Ian used his agricultural skills as a Baptist missionary in Angola and the Congo from 1961 until 1977. He then moved to Dereham, and worked briefly for Shaver International. His final job before retirement was as an agent for the Forum of Private Business. Throughout his life, Ian has been guided by his Christian faith.
‘Now what I’ve got to say really is all based on the fact that in retrospect I believe that God has been in control of my life; He has been leading and guiding by His Holy Spirit.’
School days in Hendon
I was born in Hendon in London in 1930, the youngest of nine children. We lived in a council house. I had an ordinary schooling in a church school as a junior. Then I went to Orange Hill Senior School for Boys, where I was not particularly bright. I had to give up languages, and that gave me room to study some sciences. They came in handy for agriculture, which plays a major part in my story later on. I did manage to get the Oxford School Certificate, but that was nothing very special at all.
Farm work in Kent
At this point I will mention my aunt. She was a district nurse in Kent, in the lovely Garden of England just near Sittingbourne. We used to go there often on holidays. One of my older sisters married a farm worker, so in the long holiday I wanted to help with the harvest. I was quite a small boy, so they used to put me on the top of the cart when they were stacking the sheaves they tossed up. Of course in those days there were no combines. I did that for one or two summers.
Later on, when I was old enough, I used to cycle down to Kent and pick fruit, earning myself a little bit of money. After I left school, the same aunt arranged a job for me on a local farm which mainly grew fruit and mushrooms. I stayed on there for several years to earn money to go to agricultural college.
At that stage I wanted to specialise in poultry. My interest in poultry had started at an early age. I was 12 years old and still at school. During the Second World War you could only get dried, powdered egg, so I kept some chickens in the back garden. I used to sell them to my brothers and sisters, who were at work, so they could have fresh eggs, which were like gold dust in those days!
A Baptist church in Bures, Suffolk
I was intending to go to Harper Adams Agricultural College in Shropshire, which included the National Institute of Poultry Husbandry. I was going onto the poultry side, so I had to do two years on a poultry farm before I was allowed to join the college. I got a place with a very famous appliance maker in Bures in Suffolk, right on the border between Essex and Suffolk. And there I stayed for about a year and a half, I think.
There was a tiny Baptist church in Bures. I’d been taken to a Baptist church in London previously by my parents, so I went. There were just a few old people, and an organ you had to pump. I was the youngest there, and I used to pump the organ! I was converted there. I’d been to church most of my life, but I was really converted. I came to the point where I realised that I needed to repent and come to Jesus Christ and accept His salvation, His saving me. And after that I felt the call to the mission field.
Called to missionary work
Being young and not very experienced, I thought all missionaries were pastors. I tried to get a place at theological college, but none were available to me at that time. I said to the superintendent minister for the area that I was training in agriculture. He told me not to specialise in poultry, but to do a general agricultural course, because the church was beginning to use agriculturalists all over the world. That meant another two years training on a farm, getting up at 5.30am to milk cows and so on.
The farm owner was a churchwarden. This again was the Lord holding me in His hand, as I was working with a person who was a believer. While I was at Bures, the minister changed at the Baptist Church. He had a daughter, who in due course became my wife.
Agricultural college in Shropshire, missionary training in Birmingham, and learning Portuguese
After this I was at agricultural college in Shropshire for two years, from 1956 to 1958. I managed to get a Diploma in Agriculture. Then from 1958 to 1959 we went to a missionary training college in Birmingham, after which we were married in 1959.
As we were designated for Angola, we had to spend one year in Portugal learning the language. That was very interesting, because I’m not a grammarian, I’m a parrot! My wife got on very well with the book work. But whenever we travelled on a bus, tram or ferry, I would sit next to somebody who was Portuguese and talk, or try to talk Portuguese.
There was a lot of laughter to start with, but eventually I could speak Portuguese. I learned the basics of writing, so if I had to write something down, I would just close my eyes and think, ‘How would I say that?’. And that way I quickly picked up Portuguese, having been thrown out of the language section at school!
We went to Angola with all our wedding presents, because we hadn’t been at home in our house to use them. The baggage all arrived miraculously quickly. They say it usually takes four weeks to get there. Ours took two. As we arrived, the problems in 1961 blew up. The Angolans were against the oppression of the Portuguese. We had been in Angola for two weeks. My wife and little boy were evacuated back to England straight away.
There were about half a dozen men missionaries. We went to a place called San Salvador, which was in the north of Angola, and there we tried to work. In San Salvador, we were virtually in a concentration camp. There were Portuguese soldiers all around. We had to report if we were going out. The evidence of their authority came hard and strong. Our doctor, who was in the camp, was called out to somebody in the middle of the night. The Portuguese arrested him as soon as he got back because he’d been ‘accommodating the rebels’ against them. He was deported almost straight away.
One thing that happened was that we lost all our wedding presents! But we thought, ‘We have come away with our lives, and we didn’t have enough time to appreciate those. But the poor Africans, they’ve got nothing and they’re even being driven out of their homes now.’ We didn’t have time to get attached to the things, so we didn’t really miss them.
Agricultural training at the Centre for Agriculture and Development in the Lower Congo
We spent about six months in Angola. It was not a very successful time. Then we were moved over the border into the Congo to work amongst the refugees from Angola. This meant that we’d got to learn French because we were in a country where the administration was all in French. I did the same thing with French as I’d done with Portuguese, and I gradually picked it up!
There was an organisation called Cedeco, the Centre for Agriculture and Development in the Lower Congo. Cedeco was interesting. They would offer a year’s training in tailoring, carpentry, mechanics or agriculture. I worked in the agricultural section. It was quite a big section because there was a lot of land. We were able to spend quite a lot of our time with the students showing them things that were better in a practical sense.
At the centre there was actually a missionary hospital and a teacher training college. They were about a mile apart. The land in between wasn’t good soil, but it was wide enough and big enough for us to set up the agricultural part of the mission.
Poultry farming in the Congo: building up the stock
At Cedeco I moved back from general agriculture to poultry, my first love, and I became responsible for the poultry section. I was interested in chicks. You could fly day-old chicks from England to Africa overnight and they’d be perfectly all right. A thousand day-old chicks would come and we would rear them. Then we built up poultry houses, so that we could actually produce the chicks in Africa.
Operation Agri helped tremendously. It was set up by the Baptist Men’s Movement in 1960 to support agricultural missionaries on the foreign mission field. It gave us a grinding mill and a mixer which would take a ton of mix at a time. It gave us an incubator which held 5000 eggs and which would hatch 1000 chicks per week. It was my responsibility to organise this, and to build up the chickens.
We started breeding Rhode Island Reds. They are the breed which survives in almost any climate. We started hatching a thousand chicks a week. Sometimes we would keep them and rear them for local people, but sometimes people over a thousand miles away in the Congo wanted chicks. The Missionary Aviation Fellowship would come and land at 7 o’clock in the morning. They would set off with a thousand chicks, which virtually weigh nothing. With hops, they would get right over the other side of the Congo to other mission stations.
One man who actually worked very closely with me in the poultry section was Tata Mbula. He was very conscientious. He didn’t mind getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning when we had to get chicks off at 7 o’clock. He was a really lovely chap. When we had to leave, he was able to take over the whole poultry section on his own. He knew the whole gamut from putting the eggs in the setter and putting them in the hatching section, and sorting the chicks out when they hatched, and putting them in cartons and sending them off to wherever they had to go.
The other thing we could do was upgrade the quality of the stock locally. That’s done quite simply. You go to a village with some Rhode Island Red cockerels, and say, ‘You can have these cockerels for free provided you give us all your cockerels.’ Then the cross in the village would have 50% Rhode Island Red and 50% African in it. That wouldn’t be much better, but it would be a little bit better.
A year later you go back and do the same thing. You cross the Rhode Island Red again with the offspring, which gives you a poultry which are 75% Rhode Island Red and 25% local breed. They call this topcrossing. If you take the cockerels in another year later and topcross a third time, you get a bird which is 87.5% Rhode Island Red and 12.5% local. This will give an animal which is much, much better. The 12½% local will give them resistance to local diseases, which a pure Rhode Island Red wouldn’t have.
Other ways of helping with poultry
There were several other ways in which we were able to help the local villages. We could get a small grinder which would be able to grind up maize and soya bean. That made a balanced diet for the poultry. We would give the grinders away to a village where the people were interested in doing their own poultry feed. We could also give away incubators for 25 eggs, which run on paraffin. They could use these in the villages to enable them to hatch their own chicks.
Working for the good of others
Sometimes we would be sitting down to have our lunch and an African would come along wanting some poultry feed. We would say, ‘Well, excuse us, but we’re just about to eat. Would you mind coming back?’
And he would say, ‘What’s the matter with you? Why don’t you sell us some feed? ‘Cos look at the money you’re going to make out of it.’ They were used to the white man making money out of them.
But then we would say, ‘Well, we’re not here to make money out of you. We’re here simply because God wants us here to help you to build up your own agriculture in various ways. And having good quality feed for your chickens is one of the ways where you can improve your stock, and improve the quality of the stock you do have.’
We would also go out into the villages and help with simple mechanical aids made out of old tin cans and things. We also gave demonstrations of techniques like contour hoeing. Most people have heard of contour ploughing but this is nothing as big as that.
Where you get a little piece of soil on the hillside, you encourage the village people to dig out to make it level for about a metre. Then you dig a little ditch at the end of that level piece. When the water comes it stays on the level ground, and if there’s any excess it runs into the ditch. Then you do the same a bit lower down. In that way you are stopping erosion and improving the quality of the soil.
Contour hoeing is useful in Africa because it’s natural for African people to use their hoes uphill. In that way they don’t have to bend so far to make the impression with the hoe and turn the soil over. But by doing that you’re encouraging rain, when it comes, to run down the hill and wash all the soil away into the valley. By using contour hoeing you don’t lose the soil to the bottom of the hill when the heavy rains come. It also retains the moisture, which all plants need to live. It gives people better conditions for working in as well.
As far as worship was concerned, we used to worship with Africans from the very beginning. There were local chapels. In the villages these were just thatched roofs. There were mainly local pastors. Sometimes there were missionary pastors, but missionary pastors were usually at big centres. They were there to teach and train other pastors. When we visited the villages we would always have a pastor with us to preach the gospel and show that we were not doing it for our own benefit. We were doing it for their benefit because God had called us to do the work.
We often had African pastors, pretty well from the beginning, and we had to learn Kikongo. It’s difficult to start with but after a little while you get to learn Kikongo. So I’ve ended up speaking four languages: English, French, Portuguese and Kikongo!
My wife and I had five children, four boys and a girl. While we were abroad, they were able to spend their time in boarding school, with guardians. We only sent them home with guardians because the Lord arranged it. We never asked anybody to be our guardians, but people from England said, ‘We don’t feel like being missionaries, but we feel we need to help a missionary. We would like to be guardians.’ They were lovely people. They did a great deal of good for the two boys who went to school first and for our middle girl.
But in 1975 my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and we had to come home for her operation. We were back working in the Congo by the end of the year. Unfortunately in 1976 she developed secondary cancer. We had to come home, and she died in 1977. Should I go back to the Congo, or stay at home with the children? I asked the children what they thought would be best for them. They all felt that I should stay at home. So I did.
Shaver International in Norfolk
Back in England I had to find some means of sustaining the family. At Bawdeswell, near Dereham, there was the headquarters of Shaver International poultry business. They often had visitors from France. Since I could speak French, I often worked for them as a translator. I also worked in the office. Later, to pick up the threads of how they operated, I worked in the different practical parts of the business, at the poultry farms and in the hatchery etc.
But after a year or two I felt that I was not producing anything purposeful. All I was doing was feeding people who’d got too much to eat already, and serving a business which was worldwide. They didn’t really need me except for the fact that I was able to talk to the French people who came to visit the headquarters. So I left. I didn’t know why, but I left, simply because I felt that I was not doing anything purposeful.
As a Christian in Dereham, and the Forum of Private Business
After a few months I had a phone call one evening from a gentleman who said, ‘Would you mind visiting some people, as a Christian, in Dereham for me?’
I said, ‘I’ll do it.’
He gave me the name and address, which I followed up. At the end of the conversation he said, ‘What work are you doing at the moment?’
I said, ‘Well, at the moment I’m not employed at all’.
He said ‘Oh, come and see me in the morning.’
I visited him the following morning. He was one of the founder directors of the Forum of Private Business. That is a Christian organisation which helps small businesses with all the legislation and to fight their corner in a specific way. I won’t go into the details as it would take me too long. They were certainly able to get the ear of people like the Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank of England, and they could always produce specific figures from private businesses.
He showed me two or three presentations during the morning. He took me out for lunch very nicely, and then he said, ‘There you are, it’s yours now, carry on.’ And from that time on until I retired I was an agent for the Forum of Private Business, helping small private businesses.
So that’s really the climax of the Lord leading me, other than work in the Church which followed on. I’ve done some deputation and other things as well. And after being a widower for five and a half years another lady came into my life through Dereham Baptist Church, and she is now my wife.
Ian Pitkethly (b. 1930) talking to WISEArchive on 12th March 2009.
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