Today would have been the 100th birthday of my maternal grandfather, Harry F. Buerer. Born in California, he attended Wheaton College where he played football and met my grandmother, Victoria Prinzing. You can read about their adventures in the Belgian Congo and get a small glimpse of what a magnificent man he was.
All my grandmother's life, she fully believed there was no higher calling than being a missionary to Africa. I wouldn't be surprised if she started planning even as a young girl how she would eschew the comforts of her sheltered Midwestern upbringing and venture to the harsh climate of the Belgian Congo. But upon arriving in Africa as an adult, she quickly realized the whole experience was more than what she bargained for.
From the time the Buerers left Chicago to begin their journey as missionaries in 1946, my grandmother kept diaries to remember their experiences. And, oh, what adventures they had. From sickness to burglary to giving birth to my aunt in the back of a car, their entire lives turned upside down. I sense frustration and a tremendous amount of homesickness by her words. I also found some lovely things, mainly what a wonderful man my grandfather was. From giving my grandmother perms to delivering their fourth child, he showed an incredible amount of love and responsibility for his family. I cherish him.
And now we've arrived at my grandmother's final entries, mostly dealing with the family's preparations for their return to America. It's much shorter than the other years, and I find the very last bit telling and somewhat heartbreaking. Throughout her diaries, she shows lack of propriety, and her account comes from another time and place. I'm grateful to her for her candor and memories and for sharing this story.
January 9, 1949
Driver ants got into our house a few nights ago. We had to get out of bed to get away from therm. They were in every room in the house.
Three little boys came here who were infected from being circumcised. They look awful. We've been putting medicine on them every day.
Art and Harry went antelope hunting but didn't catch anything.
The crazy man has been a nuisance. Harry wrote to the Secretary and he was here to see us.
Harry and I have been taking care of six little boys who were circumcised and got infected.
Our passport came Friday.
Ira Cross came here Friday morning and we all went with him to Kimpata to see about putting a new teacher there. Then we went to Luembe and spent the day. We learned how to play Mah Jong. They brought us home after supper and we played again here.
Harry preached the service there (Luembe). We played Mah Jong in the afternoon and they brought us back this evening.
We've been getting things ready to go to Tshene and Kikwit, taking inventory of our food, etc.
I've been sewing as much as possible to make dresses for the girls and me to wear home.
I had a women's class Friday afternoon. 8 women came and seemed very interested especially in the flannel graph story.
Minte made a native dress for me to wear home.
We received a telegram giving us reservations on the Del Rio arriving in Matadi about April 6.
Monday morning we left Tshene for Kikwit arriving there about 2:30. Tuesday morning we shopped, then went to the hospital for yellow fever shots.
After dinner we got our teeth fixed as Dr. Smith was in Kikwit. Then some more shopping and we started home at 3:30. After dark the lights suddenly went out and we almost landed in the ditch. We waited for the moon but it was too cloudy to do much good. We rode home the rest of the way (about 40 miles) without lights and Harry's eyes were quite sore for days later.
Friday afternoon was my women's class. There were 12 out, all 8 from before and 4 new ones. Ejum was sick so the teacher Josefi interpreted for me.
I am sewing dresses for the girls to wear on the way home.
Thursday morning Peggy Ann fell off the bed. We thought she broke her arm and called the doctor. He said it wasn't broken but he thought it was cracked.
We've been selling lots of our things.
(Lots of packing and getting boxes ready to ship.)
We celebrated Lois' 2nd birthday at Eyeme Friday. Clara Belle baked a cake for her.
Marilyn was sick all week. Last Sunday she got fever and was hot all day Monday. Diarrhea started Tuesday and Thursday she started passing blood. Clara Belle had some dysentery pills and we tried them on her. She is a little better now.
Saturday morning we packed up and about 3 o'clock the suitcases and some of the folks went to Mangai. We went the next load and waited for the river boat. It was about 6:30 when the Luxemburg(sic) came in and we went aboard. We have three cabins. This morning I had to wash our dirty clothes. A cobra came onto Ronk's porch yesterday and the men killed it.
The river boat got to Leopoldville Wednesday morning about 8:30. Before we got off the boat a lady came and told us we would have to fly to Matadi the next morning to meet the ship.
(A lot of this diary entry is illegible. I'll try and decipher as best I can.)
The bank and ...were closed because it was Wednesday afternoon and we couldn't get any traveler's checks or American money.
Harry was quite sick but he helped pack and I finished it after 11 o'clock. We got up at 5 as we had to be at the airport at 6. We flew to Matadi in 1 1/2 hours. Our cases will have to go on the next boat.
In Matadi we came by taxi and went through customs and then onto the boat. Harry was pretty sick but had to go back to turn in the matriculation cars. It was awfully hot.
The boat left Matadi about 1:30. We have 2 nice cabins and the meals are really swell. We stopped at Lagos, Nigeria this morning.
We left Lagos Monday morning. Sunday evening we got off the ship and took a little walk. Then we left again and arrived at Takoradi on the Gold Coast...Next to us was the Fernglen, a Norwegian ship. The Leland Andersons, missionaries from Congo came over to see us. We had met them in Leo 3 years ago. Mr. & Mrs. Kennedy from Nigeria also came over to see us the first night. The next morning we all got into a row boat and rowed over to visit them. There were two single women missionaries there, too.
Saturday morning we arrived here at Port Bouet, French Ivory Coast. We have been unloading drums of asphalt.
Two Catholic priests got on at Takoradi along with a native they are taking to America. One of them is certainly a talker.
We have been spending every morning washing and ironing clothes.
The natives on the Gold Coast are on the point of rebellion, trying to get self-government in '49. They are all wearing S.G. signs.
It is so very hot here. We are anxious to get going.
Monday afternoon a barge sank with 32 drums of asphalt and it took a long time salvaging them. The boat sank again after they almost got it out. That delayed us some more.
Friday afternoon was Nancy's 6th birthday. We managed to find a few presents for her but will celebrate her birthday again when we get home.
...It is much cooler since we left Africa and a great relief.
Today is Easter Sunday. One of the priests had an Easter egg hunt for Peggy Ann and Nancy and hid candy for them.
We have had a very calm trip and enjoyed fellowship with Gordon Mellish. The weather has been nice, just cool enough. We've kept busy every morning washing and ironing clothes and usually wash them afternoon and evening, too.
Marilyn pulls herself up by the side of her bed and playpen now to watch us. She fell off a big bed one day and hit her forehead on the corner of a drawer. It is healing nicely.
Nancy got her first "second tooth" way in back of the others which aren't even loose.
We are so anxious to see America and to get home.
I have been waiting since I started posting the diaries of my maternal grandmother’s experience as a missionary in the Belgian Congo to get to probably the most dramatic event of her time there, and possibly her whole life: the birth of my aunt, Marilyn. The rest of 1948 held plenty of drama for them as well.
August 1948 came along, and the Buerer family (Harry, Vickie, and their three daughters, Peggy Ann, Nancy, and Lois) continued their time in Africa dealing with driver ants and a crazy man. My grandmother was pregnant with her fourth child but wasn’t due for another month. One day, my aunt, Peggy, and mother remember my grandfather telling them (along with one of their houseboys) hurriedly to get in the car. From my mother and aunt’s recollections, they recall being completely unfazed by the whole commotion, probably thinking, “Cool, road trip!” My grandmother laid in the back of the car for the journey. On August 29, my grandmother wrote: “Early this morning I started losing blood. We went to Idiofa and the doctor sent us to the hospital at Kikwit.” My grandfather continued the 100+ drive to the hospital as fast as he was able, but halfway there, he stopped and climbed in the back with my grandmother, telling the children to take a walk. My mother remembers looking into the back to see what was going on and my grandfather very pointedly telling her, “GO AWAY.” The children walked along the lane, looking at the flowers and other points of interest they could find. Not long after, my grandfather called to them to come back to the car. “This is your new baby sister! Her name is Marilyn Alice,” he said. The closest doctor they could find in the moment was a dentist a few miles away, and he cleaned them up and took care of them for a few days. Marilyn weighed six pounds. My grandmother remarks at the end of her entry that “Harry drove to Kikwit this afternoon to get the doctor but he refused to come.”
We stayed at Iwungu until Friday morning. Wednesday morning Mrs. Smith got sick and had to stay in bed. Thursday Harry went to Kikwit to do our shopping. A truck came in from Angola that morning and he was able to get fresh cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and onions.
Friday morning we went home. We stopped at Idiofa to see the doctor. He examined both of us and found everything o.k.
Marilyn has been so good. She sleeps almost all the time. She doesn’t even want to wake up to eat.
I stayed in bed most of the week. The food we got in Kikwit tasted so good.
Marilyn weighed 6 lb. 5 oz. today.
The crazy man keeps coming around and bothering us.
Solomon, the teacher, quit and went home. We had to send our cook over to the school to teach. The carpenter left, too.
Monday morning we went to Idiofa. The doctor cut Marilyn’s tongue loose because she was tongue-tied.
Saturday the crazy man walked into our bedroom and today he walked into the dining room twice.
Thursday night a thief climbed in the window of the girls’ room and stole some of their clothes and Lois’ and Peggy Ann’s helmets. He also took our two water drums from the back porch. He dropped some of the clothes on the porch. Harry followed his tracks about five miles but it started to rain and he lost the trail.
Peggy Ann got sick last Sunday and has had fever all week. Today she is feeling a little better.
Peggy Ann has been very sick all week. Thursday we sent for the Idiofa doctor but he was in Leopoldville and wasn’t expected back until the 26th. However, yesterday she began to feel better. She isn’t very strong yet but is playing in bed today.
Harry has been sick in bed the last few days, too.
Petelo went to his village on Monday and came back today. I’ve only had Mubingi in the house.
The teacher didn’t show up to speak in church this morning so I had to take charge of the service. I played Kikongo records on the phonograph.
Thursday was Thanksgiving Day. We had roast duck and pumpkin pie.
Peggy Ann was up all week until Friday. Then the fever came back and she has been very sick. She has a fever and vomits all the time.
Peggy Ann was so sick last Sunday night that I sent for the doctor the first thing Monday morning. He came before noon and said it was appendicitis and we should get her to the hospital at Kikwit.
I telegraphed Harry to stay there and send (sic) Jacob on Emmie’s bike to Tshene. The doctor came again Monday evening and gave her penicillin.
Harry stayed at the hospital all night with her and she was operated on the next morning. She has been getting along all right but is so thin and weak.
We brought Peggy Ann to the Mission Home from the hospital yesterday.
I have been reading Heidi to Peggy Ann every morning in the hospital.
Monday was St. Nicholas Day and St. Nick came to Kikwit with a big party for white children. He sent presents to Peggy Ann in the hospital. Another day he came with his two little girls and brought more presents to her.
Harry stays at the hospital afternoons and nights and I stay there mornings and take Marilyn with me.
Hutchisons and Smiths got a big order of groceries from America Monday.
Monday Harry and I went shopping in Kikwit and bought a lot of groceries.
Harry made a Christmas tree out of wood a couple days ago and covered it with paper. The girls painted it green and are decorating it.
This afternoon a lot of women were trying to have a market behind the school. Harry and I went out and chased them away. We told them they couldn’t have a market on the mission on Sunday.
We celebrated Harry’s birthday with a cake last night.
My maternal grandparents start 1948 in the Belgian Congo as missionaries with no less drama than before. I've edited a lot of what my grandmother wrote and pulled out the things I find most interesting. In the first half of 1948, my grandmother talks of packages received, visits from other missionaries, and travels to Idiofa to go to the post office. She mentions several services were held and how my grandfather worked on a fellow missionary’s roof. They also realized their drinking water had become contaminated and began boiling it. She is pregnant for the fourth time.
This is my birthday. I got a set of cooky (sic) cutters and an alarm clock from the girls. Mamma sent a book of games, a box of candy and a permanent wave. Clarabelle sent a box of powdered sugar.
Harry helped me with the permanent on Wednesday. It is nice to have it but it didn't turn out extra well. On Monday two boxes came from Mamma. There were lots of gifts for the kids.
Friday and Saturday evenings I went to Browers house and played “Make a Million.” Mamma wrote that Bob gave Janet Smith a diamond for Christmas.
Friday our beds finally arrived. We put up the girls’ cots and Harry made a temporary bed from crate boards for our new spring. It certainly feels good to sleep on good beds.
Monday just before noon we had a bad storm. It blew the church down flat. The roof blew off the print shop. Harry hurried to get some canvas to cover the paper but the things in the building got very wet and dirty. Soon afterward the rain stopped and the sun came out so we got all the paper spread out to dry. About four o’clock another rain came up and we had to rush to get everything under cover at the dispensary.
Lois walks by herself now.
Lois’ first birthday was Thurs. We had a cake and ice cream and she got some nice presents.
Peggy Ann learned to ride a two wheeled bicycle here. She rides very well.
We went down to the lake at Ishene Thursday afternoon. The girls had such a good time. I went in a kipoi….(Friday) evening Peggy Ann got malaria and has been pretty sick with fever and vomiting. Outside of that, we’ve been enjoying our visit.
Thursday was Nancy’s fifth birthday. We had a nice chocolate cake with white frosting covered with coconut. She got lots of gifts which she enjoyed very much.
Peggy Ann was sick again most of the week and didn't have school. I spent most of the week cleaning the house.
We sprayed the house good with DDT to try to kill the cockroaches.
I finished one maternity dress and cut out another.
Today is Peggy Ann’s seventh birthday. We had chicken and a nice birthday cake. She received many lovely gifts. We went to Idiofa for a service at 8 but only a few showed up. We were able to get our mail in Idiofa and returned for the service here.
I’ve been doing a lot of sewing. Made another dress and have a third one party done. Am still going through boxes from the storeroom.
Harry made a front seat for the car. It certainly helps a lot.
Daddy sent a Donald Duck wrist watch for each of the girls.
Peggy Ann finished Second Grade.
I’ve been giving Nancy Kindergarten every morning.
I finished another dress for myself, one for Peggy Ann, a couple sheets, a couple aprons for the girls and two kimonos for the baby, and a basket lining for the baby basket.
We had a meeting at Mpendi this afternoon. The people were very attentive.
Yesterday afternoon we went to Matende for their conference. There are 35 adults here and 22 children. It certainly is nice to see so many white people and the meals are delicious. We had roast beef for dinner today. We stopped to get Mrs. Haller on the way.
We got some snapshots back Friday. Some were taken on Lois’ birthday. They were all quite good.
Petelo came to work here the first of the month.
The autoharp came and we are learning to play it. This morning we had a service in Idiofa. There were over forty people out. We also got a couple more boxes from the post office including one from mamma with our Singspiration records. They sound real good. She also sent a nice new dress for me.
Peggy Ann had sores on her fingers that were getting awfully sore so Thursday we went to see the doctor at Idiofa. He gave us some medicine containing ether that is helping them.
Solomon the teacher’s house burned down. We went out but couldn't do anything.
We've had a lot of trouble with driver ants this week. Thursday night they got in our bed and were all over the bedroom. Friday night they were very bad, especially in the bathroom. We killed thousands of them with DDT.
This morning Harry went to Idiofa alone but the people didn't come to have a meeting.
We've been bothered all week by a crazy man who comes around two or three times a day and won’t go away. Writing to the chief doesn't do any good so now we've written the official.
I made a dress for Nancy.
Peggy Ann has had some bad sores on her fingers for some time but they are clearing up at last.
I've spent parts of three afternoons filling enough quinine capsules to take with us to Vanga.
Harry helped give me a Toni permanent yesterday.
I almost finished another dress for Nancy.
We've been getting so many eggs this week—more than we've had for a couple of years.