We return for our final update; Meli is to be married, and Mrs. May, having recently lost her husband, decides to organize the wedding herself.
Whatever the reason, when it came time for the wedding, they really made a whole to-do of it. Mrs. May went to Meli’s future father-in-law, telling him she wanted to organize the wedding herself but she wanted to do it in accordance with Mambwe custom, saying “I shall buy the oil, perfume, and flour to anoint her during the wedding.” The one exception was that she said “I will not brew beer.” On the day of the wedding, Mrs. May had invited a whole bunch of people, including Meli’s relatives and her soon-to-be-husband’s relatives, and it seems like it was a great time. There was music and “great rejoicing,” and everything seems to have gone fantastic. Mrs. May got in on the action when, as the bride’s “mother,” she was cajoled into getting up and dancing, and apparently when she got on the dance floor the club really went wild:
“Mother of the girl, why don’t you come and take up the nsimba [finger piano] and let it be heard?” But she replied, “Fellow women, you must show me how.” The forced her and she joined in the dance. When the people saw how she danced they went wild dancing… the house was filled with excitement.”
After the wedding, Meli actually continued to stay at the mission (which… she was probably about 12, maybe 13). The missionaries wanted Jones to escort Mama May to Karonga on Lake Malawi (then called Lake Nyassa), where she would start her journey by boat back to England. They probably set out around May in 1902, and Meli joined Jones and Mrs. May on the trip to Karonga. They remained in Karonga for about a month while they waited for other missionaries to arrive. Then, having seen Mrs. May off, Jones and Meli returned to the mission, where Meli continued to spend another three weeks working for the mission before “they finally called my husband to come and take me away.”
To put a coda on these missionary women, it doesn’t seem that Mrs. Purves and Mrs. May travelled together, but Mrs. Purves also returned to England around this time. Mr. Purves had died unexpectedly on November 18th, 1901. I lost track of Mrs. Purves in the pages of The Chronicle after it notes that Mrs. Purves arrived in England “from Lake Tanganyika, Central Africa, per steamer Dunvegan Castle, on September 6th,” 1902. It wasn’t until the next month’s issue that The Chronicle noted the arrival in England of “Mrs. May and child, from Lake Tanganyika, Central Africa, per steamer Walmer Castle, on September 13th,” 1902. Mrs. May pops up a few more times in the pages of The Chronicle over the next few years. At a Society meeting in June of 1903, she seems to be grappling with the legacy of what the missionaries were doing in Central Africa, berating herself and her fellow missionaries for a “lack of prayer and slackness in habits of devotion,” and worrying about “backsliding on the part of many whom the missionaries had considered examples of Christian life and conduct,” referring to people they had converted. About a year after that, in May of 1904, Mrs. May is noted as speaking at an event where people were assembling “missionary boxes” (kinda like those UNICEF trick-or-treat boxes). The article ends with an especially cute note: “A very interesting box was that of Mrs. May’s tiny daughter, the youngest worker in the assembly” (she would have been about 2½ at the time). Mrs. May also seems to have gained a more favorable view of the Society’s legacy in Central Africa:
Mrs. John May, B.A., late of Central Africa, said she thought that looking back over the twelve or thirteen years since permanent work had been carried on in connection with the present chapter of the history of the Central African Mission, they saw wonderful signs of progress. Intertribal warfare was a thing of the past; slave raiding, at any rate openly, was entirely gone; some of the barbarous heathen practices of the olden days had been swept away through the presence of Christian workers and a more settled government.
I haven’t looked way too hard, but she seems to have stuck with the London Missionary Society, and doesn’t seem to have remarried. She helped to author a report for the Society in 1924. As for her daughter, one day I’ll dig into what The Chronicle has to say about it, but at the end of her story, Meli notes “In 1936 a mishap occurred at Senga. Porrit’s wife died. She was Mama May’s daughter, whom I used to look after, the one I used to call ‘my sister’ because her mother had cared for me as if I were her own child.”
But! This story is supposed to be about Mama Meli. After finally leaving the mission, the first thing that happened is that Meli had another wedding. Apparently for all the people that Mrs. May invited, she had not invited Meli’s new father-in-law, Mutota, who didn’t even know about it. He was so upset that he threw a whole second wedding, and unlike Mrs. May he “soaked a large quantity of millet and made plenty of beer.” There was more drama at this point about the fact that Meli didn’t know how to grind millet (which is the first step in making nshima), but I guess Meli just paid someone else to do it. After the wedding, Meli and Jones went back to Kawimbe, where the mission had built a house for them.
Meli titles the next part of her story “We Become Wealthy.” Since Mrs. May and the missionaries had acted as Meli’s parents during the engagement, they had received the brideprice paid by Jones. I guess they didn’t quite know what to do with it, because they all (the missionaries) got together and decided to give Meli and Jones back the brideprice, plus interest in the form of a cow. The happy couple settled down, and about a year after marriage had their first child in 1903 (making Meli about 13). They name this child Elizabeth, I assume after Mrs. May.
Here Meli mentions a man she calls Heman. This is James Hemans, who was in Africa as a missionary for the society along with his wife, Marcia. I really need to dig up more information about the Hemans, but if you click on that last link the mission did not treat them well. But Meli and Jones went to greet the Hemans at Niamkolo and visited for five days. When they left, the Hemans gave Jones a roll of calico cloth and six shirts, along with “little dresses and diapers” for baby Elizabeth, and then to Meli a “small roll of spotted cloth, fashionable for women, and a bunch of black beads,” and to the both of them “a tin of sugar, three boxes of soap, sugarcane, a bunch of bananas, and a bag of rice.” He had to send two people along with Meli and Jones just to help them carry all these gifts. Jones took these gifts and started running a shop, which set the couple up nicely.
At this point, I have to skim through the rest of Meli’s life, because I am like 4,600 words into this at this point and I will have probably spread it out over three weeks, if not more, and I know my loyal readership is probably tired of Meli. Anyways. Elizabeth unfortunately died in 1905 at age two of smallpox. Meli had a second child, a boy, in 1907, named Satu. In 1910 they had another child named Kela, who died before being a year old, and in 1911 they had a girl named Lukoti. She notes then “the last-born was named Henry.”
They couple had a setback in World War I when the German forces looted the wealth they had, but Jones got a job with the district officer buying mealie meal (corn/millet flour to make nshima with) for the forces, and then later another gig distributing supplies to military carriers, and then a final job hunting for game to feed the soldiers. Meli and her husband got to witness the German surrender at the end of WWI, but shortly thereafter in January 1919 Jones died. According to Mambwe custom, Meli was “inherited” by her late husband’s family, and they chose for her to marry a man named Mbokosi. She objected because he was already married, but he divorced his first wife and Meli married him. Mbokosi squandered all of Meli’s money, leaving the children uncared for, so in 1922 she left him and returned to Kawimbe mission, where she got a domestic job.
In 1925, she then married again, to a man named Harry Sichikandawa. He had told her he was single, but this was a lie because he was already married, but Meli wound up staying as his second wife. While she was living in Kasama with Harry, she was recruited by the hospital to learn midwifery. In 1934, Harry died, and Meli returned to Kawimbe. She would remain there for most of the rest of her life, with interludes living with her children in other places, and held various jobs with the mission. In 1945, Meli became ordained as an elder of the church, and preached in surrounding villages, before eventually dying in 1972. Meli was born long enough ago that she didn’t know what shoes were when she first saw Mrs. Purves wearing them, and at a time when slavers were still capturing children to be sold in the markets in Zanzibar. But she persevered through every challenge and when she died, it was in an independent Zambia, when the future couldn’t have looked more bright.
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