When Edna Wade acquired some 1,500 letters written by her parents while they were missionaries in South Africa before World War II, she came up with an unusual plan to honor them.
Two years ago, she began the project that recently resulted in her self-published book, “Praise Names of Reuling: A Zulu Song.” It’s a compelling 417-page oral history of life in part of the former British colony for John and Eleanor Reuling and their four children, all of whom were born overseas.
“I think I’m the only one who has ever read all 1,500 of those letters,” says Wade, 88, who obtained the letters from her sister, Anna Lois, then abridged the letters and added occasional commentary and clarification.
The letters cover 1927 to 1941, when the Reulings were missionaries with Congregational United Church of Christ. They worked at a missionary teacher training college for blacks by the east coast of South Africa.
Edna Wade’s father was a friend of Albert John Mvumbi Luthuli, the Zulu leader who won the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize.
“In those years, my parents wrote between 3,000 and 4,000 letters to friends and family in America,” Wade says.
Wade moved to Bellingham in 2014 to be closer to her son, Randall (she also has two daughters). She enjoys living at Parkway Chateau and likes exploring her adopted hometown.
Her parents were married in 1926. They graduated the following year from what is now Michigan State University and embarked as missionaries at an unusually young 21 for John and 24 for Eleanor. Later, after their time in Africa, John was president of a small Wisconsin college, Northland, for three years, and then was executive secretary for the church’s foreign missions.
Wade, the Reulings’ first child, was born April 20, 1928, in Durban, South Africa.
The book is full of references to the people, customs, and culture of that country, and to its native flora and fauna. It’s thus helpful to first read the last part of the book for concise biographies of her family, to learn about famous South Africans of the era, and for geographic locales, maps, and terms that might be unfamiliar to Americans.
One of the most touching stories concerns her father’s friendship with Albert John Mvumbi Luthuli, a teaching colleague and Zulu leader who later became provincial president of Natal.
When Luthuli was scheduled to receive the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize, John traveled to Norway, but was at first denied admission to the award ceremony because all official tickets were gone. When Luthuli saw him, they began a heartfelt conversation, resulting in John’s permission to attend the event.
I remember when I returned to America when I was 13, I was horrified by how little the people knew about what was really going on in Nazi Germany.
Writes Wade, concerning the grim days of apartheid: “John told a reporter, ‘In 1960, Albert Luthuli received more international attention for winning the Nobel prize than any other South African, but the highest government officials there have never met him. Blacks are treated as mendicants (beggars) in Africa, and only the less important officials are delegated to deal with them.’”
Wade, a 1948 graduate of Michigan State University, takes pride in the humanitarian work of her parents, who saw their mission as enriching lives and providing education.
The book provides a contrast of her childhood, from birth to age 13, with that of the American youngsters she and her husband, the late Clarence Wade, taught for many years as music educators, mainly in Port Huron, Mich.
“I remember returning to America during my parents’ furloughs and being confused by kindergarten,” Wade says. “We had 40 students in class (compared to her one-room schoolhouses in South Africa). And I remember when I returned to America when I was 13, I was horrified by how little the people knew about what was really going on in Nazi Germany.”
“Praise Names of Reuling: A Zulu Song,” $18, can be purchased at Village Books, in Bellingham and Lynden.