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Missionary couple who pioneered literacy among aboriginal people

BEYOND WORDS: The Remarkable Story of Paul and Nathalie Means Edited by: Laurel Means
Published by Armour Publishing Pte Ltd 376 pages, $25+ GST
This book is available in major Christian and general bookshops

THIS book, edited by Laurel Means, traces the life and ministry of Dr Paul and Mrs Nathalie Means, Methodist missionaries who pioneered adult literacy among the aboriginal people in Malaysia and India before and after the war.

Tracing their odyssey through about 300 letters written by both husband and wife, the editor presents a lively and exciting account of their nearly 50 years of pioneering work. It also provides many accounts of their varied and extensive travel experiences in their homeland in Europe (where Paul had a hair-raising brush with the then Nazi authorities in Germany, and which provided a backdrop to his book, Things That Are Caesar’s).

They read like a first-hand adventure tale of a global family that included four children. It is a book that should be read by all Methodists, especially those who are concerned with missionary work.

Taking up the challenge of missionary work, Paul was first appointed to Medan as Principal of the Methodist Boys’ School, and then transferred to Singapore where he managed the Methodist Book Room and was Editor of the Malaysia (now Methodist) Message from 1930 to 1932 and 1934 to 1939.

A brief spell in the Malayan jungles made him and his wife determined to work among the aboriginal Sengoi to raise their social and economic status through literacy and education. This early contact was to define their life work first as one of the founders of the Home Missionary Society and Methodist work among the aboriginal people which has matured into Sengoi Methodist Churches. They also promoted literacy among those adults in Malaysia and India who had been denied the opportunity to be educated.

Organising training programmes for adults as well as for their children in jungle schoolhouses was a tough life, manoeuvring the miles of jungle paths on foot and sharing in the spartan life of the Sengois. Opening their minds to the world of literacy was expressed in an epiphany by a grizzled old man who yelled in glee,

“Saya boleh bacha!” (“I can read!”). After the war, they served briefly under
the auspices of the Department of Education and the Adult Literacy Council of Singapore where they worked on a pilot project to teach Malay women to read and write.

This was followed by two years in India under the auspices of the World Literacy Council, organising literacy programmes in places as diverse and distant as Allahabad, Hyderabad, Bengal and Nagpur, and travelling by train, jeep and oxcart to reach the village folk. Following this hectic period, Paul and Nathalie revisited Malaysia (1957- 1964) under the auspices of the Asia Foundation, allowing them to expand the programme to the Ibans in Sarawak with new and exciting experiences.

In the meantime, the new Nagaland Government commissioned Achilla Imlong, a Naga girl whom Paul and Nathalie had helped to get a college education in America, to implement an adult education project in Nagaland. The way was thus opened for Paul and Nathalie to organise training programmes for the Nagas as well.

Even after he had officially retired as Professor Emeritus, Paul and his wife continued to be active, gamely undergoing “training” under a Peace Corps programme and making several visits to Malaysia and Nagaland, where their strenuous efforts continued unabated.

In Malaysia, work developed into translation of the Scriptures into Sengoi and undertaking new initiatives with the Temiar (another aboriginal group) that required learning their language.

These visits were interspersed with periods of a more settled life in their homeland, where Paul served several times as Pastor of a Methodist Church in Oregon.

Even after Paul passed away in 1980, Nathalie continued to travel extensively, renewing her contacts in Malaysia, completing a short history of the Sengoi mission called And the Seed Grew, besides completing the preparation of the Sengoi and Temiar Dictionaries despite her advancing years.

And so it went … both husband and wife continue to labour until they could labour no more, and the book provides graphic evidence of an active and positive missionary couple who had a mission. They refused to give up in the face of almost insuperable difficulties, and are a model of pioneering excellence from which we can draw inspiration and use as a noble but daunting example of Christian missionaries serving the Lord till the end.

Earnest Lau, the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore, is also an Associate Editor of Methodist Message.