March 15, 2013

Legacy: Rudy Danielson

Living in the Zambezi Valley in the 1940s was a big challenge for Rudy Danielson, his wife Mary, and their daughter Muriel as they faced dangerous animals, flooding, and brutal heat.

  • Family

    The young family faced many challenges, including various dangerous animals and record floods that washed their first garden away.

  • Mom and Daughter

    After Rudy's death, Mary and her daughter Muriel returned to Africa with the support of her church and mission leaders.

  • Difficult Years

    Muriel pictured next to her father's gravesite. Her young years were sometimes difficult as she had to be separated from her mother to attend school in the city.

  • Legacy

    The Danielsons were joined by Orville and Helen Dunkeld in the Zambezi Valley as they built up a mission station together.

  • Life Well Lived

    Even though Rudy lived and worked in Africa for only four years, he had a great influence on those around him.

Rudy Danielson didn’t realize what his future would be like when he accepted the challenge to go to southern Africa. Above all, he didn’t realize that his decision would affect several generations of people whose lives would be shaped by his act of obedience. One of those people is his daughter, Muriel, who was only two years old when her father died.

After receiving Christ as a young man, Rudy first headed toward the pastorate and seminary, but after attending both Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College, God began to change the direction of his call. Rudy met Mary Maluske, who already knew that God wanted her to go to Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique). Rudy and Mary were friends and had even dated a bit, but they seemed to be headed in different directions. After Mary had spent one year in Portugal in language training, she received a letter from Rudy asking her to marry him. Mary went on to London for a missionary medical course, and Rudy boarded the Queen Mary for England. They were married in 1938 and left for Africa in 1939.

The challenge of entering a Portuguese colony was not easy. Officials declared that there were enough missionaries were there and denied their visas. Not content to work in South Africa or Swaziland, Rudy and Mary continued to pray for a way to enter Portuguese East Africa. In late 1940 an unexpected invitation from a British agency, the Zambezi Mission, asked if they might consider coming to the northern perimeter of South Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The Zambezi River formed the border with Portuguese East Africa, and perhaps if they got close enough, the doors would open.

They drove their 1934 Ford 1200 miles across the plateau heading toward the Zambezi Valley, arriving on Christmas Eve, 1940. Portuguese East Africa never did become their home, but the Zambezi Valley did. Perhaps if they had known of the huge challenges they would face, they might have had second thoughts. But they continued to focus on their goal instead of the obstacles they now faced.

The Zambezi Valley had basically two stages: flood and dry. When flooded, it was nearly impossible for people to move for six months at a time. The challenges were brutal. During most of the year, there was little relief from the sweltering heat. The Shona people lived in widely scattered villages, and fresh vegetables and fruits simply weren’t available. The region was the breeding ground for mosquitoes (malaria) and tsetse flies (sleeping sickness). Cattle were especially vulnerable to the flies, so there was no milk available. By this time Muriel had arrived and fresh milk was a necessity. The valley was home to a wide variety of African animals: giraffe, impala, and baboon. But it was also home to lions, leopards, and man-eating crocodiles.

The Danielsons along with Orville and Helen Dunkeld who had joined them built a small African hut near the Msengedzi River and eventually decided to grow their own vegetables. The first year the river had record floods and washed their garden away. They decided that goats could provide the needed milk, so they developed a small herd. One night a leopard invaded the shelter and killed all but two baby goats. On one occasion Africans begged Rudy to help them kill a 17-foot crocodile. After the animal was dead, the Africans examined the contents of its stomach and found pieces of women’s jewelry. On another occasion, Mary came to check on sleeping Muriel, only to find a spitting cobra perched in the rafters above her crib. Orville carefully and accurately aimed his gun at the snake while Mary and Helen snatched Muriel’s bed away before the snake could fall on her.

Learning Shona was a challenge, especially with no language school. Offers of medical help were met with suspicion. Children even ran from the missionaries in terror, thinking they were spirits. During flood season roads were practically impassable. In dry season dust and high grass were a problem. Rudy and Orville learned that riding bicycles helped them get to villages more quickly than walking.

A major breakthrough in the work came when African missionaries from nearby countries arrived to help. These couples were missionaries in the same way that the Danielsons and the Dunkelds were. They had left their homes, their language, and their customs in order to bring the Gospel to a group of people who didn’t have access to its message.

The threat of disease was always present. On one occasion, Rudy returned from a trek not feeling well. Suspecting malaria, the Danielsons traveled for two days to get help. His condition worsened, and on Thanksgiving Day 1943, only four short years after they had arrived, Rudy died.

After Rudy’s funeral and burial in Africa, Mary and Muriel left for South Africa, planning to return to the U.S. for a time of rest and restoration. These were war years, and they waited eight months before they could board a boat for South America. They spent several weeks in Rio de Janeiro before getting a flight to Lima, Peru. From there they flew to the U.S., where they visited with Rudy’s family…the first time Mary had met her mother-in-law.

Should Mary return to Africa? Had God rescinded his call after Rudy’s death? Could a single mother with a young daughter even go back? Mary’s supporting church, Wheaton Bible Church, prayed with her and agreed that she should return. When Mary shared this decision with the mission leaders, they also agreed, so she and Muriel returned.

During that first year Mary taught Muriel first grade, but because the rest of Mary’s class were all African boys, Muriel left for Salisbury, the capital city, where she lived in a boarding house and attended a British school. This was a difficult time for both Muriel and her mother, but there were no other options. Sensing the needs of their own children and other missionaries’ kids, the Dunkeld family volunteered to open a children’s home in Salisbury. Eventually 35 other children lived at that same home.

One could legitimately ask, “Was it worth it all?” Muriel has often asked that question from her perspective as an adult. People came to know Christ and were established in their faith. One man even came to faith the Sunday after her father’s funeral. When word of Rudy’s death came to the U.S., at least one man and his wife, Russell and Marge Jackson, considered his testimony God’s call to go to Zimbabwe. The Jacksons had a great influence on Muriel’s life.

What were these people like who endured so much hardship in order to obey God’s calling? Muriel reflected that they were “brilliant people with the capacity to take risks.” They enjoyed life and had an amazing ability to laugh. They created a sense of “family” and deeply cared for one another. During one annual conference, Muriel remembers mourning the loss of Orville and Helen’s stillborn baby at the beginning of the conference and then having a joyous wedding at the end. Living with people who are incredibly resilient…people who always have a Plan B…rubs off on those around them. Muriel’s bi-cultural heritage shaped what she did with her life as she first served as a missionary and then taught others who were called to cross-cultural ministry.

As she reflects on the loss of her father when she was only two, Muriel shared that she didn’t realize the hole her father’s death created in her life until she had her own kids. Even today the music and words of “God Be With You ‘Til We Meet Again” brings great emotion. So does the verse that Muriel’s mother often quoted as she remembered her husband: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” John 12:24

-Written by Bob Wright
-Photos provided by the family

[Originally published in TEAMHorizons, March 2013]