Life History of Marie Patfoort
 with pictures from Marie's collection and extracts from a biography
Report by Juri Rynberg 1988
- Webpage by David Chase - 2003

Marie is from an equatorial rainforest area of what was once the Belgian Congo―now Zaire. Her father was a captain in the Belgian army who was stationed in the Congo to train the local army. Her mother (on the right) is the daughter of a village chief Abiangama who ruled the Bakoda people - a part of the Babudu tribe who spoke the Kibudu language. As was customary during colonial times, Marie's grandfather gave his young daughter to a visiting military officer during his stay there. From this union Marie was born.

At the end of his tour of duty, Capt. Patfoort returned to Belgium and her mother to her family's village. According to tribal law, children are the property of their father. Consequently, Marie did not return to the village with her mother. Instead, her father placed her in the care of Nellie Meloon, a missionary.( Marie's grandmother is seen on the left )

Marie lived at the Assembly of God mission from about the age of two until her middle twenties. The mission was not an orphanage. Its original charter was to provide educational and medical services to native populations and to convert these people to Christianity. However, Miss Meloon had taken on the additional task of Parenting Fourteen children.

Marie refers to Miss Meloon as her mother and the group of children as her Family of brothers and sisters (seen on the right). She has maintained contact with most of them throughout her adult life. Her earliest memories are of "the home" and does not remember her natural mother. Later she would learn that her mother came many times to visit her when she was a very little girl.

"It was a Four day walk. Her brother, my uncle, would bring her. One time a leopard was In the path. Its mate had been killed and it was standing there ― very Fierce. They had no weapon and did not know what to do. Then my uncle began to talk to the leopard ― quietly ― telling it why they were there... After awhile, the leopard put down his head and went Into the woods. When they returned to the village and told my grandfather, he said, 'The child belongs to the Father. You cannot risk your life for her.' My mother did not come to see me anymore." (here we see a dangerous rogue elephant that had been destroying crops and the people asked the missionary to kill it. It provided food for the whole village)

Life at the mission centered around school, work and the companionship of other children. The adults spoke English the children spoke Lingala and other dialects. (below is an illustration from a language book ) Marie developed a strong bond with Miss Meloon and especially to a sister named Jackie. She says she and Jackie were catered to because they were the youngest and because she was so sickly. As a young girl she suffered From dysentery, malaria, black water fever... "just everything that came along." She was not expected to live until adulthood. She recalls being In the last stages of black water fever and not being able to speak.

"That day our mother thought I would not last until the night. She had all my brothers and sisters come one at a time to see me and say something to me. The sister that was very close to me came and started to cry.., But I did not die...When I look back on it, our mother planted in us a great love For each other even though we were not blood relative." Periodically, Miss Meloon would return to the United States to renew her visa. During these times, Marie says she really felt like an orphan. Some of the children's families would come for them while the mother was gone. Marie and a few others stayed at the mission. She remembers feeling very joyful whenever her mother would return.   ( below left is Marie and her "Christmas Tree" from the jungle ) Although Marie's father had left a sum of money intended to support her, she remembers being poor. Once during her mother's absence her only dress ripped and an older sister took a curtain and made her another so that she could go to school. She was nine.

"...We were poor, but we kept ourselves clean. We also had food to eat. Africans are very good about sharing food ― especially to children." When Marie was twelve, the money her father had set aside had been used up. Her missionary mother made no attempt to contact him. Marie continued to live at the mission because as she said, "they had truly become my Family." Marie attended a local school as a little girl where she learned French, reading and arithmetic. Education rudimentary by western standards, and at the age of ten Marie herself began teaching. She felt overwhelmed with the responsibility and remembered coming home one day and crying.

"My mother didn't know what to do to comfort me) . She had taught us to do whatever was asked of us. You learned by doing." Gradually, she began to gain confidence in her ability to help others. As her skills improved, other missionaries began to borrow Marie and her sisters to help teach others .(on the right the men are preparing a new roof for the house the children lived in) She continued her own education evenings by being tutored at home in Latin, math, history. Her tutor, Dr. Curry, would become a lifelong mentor and friend.

During her adolescence, Marie also began working in the dispensary. Infant mortality was very high; thus proper nutrition was seen as paramount by the mission. Specific kinds and amounts of milk and formula were prescribed depending upon the babies' sizes and conditions.

"Africans don't learn to measure. It was important that the babies have just the right amount. It became my job―morning and at night―to boil all the bottles and measure the milk (made from peanut butter ) for each baby." She did not mind the extra work.

At fifteen, Marie wished to meet her natural mother. With some help from the mission, her mother was located and Marie want to meet her. She remembers it as a difficult meeting at First. Her mother asked her many questions to make sure that she was really her child,

"In the end, she accepted me as her child. She cried She had been angry that her only child had been taken from her....I think there is lot to heredity. We are a lot alike in the Face and so...but also in the way we do things the way we are inside." She has continued her relationship with her mother throughout her adulthood. (here Marie is seen caring for a baby)

At twenty, Marie had an opportunity to marry. As she puts it, "He found me. Mind you, I did not see him much―only a few times. I decided to just go down there to marry, but my mother said there should be a celebration." Marie and her mother went to meet him and learned that he had two children and another woman. This lack of honesty troubled Marie greatly, and she broke the engagement. She was caught between two cultures ― traditional tribal culture that saw marriage in terms of status and property and a western culture that valued more equal relationships between men and women.

"In Africa a woman can not make it without a man. They were worried about me. What would I do?"

After much discussion, it was decided that the mission would try to send Marie to the United States to study. This would prove to be an arduous task since Belgium did not allow Black women to leave the country or to become well educated. Meanwhile, Marie waited patiently and continued to live at the mission, study and teach In the neighboring villages.

In 1960 Zaire became independent. Four days after independence, a bloody revolution began that would consume the country for many years and leave more than 200,000 people dead. Because of her mixed parentage, Marie was in great danger. With immigration paperwork only partially completed, she was evacuated to Kampala, Uganda and ultimately the United States. (Click the arrow ONCE to see a movie clip of that event )

"One afternoon I was doing my laundry. Suddenly, they (the missionaries) came and said the troops were coming, 'You must go out from here. ' . . .I pushed my wet clothes in a bag and went...we traveled in the night to the city to try to get on a plane going out of the country ... I had to wait a few days there. They were taking pregnant women and children first...I stayed in the city with some others. It was a scary time...We didn't know―in the night you slept and then came a knock at the door. You didn't know if it was death for everybody or what! You had to do what they told you."

Marie arrived in the United States penniless. Through the assistance of Dr. Curry, she was sponsored by an American business women and began attending a Bible Institute in Rhode Island. She stayed here for three years learning English, algebra and science. In 1963 she was accepted at Gordon College as a freshman. Four years later she graduated―the first African woman from Zaire to receive a degree in education. Throughout her collage years, Marie remained staunchly focused on her goal of becoming a teacher. Money was always a concern. When she wasn't studying, she was working. She managed to get a small scholarship and someone also anonymously donated money toward her room and board. She commented that she was never sure how the next year would be paid for. When she graduated and went to "settle the account" and was told it had all been taken care of.

"My mother (Mama Meloon) taught me to trust in God. . . .You have to do your part, too. But if you work hard and really trust in God, He will see that things work out. However, I was only allowed to work 20 hours a week because I was a student and an immigrant."

Of greater concern than money was whether or not Marie would be allowed to continue to stay in this country. Her visa expired within two or three years after her arrival. Since her country was in such chaos, it was impossible to get another; and she was faced with possible deportation. It wasn't until Dag Hammarskjold was killed and U.N. forces became involved that she was able to get a permanent visa.

While at Gordon, Marie had come to Maine many times with friends. After graduation, she found a job as a fifth grade teacher in Whitefield, a small rural community in central Maine. Here she taught for two years and lived with friends (Norman and Lydia Chase) .

In 1969, she had an opportunity to return to Zaire to teach. The revolution had ended and the government of Zaire was anxious to begin rebuilding. Marie agreed to return for two years to teach French and English, Returning provided Maria with the opportunity to renew old friendships and acquaintances. She was able to once again locate her natural mother.

"I Found her in poverty...She told me that during much of the war she and others would go in the woods and cover themselves with leaves during the day to hide from the soldiers...She had nothing. This time I had money so I bought her everything..."

But Zaire was not the place she remembered. Revolution and time had "changed everything upside down. It was awful." Schools had been closed since 1960. The evidence of destruction was everywhere. Unmarked graves littered the countryside making it difficult to rebuild without uncovering more casualties of the revolution.

Because of her education and teaching skill, the government was anxious to have Marie stay and work toward educating women for the two years. They wanted her to stay, but she had to return to the states because her application to become a US citizen would run out. After those two years another war broke out and they had to evacuate people again and she could not return to her homeland.

Upon returning Marie worked for a year in a Christian School teaching and then returned to Gordon College. Her teaching experience had been gratifying; but there were always a few students who appeared to be intelligent but could not seem to learn to read. Returning to Gordon gave Marie the opportunity to take many courses specifically in reading and learning disabilities. Hero she worked in a therapeutic reading clinic at the college until it closedfive years later.

Out of work, Marie found teaching jobs scarce. For three years she worked in a factory before returning to Maine in 1980. Ironically, she returned to Whitefield to the same school she had left―this time returning to teach remedial reading.

Today Marie lives among friends and continues to teach in Whitefield ( she retired in 1994 ). Her life seems quiet now. Miss Meloon died several years ago (1980). However, Marie still corresponds regularly with her friend, Dr. Curry (She died in 2003) and with her mother in Zaire who is now in her seventies (she died in 2001).

Marie's life has been dedicated to helping others. She is always busy and enjoys hard work. It is not unusual to see her working in a hayfield, weeding a garden or helping someone paint their house. (on the left is Marie with Lydia Chase her long time friend in Whitefield)

A few summers ago, Marie spent her vacation working in an orphanage in Jamaica. Friends tease her about not going to the beach. She says there was no time.

A few winters ago, a man came to her and asked if she would teach him to read. He was one her farmer students from her first fifth grade class―one of the students who couldn't learn to read. With a lot of hard work on both their parts, he has learned. She is pleased.

To many, Marie is Seen as the quiet lady who teaches reading at the end of the hall. A Few who know her realize her skill and dedication. A colleague recently commented, "The kids know. She gives them a good feeling about themselves. They can't wait to come and see her. when she walks by, they reach out and want to touch her."
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in her own words

Click on the buttons below to hear Marie tell of her life's events:
be patient !

Her Parents

Their Arrangement

Mama Melloon's Mission

Her Father's Work

The Chief's Work

The Chief's Life


Wild Beasts

Getting Out

Coming to Whitefield