by Michael Lewis

Uncle Hugh was not my uncle; he was my Godfather and an occasional though memorable presence in my life. Hugh McClure MB.ChB. was a medical doctor and a Scot. I knew him only during the time that I was a small boy because, I remember, he always spoke to me through a hand puppet who was a monkey from West Africa named Mgumbo.  Uncle Hugh was a medical missionary who worked for the Church Missionary Society in the British colony of Sierra Leone. It was that association with the church that brought my father and Uncle Hugh together. Otherwise they had nothing in common.

Uncle Hugh was from an upper class family, a graduate of a public school. He was tall and willowy, dressed in a tweedy style, had a small mustache, horned-rim glasses and moved in a certain loose-limbed confident way that spoke of moneyed privilege, that any Brit can recognize. If you’ve seen pictures of George Orwell you’ve seen Uncle Hugh. But there they were, Emlyn, my father, and Hugh, fast friends.

Dad did what he could with his limited resources to support Hugh’s mission and Uncle Hugh helped him to do that by saying that small things were always most helpful. I remember Dad bought pliers to send to Africa because Hugh needed them. My guess is that postage cost as much as the gift. But Hugh always wrote to express his appreciation and Dad treasured those letters.  

Uncle Hugh wrote to me too on those ubiquitous flimsy air-mail forms. He told me about the house he lived in and the washing and cooking and food and what grew in the garden. The essence of Africa floated from the page. I loved most the little drawings that illustrated the text: an African lady using a banana leaf as an umbrella, and another of a tiny donkey pulling a huge load on a two-wheel cart and one of Mgumbo stealing a ham sandwich. Uncle Hugh was a talented watercolorist and when he visited us, he left behind a few post-card sized paintings of his African surroundings. My mother cherished those and I wish I still had them.

My Dad admired Hugh no end and it was his greatest wish that I follow in his footsteps --- as a physician and as a missionary. Unfortunately, I lacked the equipment for both of those trades. 

He also brought me items that I would have cherished if I had been allowed to keep them --- mostly colorfully decorated weapons: on one occasion a model knobkerrie that vanished the moment Uncle Hugh left our house. I did get to keep the leopard skin after much pleading and assuring my mother there was nothing to be afraid of. I cannot fathom what possessed Uncle Hugh, the Christian missionary and healer, to kill a leopard, which is such a magnificent example of God’s creation. But he took great pride in showing me the single bullet hole that had dispatched the animal instantly. Nevertheless, that skin was warm to my feet when exiting bed and I used it for a long time. Again, I wish I still had it but it vanished the moment I moved out of the house.

Hugh brought much from his hunting trips that went straight into the trash. Because she was a dedicated smoker I recall he brought my Mam an ashtray made from an elephant’s foot, and an ivory cigarette holder both of which she said gave her the creeps. For some reason she loved the black wooden statue of an African lady who had extraordinarily exaggerated body parts; I recall staring at that for a very long time.

Somewhere along the way that also got the heave-ho.

During his leaves Uncle Hugh gave illustrated lectures about his work in Africa. I’m sure these had an educational and fund-raising purpose and were mostly given in church halls. He gave one such show in our home and the whole neighborhood showed up and crowded into our tiny living room. It was given in two parts. I remember a few beautiful things from the first general part: spectacular scenery of mountains and plains and waterfalls, wild and scary animals in profusion, and an insight into a different exotic way of human life. I was packed off to bed before he presented the adult part of the show, which was about his medical work healing Africans with terrible injuries and infections and disfiguring tropical diseases. From what I overheard from neighbors’ gossip during the next few days, those images would have given me nightmares to this day.

My Dad admired Hugh no end and it was his greatest wish that I follow in his footsteps --- as a physician and as a missionary. Unfortunately, I lacked the equipment for both of those trades. 

I have a photograph of a family visit with Uncle Hugh; he is on a garden swing and I am sitting on his knee talking to Mgumbo; my parents and I are dressed in our Sunday best and the home in the background is large and the grounds around it imposing. This was surely Uncle Hugh’s natural habitat when in Britain. Later, I know, he had a home on Pall Mall in central London, a very fashionable and expensive area.

I lost touch with him when my Dad died.

However, many years later, on a flight from Amsterdam to London I noticed the name tag on a young woman’s briefcase who was sitting across the aisle from me. It read “Ms. Murial McClure, Pall Mall, SW.1”.

Auntie Murial was Uncle Hugh’s sweet wife so I thought there might be a connection. I asked my fellow passenger if she had a relation named Dr. Hugh McClure who was once a medical missionary in Sierra Leone. She said “No.” 

That closed the book on Sierra Leone, Uncle Hugh and Mgumbo.