By Sari Fordham*
Reviewed by Michael N. McGregor
Etruscan Press, 2021, 296 pp.
The child-of-missionaries memoir has always been a tricky thing to write.
Even in earlier centuries, when Christianity was presumed to be the religion of America and white Christians tended to view missionaries as brave and selfless (if not heroic) figures, the child of missionaries was never the central figure in the mission. And it was generally the mission that made the story worth telling: the preaching, the healing, the saving of the world’s less fortunate in an exotic and often terrifying land.
Add to this the child’s lack of choice in the matter. Few missionary children have ever been asked if they’d like to spend their early years in Africa or Asia. If they’d like to live in sometimes difficult conditions among people whose culture, religion, and view of life are different from their own. If they’d like to struggle to form friendships and feel like an outsider, a foreigner, even a freak, when they return to what their passport says is their native land.
Then add the changes in societal attitudes over the past half-century or so: the questioning of Christian assumptions of superiority both outside and inside the Church; the condemnation of the “white savior” mentality; the increasing preference for partnerships that provide financial assistance while maintaining local control over colleges, clinics, and churches; and the growing view that white Americans and Europeans have more to learn from people of color, both at home and abroad, than they have to teach them.
Even if the would-be memoirist feels the work her parents did overseas was worthwhile, she has to navigate the minefield of changing views, caricatures, and hardened feelings that have made the word “missionary” mostly taboo and even the image of the white Christian going to work in a less-developed land problematic. She has to do this while keeping these subjects—and her parents’ decisions and actions—from overshadowing the purpose of any memoir: showing how the author came to understand herself.
Happily, Sari Fordham—in her new memoir, Wait for God to Notice—proves herself adept at sidestepping or defusing mines while tripping freely over the African terrain that grounded her early childhood and shaped the memories that still shape her today.
Fordham isn’t a missionary kid in the traditional sense. The Seventh-day Adventist church sent her father to Uganda not to preach primarily but to transform a rural training school for ministers and teachers into an institution granting a college degree. Even so, her experiences mirrored those of missionary kids. Religion dominated her life, from formal church services to the songs her family sang at home and even the books she was given to read. She and her older sister Sonja lived with their parents in a house set aside for foreigners. And there was a clear division between those who were there to serve and those being served.
What distinguishes Fordham’s book from others like it are the precision and beauty of her writing; the way her chapters work like stand-alone essays, furthering her story while feeling complete in themselves; and her choice to make her mother rather than her father (or even herself) the central figure.
While Fordham portrays her father, Gary Fordham, as a hardworking, salt-of-the-earth American who learned only after the fact that he was offered the Uganda job despite his lack of teaching experience because fifteen more-qualified candidates turned it down, she depicts her mother, Kaarina, as a Finnish force of nature who calmly plucks clothing out of a laundry basket with the handle of a hoe before using the business end to kill an intruding snake, asks the gun-pointing boys at checkpoints about their lives, and keeps herself sane in their isolated, jungle-threatened house by writing endless letters to family in Finland and the United States.
She depicts her mother, Kaarina, as a Finnish force of nature who calmly plucks clothing out of a laundry basket with the handle of a hoe before using the business end to kill an intruding snake.
Because she was still a toddler when her family moved to Uganda, Fordham leans heavily on her mother’s letters to reveal the world she lived in, which can make the narrative point-of-view seem more her mother’s than her own. While this approach can make it hard to remember (or even know) how old Fordham and her sister are when things happen, it allows for a more fluid incorporation of adult insights: the whys and hows and what-fors that make sense of her childhood impressions. It also deepens the loss that gives the book its emotional heart. We learn early on that Fordham’s mother died young (though after leaving Africa). Her memoir is, in part, an attempt to answer questions she never had a chance to ask this woman who declared more than once that the two of them were alike.
What distinguishes Fordham’s book from others are the precision and beauty of her writing … and her choice to make her mother rather than her father (or even herself) the central figure.
Fordham sets the scene for the assault nature will make on her ill-prepared family by telling us about a time her parents found driver ants, with their painful pincers, trooping over their toddler’s bed. And she reminds us regularly about the monkeys that raid her mother’s garden as well as the constant threat of poisonous snakes, especially the black mamba. But the greater danger—always lurking in the background and taking center stage in the book’s best chapter—is the increasingly erratic and deadly rule of autocrat Idi Amin.
To her credit, Fordham doesn’t shy away from describing Amin’s murderous reign or her parents’ often-reckless-seeming faith they won’t fall victim to it. As the book goes on and the dangers pile up—an assassinated archbishop, the banning of the Adventist religion, a girl’s fall from a tree after a fatal mamba bite—we feel her family’s increasing tension as Kaarina, despite her husband’s desire to complete his mission, desperately seeks a way out.
Although Christianity is always central to the life Fordham depicts—and she makes it clear those early experiences with her family instilled a deep and lasting faith in herself—she never puts her thumb on the scale, for or against her family’s religious beliefs. Instead, in often beautifully rendered scenes and careful prose, she allows us to experience the places, people, dangers, and beliefs that formed her early life and judge them for ourselves. In doing so, she tells a compelling story about a bygone way of life both Christians and non-Christians can enjoy.
* Sari Fordham has been the writing coach for ten summer workshops at the Collegeville Institute, starting with the 2007 session Writing and the Pastoral Life: A Week with Eugene Peterson. She received an MFA from the University of Minnesota and now teaches at La Sierra University. Sari lives in California with her husband and daughter. She also writes a newsletter, Cool It, which addresses the climate change crisis.