On the Back Road to Mandalay

by Robert G. Johnson
Reviewed date: 2007 Feb 28
356 pages
cover art

My grandparents spent twenty years as missionaries in the Chin Hills of Burma. In 1988, my grandfather published his two-volume History of the American Baptist Chin Mission, which recounted the mission work in the Chin Hills from its beginnings in 1899 to the leaving of the last missionaries (my grandparents) in 1966.

Now he has written a short book recounting specifically his own years in the Chin Hills. It's less a of a history book and more of a biography. (In fact it's the perfect complement to the short autobiography of his childhood, My Early Life, which he wrote and distributed privately to family members several years ago.) On the Back Road to Mandalay is self-published through the print-on-demand publisher Xulon Press, and is available through bookstores and at Amazon. My grandmother, who worked as a professional copy editor for many years, did the editing. It has a few typos but is free from more serious problems.

Robert and Betty Johnson went to Burma in 1946. The accounts of their first few years in the Chin Hills perplexed me at first, as they mostly consisted of stories about how they rebuilt and set up the mission house in Haka (which had been damaged in the war.) It apparently was several years before they began to do much missionary work. But what I realized was that these years were spent in language learning. Several hours a day they devoted to language learning, and it was only when they became fluent that they could spend more time on mission work.

The Chin people already had a thriving community of Christians. What they needed was trained, educated pastors. One of the first tasks was therefore to set up a Bible school for training of pastors. The Johnsons taught Bible school for several years. In the later terms, they helped to translate the Old Testament, to organize the various Chin Baptist Associations into a Convention, to evangelize the more remote villages, and to provide basic medical supplies at cost. The final task was to aid in constructing a new church building in Haka. Robert Johnson designed the church and supervised the construction of the 96' x 50' building, built of stone quarried locally by villagers.

One thing I noticed with interest was the introduction of Western customs and ceremonies into the Chin culture. In one sense, it seems imperialist. On the other hand, many times there was no other choice. For example, the Chin Christians could not very well use the old animist marriage rituals. They had no Christian marriage traditions of their own, so why not adopt the Western customs which had served so many so well for centuries?

The Chin Hills are mountains, actually, and travel is difficult. There were some drivable mountain roads, but even these were not always safe. Johnson recalls one harrowing incident:

We rounded a sharp right turn and came to a very narrow part of the road, so narrow I feared to cross the thirty feet of danger. I was unable to back up because of the sharp turn. There was no other road. I had to cross. I knew that my left tires would be almost over the crumbling edge of the road. Then we spied a tree uphill from this dangerous spot. I had a strong rope, so I tied the rope around my chest and the Chin lad tied to rope to the tree above. I figured that if the jeep and trailer went over the edge, I would be pulled out of danger by the rope.

He survived that trip without mishap. Years later, though, he was involved in a serious accident when his jeep slid off the mountain road.

Someone in Falam, upon hearing of the accident, telegraphed my wife with what he intended as an encouragement to her, that God would help me and keep me safe. But his English was faulty, so the message Betty received read:

Jeep accidented at mile seventeen,
Johnson hurt worst. May God help him.

To her, of course, that meant I was probably near death. It crushed her.

He was not so near death, though, and although it took a trip to the States to fix his broken jaw, he recovered and returned to Burma to continue his missionary work.

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