Strengthened through Hardship: Growing up in Ethiopia
My birth found my parents waiting in Dallas, barrels packed with belongings, ready to go to Ethiopia and waiting for visas. Emperor Haile Selassie had ruled Ethiopia for several decades, and had invited missionaries to come from the West to help his people. His goals were to establish schools, hospitals, and Christianity among the 85 tribes that made up the nation of Ethiopia. However, there was great opposition to his invitation from the quarters of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC). We soon discovered that all visa applications for missionaries were being put at the bottom of the pile by authorities faithful to the EOC. When the Emperor realized this, he ordered all applications to be sent directly to him. So the Emperor himself signed the visa application for my family to join the work of God in the land of Ethiopia.
My young parents and infant me boarded a freighter ship in New York harbor. After 6 weeks, stopping at various ports along the way, we entered the Suez Canal and travelled down the Red Sea. Everything we needed for 4 years was packed into strong metal barrels. From Aden, we flew to Addis Ababa and joined the other young couples who had forsaken the American Dream for service to the King of Kings.
The first item of business was to learn the language. I toddled around while Mom and Dad studied the very difficult Amharic language; this language had just been announced as the "national" language, though few Ethiopians outside the Amhara tribe or the capital knew the language. It consisted of letters that were similar to Hebrew, and some vocabulary words were almost exactly Hebrew. So Dad had a jump-start on the language, having taken Hebrew in seminary. Dad's intention was to teach in a rural Bible school, but the Sudan Interior Mission with whom they served decided to use him in the academic schools instead.
So we were sent down-country to the Bobitcho mission station in the Hadiya section of Ethiopia. The station was outside of Hosanna Town, which was little more than a small grouping of huts. But its claim to fame was as the gathering place for market day. People from all over the area would gather to swap food and things in the typical bartering of the ancient world.
On our little mission compound, we had 4 mission homes, a little clinic, a women's Bible school, a men's Bible school, and Daddy's academic school. The school had already been started, but he expanded it, adding a bookstore, a classroom building, and a student dorm. Today, those buildings are still standing and were in use until just a couple of years ago. Daddy's work started with convincing fathers that it was a good thing to release their sons from cattle duty so that they could come to school. Once in school, he had to teach them the Amharic language, so that they could proceed with Bible, Science, Writing, History, and Mathematics. He was very progressive in running the school and brought many new things (like field trips and economic ventures) to the students. Even now, the name of Tex Lapsley is known, and he is remembered with respect for his hard work and innovative ways.
From about age 2 until age 7 this compound was my home base. I remember squatting with the Ethiopian students around the fire in their dorm, eating roasted grain called "Kolo." I loved to roam the countryside and am told that once I wandered into a swollen creek at about the age of three. A student in my father's class looked out the window and saw me in the creek, apparently drowning. He ran out of the class and rescued me. I have vivid memories of being out in the fields and along dirt paths herding the cattle, goats, and sheep with the Ethiopian children. I picked up the tribal language, as only children can, and a smattering of the national language, so I was able to communicate with my Ethiopian playmates. I remember well the Ethiopian breeze and the view of the countryside, so pristine and unpolluted with development. I remember the smell of Eucalyptus trees and the calling of voices from hut to hut.
It was a calm, secure environment to my child mind. We lived in a 2-bedroom home made of mud and sticks with a corrugated tin roof. My mother cooked on a wood stove and we collected water from the spring a distance away, which was brought to our home on the back of a donkey. At first we had only kerosene lamps, but eventually we added a generator.
I loved the out of doors! And I had no fear, except of hyenas. My father tells me that he had to instill that fear into me. He sat me on our front porch and spoke very sternly to me of how hyenas would eat little girls who wandered from home when the sun was setting. His discussion must have worked, because my fear of hyenas became deeply entrenched. Each night we would hear them prowling, sometimes under our windows, sometimes in the distance. Once my mother accidentally left a heavy aluminum pot outside with boiled milk in it; the next morning we found it moved a distance away, the mark of hyena teeth deeply embedded in its thick wall. For me, two activities took special courage: going to the outhouse at night, and going out to ring the large bell for prayer meeting. I learned early to discipline my fears. I would force myself to walk, not run or even trot. Scared to death, I disciplined my legs to walk all the way out to where the bell hung in the middle of the compound. But the instant the loud gong sounded, all the pent-up energy inside of me burst forth, and I ran for all I was worth for the safety of our front door!
There was a little groove in the ground around that bell tower. We played a game, pretending that inside the groove was our home. Someone was the hyena, and the rest of us were trying get safely into our “home.” We had marked where the imaginary door was, but to enter we had to say “unlock” “lock-lock,” otherwise the hyena was free to enter our “home,” and no worse tragedy could befall us!
While stationed at Bobitcho, my sister Bonnie was born in our bedroom, and my sister Barbara was born at a mission hospital. Mom and Dad came down with "infectious hepatitis" soon after language school, and it sapped their strength. Still they struggled on, doing the humongous work of raising a family and establishing a mission station in the rural back country of Ethiopia.
As the years passed, I became more Ethiopian than American. My rhythm was the rhythm of Ethiopia. Rainy seasons found me drinking in the sound of water on the tin roof and slopping through mud puddles in my galoshes. Dry seasons found me with the Ethiopian children out in the fields. Everyone knew me; everyone loved me. I was one of them. The primitive conditions and the work of ministry kept my parents (especially my father) always busy; we had little family time. The Ethiopians became my extended family. And I learned to treasure those rare moments when I had my parents and siblings to myself.
There was a mission rest home nestled on the side of a volcanic lake. It was called Lake Bishoftu. This compound had little cottages that comfortably housed visiting mission families. Some relaxing sports activities were available. Meals were prepared for everyone, and we had devotions all together before eating. This place was paradise to me because I got my parents all to myself and no ministry pulled them away from me. We went there usually 2 or 3 weeks a year, and I was always happy there. There were times out in the row boat on the lake, going through the reeds looking for duck nests with my father. There were times in the wading pool with my mother. There were times playing shuffleboard or ping pong. I remember the time we spent Christmas there, and I was given my first watch. I still have that watch, and it still runs!
How thankful I am to the Lord for this upbringing! My parents were focused on a Kingdom much larger than themselves or their family. They were working so hard! Yet in the midst, God gave us times of refreshment with each other. My sense of security in our family, even with the stresses of primitive mission life, was strong. I had almost no toys, but I had the whole countryside. I had almost no Caucasian friends, but I was welcomed into any Ethiopian hut and incorporated into any Ethiopian family. I wore the same dress all week, but had more clothes than my Ethiopian playmates. Despite our stark existence, I was wealthy in things that really mattered.
Then came boarding school. Not long after my sixth birthday, I was sent away from my parents, away from my Ethiopian extended family, away from my home. It was a long way to the capital from our little mission station. Today that distance is spanned easily, but in those early years, it was a long trek and transportation was undependable.
The boarding school was the Mission's answer to the education of missionary children. Although today there are many options open to missionary parents (including day schools and home schooling), boarding school was the only option of education in those days. In fact, it was commonplace even for many non-missionary families living in England. In Ethiopia, we were rejoicing that now a new boarding school had been built, right in the country in which we resided; we were not obligated to travel across the African continent for school. In previous years, the children were kept on the North American continent for 4 years; they were allowed to see their parents only during times of furlough. So our boarding school, called Bingham Academy, was a great improvement over past schools, and we had much to be thankful for.
But no boarding school is a substitute for a family. And as this transition took place in my life, a deep pain developed. Although I was cared for physically, there was little emotional support and almost no love. Gone was the nurture and protection of parents. The school ran like clockwork: gettin' up time, mealtimes, class times, bedtimes. For me, the worst day of the week was Saturday, when other students were gone to their homes nearby and there was no timetable for activity. The loneliness became overwhelming. On a rare occasion my parents came up to the capital, and then I was allowed to stay overnight on weekends in the apartments at Headquarters. But usually one month rolled into the next with little contact from parents and no personal recognition from school staff.
We had 2 grades per school room, and I turned out to be an average student. I was tall, so was always placed in the back seats of the room. I continued to love the outdoors, and after school was often playing in the woods of the school compound, or swinging high on the swings. An absolute favorite time at Bingham was Friday suppers, when the meal was served outside: all-you-can-eat enjera 'b wot, the national food of Ethiopia. I would get my food and move only a short distance away, eat and be back for seconds before anyone else could turn around!
I remember bedtime story hour. We got into our pajamas, donned a robe, and gathered in a large room, sitting on the wooden floor. Mr. Freeman, one of the staff, would tell us make-believe stories about a wooden-legged man. I don't remember any of the stories, but I remember the sense of warmth and excitement as the story unfolded; the hour was a faint reflection of times with my family down-country. This same man also taught me umpteen verses of the old hymns. He would make posters with pictures and words, and we would sing over and over and over again. Each time we sang, he removed one of the posters, forcing us to memorize the words. To this day, I can sing all the stanzas of those old hymns, thanks to Mr. Freeman at Bingham Academy.
Another joy at boarding school was the Bible memory program. Each week we were assigned passages (not verses, but passages) to memorize. In the central hall was a large chart with the name of each student. As we recited our verses, a beautiful shiny star appeared by our name. At the end of the school year, first, second, and third prizes were awarded to those who had earned them. These prizes were coveted by me -- an opportunity to swim in the swimming pool of the royal family, a campout in the woods, a trip to an Ethiopian restaurant. Although I worked hard for the prizes, I was gaining a better prize of which I was not aware. The Holy Scriptures were being planted in my mind and heart, and from these plantings would sprout a solid foundation for the trials to come. My virgin child mind soaked up the words. "Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in Me. In my Father's House are many mansions. If it were not so I would have told you...." "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law does he meditate day and night. He shall be like a tree, planted by the rivers of water...." As I write, so many passages rush into my mind, passages learned at the ripe ages of 7, 8, 9, or 10, and forever inscribed on my heart.
One day I was running with other students down the hill towards the classroom. A girl fell. Her name was Mary. She was a very happy girl, full of song and bubbling over with joy. We were racing back to the school room after our lunch break. After falling, she called to me to help her. I turned around and walked back, pulling her to her feet. Then we continued on towards the classroom. Again she fell, and again I picked her up. But the third time she fell, I thought she was playing a game with me, and I was worried about being late for class, and the inevitable punishment to follow that tardiness. So on the third fall, I refused to help her up. I made it into the classroom just in time, leaving Mary sitting on the hillside. The teacher realized Mary was gone, and sent me and another student to get her. By that evening Mary was severely paralyzed; the diagnosis was polio. She was airlifted to America and placed in an "iron lung." It shocked the school, as we realized the fragility of life. Suddenly this beautiful, sweet girl who loved to sing was gone, stricken to the core of her being. That experience sobered me greatly.
Shortly after my seventh birthday, Emperor Haile Selassie travelled abroad, and in his absence some military officials attempted to take the government. School had ended for the year, but there were still a few of us remaining, waiting for arrangements to be made to join our parents in the rural areas. I was one of a small handful that remained at the Academy. Shooting was everywhere. The Mission evacuated all personnel from Headquarters, and I remember so many grown adults weeping with stress and fear. But in my own heart was peace and calm. Somehow, God had planted in my heart a calm assurance that He was still there, and nothing was beyond His control. So why worry about it? Stay indoors, keep low, do what is reasonable...but why live in fear when God was still on the Throne? I will never forget how much I wondered at my own calm when adults all around me were falling apart. All I can say is that the Spirit of God was upon this little girl, bringing her into an understanding of His faithfulness.
From time to time the land of Ethiopia would be plagued with locusts. Hordes of them blackened the sky, shutting out the sun. They ate everything and got everywhere! When I was 8 or 9 years old such a horde came. I distinctly remember the thick black cloud travelling towards our school. As the number of locusts became more numerous, we ran for the shelter of our dorm and closed the door securely. We could hear them hitting the door and windows outside, but we didn't dare open the door even for a small peek; we knew we would be overwhelmed by the horde. After some time, we ventured outside to find all foliation stripped! No leaf stood on a tree, no blade of grass remained, no plants were in the flower garden. All was gone, just as if God was replaying the plagues against Pharaoh. It was a dramatic event and it showed me again the power of the God who had created me. I gained a humble understanding of my place in the world. Although I was important to God, I really was nothing. Early on, God squelched temptation towards egotism or independent pride. The lesson in humility that I gained at boarding school was invaluable for Life. And I praise God for the pain of isolation that wrought that lesson.
At age 8 a new point of stress came into my life. My younger sister came to boarding school. As she entered the first grade, my parents made it very clear to me that I was to be to her like a mommy. Her care was placed upon my tender shoulders. I felt the weight greatly. Although I myself longed for a mother, I could not indulge that desire; my sister needed me and my parents were trusting me. Because of this sense that the older takes care of the younger, even though they are only a few short months apart in age, I developed a strong back. I learned early to set aside my own desires and needs in order to meet the desires and needs of my siblings. Each sibling, of course, was different. Some functioned without any apparent need or desire for the oversight of their big sister, but some (especially my sister Bonnie) were very much tied to me.
I would love to have been allowed to be a child myself. I would love to have been free to play, without carrying the burden for others. I would love to have had the shelter, nurture, guidance, and protection of parents for myself. But God in His sovereignty allowed this burden to be placed upon my shoulders. He strengthened my mind, my emotions, and my back for the work at hand on behalf of my sisters.
Bingham Academy was some distance from our rural mission station, and in those days of difficult travel, it was a major challenge to get from Point A to Point B. The school year required boarding for several months in the fall and several months in the spring. One month at Christmas and two months during the summer rainy season were spent with our parents "down-country." My parents could not come to get me every time school opened or closed, so I travelled this distance without their protection. Of course, they tried to arrange things properly, but to my child mind, I was “hung out to dry.” Each trip was by a different route. Sometimes I travelled by bus, sometimes by hollowed-out airplane, sometimes by mule. Sometimes I remained behind at school for a week or two until arrangements could be made. There was no consistency. This inconsistency coupled with the burden of responsibility for my sister created a stress upon my young soul that no words can describe. While my sister played happily, I hung around hoping for someone to claim me and provide some measure of sheltered transportation back home. The adults in my life were known well to my parents, but they were just faces to me. I had no relationship with those who claimed me and told me the plan of getting me home. The stress of this situation cannot be described in words.
Although I continued at boarding school, at about age 8 my parents were moved from Bobitcho mission station to Gembo mission station. This was a brand new station, far to the south in the Burji district of Ethiopia. It truly was the end of the earth! Daddy built our home; it was nestled on the side of a mountain overlooking the Suggan Valley, and today it is the only mission home still standing. The missionaries used to joke that only at the Burji airstrip were blindfolds issued to the passengers; the little airplane swung into a small valley and landed going up the mountainside. As at Bobitcho, we had 3 or 4 mission houses, an elementary school, a small clinic and a Bible school.
In the early morning, our station was above the clouds; I would look down upon the flat layer of clouds and feel that I was sitting in the heavens. About noon the clouds rose to the level of our station, so we were often in fog during the mid-day. Only in the afternoons, were we under the clouds. Daddy established church-schools around the Burji and Amaro region; he placed those students who had completed 4th grade in charge of these schools. From time to time he went trekking to visit the churches and check on his schools. As a result of his work, the education level of the Burji people sky-rocketed! They learned to read, write and do math. They learned organizational skills and structure. They moved from the primitive to the developed. Years later many of Daddy's students, both from Bobitcho and from Gembo, went on to universities around the world and took positions of leadership in government and education.
Burji was very remote; it sat in the mountains, and driving to it was treacherous, especially in the rainy season. As the vehicle was slipping and sliding along the road, Death loomed just a few feet away as the road met the precipitous drop to the valley below. On one trip, my parents were returning from the capital. My brother and mother had broken bones; each was in a cast. My mother was fully pregnant with her sixth child, and my sister Beverly (aged 3) was with them. The vehicle slid, and 2 wheels were left hanging over the edge. Quietly, my father instructed my mother to very carefully and very slowly get out of the vehicle with the children. She stood on the road with her two children and watched as her husband tried to redeem the situation. "Mommy, what are we doing?" my sister Beverly asked her. "We're praying, honey. We're praying," my mother replied. (Yes, my father was able to get the vehicle off the cliff. I think removing my mother and siblings from the hanging portion of the vehicle allowed it to get more traction on those wheels still connected to the soil.)
That little story tells so much about the isolation and complete abandonment with which we lived. We were shut up to the Lord, in situations only He could possibly know about, and where only He could possibly help. Sometime later, my mother learned that the Lord had awoken a prayer partner in America; while she was on her knees pleading on behalf of my family, the Lord's arm was moved to save my father from destruction.
The summer of 1963 was a great summer. Burji was close to the Kenyan border, so we took several weeks and went camping through Kenya and Tanganyika (now Tanzania). We camped in the rough, on the savanna. We encountered rhinos, elephants, ostrich, wildebeests, lions, baboons, leopards, and many other wild animals. It was this summer that I saw a hyena for the first time. I can still remember the shivers running through my body as I looked at that ugly creature; he seemed the personification of the Devil himself! We concluded our trip at the Indian Ocean in the wonderful town of Mombasa. Those beautiful, clear, warm waters nurtured my soul, and the fresh luscious fruits were beyond description! But the greatest joy of all was being with my family. All of this was such a change from our simple but demanding life on the Burji mountainside. How thankful I am to the Lord for that experience. Today, much of that African wildlife is gone, thanks to poachers. But it will live forever in my memory.
Little did we know that our time in Ethiopia was coming to a close. As we drove out of Kenya back to Burji, the Lord was setting in place the pieces to move us back to America. I was taken back to boarding school for another term, this time with 2 sisters to care for. My parents began the long trek in our land-rover over the Burji mountains to the station. The road was rough, and my mother's head hit the ceiling of the vehicle. As the months passed, she began to have severe headaches. Soon the headaches were intolerable. Medical care in Ethiopia was very primitive; they struggled on in the work, but finally called for a mission airplane. As a fellow missionary wrote of the situation: "Today the plane is coming to take the Lapsleys to Addis Ababa. Betty has been ill for a week with headaches and bad vision. She is on pain medicine all the time, and the nurse here thinks it could be serious….. I feel sorry for Betty. This morning she said, 'I must be a stone that needs more polishing.' She has had a lot of health problems. Her one eye is so bad that she has had it taped shut for several days, and she has such head pains. We hope she gets help soon" (LaVerna Ediger, Worth it All, p. 184).
Of course, at Bingham Academy, I had no idea of the situation. All I knew was that my father showed up one Friday and said, "We're leaving Ethiopia." I did not understand things, but I knew my heart was breaking. As we travelled the distance from the school to Headquarters, I cried and cried and cried. "Ethiopia, I'll come back! I'll come back!"
By Sunday afternoon we were gone, for the first time travelling by air. My mother was totally incapacitated. They had made the windows dark to block out all light. She couldn't eat. My father was stressed, trying to get all the business things in order, as well as manage six children. The night before we flew away from Ethiopia, he went from child to child, digging out the jiggers that had lodged under our toe nails. What a memory!
(Jiggers are not chiggers. I think jiggers are unique to Africa. They are little worms that burrow under nails, laying their eggs and eating the flesh. There is no cure, even today, for jiggers. Treatment consists of digging them out, then soaking the affected area in laundry detergent or kerosene. The treatment is VERY painful. I remember many times that my parents had to deal with jiggers in my feet.)
It was not until many years later that I realized why God brought us back from Ethiopia. Now I firmly believe that the God who had created me and who loved me looked from Heaven and saw a little girl who was going down for the third time under the stress of boarding school. I was at the breaking point. I was trying so hard to cope, to care for my sisters, to be strong. But I needed a family. I needed the nurture, protection, and care that every child needs. By now I was having recurrent dreams, or perhaps they were fantasies, about being taken from school in much the same way that Mary had been taken. Always, I was deathly sick, and as I am leaving the school my fellow students and the staff are crying and telling me how much they love me. My dream/fantasy never went beyond my departure from school. I do not know if I died, or if I returned later. All I knew was that finally someone told me that I was loved.
I never doubted that my parents loved me, but they were too far away to show me. The Mission policy was the best one for the times. I'm confident that there was no intention to harm me, and I harbor no bitterness. There are many Missionary Kids – MKs -- who have shared similar pains, but they have not been able to look beyond the pain to see the love of parents and the protection of God. Today they are full of bitterness and hostility towards the Gospel, towards missions, and towards their parents. SIM and other mission agencies have taken the pain seriously and have revamped some policies so that families are strengthened. Although I didn't realize the depth of the pain at the time, God in His grace protected my child heart. He sees the heart and the pain of all children; He is not a distant God. And if we embrace His love, the pain of childhood will not destroy us. The power and love of the Lord Jesus is stronger than any tragic circumstance in Life. It has been my joy to experience the reality of that truth.
At age 2, outside our kitchen on Bobitcho mission station in Hadiya, Ethiopia.
Feeding our horse at Bobitcho.
Daddy and I in a rowboat at Bishoftu, the mission rest area.
With my two sisters Bonnie and Barbara, the year we left Ethiopia.
September 2, 2013