Desma met Bill in 1993. Hamilton born and bred, she had been back in Ethiopia for two years, continuing missionary work interrupted by war and politics. Bill was a widower who hailed from Florida, USA. He was also a lifelong missionary, of the Southern Baptist persuasion, with extensive experience in Africa.
Whenever Bill was in Addis Ababa he stayed at the guesthouse at the Sudan Interior Mission (SIM) headquarters. Desma was a semi-permanent resident, writing Bible study guides. On their first meeting Bill asked if she had any Amharic language materials he could buy. Sensing a connection, he invited Desma to dinner. She accepted. That night, at the restaurant of the Hilton Hotel, began what she later described as “a whirlwind romance”.
Desma and Bill were married on 11 December 1993 in the SIM chapel in Addis Ababa. She was 54 years old. It was her first marriage. For Desma’s family and friends news of the nuptials came as the happiest of surprises.
Desma Lewis was a woman of faith and service. Her life’s work was spreading the word of God. To that end she sacrificed and faced enormous danger. Having escaped the worst on more than one occasion, in 1990 she made a conscious decision to return to Africa, seeing significance in the alignment of her personal situation with changes in the Ethiopian government. At the time she wrote, “while my natural inclination is to stay settled here in the comparative safety and comfort of New Zealand life, I feel that the Lord is opening the way before me to go back to Ethiopia, and that I can but follow his lead”. Desma’s marriage to Bill – in the words of a close friend, “a partnership that enlarged both their lives” – was seen as part of this divine plan.
* A feminist groundbreaker and quiet problem-solver: Gwenyth Mary Wright QSM, 1926-2022
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* The teacher who ‘brightened everyone’s day’: Howard John Maskell, 1946 – 2022
Desma May Bowler was born 24 August 1939, in Hamilton, the second child of Arthur John ‘Mick’ Bowler and Rose Ann Bowler (formally Jerkovich). She had three siblings, all older. It was a close-knit family. In 1941 Rose became ill, necessitating that half-sister Tess give up paid employment to help tend her and the younger children, continuing in that capacity for seven years. In the process, Tess became something of a second mother to Desma.
In Desma’s first 12 years the Bowlers lived on a property of several acres called Rosedene on Knighton Road, opposite to where Knighton Normal School now stands. Her love of animals stemmed from this formative time. She learned to milk the family house-cow by hand and had various pets, including cats, lambs and a small dog named Mac. She took piano lessons and excelled in dancing, including ballet, Highland dancing and the Sailor’s Hornpipe.
In 1951 Mick and Rose purchased 28 acres (11.33 hectares) at the opposite end of Knighton Road, across from where the University of Waikato’s Student Village is today situated. The large, old villa on the property served as the family home until the mid-1960s when another farm was acquired on Tuhikaramea Road.
Desma attended Hillcrest Primary School and Hamilton Technical College. She became particularly proficient at sewing, making all her own clothes on the family’s old treadle sewing machine and providing Tess’s daughters dresses for special occasions.
In 1957 Desma began training to be a primary school teacher at Ardmore Teachers’ College in south-east Auckland. Joining a very active Christian group, she gradually came to the conclusion that “God wanted her to be a missionary”.
Desma’s first year of teaching saw her back in Hamilton at her primary school alma mater. The following year, 1960, she was appointed to a three-teacher country school at Tauwhare.
Having continued with the piano lessons of her youth, Desma worked toward gaining an Associate of Trinity College London Diploma (ATCL), a necessary prerequisite to formally register as a piano teacher.
In 1962, Desma began two years of study at the then New Zealand Bible Training Institute in Henderson, with the now definite goal of Christian work overseas. She applied to join SIM and was assigned to go to Ethiopia. After a large family farewell party at the Knighton Road villa, she boarded a passenger liner in February 1964, bound for Aden. Two flights thereafter saw her in Addis Ababa, beginning the first, 12-year phase of her missionary career.
Desma’s first twelve months in Africa were spent learning the Amharic language. Her initial assignment as a teacher came in February 1965 at a SIM school in Hosanna. From August 1965 until July 1968 Desma served as a director of another primary school at Jigjiga. She then returned to New Zealand for a year’s furlough. From August 1969 until July 1973 she again worked as a primary school director in Goba. In 1974, shortly after returning from a second furlough, the political situation in Ethiopia became complicated, as Haile Selassie was overthrown. Desma became involved in famine relief in Alamatta.
From September 1974 to July 1975 Desma did a third stint as primary school director, in Bonga. She then served in various positions within SIM, as an official hostess, as the head of a women’s ministry and supervising a translation project. However, the new Marxist-Leninist government was proving less accommodating than Selassie. In 1976 Desma was one of six missionaries held under house arrest for a few days.
It was Desma’s family situation which informed her decision to depart for New Zealand and take a leave of absence from SIM. Her mother’s declining health became the priority.
Back in Hamilton, Desma established herself as a piano teacher and eventually purchased a home unit on Saxby’s Road. She taught Bible in Schools classes and was active in church work.
In 1990, Desma’s revived interest in Ethiopia coincided with Mick’s ill-health. His death freeing her from responsibilities of care, she arrived back in the country in April 1991, a month before another change of Ethiopian regime heralded renewed tensions. All SIM missionaries were confined to the mission compound. Unfazed, Desma set about providing Bible study material, with an aim to supply groups and churches throughout the country.
The new government proved sympathetic to the missionary project. Leaders of a denomination called Mekihima were supportive of the Bible studies programmes that Desma was developing, enabling their publication and distribution. Desma organised regional training to facilitate their use, hiring and supervising coordinators in key rural church districts. It was while engaged in this work that she met Bill Lewis.
Following a honeymoon on safari in Kenya and a brief trip to Florida where Desma met Bill’s four children, the newly married missionaries initially established themselves in Addis Ababa. Shortly thereafter they moved to Jimma, a city several hours’ drive to the south-west, where they were to remain for ten happy and productive years.
With Bill involved in a development project designed to provide alternative food sources, Desma continued writing Bible study books for the Mekihima ministry as well as taking part in the city’s Women’s Ministry Training Centre and teaching knitting, a little known activity in Ethiopia.
Desma wrote 37 study guides in total, drawing on both books of the Bible. Over 600,000 people were directly influenced by this work.
Leaving Ethiopia in 2004, on the occasion of Desma’s 65th birthday, Bill and Desma settled in Hamilton, buying a home on Garland Drive. They become active in their church, leading Bible study groups. Until 2013 they regularly travelled to Florida, visiting Bill’s children.
In her last decade Desma suffered from failing eyesight. This sad reality, together with Bill’s congestive health problems, saw them move into a town house in the Hilda Ross Retirement Village. A small garden became Desma’s pride and joy.
After Bill’s death in August 2017, Desma lived alone, her beloved cat Zingi for company. Despite deteriorating vision robbing her of the capacity to drive, knit or play piano, she resisted the temptation of self-pity, secure in her faith and ever mindful that others were less fortunate than herself. Until the end of her life she sustained a close, loving relationship with her siblings, her nieces and nephews and her wider family.
Desma May Lewis died 17 November 2022. She is survived by her eight nieces and nephews and their partners.
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