As a missionary nurse, Faith Wallace has travelled all over the world, lived in eight different countries, and faced some of the most notorious war zones in Asia and Africa throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Her long volunteer career has brought her into contact with different people from all over the world, and she recalls them all with pleasure, sharing her experiences and adventures with a laugh — although she is reluctant to accept any compliments about her work: “I just feel very privileged, very humbled,” she says.
Faith grew up in Zamboanga city in the Philippines.
She always wanted to be a missionary nurse, but being one of the elder children in a family of eight meant that she was expected to support her younger siblings.
“Normally in the Philippines the oldest children work to support their brothers and sisters after their studies,” she explained.
But her father, a pastor, supported her ambition, and after completing five years training as a nurse, she went on her first assignment in Ifuago, a remote mountainous region of the Philippines, in 1981.
The arrival was something of a shock for a nurse just out of university: “The clinic was at a six hour hike from the nearest bus stop. There was nothing there, no equipment, no oxygen. We were all so green, it was the most difficult year,” she says.
“One day a baby was born after eight months, and we had to put a length of tube into his nose, and blow into the other end to give him oxygen.
“His mother took him home and he lasted for three days. In those conditions, that means he was so strong. If we had had more equipment, he would have survived.”
She went on to work at the Philippine Refugee Processing Centre, where she provided primary health care for refugees from war zones before they went on to different countries.
In 1984, she went to Thailand and worked with the Hmong hill people refugees, training health workers in primary health care.
Faith says this experience taught her one of the most important lessons in her career early on: “When I had a good idea, I would tell them, and then they would say, “Thank you Miss Faith, we’ll just have to discuss that”.
“I would sit there waiting while they discussed it for two, three, four hours. The longest they ever took was seven hours. I just sat and wrote my letters.
“The thing was, they wouldn’t just take and idea from me, it would have to be like they came up with it themselves or they wouldn’t do it.”
In 1985, still based in Thailand, Faith worked at the Site 8 Khmer Rouge refugee camp in Cambodia, which was regularly shelled by the Vietcong.
“Each nurse had a car and a driver. This was because of the shelling.
“I learned how to determine whether the shelling was incoming, or was outgoing. Then I also learned to decipher how many kilometres, and when to run,” she said.
When asked if she wasn’t scared for her own life, she said: “Well, I came close to it, but at that age, you pray. You believe that God has called you for this purpose and will protect you.”
After her experiences in Asia, Faith was asked to continue her work in Africa, in the war-torn Sudan.
There, she worked in the Muslim region around Khartoum on an extended immunisation programme. She said: “I went there and I trained about 30 village health workers.
“I was 29, and they were all Muslim men, married and in their 30s. At first, they thought ‘What is this brown woman doing here trying to teach us?’, but in the end they really enjoyed their time, they learned so much and it was really successful.
“They had given me an Arabic name, Amina — Faith in Arabic — and one of them said to me: ‘Amina, you taught us so much, when you give us knowledge is that not taken away from you?’ I said, ‘no no no, I also learned from you’, but it was really a different concept to be told, that the knowledge you give is taken away from you. That’s one of the things I won’t forget. I suppose they had never come across a person who just gave. And it’s not even material, because I don’t believe in swamp
ing people with material stuff, I don’t believe in importing, because I don’t believe in making people dependent. It was just knowledge. And you can tell they appreciated it.”
After 18 months in Khartoum, Faith was asked by her organisation to go to the southern city of Juba, where civil war was raging.
It was there that she met her future husband, Ernie Wallace, a missionary from Belfast.
“We met in Juba, in August 1987, when he had been forced to evacuate his staff from the west of South Sudan.
“Then I went home to the Philippines, he went back to Maridi and we thought we would never meet again.”
But when she went back to Sudan in 1988, they did meet again: “All Christian missionaries were expelled from South Sudan by the government. I was offered three work options: Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania. And then Ernie offered me the fourth option, and I took it of course,” she says with a big smile.
They were married in Northern Ireland in 1988, and are now coming up to their 25th wedding anniversary, which they will be celebrating in the Philippines next year. “We have a very good marriage. I feel very privileged.”
After a few settled years, in which Faith had two daughters, Sarah-Jane and Marianne, in 1992 the couple decided to sell everything and go to Uganda to carry on their work.
Her youngest daughter was only seven months old at the time.
They worked on a number of projects, designed to increase food security and self-sufficiency.
In 1997, they were invited by the Archbishop of Uganda to move to Kampala and work directly for him, to implement their programme across Uganda.
However, later that year, misfortune struck, and while the family was visiting a project in Kenya, their house was robbed of all their possessions.
“We were taken to the cleaners, and decided this is it, we need to come home. We didn’t have any more capital.”
Three months later, the British Council heard about their misfortune and offered the astonishing sum of £50,000 to stay on, but by then, their decision had been made. Instead, they recommended a local youth group they had worked with, enabling the project to continue to this day.
Since returning to Belfast in 1998, Faith has provided marriage counselling and facilitated small bible groups.
“As a volunteer, it was expected that I would not be earning money to help support my siblings,” she says, looking back. “But while I was serving as a missionary nurse, I was indeed able to help my siblings, as well as some nieces and nephews, to go to university.
“I feel it is a privilege to have served my Lord and accepted my calling. I am so blessed to have met many people, great and small in all my travels.”