'Hearing the song Circle of Life from the Lion King still makes me sad' The Congo, with its poisonous snakes and threat of malaria, is a long way from Tonyrefail. But for Margaret Maund, her time spent on missionary work there was worth the sacrifices. As she publishes her second book chronicling her adventures, RACHEL MAINWARING learns more about her colourful exploits.
MARGARET Maund learned to laugh in the Congo. And, 40 years on, the former nurse and midwife still credits her time in the African forest for teaching her how to laugh out loud.
Despite suffering several bouts of malaria herself and nursing people with severe leprosy in hospitals with no running water or electricity, one of Margaret's lasting memories of her five years in the Congo is what she calls "that very special African laugh" which radiated throughout her days working as a missionary.
The 71 year old, from Tonyrefail, one of the first women to be ordained a priest in the Church in Wales, has s published a revealing book about her experiences as a nurse in war-torn central Africa.
In Congo Calling, she tells the story of how wanderlust overcame her during her mid-20s and, after a few years studying French and tropical medicine in Antwerp, she travelled to war-torn Belgian Congo, in central Africa, to work as a medical missionary.
It's a fascinating tale of poisonous snakes, crocodiles and insects, and, though she has overriding happy memories of her five years from 1968, she admits many tears were shed as she relived her experiences.
"I cried a lot writing the book, bucket loads in fact. And though I was so happy to have been there, I'm sad that I couldn't stay longer. Whenever I hear the song Circle of Life from the Lion King film, it reminds me of my time there and makes me feel sad.
"My father was seriously ill when I was out there and I had to come home because he was not expected to live very long, which he didn't.
"And then, due to poor health, I couldn't return and I will always be sad about that.
"I absolutely loved it there. Despite the heat and the snakes, it was a wonderful joyful time. The locals were just so happy to be alive, there was a wonderful gaiety about the place. It was joyful and it's where I learnt how to laugh properly. They had that special African laugh, that just gets louder and louder. When people hear it, it's very infectious and they just pick it up," said Margaret.
"It's like a crescendo of noise that you can hear and it needs nothing to spark it off. I've been reprimanded many times since for my laugh and I blame it on the Africans."
Born and bred in Tonyrefail, Margaret left school at 15 and trained as a nurse at the former East Glamorgan Hospital in Church Village in the early 1960s.
After working as a midwife in Cardiff she joined the Baptist Missionary Society and the opportunity to travel came up.
After learning French in Belgium and studying tropical medicine, Margaret flew into the Belgian Congo, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. In deep, isolated jungle 1,000 miles from the capital Leopoldville, now called Kinshasa, Margaret took charge of the maternity unit at Pimu Hospital in 1968.
She says she was neither homesick nor scared, despite living in very different surroundings than her comfortable home in the Rhondda.
"Many of the locals couldn't understand why I wasn't married. It wasn't really the sort of place to be a single woman. Men are used very much as protectors and they kept telling me my father must have been very unkind to have let me go on my own.
"But I really wasn't worried about it, although I didn't get to celebrate any of my birthdays out there. They didn't use to celebrate birthdays and would only know how old they were due to some event like a monsoon or the harvest.
"So I missed my 25th birthday and the next four, so when I spent my 30th back home in Wales, I couldn't believe I'd actually reached 30."
Working with two missionary doctors and their wives and local staff, Margaret served 10,000 members of the Ngombe tribe.
The people were quite unwell due to the rebellion there in 1967.
As well as working in the 12-bed maternity unit, Margaret taught student nurses, worked in the operating theatre and treated people suffering from leprosy.
But she remembers much happiness, despite people's illnesses.
She said: "There was a positive gladness, a gaiety that they were alive, that life was precarious but they had survived.
"Leprosy was still a big problem and there were still active cases of leprosy over the years I was there. But the medical conditions were getting better, so we were able to improve their condition quite considerably."
One problem that Margaret did encounter, and would rather not deal with ever again, was snakes.
"It was terrifying, although the boys and men acted as great protectors. But they were mostly poisonous, and those that weren't would have been able to crush someone to death.
"They were about the whole time and some would come quite close if they were hungry, looking for a chicken, a goat or even a dog to eat.
"The adder-type snakes were the worse and I was never able to fully relax.
"I also had an pair of men's wellies that weren't comfortable but gave me some protection, despite the heat."
Temperatures were extremely high and because Margaret spent so much time under canopies there was never a breeze, which added to her health problems.
After returning home, she was so poorly that she was told she would not be able to return.
She had suffered from malaria while out there and the sticky, humid conditions caused migraines and affected her eyesight.
Margaret, who has already released a book on her early life entitled Decades of Discovery, was devastated but went on to become a midwifery teacher, training midwives at Llwynypia and East Glamorgan Hospital and then at Prince Charles Hospital in Merthyr.
"I wrote the book because so many people have asked me about my time out there.
"I covered it in my first book but people wanted more detail and it was so easy to remember because it feels like yesterday.
"I'm always writing and hope to write another book on local events and things that have happened since.
"It's still busy but I'm in my 70s now so I'm not as fit and mobile but I do my best."
| Congo Calling is priced PS7.95 and is published by Y Lolfa
Margaret Maund spent five years in the Congo. She is pictured, left, with nursing staff and, right, with locals during her time there
| Anglican priest Marggaret Maund from Tonyrefail with her book, Congo Calling, and, below, some of her photos from her years as a nurse and midwife in Africa PICTURE: Andrew James (c)
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|Publication:||South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)|
|Date:||Jul 9, 2013|
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