Video Tells of Missionary AbuseFormer students – children of missionaries – who attended Mamou boarding school, Guinea, share memories that include beatings, ridicule and sexual assault.
A new documentary film about child abuse at a missionary boarding school in West Africa reopens the painful experiences of survivors who endured physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual assaults.
… the documentary isn’t intended as just another exposé.
In All God’s Children: The Ultimate Sacrifice, former students share their memories of Mamou boarding school in Guinea from the late 1950s to the early 1970s – memories that include beatings, ridicule and being sexually violated in the secrecy of their dorm rooms. Interspersed with interviews of survivors and their missionary parents is footage of seemingly happy children playing in the schoolyard and at the swimming pool.
New York filmmakers Luci Westphal and Scott Solary say the documentary isn’t intended as just another exposé. (Faith Today’s first report on Mamou in 1997 was followed by extensive print coverage in other media.)
“Our biggest goal is to help the healing of past survivors,” says Westphal. The idea for the film came about five years ago during a visit with Solary’s great-aunt and uncle, when the retired missionaries began talking about their experiences in sending their two sons to Mamou. Deeply moved by the stories, Solary asked, “How can I not make a film about it?” The pair abandoned the film their company, Good Hard Working People, had begun and devoted the next four years to putting together All God’s Children, their first full-length documentary.
For Canadian Beverly Shellrude Thompson, participating in the project was both difficult and helpful. “One of the things that has been my mantra is that the story needs to be told, that there’s healing in telling the story,” she said from her home in Burlington, Ontario.
“I’ve always carried in my head a deep shroud of secrecy that allowed both the pain and the system to go on.” Old black-and-white photographs of smiling missionary families, recordings of “Onward Christian Soldiers” and other familiar hymns, and the footage of laughing children form the backdrop to the interviews with alumni and former missionaries. The children seem to be happy – at least when they’re playing. But as Shellrude Thompson explains, the playtime laughter was a way of coping with what was taking place in the classroom or at night.
Shellrude Thompson and other Mamou alumni worked for years to get The Christian and Missionary Alliance, which ran the school, to acknowledge what happened at Mamou. A formal inquiry was eventually established and some 80 alumni came forward to tell their stories. The Alliance’s president offered an official apology. Former Mamou staff who were still alive were investigated and a few received reprimands or suspensions.
But to many alumni the apology and the reprimands did little to redress the harm done. In All God’s Children, a current Alliance leader acknowledges the inadequacy of the denomination in dealing properly with the abuse. “They were slower than they should have been in doing something about it when they heard,” says Bob Fetherlin, vice-president for international ministries. “The refusal to deal with it and acknowledge it had as big an impact as the abuse itself.”
Thoughts of suicide, depression, loss of faith and other issues are the legacy of Mamou. Asked to endure a cruel boarding school for the sake of the Gospel, some adult survivors are now asking if all those African souls were worth the sacrifice of children.
All God’s Children premiered at the Sarasota Film Festival in Florida in March. It has yet to receive wide distribution and there are no plans so far to screen the film in Canada. DVDs are available from www.allgodschildrenthefilm.com. For Shellrude Thompson, delving into the past pain once again was worth it. After the film was shown in Sarasota, she recalls “At least two people stood up and said, ‘This is my story.’ ”
Debra Fieguth is a freelance writer based in Kingston, Ontario.
Originally published in Faith Today, November/December 2008.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2008 Christianity.ca.