Today I visited one of my dearest friends, Mary Ellen Edmunds. I first met her in 1981 in the Missionary Training Center. Mary Ellen taught all of the Sisters every Sunday morning in the big cafeteria/gym. We loved her weekly lessons and laughed and cried with her. I was in the MTC to learn how to be a good missionary and to learn how to speak Afrikaans. I was the only Sister in the MTC going to South Africa.
After 10 intensive weeks of language study from morning until night, it was time for us to fly. I’d memorized all of my lessons and passed everything off. I was speaking Afrikaans quite fluently. Then the travel office told us our visas had not arrived. They had no idea when we would get them. They made a yellow sad-faced sign that said “South Africa” on it and hung it in the travel office window so we wouldn’t bother them by asking every day about our visas.
Weeks passed. (Now they send “visa waiters” to other assignments to work while they wait.) We ended up staying in the MTC an extra 5 weeks, 15 weeks total. I was the only one in my group who had learned Afrikaans well enough to pass off all the lessons. My teachers weren’t sure what to do with me while we waited. That’s when we came up with a great idea. Mary Ellen was teaching missionaries with special assignments. Many were going to work in refugee camps in Asia. Some were older couples going into third world countries.
Permission was given for me to sit in on her classes and learn about humanitarian work. Interestingly, her classes lasted for 5 weeks. The day after I completed all of her training, a miracle happened–the sign at the travel office had a big smiley face on it–our visas had arrived! I felt like thanking the rest of my group for waiting for me to have that specialized training. Not long after I arrived in South Africa, my assignment was changed from proselyting to welfare services work, and that’s where my love for the African people really began. That was more than 40 years ago now.
After I returned from a year and a half in South Africa, I was offered a job working at the MTC with Mary Ellen. It was a dream job, helping to prepare others for the kind of experiences I’d had. I graduated from BYU in 1984, and that ended my job there, but before long, I was invited to go with Mary Ellen to Nigeria to start a child’s health project there. We left in the fall of 1984 for the village of Eket, in what was then called Cross River State (now Kwa Ibom State). We had a ball, figuring out how to manage without running water or electricity, killing cockroaches and preserving them in our wax museum (we used candles for light at night), and learning from our local friends.
After a few months, Mary Ellen got deathly ill and had to be evacuated by helicopter. I traveled with her to the States in the middle of a blizzardy winter storm. We were dressed in cotton skirts and flip-flops as we navigated the different terminals at JFK, Mary Ellen in a wheelchair. She was checked into the hospital in Salt Lake, and stayed there for a few weeks. I returned to Eket.
Mary Ellen tells people I saved her life. The truth is, she saved mine. She was my mentor and teacher, my companion and friend. Everything about my life changed after meeting her. You all know the rest of the story. I’ve now lived many years in Africa and have been involved in humanitarian work for as long as I can remember. I have Mary Ellen to thank for that. I would be a different person had I not known her. Mary Ellen Edmunds opened my heart and poured hers into it. There is no way I can ever repay her for that gift.
Here are a few historical photos of me teaching in the Transkei, (then an independent black nation in South Africa), and in Nigeria with Mary Ellen.