A well-traveled ship, the seaworthy freighter Gripsholm would be our home for our trip to North Africa. High cranes and derricks covered its deck with little room to accommodate extra passengers as it crossed the Atlantic Ocean. As a three-year-old, my memories are vague, but dad kept a complete journal. My family – the Donners – climbed the gangplank in January 1946 to board this weathered freighter.
The ship prepared to depart with all passengers aboard. My grandparents, church friends and mission personnel stood on the dock to wave us off, excitement conflicting with heavy hearts. Tears flowed amidst the mixed emotions and we wondered if we’d ever see each other again on this earth. Even if we returned safely, it would not be for at least four or five years. As family ties and bonds were broken, emotions ran high with a mixture of love, gladness and anticipation alongside sadness and trepidation. Africa was still regarded as the ‘Dark Continent’ with ‘savage natives,’ wild beasts and rugged unbroken trails into the bush. It was a continent of disease and death.
My mom and dad had purposefully chosen to follow this path to Africa in response to God’s call on their lives to serve him in Tanganyika Territory where they would build Bible schools, teach children’s meetings, learn Kisukuma by kerosene lantern and live a humble and simple life in Sukumaland.
As the gangplanks were pushed away from the ship’s side and ropes from several tugboats started to pull the ship out of the harbor into the open sea, we looked back at our loved ones until their faces faded in the distance. We steamed past Lady Liberty and out to sea.
We settled into our berths – very basic with metal bunk beds welded to the steel walls. Everything else was soldered in place for our voyage on the high seas. Our family was separated – mom with us two little girls and my dad with my brother Calvin – into different compartments. The only ventilation and windows were the portholes, which lined the sides of the ship. When storms erupted, the waves crashed on the portholes, instilling fear of a possible shipwreck or sinking.
My dear mother Betty Donner became sea sick and remained so during most of our trans-Atlantic passage. With mother feeling too sick to supervise us youngsters, I recall trying to climb up on the railing to get a better view of the waters below. Just before I reached the top wooden railing, where I could easily have toppled over into the sea and certain death, an alert passenger rescued me. I thought it was fun!
We sailed by the Azore Islands, through the Straits of Gibraltar and entered the Mediterranean Sea, enroute to Alexandria, Egypt, where we would disembark. We passed steaming Mount Etna, an active volcano on the island of Sicily.
We disembarked from the Gripsholm in Alexandria and passed through the hubbub and confusion of the Customs House and searched for transport for the trip up the Nile River. We had reached the continent of Africa!