribe Geradi and his family had to face many trials. One day Geradi came to us and told us that he was very concerned about the safety of his wife and children. The old chief of the Bunna, a nearby tribe, had died and as was the custom of this tribe, his body was kept in his house for two months while the men of the Bunna tribe raided all neighbouring tribes to kidnap two healthy young children.

They would be kidnapped and hidden until burial day. As the people danced and sang around the grave, they would gash themselves in grief and pour dirt on their heads. The women would wail in a rhythmical chant: “He has gone out into the dark! He has gone out into the dark! He has gone out into the dark!” Then the men would respond, “We don’t know where he has gone! We don’t know where he has gone! We don’t know where he has gone!” This went on day and night until they were utterly exhausted. Then, at the end, after days of the dancing and wailing and despair, they would place the two young children into the grave beside the corpse, then along with his favourite wife and some grave goods, they would bury them alive with the old chief. It could be a fearful place, but Geradi and his wife trusted the Father for the safety of their family and like a Father, He kept them safe.

Much joy was given to our hearts with the promise of a wee precious bundle. There was the problem of getting to Addis Ababa for the delivery of our baby. We were planning and preparing to make a long trek of about twenty one days by mule to the mission at Soddo. Then a plane flew fairly high over the station! So Dick and a team of workmen cleared an old Italian airstrip that was at the bottom of the valley in an area called Jinka. Then a few weeks later, on the 11th of January, 1957, the plane landed there for the first time since the Italians had used it some twenty years earlier. It was a DC-3. It came roaring over Bako and buzzed the station. Mules, donkeys, monkeys, people, cows, goats, and sheep ran frightened in all directions. The people started to organize to take their women and children into the jungle to hide thinking another war was going to start. The local police force turned out in full strength and got armed. Two of them were sent to take Dick off to the police station and demanded that we hand over the mail they thought had been dropped over our station.

On the 25th of January we flew out by EAL Ethiopian Airlines for Addis Ababa where we would await the birth of our first child. And on the 4th of March, 1957, the Lord presented us with a baby boy at the Princess Tsehai Hospital in Addis Ababa. It was a wonderful moment to awake from the anaesthetic to be told by Dick that he was a boy who was well and healthy. John Edward McLellan was born on a Monday at 8:10 pm. We had two weeks rest. On the 1st of April, we flew back to Bako. Don Gray met us, but because it had been raining heavily he felt sure the plane wouldn’t land and hadn’t organized mules to take us to the mission station. We waited a long time to get mules organized. John became hungry and wanted to be fed, but there was no place to go to feed him. Everyone wanted to see what the white woman would do. This made things more difficult. In the end a large clump of long grass was found and there John had his dinner with many curious faces trying to peep through the thick grass. The next problem was how I could carry a three week old baby on a mule up a steep mountain. It had started raining heavily making the mountain slippery as well.

In the end John was strapped in the basket of baby scales and then strapped around the necks of Don or Dick as they took turns carrying him up the mountain.

John was the first white baby to be seen in that part of the country so there were many spectators and many people tried to bless him by spitting on him, as was their custom, so Don and Dick had to duck quickly under their sprays. John was the cause of many people coming to our house and they all wished to see the ‘Lord’ or ‘Master’. Children especially wanted to play with him. I praise the Lord for His protection of such a precious gift. The people rarely washed and carried so many deadly diseases that I trembled at times to see them come so near to John.

In December that year, we flew to Addis Ababa for a holiday, but instead spent the time studying for the language exams. We both passed, but I still felt at a loss when it came to speaking in Amharic. In January of 1958 we arrived back at Bako after two weeks of holiday at Bishoftu. The Grays were away in Bulki so they were not there to meet us, but Bali, Geradi and his wife were there. There was much trouble getting mules and only one was available at a high price. It was so very old and poorly kept that I was scared to ride it on the steep hill in case it died. It did make the grade and with Dick walking and Geradi’s wife carrying John, we made it. John was happy to be home and he was even happier when the Grays returned.

On the 13th of January we heard the Governor of Bako was going to the Mursi, a tribe of very tall shankilla or skinned people, living along the Omo River. It was said that they were of a cannibalistic nature. They drank blood from animals. This was done by piercing the jugular vein of a cow and draining blood to drink from a gourd mixed with milk. Dick really longed to go and the Governor offered to take him. I prepared food and a kit for two weeks. But, I had to send for Dick because John had become very ill with dysentery and vomiting. John couldn’t keep down the medicine and was very weak. We were sorry that Dick needed to come back from making the trip to the Mursi. It was in February that Geradi brought us the news of the death of the old Bunna chief. That was a time of real fear. The warriors out hunting for the boy sacrifices came very close to our mission compound.

On 2nd of June Dick and I left Bako together to go on a medical trek to Bulki. It was hard because we left John behind as we expected to be away for two or three weeks. The Grays looked after John during this time of trekking, but even today I don’t know how I did that. We went through flooded rivers that were very dirty. It was very hot in the valley areas. We trekked from church to church, meeting people, preaching, praying and in fellowshipping together. The sound of the children singing was just lovely. We were welcomed with gifts of milk, eggs, chickens, injera and coffee.

We treated so many sick people. Even Dick took a syringe and needle to give an injection to a womam who was crippled with sores from syphilis. Many of the people who came for medicine and assistance.

On 7th of June we reached a place called Karza. I treated sixty-four people whilst Dick went up to Bulki to give greetings to the officials. The police forbade us to stay at Karza or to give out medicine. Then the Chief Secretary said that permission had come from Chencha. So we were able to stay on. The elder of the mahiber (church board) brought letters from the Head of Police in Bulki and in the letter he wrote that he had only been joking on the Saturday when he said we couldn’t stay or give out medicine. And then cheekily the wretch asked for twenty-four dollars’ worth of our precious cortisone.

We moved on to Zanga and met with 130 people. I treated 165 people. On the 10th of June I treated 120 people back at Karza again. Five families, all metal and pottery workers, who were despised by all the other people.

Some Aari believers begged us to go to their area and give out medicine, but it would mean several days trek and we were nearly out of supplies. I was also feeling very tired because the Lord was giving us another precious gift in eight months’ time. We were also both thinking of John and longing to get back to Bako to see him. Finally, on the 14th of June we left Karza and headed back to Bako. It would take five days until we arrived back at Bako on the 19th of June.

We crossed two rivers where the water had risen from heavy rains and it went up to the mules’ bellies. They were swept down the river some way, but we did get safely across. On the 19th of June as we were going down the mountain in the rain, the road had become so slippery that one pack mule fell and almost broke her neck.

It was good to see John and the Grays when we finally made it back. John seemed to have grown a little. For several days afterwards John clung onto us, fearful that we would go and leave him again. He would soon be in for a surprise. I was expecting another baby.

The remainder of the year was quiet except that Dick commenced to build a Bible School for the evangelists. On 24th of July the evangelists came and had an eight week Bible Study time. Then came news that we were to move on to Bulki that mountainous place of which I had some rather ‘fond’ memories. I must say I had some mixed feelings about it all. In November we decided to return to Addis Ababa because a bout of sinusitis was giving me a lot of trouble. We packed all our goods. The Grays saw us off at the airstrip and we had the roughest flight ever to Addis Ababa on a cargo plane.

One 30th January 1959, after two operations on my nose and recovering from pneumonia a

Flies the ever present companion of poverty and disease
Flies the ever present companion of poverty and disease

few weeks before, Jane Christine MCLellan was born at the Haile Selassie Hospital in Addis Ababa. I as horrified on going there to see two women in dirty clothes and smelling awfully of injera ‘na wat – the national food – who were to deliver my baby. It was a provision of the Lord that Merle Browne (my bridesmaid) and Kathie Ferguson had arrived back at HQ after their holidays. I asked the Doctor if they might come and be with me and he consented. Dick hurried off and brought them so it was Merle who delivered Jane.

Jane was born on a Friday at 4:30am, 1959. Merle was qualified midwifery nurse. I was so thankful she was there. I had a very bad postpartum hemorrhage and, as Merle said, “almost lost you both.” I lost a lot of blood and there was no way of getting a blood transfusion. Merle took care of us for the next week, building me up with whatever she could get to replace the blood loss. It was a rough start to the new year.

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LIVING LEGENDS Vida McLellan - Part 7
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LIVING LEGENDS Vida McLellan - Part 7
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This series of Living Legends is about Vida McLellan, a missionary nurse who served in Ethiopia from 195–1974. Vida grew up on a farm in the out-back of NSW
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