Helen Watkins :: Gospel Fellowship Association Missions

Helen Watkins

My wife and I had only recently married in the Panama Canal Zone. I had completed my assignment as superintendent of the American Leprosarium in the Canal Zone and had returned to the United States.  We were in New York City and went to the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital to inquire into their highly reputed tropical disease program.  On hearing my name, the receptionist exclaimed, "Dr. Dreisbach, we were expecting you." She introduced me to the head of the department.  Without giving me an opportunity to explain the reason for my visit, he began to tell of an unusual case he wanted me to see.  We were taken to the room of a patient, an American missionary who had returned from West Africa-Helen Watkins. She demonstrated some unusual symptoms and findings, and I was asked to examine her.  After doing so, my diagnosis of leprosy confirmed their suspicions.  But the patient refused to accept that diagnosis and, choosing to think it was a rare neurological condition that mimicked leprosy, returned to West Africa without treatment.  Case closed-or was it? 

The recognition of me at the hospital was a case of mistaken identity. They were anticipating the arrival of a distant relative of mine with the same name, a military doctor who had specialized in tropical diseases.  Case closed?  Not really, for upon our arrival in Africa, we learned that the hospital patient was in the same mission we were.  She was a linguist, an expert in the local tribal language, and our language examiner.  How very important it is to study the tribal languages! 

The mission that we were members of placed great emphasis upon language acquisition. In view of the fact that the language we would be using was highly intoned, the mission authorities recommended that we take a linguistic program offered in New York City prior to our departure to the field. At that time (more than half a century ago) there were very few centers in the United States where such specialized training could be had, and the one in New York City was a highly reputed program.

The first day in class, the teacher was calling the role. Since our name was early in the alphabet, we responded and then sort of went into neutral. Toward the end of the role call, "J. Hudson Taylor" was called. That really woke us up. Those of you who know me will be surprised to learn that my wife and I were students at the same time as J. Hudson Taylor. It turned out that our fellow classmate was the grandson of the original J. Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission. We studied with J. Hudson Taylor III.

It is vitally important to learn the tribal language. It has often been said-and it's so very true-that you never know a people until you know their language. The language reveals the thought patterns and many other aspects of the people. The methodology of learning a language is a science. It is important that one who is learning a new language, particularly one that does not have all the helps that you might have for a European language, for instance, understands how to go about learning the language. The language we were going to learn, Hausa, is tonal, which means that the tone in which the word is spoken can drastically alter the meaning. Rising and falling inflections and other nuances of the language need to be understood. For those of us who come from an English background, this is usually a new concept; and we need to be aware of it. We greatly profited from the program in New York City.

Today there has been much advancement in the understanding of the science of linguistics, and there are a number of centers where we can study it. GFA strongly encourages those who will need to learn a tribal language to avail themselves of the very excellent program offered at Bob Jones University. Linguistic programs, along with anthropology and other related subjects, are offered during the regular school year; but in alternate years an intensive summer school program is offered as well. Those who have taken the course testify that it was extremely profitable to them once they arrived on the field. I know the course my wife and I took in New York City was of inestimable value as we studied the language in Africa.

Through our language examiner, Helen Watkins, we became even more aware of the importance that the mission placed on mastering the local language. We were expected to take examinations at set times throughout our first term. Those who did not show aptitude in learning the new language often were not invited to remain in the mission. These examinations continued on into the second term to make sure we were advancing in our comprehension of the language in which we were working.

The patient that I first saw in New York City began to recognize that she had made a very bad choice in not availing herself of adequate treatment early on, for as time progressed, so did the disease. It could no longer be denied. She was suffering from leprosy. Helen Watkins became my patient. With appropriate treatment the disease was arrested but left her with marked crippling of both hands and feet.  In due time, I did reconstructive surgery on both of her hands and feet with good functional results, but there could be no reversal of the nerve damage.  After the corrective surgery, she and a coworker continued for many years to travel across the northern part of Nigeria administering language examinations to us missionaries. These were both written and oral. Miss Watkins stayed in West Africa well beyond the usual age of retirement, but finally it became necessary for her to retire because of the death of her coworker, but she did not stop.

 She retired from the field and lived well into her 90s but continued with her translation and language work. On several occasions she returned to Africa to check on her work with the native speakers and to encourage both missionaries and national church leaders.  Although she was confined to theUnited States, her heart was still in Africa and was very much alive to the current happenings in that part of the world.  This is commitment!