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Columnist of the Year Sydney Lenssen Mission incredible

Last Wednesday, St Bride's Church in Fleet Street was bursting for an hour with cheerful music - Nkosi Sikelel Africa (hymn for Africa), Kyrie Eleison from Misa Luba and the Easter Hymn from Cavalleria Rusticana. A host of nationalities went to celebrate the life of Richard Seymour 'Dick' Hall, journalist and author of among other books The high price of principle and Empires of the monsoon (out in paperback next month). He touched the hearts of many, including mine.

Dr Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia's first president and currently in detention, wrote a special poem for the service, paying tribute to Dick's part in the fight against the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland - 'And this only with his pen'. Fellow journalist Cameron Duodo, self-declared Pan- African, reckoned: 'Most writers about Africa speak so much rubbish. Dick was probably the only white writer trusted by Africans.'

I met Dick in Kaduna, Nigeria during 1982 by chance in a hotel lobby and offered him a lift to Abuja, the new federal capital taking shape 100km away. Unpretentious, usually in corduroy, he was The Observer's commonwealth correspondent on his annual fact finding jaunt.

I had no idea of his international repute, his achievement in East Africa; he was a likeable companion with a fund of witty stories, an eye for the most trifling inconsequences and an intellect embracing centuries and continents.

A few days later Dick suggested we should try to find 'Jones the missionary', last heard of 20 years earlier in Zaria, a neighbouring town. Two elderly aunts in North Wales, hearing of Dick's visit to Nigeria, had challenged him to find the man sent out by their local church before the Second World War. Only Dick could believe there was any chance.

We had the hint of a lead in Zaria if we could find the Nigerian widow of Taffy Evans, an architect and another distant relative of Dick, who had died two years earlier. She would surely remember another Welshman. That took a couple of hours.

Taffy had built a fine house which, had we known, would have been easy to spot among the surrounding shacks. Mrs Evans was in despair at the leaky roof which we then helped to repair. She remembered Jones, but not recently, as living around the other side of town.

With growing optimism we enquired at kerbside snack bars and vegetable stalls until at last we found the mission, which stood alone with large expanses of cultivation all round, a simple concrete block building with corrugated roof, one room no more than 5m square, empty. The roughly rendered walls

were adorned by two travel posters and an image of Christ. Kitchen utensils and plates were neatly stacked on an open shelf.

Half an hour later we found Jones, almost hidden among the crops, cultivating alongside 20 Nigerians of all ages including men, which was unusual because that was women's work. Everyone was amazed that two white men should be seeking their tinywiry white-haired friend. Excitedly we all walked back to the mission, Jones washed and changed and made us a cup of tea.

Slowly and quietly he told of his early missionary years converting the Fulani to Christianity. As the nomads passed through Zaria, driving their cattle from the deserts of Niger down to the rain forests, they would stay a few days and learn to pray. Then after selling the scrawny beasts, they would walk back and call in for more lessons, a two to three year cycle.

But on each visit Jones found himself starting from scratch. The Fulani were readily converted but seemed to lose faith just as fast. Eventually the reprocessing got too much, he lost heart and gave up, feeling too ashamed to return home. As enquiries and funding ceased, he became a treasured part of the village and helped organise the farming.

A flock of children cheered waved as we drove away, then, joining hands with Jones, they turned back towards the bare walls of the former mission.

Why tell this tale in NCE? Working overseas is more than simply concrete.

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