Salamo was born in about 1881 in a forest village in the area known as Congo, about fifty miles down the River Congo from Yakusu. She was named Lifoka, meaning “Fortunate One.” Her first years were happy and she was much loved among her own people.
One night, when the little girl was about six, the village was surrounded by Arab slave hunters who had captured a man from a riverside town and had forced him to show them the path through the forest. They set houses on fire and seized and bound the able-bodied adult villagers. Many who resisted were killed. Lifoka’s father and uncle were away hunting but Lifoka and her mother were sent in the slave gang to the riverside. They were then taken by canoe up the river to Stanley Falls, there to commence the long overland journey eastward to the slave market at Zanzibar. The party was also loaded down with ivory, which was the Arab’s other merchandise.
Children were often among the captured slaves, as they too could be sold. But if they hindered progress for any reason, they would be discarded or sold on the way. Near Stanley Falls, the Arab caravan panicked because of the approach of a company of trained native soldiers. Some of the smaller children, Lifoka among them, were quickly sold to Stanleyville traders whom they met. Living among the native employees of the traders, the children learned to speak Swahili and were given Swahili names. Lifoka’s name was changed to “Salamo.”
In 1890, when Salamo was about nine or ten, some Baptist Missionary Society (B.M.S.) missionaries, Mr. and Mrs. Darby, with Mr. and Mrs. Harrison, came upriver in a vessel named Peace and met the Dutch trader in whose household Salamo lived. The Dutchman remembered the children whom he had bought from the Arabs. He explained how he had bought them for “un morceau de drap - comme ça,” [a piece of cloth - like this] and he extended his arms to indicate a width of about eighteen inches. He had too many of these purchased girls and no wife to look after them, so he asked the Darbys and the Harrisons to take eight of them. They agreed. Mrs. Darby gave the women who had taken care of the children at Stanley Falls four red printed handkerchiefs. Salamo found herself in charge of the Darby baby, which she had been admiring when she saw the steamer arrive. She forgot her old name and language during the three years she lived with the Darbys at Bolobo.
While Salamo was at Bolobo a young B.M.S. missionary named William Balfern called on his first journey out. He had with him ten shillings given to him “for any purpose he wished after reaching Congo.” William was so taken with the smiling little girl looking after the Darby baby that he gave Mrs. Darby the ten shillings to be used for Salamo. He wrote to tell his fiancée, Mary Grigg, how the money had been spent and asked her to pray for Salamo, but Mary was never to see William again because he died of fever on the way home for his first furlough. However, Mary never forgot Salamo, and from then on she and her Sunday school class prayed for Salamo every Sunday.
In 1893 Mrs. Darby became invalid and had to return home. Salamo accompanied her part of the way to the coast. Just at this time Walter Stapleton, known in Congo as “Mangwete,” a B.M.S. veteran missionary now based at Monsembe, was returning from England with his new wife, Edith. The long sea voyage to Congo, followed by the over 1,000 mile grueling journey through river and jungle had been difficult for the young Victorian bride. By the time she reached Underhill she was struggling with sickness and exhaustion. She describes the meeting at Underhill which would make all the difference to her next few years:
We reached Underhill in the black of night, the swirling waters of the Devil’s Cauldron safely passed, and light from two lanterns flashed on the beach. Mr. Grenfell, just back from the Lunda expedition where he had been deciding the boundaries between Belgian and Portuguese Africa, called out “A Great Welcome.” He lifted me into a waiting hammock and up the hill we went. I reached the visitors’ house sick and weary and confused by the strangeness of everything. Gratefully I fell onto the bed and at once a very sincere prayer rose from my heart “Thanks for a bed that stands still.” I remember the perfume of jasmine flowers in that room and the glow of bush fires on the hills across the river. Soon I slept and dreamt I was back in England.
When dawn came I still slept. But after a while I became conscious that the door was opening. A black girl of about ten years came in and approached my bed. In her hands she was holding a tray on which I saw a cup and saucer, a pot of tea and two biscuits. She smiled merrily. My answering smile was but a wan affair. She said “Mbote Mama, Hello.” Then she touched herself and said “Me Salamo, Salamo.” And again she smiled delightfully and left me.
“I should like that girl to go with me,” I tell myself. And so it came to pass. For Mrs. Darby was going home sick, and the three native girls who had come with her from Bolobo were to go back upriver again. She asked me later in the day “Would you like Salamo?”
So Salamo came to me to be my companion and my dear girl through many dark days. We stayed at Underhill until our boxes and provisions were got together and carriers engaged and allotted their loads. By the last week in September 1893 we were on the road, three hundred miles to go over the hills of the coastal range and across innumerable streams. The three girls Salamo, Sulila, and Sefaniya, trudged along by the side of the hammocks of Mrs. Glennie and myself. The white men followed at the tail of the column of thirty two carriers. The girls chatted and sang in their own language as they went, never a grumble at the long way and scanty fare, and always a smile and a cheery word at the end of each day’s weary march. As we journeyed Salamo would sing, using words the carriers could understand, upbraiding them for their delays, although we were some distance ahead of the others. She sang “Oh these carrying men, how slow they are! Is it because this white woman is so heavy?” I weighed a little over six stone. I did not know then what she was singing but later she told me.
Salamo and Edith would become the greatest of friends - each loving and protecting the other. “Don’t send me away” said Salamo to Mangwete and Mama Stapleton, “be father and mother to me always.” It could be said that ten or eleven year old Salamo was to become as much a mother to Edith as Edith was to her. Edith, although sincerely and enthusiastically embracing the Congo life she had chosen, was still only twenty-seven and for the first few years would struggle with the disease and sickness that killed so many other white missionaries. Salamo’s care and loving companionship was certainly of paramount importance in seeing Edith through the many dark days of the early times.
Two years later Salamo was among the first four Christians to be considered ready for baptism at Monsembe. Mangwete Stapleton, knowing that some people at Monsembe still thought of her as a slave, led her into the water first. Mangwete, writing in the Missionary Herald in 1895, wrote in his report:
Knowing her past the people here tend to think of her as a slave, so I led her into the water first as a sign not only of the honourable place Christianity gives to women but also that in Christ there is neither bond nor free.
She is a bright Christian and a most earnest evangelist. Almost every Sunday afternoon she would marshal the boys for a service in the town, and often of an evening we could hear the house-boy singing in the kitchen and then Salamo pleading with them to give their hearts to the Saviour or praying on their behalf. Sometimes she would be found sitting on the veranda with a lot of wild town girls, with whom she is a great favourite, telling them the old, old story. Owing largely to her efforts and the consistent lives of the three lads who are church members is due the fact that we have four more lads meeting every Wednesday night in a special class of instruction in Christian faith and practice preparatory to baptism.
Salamo became a devoted Christian and she was a simple, sincere evangelist among the missionaries’ house boys at Monsembe.
In 1896 Mama Edith Stapleton took her first furlough in England. As she was to go alone without Mangwete this first time, she was allowed to take Salamo with her as her companion. On Edith’s “deputation” speaking journeys in England, wherever she could be assured that Salamo would be welcomed, Salamo would accompany her. The assumption of some hostesses that Salamo would take her meals in the kitchen with the servants was invariably countered by “Oh no,” from Mrs. Stapleton – “she is one of us.”
While Edith was in England with Salamo she was to have a surprise. Edith reported that:
Salamo and I went to live with my father and mother and sisters at Tring. One day I received a letter from a lady living in Sevenoaks. In her letter she said that Mr. Weeks had been to their church and had told them about Salamo and had given them my address. I found that this lady had heard of Salamo even before I had. Her name was Mary Grigg. She had been engaged to marry a young missionary named William Balfern who went to Upoto in 1891, two years before I went out. When his steamer called at Bolobo on the way up river he had been struck by the happy look of the girl in Mrs. Darby’s house and had written to his fiancée about her. In 1894 William had to return for his first furlough. At the coast he had an attack of fever and was not quite recovered when he went on board. At that time of the year there are cold north-east winds on the West Coast and he caught a chill which brought on another attack of fever. He was better when they reached Madeira. The missionaries there, Mr. and Mrs. Smart, received him into their home, but hemorrhage of the lungs came on and he passed away that night.
It was two years after this that I received Miss Grigg’s letter.
In it Miss Griggs wrote: “When dear Will was going to Congo a member of my Bible Class gave me ten shillings to hand to him for whatever purpose he liked after reaching Congo. So when he was at Bolobo and saw Salamo he was moved to give the half-sovereign to be used on her behalf. In a later letter he told us more about this bright little girl and asked us all, as a class, to pray for her. In our prayer meetings we used to pray “God bless Salamo and bring her to know Thee.” When, some years later, there came the news of the conversion and baptism of a girl named Salamo at Monsembe, I said to the girls, “Wouldn’t it be lovely if it should turn out to be our Salamo? We did not know that she had left Bolobo and gone to Monsembe. When Mr. Weeks came I asked him to tell me. Can you imagine the joy with which I heard him say it was the same Salamo? And the greater joy of being able to tell the girls of this definite answer to prayer?” Then he said, “Salamo is in England now with Mrs. Stapleton and I daresay you could see her if you wish.
Edith, of course, answered Miss Grigg’s letter with an invitation. Later she took Salamo to see the girls who had prayed for her, and they saw the girl for whom God had heard their pleading. In English Salamo said to them: “You pray for me. I thank you very much.”
Salamo’s persistent prayers that she might find her father so that she might tell him about Jesus, and her readiness to tell people that she was doing this, worried some people who met her in England. This, they thought, was a simple faith incurring certain disappointment. She was in truth not really very simple. “Would she,” she was asked, “tell the Congo people about all the things she had seen in England?” “No, not very much. Because they not believe me. I tell some, not much! All very different.”
But she continued calmly to pray for a meeting with her father. She knew perfectly well that Arab slavers had criss-crossed the possible paths of her father’s movements, and that it was unlikely that she could ever find out where she came from, or, assuming that he was still alive, that her father would ever know where she had got to or ever hear of Monsembe, or indeed recognize her if he did.
In 1997, soon after Edith and Salamo had returned from England, Mangwete Stapleton set out to have a look at Yakusu possibilities in response to a request from his colleagues. The future of the tiny B.M.S. outpost at Yakusu was very much in doubt after the deaths of two of its first missionaries, Albert Wherrett and Harry White. Many strongly advised that the Yakusu mission should be abandoned. Edith and Salamo went with Mangwete on the long voyage upriver from Monsembe, which took some weeks.
One day, when the steamer neared the place where the Lomami joins the Congo, about sixty miles below Yakusu, they saw that a native market was being held in a riverside village. The crew suggested that they should go ashore and try to buy some food. But when the steamer came in to the riverbank the people hastily picked up their market produce and hid in the forest. A black tide of thousands of faces which Stapleton had shown his wife and Mrs. Scrivener through his glasses, simply vanished. Mrs. Stapleton suggested that she and her girls should go ashore and that all the men should stay on the boat. Clearly the people feared a raid, and if only women landed, this fear would be dispelled. This approach succeeded. Conversation failed until both sides found that they had a little Swahili in common. Mrs. Stapleton knew a little and Salamo had learned some while she was at Stanleyville as a child.
After a while confidence was restored and the market was resumed, the native women chattering away in their own tongue and the visitors going in and out among them offering brass or copper wire, calico or beads for bananas, cassava roots or dried meat for the crew. Suddenly Salamo heard the word “Lifoka” called out and exclaimed: “That was my name long ago – I had forgotten it.” Excited discussion showed that Salamo was able to recognize a few more words in the local speech. Faint tribal marks on her face some people claimed to recognize as marking of the local tribe. The woman, however, who had called “Lifoka,” said “I don’t know you, I was calling someone else.”
Although the missionaries were anxious to push on to Yakusu, they were also intensely interested and concerned about the possibility now opened. They took the Peace across the river and talked with the headman of the district. He went into the forest to make enquiries and the Peace continued upstream to Yakusu. Four days later the Peace returned with the Stapletons and Salamo.
In a letter to Miss Grigg, Salamo wrote:
After we reach Yakusu we stay there four days, then we go down in steamer to my home. After I saw people I said, “Where is father?” They said, “He is coming.” So I saw father and father saw me and we cry together. Father could not leave his crying because he lose me so many years. So father said, “You must not go again.” At first I could not say anything because I see his face. Then father said, “Tell them I’ll give them money and then you can come with me.” I said, “I can’t for lots of things.” And father said, “Whatever I do if you go away from me?” So then I say to father, “You go away with me to Yakusu.” So I take father with his friend with me in the steamer and he stay with me four days. I did enjoy myself to see father’s face. He looks an old gentleman though not very old. When he go he ask me again to go with him and then I tell him about Lotoba so then father go away and I stop at Yakusu. He is coming with his wife and baby two months.
It transpired that Salamo’s father had been selling palm oil in the crowd which had disappeared into the forest when the missionaries’ steamer appeared.
To her great and lasting joy, Salamo had found her father. But by now she also belonged to the family of her church – and she was engaged to be married to Lotoba, a good native carpenter who gave great help with building at Yakusu. So Salamo remained available to help Walter Stapleton with the local language and with his very thorough investigation of sites alternative to Yakusu. Just before the Stapletons left in 1899 Salamo was married to Lotoba and their baby Neli was born in 1900.
Salamo herself continued to act as the station’s chief interpreter, using her knowledge of Lokeli. During the Stapleton’s absence Salamo helped Mokili with his translation of St. Mark and the small collection of hymns he was making. Mokili, a sincere Bible-based Protestant, naturally made translation of the Gospels, psalms and hymns of the highest priority during these early years. He made a decision to concentrate on Lokeli (which was spoken by all the people at Yakusu) for translation work. Since Salamo’s birth language had been Lokeli, it soon returned to her and her help in translation of both St Mark’s Gospel and hymns was both crucial and invaluable. Many of the hymns translated at that time are still used at Yakusu.
Lotoba and Salamo were full and true founding members of the Yakusu Mission. Their contribution to its survival should never be forgotten. Open-air services were held each Sunday, conducted by Mokili, Sutton Smith, Salamo and her husband, in turns or jointly. The original tiny congregation sat in a semi-circle, listened to the readings, prayers, and addresses, and sang the nine hymns which they knew by heart.
Sometime in 1900 Lotoba, Salamo and their baby Neli went downriver to Monsembe to visit Lotoba’s people. On their return journey Lotoba caught pneumonia and died just as the steamer reached Yakusu.
After Lotoba had died in 1900, Salamo continued to live at Yakusu and to use her influence among the young people on the station and in the village. In September 1902, however, Mokili wrote home with the heartbreaking news that Salamo had contracted sleeping sickness, as had also the boy who was Mokili’s servant at Monsembe. “It means isolation until they die, death being certain.”
Salamo must have caught sleeping sickness on her visit to Monsembe. At this time sleeping sickness was spreading eastwards from the lower river. It had reached Monsembe, but not yet Yakusu. A letter dated October 20, 1902, resumed a month later, tells of the appearance of sleeping sickness there. This was a very great anxiety since what the missionaries had described as large towns further along the river had simply ceased to exist as a consequence of this disease. Patients lived, as Millman put it, “between two worlds for months,” responding only to the promptings of hunger, thirst, heat, cold, and especially sleepiness. Behavior was irresponsible and quite apathetic. Vitality would run down until it was so low that the cool air of early morning would call for a response of strength that was not available, and suddenly the victim would be dead.
Salamo had contracted the disease at Monsembe without at first knowing it. When she found that she had the germs of sleeping sickness (for which there was then no cure) Salamo told the missionaries, and then at the next Christian Endeavor meeting stood up and said: “My friends, I have the disease from which no one ever recovers. You know that as it gets worse people who have it become unable to control their actions and often do shameful things. I want you to pray for me that as long as I live I may be kept from doing anything that would grieve Jesus.” Then she broke down completely and went out.
There were about eighty young people present, including about thirty church members, many of whom she had taught and brought. The meeting decided: “We will pray for her as she asked us, but we must ourselves help her. We will arrange that, as long as she lives, one of us will be with her so that she will never be alone.”
They asked Mokili to write down their names and to post them in the church so that each in turn could spend a day with Salamo.
She was never left alone, although she did not die until August of 1903. She lost the power to walk or, towards the end, to speak, but she never behaved in any abandoned or irresponsible way. She asked that the ring should be taken from her finger when she died and kept for her daughter Neli. “Look after her,” she asked Mrs. Stapleton, “and marry her to a good man.”
A later report describes a Christian Endeavor meeting where a petition requests: “that as her sickness brings her nearer her end, God will quicken her spiritual insight and joy and take her gently home.”
The day following this meeting, Salamo died.
The previous evening Mokili had been to see if Salamo needed anything for the night. The Christian Endeavor girl whose turn it was to stay with her said that she had been trying to speak and seemed restless. An expression suggesting that she recognized them came into Salamo’s face and they thought she wanted them to stay with her. In the early morning she recovered speech and said that she felt better.
At midday, however, while the missionaries were at their meal, her heart stopped.
That evening a tremendous tropical storm tore half the roof off the carpentry shed where the boys were making the coffin. They continued to work by lantern light under the remaining half. The grave was dug hurriedly during a two-hour pause in the storm. The funeral service in the small brick chapel, built that year, included the testimony of boys she had taught in her house. They sang one of the hymns she had learned in England and translated herself – “I will sing for Jesus.” Then six of the young men she had taught in her evening classes carried the coffin to the grave beside the grave of Lotoba, her husband.
Salamo was only about twenty-two when she died. Her brief life had known so much tragedy – traumatically wrenched by slave raiders from her parents and all she knew at the age of about six, passed as an orphan from person to person, widowed after less than two years of marriage, smitten by an incurable disease when her little daughter was only two. Yet those who remembered Salamo spoke almost entirely of her smiles, her laughter and merriment, her continuous hymn singing, her indestructible faith in the goodness of God and the redemption offered by Jesus Christ. Only once do we hear of tears – when she knew she would be leaving her little daughter an orphan.
Salamo was sorely missed by the Mission. She had been joyful, loving, generous, spirited, loyal, and a source of strength to all the missionaries, not only as a translator but also as a most successful evangelist. She had also been Edith Stapleton’s constant and beloved friend. Salamo had offered Edith love and friendship, loyalty and companionship. Now she had had to leave her orphaned daughter in Edith’s care. Neli, watched over at all times by Edith, grew and flourished in the Yakusu environment. Edith was later to marry Mokili Millman and when their daughter, Litwasi, was born, Neli would become Litwasi’s most willing helper and friend.
I believe Salamo’s influence in the spread of Christianity among the Lokeli can hardly be overestimated:
· It was largely due to Salamo’s linguistic help that Walter Stapleton became persuaded that the faltering Yakusu Mission might after all have a viable future – and to advise and confirm that it should be retained.
· It was Salamo’s love and care that helped Mama Stapleton through the first few difficult years.
· It was Salamo who, always singing and laughing we are told, would talk and pray with the young Lokeli of Yakusu – exhorting them to give their lives to Jesus.
· Salamo was Mokili’s indispensable aide in the translation of St. Mark’s Gospel and the first hymns.
· She wrote her own Lokeli hymns, which are still sung today.
· She and Lotoba joined the missionaries as equals in conducting the tiny outdoor services of the early days.
· She was so loved that in her last months, eighty young Lokeli friends took turns to look after her daily.
Salamo had lived at Yakusu for less than seven years, but they were the years of Yakusu’s infancy, the years when the mission could so easily have died, vital years. The Mission was to survive and flourish. Its difficult beginnings would almost be forgotten, and by 1937 the church called the “New Church” would be packed with two thousand Christians every Sunday. But the growth of the future rested on the sacrifice and devotion of the early beginnings. Those early days should not be forgotten. Many, both black and white, gave their lives for the infant Yakusu Mission. All were part of the pattern, every gift uniquely precious. Salamo’s unique gift was perhaps her life of joy, based so clearly on hope, faith and love. Salamo was not a white stranger but true Lokeli – and she believed, and she wanted all she met to believe. To the early Yakusu she brought the power of that belief, the power of a Lokeli girl who possessed joy and wanted to share it with all.
Salamo was very much more than a “Mission success story.” In any place or era Salamo’s short life must shine as an example of Christian living at its best. Technical Christian expressions like “redemption” and “new life” were easily understood by Salamo. She had been taken out of slavery and out of native obscurantism into the larger, warmer life of the missionaries’ world. She had been to England, where she had enjoyed the large perspectives brought by travel, perspectives that most native eyes had neither seen nor heard. Salamo was grateful and good, and her gratitude was spontaneous and personal in its warmth.
Her contribution to Christianity in Congo was therefore not just as a translator and as an enthusiastic evangelist, she was also a shining example of humanity at its best, of Christian-led living at its best, a child of the Congo whose life brought joy to all who met her. She was at ease in both the world of her birth and the new world of the white missionaries. She was not just a link between the two, however – she was a joyful link. Her joy was infectious; her evangelism validated and strengthened by it, and in spite of all her troubles, her brief life was truly founded on hope, faith, and love.
The writer, Jane Marshall, is Edith Stapleton’s granddaughter. I do not remember a time when I didn’t know the story of Salamo. Even though Salamo died several years before she was born, Litwasi, my mother, seems to have considered Salamo as a sort of elder sister. Edith and Salamo certainly adopted each other as mother and daughter – although who mothered whom was often blurred. Salamo’s joyfulness, her faith that her father would be found, her love for my grandmother, these were all legendary in my family. Her story is almost part of our own oral tradition!
The Millman Papers A letter from Rev. Darby to Rev. Millman dated 18.3.32. tells how he and his wife had first met Salamo and what they had learned of her life up until then.
Salamo’s own letter to Miss Grigg.
For information on the Millman papers: [email protected]
- Butterworth, James, and Marshall, Jane. Mokili in Congo: A Biography of William Millman. AuthorHouse, March 2011. ISBN 9781456771041
[Most of this short biography of Salamo is told in “Mokili in Congo.”]
- Millman, Edith Rebecca. Mama. AuthorHouse, 2009. ISBN 9781438939964.
[Edith Rebecca Millman tells in her own words of her remarkable 1893 journey into Congo’s “Heart of Darkness” and how, as “Mama,” she gives the rest of her life to the attempt to spread Christian light.]
These are the letters and reports originally collated by Mokili and presented and published by Jane Marshall in 2009. Apart from adding photographs and guessing at some few indecipherable words, these letters and reports are exactly as collated by Mokili and are believed to be exactly as Mama Edith wrote them. Many of the originals are still available. In these letters Mama (then Mama “Mangwete” Stapleton) again and again returns to her delight in the companionship of her young Congolese companion.]
This story, received in 2011, is an abridged version of the book Mokili in Congo: A Biography of William Millman, written by his granddaughter Jane Marshall and son-in-law James Butterworth.