REAL LIFE: My father was on a mission to convert the Congo

Rowan MantellRetired Norwich head teacher Claude Scott knew his father was an inspirational man, but it was not until he made an emotional journey back to his African childhood that he discovered just how huge a shadow he had cast.Rowan Mantell

Retired Norwich head teacher Claude Scott knew his father was an inspirational man, but it was not until he made an emotional journey back to his African childhood that he discovered just how huge a shadow he had cast. ROWAN MANTELL reports.

The last time Claude Scott had come this way he was a small boy, following his father through the forest on a mission to convert the people of Congo.

More than six decades later he was back, lurching along a pitted and puddled road, past grim reminders of the war which had ravaged the region for decades.

At every village he was greeted with joy, and led to the church at the heart of each community.

These African churches, and the people who had put them at the centre of their lives for more than 60 years, were the fruits of his father's work.

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Many thousands of Congolese, spreading down the generations and across the region, owe their faith to missionary Douglas Scott, and at one village, there he was, the long-dead missionary, staring back at his 72-year-old son.

It was a completely unexpected and deeply emotional encounter for Claude, as the village pastor led him to a portrait which had been treasured, deep in the heart of the Congo, for six decades. Its title 'Apostle Douglas Scott' revealed just how much Claude's father had been revered.

Here, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Claude came across thousands of people who thought of his father as a saint.

The pastor pointed to a huge church, with room for 800 worshippers, and said: 'Your father started this.'

Claude said: 'He remembered my father telling him the Christmas story, as a boy in December 1939. It was the first time he had heard it and he's been following Jesus ever since.'

Time after time Claude and his guides would stop, unannounced, in a village and the people would come flowing out to meet this son of their long-lost 'saint.'

In one village the elderly pastor told Claude: 'Your father put me in charge of this church in 1945. He left in 1946, but I am still here!'

Once Claude was given a goat - 'an enormous act of generosity, given that a goat is worth a month's income,' said the retired Norfolk head teacher. Knowing that it would be rude to refuse the gift, and impossible to fit it in their vehicle (or bring it home to Norwich!) Claude's goat is still living in its Congo village.

Claude, who lives with his wife Ethne in Norwich, was the headteacher of Thorpe St Andrew High School from 1977 to 1993. He oversaw the amalgamation of the separate grammar and secondary modern schools into a single comprehensive, before becoming an educational advisor.

He and Ethne have three grown-up children and 12 grandchildren.

As a child Claude had literally followed in his father's footsteps as the family trekked through the Congo countryside, taking the Christian gospel to people village by village.

Then, as an adult, Claude too became a priest, not as a full-time job but alongside his work as a teacher.

When he revisited his Congo childhood he was often asked to preach, and gave impromptu sermons in French.

His parents, Douglas and Clarice Scott, had learnt French specifically so that they could become missionaries in French speaking Africa. And while they were living in the Congo the family spoke no English - just French and Swahili.

Claude still has his boyhood Bible, which is written in Swahili.

In France, and then in Africa, Douglas preached, converted, inspired and moved on, leaving fledgling churches in his wake.

In the Congo Douglas led the whole family on expeditions to take the gospel to remote villages. The terrain was often mountainous and Claude and his two brothers were sometimes carried in hammocks. 'I recall going across a river gorge on creepers. We were frightened to death!' said Claude.

But many of his memories are of the fun and freedom of growing up in Africa, and it was an enormous shock when the family returned to the UK in 1946.

'We came back on a boat and my brothers and I used to run around it turning all the taps on because we had never seen taps!' said Claude.

He was nine years old, spoke Swahili and French, and was used to the heat of Africa. They arrived back as Britain was plunged into one of the coldest winters on record.

'We stayed in different people's homes, but never for very long because we were uncivilised! In our first year back I think we went to around 12 schools!' he said.

Over the following six decades Claude often thought of returning to Congo but had given up hope of it ever being safe to visit the war-torn country.

Then, on a visit to neighbouring Rwanda with a church-based charity, he discovered 'his' part of Congo might now be free of fighting. With Congolese pastors as guides he travelled the rutted, dangerous roads back to his boyhood. This desperately poor region of a war-torn country was the place he had called home from the age of two to nine and where all his earliest memories were formed.

'The road was unbelievably rugged, mud-strewn, pot-holed and pitted, with unsafe bridges and broken down vehicles,' said Claude. 'But what I discovered along the way was a revelation.'

He was astounded to find the church his father had begun in their home town, as a tiny congregation of newly converted Christians, today runs three schools and has a half-built huge new church, which will one day seat 1,000 worshippers…

And their home, near the crocodile-infested lake, is still there, housing United Nations peacekeepers from Pakistan.

As Claude travelled through the Congo he was struck by the richness of his hosts' faith, in spite of the poverty, and the terrible inheritance of decades of war.

Now he wants to help the people whose generations of joyful faith are the fruits of his missionary father.

'As far as help and funding go, the physical needs are enormous,' he said. 'AIDS education, basic equipment for schools, church buildings etc, but my stay was too short for me to come to an objective assessment of how to prioritise them. It was all too emotional!

'I thought I had stopped working. I thought I had retired,' said Claude. 'But now I feel that there is something to be done.'

And there is that goat too - the gift to the son of their 'saint,' waiting for his return.

For more information contact Claude at