by Margaret Ellem
Acknowledgement to my family and to my friend Ray Rauscher who relentlessly urged me to write down my Bangladeshi experiences. 2009
Where to start? Like the song in “The Sound of Music” – “Start at the very beginning!” I was born in Sydney in l942 to Les and Eda O’Toole. My father was an accountant, and my Mum was working in a tea room her parents managed in Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains when my father walked in! After they married, my brother John was born in l926. They moved to South Curl Curl on Sydney’s northern beaches before I was born. My brother Jack was sixteen years old when I was born. I loved him dearly and followed him around whenever I could! We moved to Dee Why when I was eight years old, and when I was twelve Jack moved out of the family home and I missed him immensely. Apart from my parents he was the single most influential person in my childhood. I continued this close relationship with him until he passed away in 2005. I miss him a
Growing up I was a bit of a “wild child”, until fifteen years old when I met my first love David! Up to this stage I hadn’t attended church (only Sunday School spasmodically). When the handsome minister’s son invited me to Dee Why Baptist Church I gladly went! (I would have gone anywhere he asked!) I recognized God’s claim on my life and about three months later committed my life to God and was baptized. New beginnings! After four years of keeping company with David, and frequently being jealous of the many girls who were attracted to him- I had to let him go, for him to discover what it was like to date other girls! I was his first girlfriend, however I had gone out with other boys. At nineteen I was devastated and I can remember sitting in vain by the phone crying, waiting in vain for him to call. I found it extremely hard to let him go because I truly loved him and had hoped for a future with him. I still find I have a problem in this area with people I love.
Around this time , along came Roger Ellem (a student Pastor at Narraweena, a local Baptist church). He was good looking, and very committed to going to Bangladesh (thenEast Pakistan) as a missionary. I was attracted to him, and my mother heaved a sigh of relief when I stopped sitting by the phone crying! My parents liked Roger, in spite of the fact that after our first date he told them that if I ended up with him I would be living in faraway East Pakistan! It was a bit of a shock (to say the least) to hear that their beloved daughter may end up the other side of the world but they accepted it! They wanted me to be happy!
Consequently, after one year doing a Missionary Course at the Baptist Theological College in Eastwood in Sydney, we were married in February 1964. Then followed a series of short ministries in Baptist churches in New South Wales, Armidale in 1964 (a country church with the older ladies all waiting for me to take over ladies meetings etc). I found this very daunting, as a young inexperienced minister’s wife! Times were economically tough!
I can remember only having baked beans in the house – and Roger having to go and ask for his salary when the church Treasurer frequently forgot to pay us on the Sunday night after church. We were to be commissioned and leave for Bangladesh (East Pakistan) the next year – but the Pakistani war with India postponed our leaving Australia.
So early in l965 we moved back to Sydney for Roger to be Pastor of Concord West Baptist Church. I was dying to have a baby and during this year became pregnant with our first child! The pregnancy delayed our leaving for East Pakistan again because the Australian Baptist Missionary Society wanted me to have the baby in Australia. Needless to say, I was thrilled and so were the grandparents.
We moved to Mudgee in l966 and in July our beautiful daughter Joanne was born. (Joanne means “gift of God.”) Roger was the first father the Matron reluctantly allowed to be in the delivery room at Mudgee Hospital. She was certain this would open the floodgates for future fathers – and she fought against it and lost. Joanne was like a little doll – and much loved. The head of A.B.M.S. (Australian Baptist Missionary Society) J.D. Williams, came up from Melbourne to do a dedication service for Joanne (a little like a Christening).
Time was now running out for the grandparents to enjoy Joanne – because at last, in February l967 we were to sail for Dhaka- the Bangladesh capital city, We spent a couple of lovely months in Dee Why in N.S.W with my Mum and Dad in their home unit, before sailing off with eight months old Joanne Gwyneth on the small Italian cruise ship the “Castel Felice.” I can remember my Mum and Dad and brother Jack, standing together with Roger’s parents waving on the wharf with “Lara’s Theme” from Dr, Zhivago” playing as the ship pulled out of Sydney, I cried my heart out – and they played that same music in and out of every port to Colombo (three weeks later), in old Ceylon. To this day I can’t hear “Lara’s Theme” without being teary!
I t was supposed to be the “Castel Felice’s” last voyage – but in fact it made afew more! As soon as it made its way out of the Heads in Sydney Harbour – it made its way down to Bass Strait. I was so sick! I didn’t dare take Joanne down to the cabin until we hit New Zealand. We were travelling with two other Australians – Laurie Skinner (who was returning to East Pakistan from furlough (holiday) after many years service in East Pakistan. Betty Edmonds was going out to be the missionary children’s schoolteacher in Mymensingh. Even though Laurie was a
bachelor, he was so good with eight months old Joanne. He kept walking her around the deck when we needed a break to recover. He was an angel.
However, Laurie also insisted on Bengali lessons every day (come rain or come shine). By the time we reached Auckland I had got over my sea sickness- and we got off the boat for the day. What a beautiful city! It took about two weeks to get to Singapore. Then another week to get to Colombo, which turned out to be so hot and sticky! Bad news! The boat that was going to take us to Dhaka was delayed indefinitely so we had to find somewhere to stay in Colombo.
It took about two weeks to get to Singapore. Then another week to get to Colombo, which turned out to be so hot and sticky. Bad news! The boat that was going to take us to Dhaka was delayed indefinitely so we had to find somewhere to stay in Colombo! I was very stressed, Joanne was covered in prickly heat and we stayed in the British Mission House – old Colonial British residence. Mosquito nets, very high humidity – and no cot for Joanne! I was still stressed and Laurie combed Colombo for a cot – and finally found one (cane sides) in an expat’s attic. I
was so grateful to him and kissed him and told him he was an angel! He put up with a lot from me on the trip.
We spent three weeks in Colombo waiting for the boat that didn’t come. We made the most of our stay (English style
breakfasts in the garden) etc., waited on by servants – which I found difficult, because they are our equals, and called you “Sir” or “Madam” (“Sahib or “Memsahib}.” Our Bengali lessons continued. We all went by train to Kandy
(up in the hills). It was so cool compared to the heat and humidity in Colombo. We saw the Temple of the Tooth (Buddha’s tooth).
Finally Laurie arranged with the Mission for us to fly to West Pakistan (Lahore) and from there to Dhaka over in East Pakistan (Bangladesh today). I was finally in the country – and it was so hot and humid! We were met by other missionaries and put on a Fokher Friendship smaller plane to Ishurdi (out in the country). It was so good to be met by Annette and Phil Gillman (old friends from Australia who lived in Ishurdi) – with their son Andrew (he’s about eight month’s older than Joanne). They have remained friends over the years.
What were my first impressions of Bangladesh? I loved the brown faces and was shocked at the poverty (children begging- older beggars, crippled with a begging bowl) and in those days there were only the rich and the poor – not
really many people in between. Very hot and humid weather – and from the little plane we saw endless flat plains – no hills or mountains ! Very green though! Rivers flowing through the rice fields and little villages with bazaars
(markets) and lots of dirt roads, bullock carts (“goru garis”) – four wheel drive vehicles and rickshaws. The average life span of the rickshaw “wallah” being 35 ! They worked so hard pedalling people around
We spent a pleasureable afternoon at the Ishurdi Mission House with Phil and Annette. Their house was nice, a long verandah with double doors opening out onto the verendah. They had a cook Raphael and an “aiah” (nanny) Cargil. I determined there and then not to have an “aiah” for Joanne but to look after her myself.
I remember saying to Annette how good her house was and her replying “Yes this is a good house – but unfortunately your house in Pabna isn’t!” What a shock! Stinking hot! Joanne with prickly heat! Our house was forty minutes away by an old Land Rover, through hot flat plains, small bazaars, past bullock carts (“goru garis”) – to Pabna , a rural town; and into the mission compound (which was comprised of a boy’s hostel and several houses built in the British Raj. Our house was single story cement built by a single lady missionary single handed.
We couldn’t even try to settle in, because there was a missionary conference there. People were staying in our house – so we were given one room and a bathroom in it.
Stinking hot, mosquito nets, shutters (no windows). It was quite a feat to get out of our mosquito net to get under Joannes’ mosquito net to get to her in the middle of the night. The rest of the house (one other bedroom) kitchen and lounge room was occupied. A New Zealand couple with a child were in the only other bedroom. Joanne was very unsettled with her prickly heat, and the ceiling fan went round ever so slowly (being connected to the same electrical system as the local cinema). Consequently when the cinema closed we nearly got blown out of bed at two a.m! The Muslim Calls to prayer took place five times a day ! To this day Joanne and her sister Megan (born in Rajshahi the following year) love the Muslim call to prayer and Eastern music!
I can remember lying in the uncomfortable hard bed thinking “What am I doing here? I need my Mum ! How will Joanne survive until the tea chest arrives with the Heinz baby food in jars and the Lactogen powdered milk arrives by boat? Goodness knows when this will happen!
It was a pretty spiritual conference however – so I reminded myself that God can give the strength to endure the heat, cope with the home sickness, look after Joanne, support Roger, learn the Bengali language and make a life with the
Bengali Christians in this predominantly Muslim country. Pabna had quite a population of Hindus as well. The senior missionaries (“misso’s”) were Lois and Arthur Newnham, who lived the two storey house at the other end of the compound. Their children were grown and in Australia (having gone to boarding school in Darjeeling in India when they were younger). I have never been there but apparently it’s a beautiful place in the Hills District of India. It sounded like Shangrilah to me, after the hot flat plains of Bengal.
That first year passed with lots of support from the Newnhams, and the three single lady missionaries who lived there,Ros Gooden, Lyn Spicer and Rita Wingrove. Laurie Skinner (who had travelled out on the boat with us) lived in another building in the Pabna compound along with the Bengali boys’ hostel master.
The heat was very hard to get used to – and I was pregnant again, which I had badly wanted ( because I was so homesick). At least Joanne would have someone to play with. She actually thrived with the attention of the single “missos”, Laurie and the Newnhams. The Bengali language wasn’t coming along very well – because I preferred to look after Joanne myself and refused to have an “aiah”. Morning sickness didn’t help either. The other missionaries did their best to persuade me to have an “aiah” to no avail. I wanted to care for her myself – like the Bengali mothers. I felt a kindred spirit with the Bengali mothers in the local Pabna Christian Church. They used to bring their babies and toddlers for afternoon tea and I’d try out my stumbling Bengali language, until I made a big “fopah”! I told them I had a “Koob karup house” in Bengali – and after the initial shock, they told me I hadn’t said “ I have an untidy house” but “I run a brothel!” After that I didn’t try out my Bangla much.
What about cooking in the hot climate, in primitive conditions in a small kitchen
with a kerosene stove and kerosene fridge? We were provided with Edward , a
Bengali cook from one of the villages. He was an O.K cook with curries etc –
and I taught him a bit of Australian cooking. No supermarkets – just Edward
going down to the bazaar early to get a healthy chicken and carry it home
squarking over his shoulder (tied by the feet). Fortunately it was killed and
plucked etc. out of our eyesight – and as soon as possible became a tasty curry
on the table! We noticed Edward smoked a lot outside (we weren’t sure whether
they were normal cigarettes or not)! However he loved Joanne and did his best
to feed us-and cope with our poor Bengali to make his shopping lists!
Joanne and Andrew Gillman (from Ishurdi- 40 minutes away) played together whenever the two
families got together. I used to love going over to beautiful home in Ishurdi
for the day. Joanne and Andrew would paddle in a wading pool, fight over toys
and generally have a good time. Annette was a great support for me when I was
down and homesick. The baby was due in January l968 (which fortunately was in
Winter) which is a bit like our Autumn. These couple of months our type of vegetables were able to be grown which was good. I came to love the Bengali vegetables too, such as “brinjawl”.
The rest of the year we ate Bengali vegetables and rice etc. The worst time of the
year was in May-June (hot and dusty and sandstorms and dysentery). Dust came in
the house during sandstorms because we only had shutters no glass windows.
We had our first family holiday that first year – when I was about 6 months
pregnant. Fortunately it was in the hot dry season before the monsoons. We were
able to get away to the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. We stayed in the
Lutheran bungalows up in the mountains! We entered Malaysia through Kuala
Lumpur and hired a car, and wound our way up through the mountains! What a
glorious place! Cool weather, beautiful Chinese food – walks, some semblance of
the normality I had been used to in Australia. We used to go on jungle walks –
Roger carrying Joanne on his shoulders! One day we were walking along a jungle
path and looked down and there were huge tiger paw prints! Needless to say we
went back as fast as we could!
Roger decided to play golf on the Cameron Highlands Golf Course and Joanne and I went
along! Half way round we were asked to allow the Tunkhu Abdul Rahman to play
through (accompanied by his entourage). He thanked us- and we noticed a
beautiful little Malay toddler following him around! Apparently a poor family
had given her to him to bring up- as a sign of respect and so that she could
have a better life! How unusual! Our first introduction to adoption I guess.
Later on in our life back in Australia we were to adopt three children from
overseas – after our first son was born. That holiday was so surreal to me
after the Bengal heat, I really enjoyed it. The year wore on- my stumbling
Bengali was much slower than Roger’s (he had intensive language classes daily).
I tried to study myself- and with Laurie Skinner. By this time Roger had even
preached a short sermon in the local Pabna church! Church was an experience. I
wore a sari- because if you didn’t you were too much of a rarity. This way I
could avoid men in the street standing around staring at my legs and arms. The
women and children sat on one side of the church, and men on the other side.
The Bengali women covered themselves from baby I feel Megan my have also had
the same problem, because she vomited after her bottle.
One frustrating thing after Megan’s birth was that the grandparents in Australia
didn’t get the message about her birth for three weeks after the event! These
were the days before emails etc, and telegrams took ages between East Pakistan
and Australia. Consequently some gifts and cards were sent – but they never
arrived at our address. How do we know this? Well, Roger went down to the local
bazaar to get a haircut and, and in a shop displayed proudly up on the wall,
were some of our “Welcome Baby” cards! Maybe the postman made a bit of extra
money for his family that day.
I love the Bangladeshi people – in those times the majority of them were so
poor-but so hospitable. Many a time we were invited to dinner at a very poor
home (cow dung plastered walls and sticks etc, in the walls – and a thatched
roof). The humbling experience was that we knew they probably went without a
meal to feed us – and yet we couldn’t offend them and not eat. Many families
had ten to twelve children! This was not only because of lack of family
planning education, but to ensure that some of the children would survive to
care for them in their old age. Back in the sixties and seventies there were no
aged or disability pensions. Often children died of dysentery, cholera,
malnutrition, worms etc. One Bengali Muslim woman had ten child births (half of
the children had died) and the poor woman was about five days in labour with
the eleventh birth. Fortunately she and the baby survived, but the future was
Many beggars would come to the mission house, some with babies. I always gave
clothes and milk for the baby. Only God knows how needy they were-but to this
day I prefer to share what I have with folk in need (and take a risk that they
may not get to keep it all), than to say no and turn God’s people away. The sad
thing is that there are beggar masters that rob the beggars of their earnings!
Things proceeded uneventfully even through the dysentery ridden hot dusty May. I was
very upset however to find worms in Megan’s nappy. I still tried to learn
Bengali, but was miles behind Roger. When Megan was eight months old Roger was
very ill. He had chronic dysentery and it developed into Hepatitus A. He had to
be looked after at home-but I also had contracted the Hep.A and much to my
dismay at leaving Joanne and Megan in the care of Kath Kells (a single
missionary nurse)-I was transported to Rajshahi Mission Hospital and put in
isolation. I remember saying to poor Roger – “Don’t leave our girls – they need
When Roger consequently landed in my room in the hospital – I gave him a pretty bad
time! We both had intravenous drips-and when the news came that Joanne and
Megan also had Hep.A and were being looked after at home by Kath Kells, I was
After several weeks (and much soul searching and frustration) we were allowed to go
back to Pabna. . However, I was very frustrated because Kath wouldn’t let me do
anything with my babies! I had to toe the line.To recuperate we were ordered to
our Australian Mission Hospital at Joyramkura (a Tribal Garo area) up near the
Indian border – at least a day and a half journey by train, ferry,train and
four wheel Drive . Kath Kells had to come with us and carry Megan, We journeyed
from Pabna-Ishurdi day train to the Ghat (ferrying docking place) and up the
river by train again to Mymensingh , where we spent the night with Aussie
ex-pat missionaries. The next day a driver took Kath and us to Joyramkura by
four wheel drive,
We were met by John Spicer (an Aussie doctor) and his wife Heather and their small
family Meryl, Gillian and Joe. We were given a house and stayed for
recuperation and fellowship. We were advised to take early holidays and decided
on Pokhara in Nepal. Had we known that we were going to stay in a thatched roof
hotel and that I would have to wash nappies (in Winter) squatting next to a
bucket of cold water-we may not have gone.
The scenery made up for the fact that we had to walk everywhere and carry Joanne
and Megan (so much for the rest). The scenery was Anapurna mountain (covered in
snow) and Marchipuchra (the fish tail mountain). Tibetan refugees carrying
enormous loads of Sticks etc, on their backs (children did this as well). They
were at the airport as we got out of the DC3. The incongruous thing was that
the Royal Nepal Airlines seat I sat in –had a seat belt but the seat wasn’t
attached to the floor of the plane! Donkeys everywhere, curious kids, and a
small aircraft pulled up next to our plane and out got the crown Prince of
Nepal. The plane ended up staying the night on the airstrip and the pilot and
air hostesses ended up staying in the next cabin! Pokhara in those days was a
very small place at the foot of the Himalayas.
These days it is a thriving tourist destination . I remember we hiked to
a beautiful lake and crossed it in a dug-out canoe, The most beautiful clearest
water I have ever seen. I really enjoyed the mountain scenery after the hot
flat plains of Bengal.
Christmas Eve was unforgetable! We decided to walk to the Leper Colony at The Shining
Hospital ran by missionaries, out of Pokhara. It was such an experience-sitting
on the floor next a leprosy sufferer and sharing Christmas Eve and carol
singing. I think it was then that the “Universality of Man” and the fact that
all folk have a common love of the Creator, imprinted on my mind!
Christmas dinner was at the Mendies home back in Kathmandu (where we flew out the next
day). Tom Mendies was an Anglo-Indian man married to an English lady. They had
taken abandoned babies off the street into their own home and they had adopted
some street children and had other unadoptable toddlers in their old mansion.
Perhaps this was when the seed of the idea of overseas adoption (of kids who
needed a family) was planted? Tom and his wife could never live anywhere else
but Nepal with these kids-because some of them were unadoptable and they had no
official identity (or permission for adoption). Here we tasted buffalo curry
(for the first time). It was a very rich taste, and quite fatty. Kathmandu has
many Buddhist temples and markets. I guess the British Raj, did some good
towards cleanliness etc. in India, because Nepal really showed the lack of
this. The streets were literally full of rubbish and folk threw slops of all
kinds out the windows!
The British never ruled in Nepal. The people were lovely and shopping for saris was
wonderful(beautifully coloured silk).
Unfortunately we had to return to Pabna where a move was imminent. Phil and Annette Gillman
were moving to Kulpotak and we were moving into their Ishurdi house! I was so
excited about this-but of course we were still recovering from our family
Hepatitus A experience!
The move to Ishurdi was a happy one. The house is out in the rural area-windows and
French doors as well as shutters. We inherited a gardener named Tokon
(assassinated during the future East – West Pakistan war). We took Monah
(Monahor) Pandy with us as our driver. In fact Monah’s fourteen year old
daughter was married after we moved. Monah had been a Pastor at Fuljhana
Village and his daughter married a man much older than herself from the same
village. We had a very happy Christmas in Ishurdi.
We had had a new cook for some time in Pabna. Profullah was about nineteen years
of age when he first took Edward’s place. He was from Chatmahor village in
rural Bangladesh and was a beautiful person . I had to teach him some English
cooking but he was excellent at chicken curries and vegetable “bhajee” (vege
curries and “japathi”). We took him with us to Ishurdi and he was so good with
Megan and Joanne. He was unmarried (but in the future-when we were in Australia
again-he married Judhikah and had two sons). He was also to contract T.B
(Tuberculosis)in the future and lose the fight for his life when his boys were
teenagers. We were to keep up this contact with him from Australia with gifts
of money as long as we could. We grew to love Profulla, and really respected
him as a person.
Roger continued to have chronic dysentery and the whole family had lost weight from the Hepatitus A. We sent a family photo home and were oblivious to the fact that both sets of grandparents
thought we looked like holocaust survivors. We had a very happy Christmas in
Ishurdi that year.
Joanne and Megan only got one present each – and were probably the better off for it.
What of the local Bengali people? I loved them and tried my best to communicate in
Bengali. We had church services on our verandah at Ishurdi for the Christians.
Some of the Muslim women would bring their babies and toddlers to visit and I
would often give away our clothes, and milk for the babies etc. The Bangladeshi
people have remarkable tenacity , a lot of the families in rural Bangladesh
only having one meal a day. We acquired a small black goat that Joanne named
“Half”. Many a happy hour was spent playing with Half.
One day a travelling snake charmer came with a monkey and a wicker basket full of
snakes. He tipped the snakes out on the verandah and started playing his bamboo
pipe to “charm” them. He would send his monkey around the audience to collect
the money – and if anyone refused to give any then he would tip all the snakes
out of the basket onto the verandah! Another time Roger stepped on a cobra
while walking on the “bund” (a raised surface alongside the path). Often I
longed for home and my parents, or just to put Joanne and Megan in a shopping
trolley and walk around a supermarket!
Something happened that was of grave concern for a while. A bat flew into Megan’s cot and
bit her on the finger! We had to find out whether Bangladeshi bats have rabies
like some South American bats! Fortunately they don’t! Roger continued to get
better at the Bengali language – and started a deep litter poultry system to
breed chickens and to teach the local people how to do it. This was very
successful, and we had fresh eggs for ourselves as well.
Roger’s health was still not good, and a holiday was planned in Penang in Malaysia with
Dr. John Spicer and his wife Heather and children. Consequently John was able
to observe Roger while on the holiday and tell him to go and rest, often. We
stayed in a Christian Guesthouse in the Foreign Quarter on the beach in Penang
(“Batu Ferenghi”). The Chinese food was beautiful, and life at the beach was
good – that is until poor little Joanne got stung by a box jellyfish tentacle
across her arm! It was very itchy – and the wound opened right up and the
doctor said Joanne would have needed to be given and injection straight away on
the beach for the wound to have a chance of healing. To this day Joanne’s arm
looks like a knife had cut it open! The scar has grown with her.
The outcome of the holiday in Malaysia was that John Spicer recommended that we
return to Australia as soon as possible. Much to Roger’s dismay he was told he
was not to live in Bangladesh or a similar situation again! This was a great
shock to Roger as he had thought that we would stay there at least until the
children were teenagers! So we had to return to Bangladesh and start to pack.
Roger was very unwell – so I packed up our wedding presents etc – and some o
actually my dolls I had as a child – and put them into storage along with
Roger’s theological books etc (we were still expecting to be able to come back
for at least another term at this stage). So they were stored in one of the
Mission Houses in Pabna.
Unfortunately the war between East and West Pakistan stepped up while we were in Australia –
and our things were looted and we were never to see them again. Roger’s books
became sugar bags in the local markets (“bazaar”). However, if there was one
thing we learned out of these experiences it was that material possessions are
just that – only things! People are more important than things, and God is good
and we’ve accumulated much more since.
Roger found it very difficult to live with the fact that he wasn’t medically allowed to
return to reside in Bangladesh. After several ministeries in Canberra and New
South Wales – he applied for a job in Compassion Australia and became very
successful as an iterant representative in their Home Ministries Division
getting thousands of sponsors for children in the third world. This actually
became his compelling passion – and substituted for not being able to fulfil
his Bangladesh dream.
As for me – I was thrilled to come back to Australia after three years overseas
and give the grandparents the pleasure of getting to know Joanne and Megan and
our new first son Gareth, who was born when we lived in Sans Souci for a year
in l970. Later on we adopted five year old Joy from Korea in l978. When we
moved to Newcastle to work for Compassion we adopted l3 months old Derek from
Brazil in l980. In l987 we adopted our last child, six year old Ruth from
Korea. I feel honoured to have given birth to three children and to have added
to our family another three who needed a family.
I also feel privileged to have had the opportunity to share with the Bangladeshi
Christians and to appreciate what life is like for the poor. They certainly
have a sustainable faith in God that puts ours to shame! Most of the poor
consider themselves fortunate if they eat one meal a day – and yet they cope
and share what they have with others. We could well take a leaf out of their
This Bangladesh experience has taught me to be grateful for what I have, and to
treasure our time with our children and grandchildren, and to concentrate on
living in the present! GOD IS GOOD!
- Bangladesh 5th most vulnerable country (chimalaya.org)
- BANGLADESH with faith and tears by Margret Ellem (habitatassociation.com.au)