Drinking buffalo milk, dealing with a plague of rats and learning the multiple words for rice were just some of the new experiences awaiting GP Nick Henwood and his wife Ros during the nine years they spent as missionaries in Nepal.
In a fascinating and eye-opening account, they describe the joys and challenges of adapting to a completely new culture, writing with disarming honesty and humour. The book takes the reader through the various stages of their journey, from their first meeting at university to discerning their missionary call, raising support, arriving in Kathmandu for orientation and language learning, and then serving for almost a decade in Nepal.
Many missionary biographies present a neat narrative account of the protagonists' experience. Changed Agents is an autobiography with a difference. Nick and Ros take turns at writing episodic, diary-like snapshots of their life and experiences, under chapter headings such as 'Blending and Blundering' and 'Was it all worth it?' This really helps the reader gain a sense of the day-to-day reality of life on the mission field in a way I (as an inveterate devourer of missionary biographies) have never before come across.
Nick and Ros originally operated under a Christian Umbrella Organisation, with Nick taking the role of Health Consultant for a Community Health Programme in a rural area overlooking the Himalayas. After several years he moved into a role as Coordinator of a new TB/HIV Programme, working this time for a secular French aid agency. The comparisons he makes between these very different experiences makes for fascinating reading, and will help any reader considering similar work to think through these issues. An appendix also deals with the vital and complex question of whether development work should be 'top down or bottom up'.
Throughout their time in Nepal Ros worked in a wide variety of supporting roles, including helping to teach missionary kids, maintaining correspondence with supporters and finding creative ways to help the poor in the community - not to mention raising two young children without the usual resources. The question of both the privileges and difficulties faced by missionary kids is another topic touched on in the book.
It is only fairly recently that Nepal has become open to the Christian message: in 1991 the act of being baptised was punishable with a year in prison, while to baptise someone else could result in six years behind bars. Although the situation was freer when Nick and Ros arrived, the political unrest of the Maoist uprisings added an extra pressure. Reading of the witness and outreach of the Nepali church in spite of the ongoing risks was inspiring. Changed Agents is certainly not a book to shy away from tricky issues, and the question of how Nepali Christians can interact with their Hindu neighbours was intriguingly presented. Indeed, Ros decided to write a dissertation on 'Issues facing Nepali Christians relating to the Hindu festival Dasai', feeling she was engaging in 'hands-on theology'.
Overall, this is an excellent book for anyone considering cross-cultural mission or wondering how development in resource-poor countries really works. Full of colourful anecdotes and sometimes painfully honest accounts of the family's struggles, Nick and Ros invite the reader to join them and share their experiences in a very real way. Their genuine love for Nepal and its people shines through every page, making for a truly inspirational read.