Kay Stevens: An African Pioneer

Kay was born Kay van Rij in 1918 in a wooden house high up on the top of a hill that overlooked the fledgling “City of Gold”, Johannesburg, South Africa. She was of Dutch extraction. Her mother, as a young child, was held in a British Concentration Camp during the Boer War (1899-1902) and survived when others died “like flies”.

The pioneering spirit in Kay came from her heritage and her own spirit of adventure. In their backyard there was a huge tree which she learned how to climb when only six. One day she noticed a manacled man being marched to the nearby prison, it was Mahatma Gandhi.

Kay first married Lt. Jimmie Mowat of the King’s African Rifles, a Rhodesian Army Officer, the son of famous Scottish missionaries. He was born in one of the most isolated areas in Africa, close to the source of the mighty Zambezi River. He had lived his early life in the Balovale area. This was one of the most inaccessible parts of Africa. He took his bride Kay back to this area and became a trader exchanging cloth for beeswax after he left the army.

He was operated on for a brain tumour and was ‘invalided out’ of the Services in 1943. She and her ailing husband began their long journey by truck through the infamousTsetse fly country, then by dug-out canoe with six paddlers who battled for five days against the current of the mighty Zambezi River that was filled with crocodiles and hippos. Kay’s life of danger had begun.

Most people think that Lions are the greatest threat to humans, but that is not so. Hippos kill more humans than lions. Crocodiles are also a tremendous threat. In those days there were many men who only had one leg because when they were out fishing with their spears crocodiles would topple their canoes and grab a fisherman’s leg. The fortunate ones would be those successful in spearing the crocodile in the eye and escaping with the loss of
only one leg.

Crocodiles eat even more women than men, because they have to come to the river to scoop up water to take home in massive gourds. They would be on the look out for crocodiles, but they were hard to spot because their bodies were submerged under the surface of the water with only their eyes protruding. These hungry crocs were shrewd enough to crawl out of the water some way away from the women, and sneak up behind them, at the  last minute rushing at them hurling them into the water with a flick of their massive tails.

Soon after their arrival in Balovale, their little thatched house was taken over by soldier ants forcing Kay and Jimmie out. Kay had certainly moved into a very dangerous part of Africa.
In the middle of one dark night when Jimmie was away trading and Kay was alone in the house, a ferocious hyena broke through the mosquito netted door. Kay woke to find it near her bed and started to pray. The hyena left her unharmed.

In those days a number of African men had no noses. It transpired that they had been out hunting a long way from home and when it got dark and there was no moon they had no option but to go to sleep under a tree. Hyenas would come and investigate the snores. If the man made a sudden snort, often a hyena would become alarmed and bite his nose off!

Kay went down with malaria when pregnant and nearly died. Jimmie’s tumour also flared up. They returned to Johannesburg, but sadly his health deteriorated and he died of the tumour leaving Kay without a husband and a baby daughter, Merle, without a father.

Kay and baby Merle had moved in with her family into a house in the beautiful tree-lined Kilkenny Road in the Johannesburg suburb of Park View close to  its much loved scenic lake. During the war their house was always filled with ex-servicemen. Now it was filled again with returned soldiers looking for brides. One of them was World War II pilot Steve Stevens.
But Kay was in mourning and not ready to remarry. Steve had to wait for nearly three years before she agreed to marry him. They married in Durban.
At that time Steve was serving as a South African Air Force pilot. He was based at Mtubatuba in Zululand, spraying the three game reserves at tree level height with DDT to rid them of the tsetse fly that carries the parasite that causes sleeping sickness and severe muscle wasting. You can see the photograph of a Zulu man dying of this dreaded wasting disease in my book, Early Wings over Africa.
When Kay went to heaven recently she was skin and bone. I wonder if part of her illness was caused by her time in that area and having been bitten by the tsetse fly all that time ago. That Kay could stay alive for such a long time in a body of skin and bone and yet in perfect peace showed us all how her life has been filled with a pioneering godly spirit.

Kay and her new husband went to the Sudan in 1950 to initially provide a ‘life line‘ to missionaries when Steve became Mission Aviation Fellowship’s first pioneering pilot in Africa. They went to help missionaries and locals living in remote parts far from the navigable waters of the River Nile. At that time there were no doctors in the area. Even to this day swamps cut them off from surface travel for months of every year. The family grew, as Kay gave birth to Pam and Colleen.

On the night of the day when Steve flew Kay, his step-daughter and their two other daughters into the Sudan, army ants invaded their house and Pam cried out, “They’re biting me!”

As if that was not a bad enough introduction to the Sudan for Kay and the children, the second night was much worse. The thatch caught fire and in seconds it became a raging inferno. They all survived, but lost all their possessions.

As Steve carried tiny, six month old Coleen naked out of the fire as he had been washing her at that time. He then followed Kay who was holding six
year old Merle in one hand and carrying three year old Pam in the other.
Steve was astounded to hear Kay comforting the children by singing Christian choruses that they loved so much. Steve recalls:
This pioneering wife of mine had already become my hero for being willing without any financial support to leave civilization with three young children. Watching her and listening to her singing of her faith in God buoyed our spirits. She became my Pioneering Hero that day. Merle vomited for some days, but then recovered.
In the years that followed, at another mission station called Doro, lions would prowl around their little mission house on moonless nights. The family slept in a mosquito netted ‘sleep-out’.
That flimsy mosquito netting around the ‘sleep-out‘ would have been no deterrent to very hungry lions, but fortunately there was so much game around that the lions never had empty stomachs. Otherwise they might have filled their stomachs with the Stevens family! In those days they knew very little about what ferocious killers lions were. Thanks to God’s protection they all survived.

Kay and her little children were usually home alone, as Steve was off flying his passengers to distances as far away as Khartoum, four hundred miles to the north. He was sometimes away for a few weeks at a time.

Steve was flying an 8-seater twin engined wood and fabric covered Biplane, the de Havilland Rapide, a wonderful plane but very unsuitable for the tropics. It was the best MAF could find and afford at that time.

As time went by more and more air-strips were hacked out of jungle, bush and grasslands, and Steve began to fly to other places where no planes had ever been before. When Steve was away on these occasions Kay was never certain that he was still alive or would ever return. Two-way radios were non- existent on the mission stations in the 1950s.

One day when Steve’s MAF plane was heard returning, two of the older children ran to the nearby airstrip to welcome their father home. But Kay was so convinced that she was hallucinating that she remained outside their little house looking vacantly into space. She didn’t recover until much later that night.

With snakes coming up through the cracks in the concrete floor, scorpions hiding in shoes and itchy sand fly small enough to get through the mosquito netting, life was hazardous for Kay, the children and all the missionaries at Doro and the other surrounding mission stations.

When Steve lost the sight of an eye and Kay’s life was in danger during her pregnancy with Tim, Mission Aviation Fellowship was able to get the whole MAF Sudan team to Britain, to both work on the plane, and get Steve and Kay urgent medical attention.

When Kay died on 19th March 2012, she was buried by her family high up on a hill from which one can see a place that Kay liked to visit, the famous Cissbury Ring, a sixty acre fortress camp of Anglo-Saxon pioneers. They turned those sixty acres into a kind of fortress because they contained some of the finest flint in the world. Several little pieces from Cissbury have been found in Europe by archaeologists. The only tools these Anglo-Saxon pioneers had were antlers of deer. With them they hacked their way down into the ground through layers of chalk and then through very thin layers of flint until they got to a layer quite deep down where the flint was the best in the world. Amazing people.
They also dug out the chalk from all around those 60 acres making it impenetrable to enemies. That barrier protected all their cattle who grazed up there.
Kay had much in common with them: she too was a true pioneer.