Heni’s Journey

A mother’s quest brings a daughter to God


The year was 1953, and we were ministering in Guinea, West Africa. Our son, Steve, had turned six, so we took him to the school for missionary kids more than 250 miles away. Soon after we returned to our station, my husband, Dick, had to leave to oversee student pastors assigned to villages scattered throughout the jungle. During his two-week absence, I was on the mission station alone to run the preparatory school. Students varied from single teenagers to married men with families who lived on our Christian compound. I taught them to read and write in their own language (Guerze) with the use of international phonetics.

As evening approached on my first night alone, I wondered how I would pass the hours until bedtime. But then, some teenage students came over and asked me to tell them about America as we sat on the porch. When they left, a group of older women from the church came, and I invited them into the house to visit. As they were leaving, some younger women arrived after putting their children to bed.

Every day the villagers carried out this routine, and I learned they had made committees to be with me so I wouldn’t feel lonely.

One evening only Fatima, Pastor Woro’s wife, came, and I took the opportunity to ask about her name, which only an Islamic person would have. To explain, she told me this story about her mother.

Betrayed into Bondage

It must have been in the early 1900s that Fatima’s mother, Heni, then a young girl of 9 or 10, lived deep in the jungles. The villagers had been alerted that slave catchers were in the area, and parents warned their children not to go out of the village, except with an adult.

Heni’s mother was often sent to the rice field to chase away flocks of birds that could strip the grain from the stalks. One day Heni’s uncle told her he was going to the field and invited her along. They did not take the familiar path, but Heni trusted him. They came to an opening in the forest, and there, seated around a fire, were the slave catchers.

Heni’s uncle spoke to them, and the slavers gave him money. Then they locked a chain around Heni’s neck, and she became part of a human train yoked together with just enough space to walk. They journeyed for many days, out of the forests and into the savanna, a landscape of small trees and grassland. The sad caravan finally arrived at Kankan, the largest inland city of Guinea. There, a Muslim man bought Heni as his fourth wife. Until she was old enough for marriage, he put her into the care of his first wife, who gave her the dirty work that she herself did not want to do. Heni lived as a slave girl in the Muslim family, learning their language and cooking and eating their food.

When Heni was old enough, the owner took her as his wife, giving her a mud hut of her own and spending the night with her in succession with the other wives. Heni gave birth to six children, but illness took them all in early childhood. Her seventh child was a healthy little girl they named Fatima, after the daughter of Mohammed. Heni wished with all of her heart that Fatima would live—and she did.

A Clever Plan

Heni had been away from her family for perhaps 25 years, but she remembered them with an ache that kept her from accepting her present life. She knew she could not run away; a woman traveling by herself would be taken as a slave. She had to have a man to accompany her—but who could it be? Someone from her own tribe would be best, but how could she find him? Heni devised a plan. On market days she started preparing shelled, roasted peanuts presented in a neat package of banana leaves tied with raffia. When she arrived at the market, she would find a stranger and say, “Kaa ngung?” —the morning greeting in the Guerze language. No one gave the standard response: “E yii kpeli?”

This disappointment happened again and again, but she continued to make her little packet of peanuts to seal a friendship with a man of her tribe.

Meanwhile, at the main mission station at Kankan, Woro, the young cook for a French family, had become a Christian and was attending classes to learn Meninka, the trade language. Woro’s favorite teachers were Grace and Harry Wright, veteran C&MA missionaries helping temporarily in the class while they awaited a new assignment.

When Woro heard that the Wrights were moving to Baro and needed a cook and helper, he volunteered. As part of his duties, Woro was sent to various village markets to buy food.

Her Own Tongue

On market day, as usual, Heni prepared her little packet of peanuts and loaded vegetables, manioc and peanuts into her big basin. Balancing the load on her head, she and Fatima walked to the market. Arranging her wares on a mat, she then made her search for strangers. She saw a young man buying vegetables.

“Kaa ngung?” she greeted him as she handed him the packet of peanuts. “E yii kpeli?” he replied. Finally, she heard someone speak the Guerze language! Woro agreed to see her each week at the market.

After some weeks, Heni told Woro of her desire to find someone to take her home to her family. Would Woro help? Woro replied that he could not do anything illegal, but he would ask Harry Wright for guidance. Harry told Woro that the French governor had passed a law ending slavery. Any slave who wished to leave could get a paper from the government stating that the person was free.

The next market day Woro and Harry took Heni and Fatima before the French commandant. Heni was given her Paper of Freedom; then little Fatima was asked if she wanted to go with her mother or stay with her father. I asked Fatima if it was hard to choose, but she said that in a family with four wives and many children, her father paid no attention to a girl, the child of a slave. Fatima chose her mother and was also granted freedom.

Woro kept the documents, and they planned to leave the next market day.

A Priceless Gift

Heni and Fatima walked home in great excitement, but they had to hide their plans from her Muslim family. Heni did confide in her two best friends, Saran and Mariyama, slaves like herself. Saran said, “Oh, Heni, be careful. Remember Nona. She ran away with a man who promised to take her home, and he sold her to another man.”

Mariyama said, “I heard Nona wished she could come back here. That man beats her. Be careful. You and Fatima could be sold for a big price.” Heni replied that she knew the risk she was taking, but she had to go while she had the opportunity.

Early on market day, Heni packed a change of clothes for herself and Fatima in her big basin. Covering them with a layer of banana leaves, she filled the container with the usual things she took to sell but this time as food for their trip.

Woro had purchased tickets for the train to Kankan, but it would not arrive until later that afternoon. They must not be seen waiting after the market finished, so Heni and Fatima hid in a manioc field until they heard the train coming. Then, they ran quickly to meet Woro and get on board. As the train pulled away from the station, Heni felt that at last she was free. After spending the night at the mission compound at Kankan, they left for N’zerekore, her people group’s town, on foot.

As they walked along day after day, Woro tried to tell Heni about the gospel and God’s love, but Heni cut him off. “I’m not interested in your God; I just want to see my parents. Why do you say God loves me when He let me be taken as a slave?”

After many days, they met some people who greeted them with “Kaa ngung?” At last, they were in the territory of the Guerze.

That evening, Heni threw herself on the ground before Woro. Hugging his ankles, she said, “Now I know that you are a man of your word and that you are really taking me home. I am an old woman. I have nothing to give you except my daughter, Fatima. I give her to you as your wife. When she is old enough, she is yours.

“Now I will listen to what you tell me about your God.”

A New Family

Several days later they arrived at Koola, Heni’s old village. Her homecoming was quite different from what she had imagined.

After extensive greetings to the chief, she inquired about her parents. Heni learned that they—and the wicked uncle—had died. Heni felt no family bond with her brothers and sisters—they barely remembered the child who had disappeared more than 30 years earlier.

Woro left the next morning to return to his work, and Heni and Fatima settled into a guest hut. Kind villagers gave them food and other necessities.

When the Wrights were reassigned to the town of Macenta, less than 100 miles from Koola, Woro took presents to Heni and Fatima. Heni begged him to take them to Macenta to live.

The morning after their arrival at Macenta, Woro took little Fatima to Grace Wright. “This is my future wife, and she doesn’t know anything. Will you teach her?” Grace immediately loved the sweet little girl, and several days a week, she took Fatima into her home to teach her to read and write the trade language and how to live as a Christian and a wife. When Fatima was old enough, she and Woro were married in the church.

Later, Woro was asked by the mission to move back to the Guerze tribe to be a pastor. Heni moved with them and lived with their family for the rest of her life. She became the loving grandma to Neema, Saran and a grandson, Étienne. Heni’s life in the end was far happier and more fulfilling than anything she could have imagined.

As Fatima finished her story, we marveled at God’s grace and love in her mother’s life. We asked each other how and why God worked as He did: Was it God’s direct will that Heni become a slave and so come in contact with Woro and the gospel? Or did He see a woman filled with despair and in His mercy and goodness send Woro to help her find hope and joy in Christ?

We never determined the answers, but we praised Him for His marvelous kindness in the way it turned out for good.

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