|One of the first tasks of a new missionary is that of learning the language. Malay is not supposed to be difficult, and some say that they can pick it up easily. But these rarely attempt to preach or pray in Malay.
My own difficulty was that I read and studied High Malay with a very fine teacher, Inchi Ismael, who used classical Malay and would not descend to anything else. But when, with my little interpreter, I visited a Chinese home, where a woman, sitting on a handsome ebony couch, with her betel box beside her, would spread her serai leaf with prepared lime, put in a good sized pinch of tobacco and some betel nut, and place the wad in the corner of her mouth as she started to talk, her Malay did not at all sound like the dulcet-toned syllables of Inchi Ismael. However, after a time, I began to recognize what I called my “catechism,” for it was the same in nearly every house. At first my interpreter would answer for me; then I began to make my own responses. The first question was always “Where did she come from?” Next, “Is she married?” followed by “How old is she?” Then, with surprise, “If she is as old as that, why didn’t her mother get her married?”
A further difficulty arose out of the different methods of Romanizing Malay in those days. There were Mr. Keasbury’s books, including his version of the New Testament which we used. There was the Government spelling, used in the hymnbook of Mr. Phillips, out of which we sang. Then some of the books used for examination were in the Dutch spelling. Now that the Mission has adopted a style of its own, and our books conform to its rules, it is easier to become a good speller in Romanized Malay.
In our little day school in the shop house in Short Street, we soon organized a Sunday School, which met on Sunday afternoon. Our dear little girls were just as ready to come to this as to the day school. Miss Hagerdorn, too, was most faithful in attendance. The children had a short Bible story, and learned to sing hymns and to say simple prayers. Their teacher was my interpreter, but one Sunday afternoon she could not come. I tried to prepare the lesson myself and had some blackboard diagrams ready, but my limited knowledge of Malay made me rather fearful of results. However, I had to do the best I could. The lesson was on “The broad way and the narrow way.” The pupils wanted to understand, and they helped all they could by their careful attention and sympathetic interest. The next day they told their teacher what I had taught them, and said, “We would like to follow what Missi taught us, but how can we come to school if we cannot walk in the street, for it is broad?”
At another time I spoke at a meeting in a private house on a Wesnesday morning. I had walked up and down my room, learning my little talk and looking up in the vocabulary words I did not know. It was a very simple little talk, and in due time I fired it off at the patient half a dozen women who had gathered to listen to me in respectful silence, but something I said was such a dreadful mistake that one woman broke the tension by bursting out into a merry laugh.
In the early days I found many kinds helpers, – women who left their household duties to come out with me in the mornings to act as my interpreters. To them I owe more than I realized then. They gave me their time without reward. One little women, Mrs. Jansen, whose husband came to our English services and was in charge of the Sailors’ Rest that Miss Cook superintended, was always ready to come with me.
She was a shy little body, and I am sure it was not easy for her. Then there was a Christian Chinese nonya, whose husband also came to our services. Her little son, three or four years of age, a lad with head partly shaved and two little plats sticking up straight on each side with scarlet wool braided into them, had to come along too. At other times I was accompanied by the mother of a large family, whose daughter has been my friend and the matron in Nind Home for years.
One day I went to Miss Ryan, of the Church of England Chinese Girls’ School, and told her some of the difficulties which I encountered in my visiting. Being such an experienced missionary and visitor, she could and did help me. I remember telling her I would like to pray in Malay, but did not know how. She kindly wrote out a simple prayer in Malay, which I used to read until I learned to say it without the paper. Afterwards I extended it by adding some petitions of my own.
How many missionaries have spoken of the difficulties of their first year on the field! I remember that I felt like a child sewing without a knot in her thread, pulling it futilely in and out. I wondered if the time would ever come when something would be accomplished. We should not forget the helplessness of our own early days, and be ready to sympathize with new workers and help those who, in their first year, are undergoing the difficulties that arise from new surroundings, a trying climate, and the intricacies of a strange language.
I have before me some old letters, that I wrote thirty years ago, and which my mother preserved. In one of them I have written: “I am so glad that I am getting to know my way about Singapore. It is not an easy thing to come to a strange place to open up new work in a strange language. I heartily sympathize with myself; nevertheless, the Lord has truly been my helper, and I can raise my Ebenezer for the first three months of help and blessing.”
The Malaysia Message
Vol. 27 No. 9