Janet Parke has many happy memories from her missionary life in Zambia but few make her happier than thinking about former pupils like Mulenga Mumba.
Now 17, Mulenga was in one of the first classes Janet taught when she started at Mukinge Hill Academy primary school in 1999.
Mulenga went all through Mukinge Hill and then on to the girls’ secondary school, where she did well in her exams and hopes to train as a doctor.
Just before Janet (pictured right, cutting her cake at Wetheringsett this week) retired from Mukinge in December, she and Mulenga shared a four-day trip to the Falconer Home orphanage in Kabulamema.
Janet, now back home in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, said: “It was a wonderful trip, during which God really demonstrated his faithfulness.
“We were able to hand out clothes to some children, buy clothes for others and spend time showing them the love they need so much. It’s been wonderful to see Mulenga grow to the point where she is no longer just a former pupil but someone who is now a friend.
“We had a great trip to the orphanage and it was lovely to see she has such a strong Christian faith and I have so enjoyed seeing her grow up into a fine young woman.”
Janet, a 4ft 10in bundle of energy, has had a huge impact on the lives of the many hundreds of children who have passed through the school during her time there.
When she arrived, there were just 25 pupils taught in two classes – today, there are more than 150 taught in seven graded classes. When she arrived, there was just a single classroom and a small storeroom; today there are seven classrooms, offices, a small library and a house for the resident caretaker.
The school’s reputation for providing a very good education, with the gospel always at the centre of school life, has grown and grown throughout Janet’s time there.
Janet (pictured below right in her early days at Mukinge) says: “There are children from many different backgrounds, some of them from the better-off families in and around Mukinge, some of them from the poorer villages.
“Jesus is at the centre of school life, with an assembly every day. And we teach from the Bible at every assembly. On top of that, there are two RE lessons every week for all the children. We also have classes for new believers and in recent months I was even able to run a discipleship group for some of the older ones.”
Janet’s call to mission came early in life. She heard a sermon from visiting preacher at her church in Barrow-in-Furness when she was just 11. He spoke about an 11-year-old girl who was called to mission in Africa and Janet felt exactly the same call.
That call stayed on her heart through school and university, three years of teaching and a further year at Bible School.
She admits she has not always found missionary life easy, suffering a severe case of burnout after her first four years at the secondary school in Mukinge when she was in her early 30s.
That led to a prolonged period back in the UK, where, among other things, she taught at a special school for disabled children with learning difficulties. She also moved to Malmesbury and had to cope with the deaths of both her parents.
It was only after her mother died in 1997 that the spark of mission was fanned back into flame by a conversation with an old friend, who told her there was a vacancy at Mukinge Hill Academy.
After much prayer and thought, as well as a frank discussion with a doctor who thought going back to Mukinge might be a mistake, Janet returned in 1999.
She explained: “The first school I taught in at Mukinge was a girls’ boarding school, so the work was never-ending. We were doing the teaching and being house mothers and were working seven days a week.
“I found it very difficult, but the joy of Mukinge Hill was that it is a day school, so the children go home each evening and you have time to recover.”
Janet soon January 2000 became head teacher at Mukinge Hill, before stepping back from the role 21 months ago.
She stayed on to help mentor her successor, Margaret Musonda, who was soon afterwards posted to a government school. Claire Robinson, an SIM UK worker from Northern Ireland, then took over as head. (Janet, Mrs Musonda and Claire pictured right).
Janet said: “I did find aspects of being head very tough, with a lot of responsibility and a big workload, especially at the end of one academic year and the start of another.
“So it was lovely to step back and the last 21 months have been wonderful. I’ve been able to do the things I really enjoy, working with the children and writing an RE curriculum for the school.”
Janet was very involved in Zambian life, joining a church about a 45 minute walk away from Mukinge and becoming involved with an orphanage in Kabulamema, about a five-hour drive from Mukinge.
Now back in Malmesbury, Janet admits she does not know what the future holds but she trusts God completely. She is secure in the knowledge that he has a plan for her.
She said: “If I have learned one thing in my life it is that God uses us in our weakness; he takes weak people and uses them for his glory.
“I always come back to 1 Corinthians 1:27: ‘But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.’
“I’ll see where God leads me.”
The only certain thing is that the children of Mukinge, including Mulenga and many others like her, will never be far from Janet’s thoughts and prayers.
That the school will continue to make a great impact for the gospel in Mukinge, both among the children and the wider community.
For Claire to have strength and wisdom in her role as head teacher and that at least one more mission worker would be raised up to join the staff team.
That God will show Janet what ministry he wants her to do in Malmesbury and that she will have peace and joy in serving him.