As a former schoolteacher, Dorothy Egan knows the importance of learning at all ages and stages of life, even when you’re the teacher yourself.
Egan taught in Kitimat for many years, but had always wanted to do missionary work abroad. She and her first husband both had skills that would be useful, her, as an educator and he as an electrician and general handyman.
“Before my early husband died, we had always thought that we would like to go out on the mission field,” Egan said. “Well, I guess God had other ideas and Bill died in ’83 before he had retired.”
But shortly after that, the pastor in charge of mission work for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada came to Kitimat for a presentation. They couldn’t find anywhere for him to stay, so he stayed with Egan and the foster child she had at the time.
While there, the two got to talking and Egan mentioned to the pastor that she and her late husband had always wanted to do mission work. So, he asked her if she was interested in going to Papua New Guinea.
“I said, ‘Oh, well I guess, yup, that would be possible.’ But at the time, I have to confess, I did not even know where Papua New Guinea was!”
So, she looked it up in an atlas and decided to give it a go.
“It’s a bit of a process. You can’t just say today that you want to go tomorrow,” she said. “And so we started the whole process, and by about a year later I ended up in Papua New Guinea.”
And so in 1984, she began her five-year mission, primarily as a lecturer in a teacher training college.
While everyone working there had their teaching degrees, Egan said “It turns out that, at the time, I was the only one on that staff who had ever had experience in a normal classroom.”
Along with teaching, she would lead weekly Bible studies with the 17- to 19-year-old students, which she said often lead to great discussions about living in Canada versus living in Papua New Guinea.
Egan became very close with many of the students during her time there, and would often ask them for things such as where to buy a car or what the appropriate behavioural norms were for a given situation.
“They didn’t really want to tell you what to do,” she said, “but they’d always say, ‘Well, my mother said…’.”
Egan said the living situation in Papua New Guinea is very different from Canada and Kitimat, and adjusting was quite a shock.
“I mean, if you ever want to have to adjust to a totally different situation, Papua New Guinea’s about it.”
Coming home for holidays, however, she used to bring one student with her each time, so they got a chance to experience a new way of living, as well.
“They got to experience what Canada was like — well, at least what Kitimat was like. And that was a terrific educational thing for them because it put them on a whole different level, you know, because they had been overseas.”
Egan made it through four of her five years in Papua New Guinea and a first case of dengue fever, before a second case forced her to go home.
“I had signed up for five [years], but I got dengue fever twice and you’re not supposed to survive the first case, but I was too stubborn, so I did. And then I got a second case of it and I was just totally wiped, which meant somebody had to be with me all the time, but that meant two of our classes were without a teacher, you know? So it was decided mutually that the best thing for me to do would be to go home. Because they were quite sure I was going to die.”
Egan went home in 1988 for several years, before deciding to take on another mission, this time to Cameroon in
“I was feeling good and I was still young enough to go and they needed me, so I went,” she said. “A little bit of ‘Hmm, I wonder what it’s like in Africa?’ was probably involved in that, too.”
Egan’s work this time around was teaching the children of missionaries who were over there doing Bible translations.
“The difference was that they were — I don’t know — almost afraid of the national people in Cameroon,” she said.
Egan said that one day, she was out visiting in the village where their residences were, and when she came back, the missionaries wanted to know where she had been, as they’d been looking for her.
When she told them, “They said, ‘But they were all Black!’ I said yup, what do you expect in Cameroon?”
They then asked her if she had been scared, to which she had responded that, no, she hadn’t been. They were just people and she had lived with Black people in Papua New Guinea, too.
“It was just kind of a strange set up,” she said.
But despite that, Egan enjoyed her work and time in Cameroon.
“Really, I enjoyed every minute of it, it was great fun.”
Egan said one of the coolest parts of the missions was seeing the various languages spoken in each country, especially in Papua New Guinea, where there are over 800 different languages spoken.
She spoke mostly English in Papua New Guinea, as the college was English, but in Cameroon, none of the locals spoke any English, so she often had to find other ways to communicate with them.
“You can do a lot with your hands and facial expressions. Like, you know, when I went on my trips around the village, I was to able to communicate with a lot of people. I didn’t understand what they were saying and they didn’t understand me, but, you know, we managed to get it across.”
However, similar to her leaving Papua New Guinea, another case of dengue fever in Cameroon forced Egan to go home after six months into her two-year mission.
Dengue fever is also known as ‘breakbone fever’, as it makes you feel like every bone in your body is broken, Egan said.
“I did not get rid of that feeling in my right ear and my right arm. I mean I have now kind of got used to it, but now when I think about it, it’s there.”
Unfortunately, after getting dengue three times, Egan wasn’t able to do any more mission work due to the time that it took for her to heal from the case in Cameroon.
“It took me a long time to get over that one,” she said. “But given that you’re not supposed to survive the first case — I’ll tell ya, there’s nobody more stubborn than me!”
And while Egan wasn’t able to do any more mission work or go back to visit Papua New Guinea or Cameroon, she made sure to stay in touch as best she could with several of the people she’d met, especially some of the students from Papua New Guinea.
And her experience had an effect on the Kitimat community, too, as she found out shortly after returning from Papua New Guinea, when a letter for her arrived in her mailbox.
“It was addressed as, ‘bigpelamama, Kitimat, Canada’, and yet, somehow, it made its way all the way to my front door.”
Egan said that learning was a big part of these missions for her, in more ways than one.
“Some things I learned it was better off not to ask, like ‘What kind of meat is this?’ ”
But the most important thing Egan learned is that you never stop learning, no matter your age or experience.
“Learning is a two-way street,” she said. “You know, you can’t go into a situation like that thinking ‘I am the almighty one who knows everything’, because you don’t.”