An African ad­ven­ture at age 86

El­derly mid­wife re­vis­its African vil­lages where she once worked as a nurse


ma­raud­ing hip­pos and mas­sive cat­tle-eat­ing snakes, camp­ing in lion-in­fested ar­eas, and hunt­ing an­i­mals to feed pa­tients in the le­prosy vil­lage where she ad­min­is­tered care. She was there when a new drug promised a halt to the de­bil­i­tat­ing dis­ease and she was there when those suf­fer­ing from le­prosy were fi­nally moved to the mis­sion hospi­tal, in­stead of be­ing treated in sep­a­rate colonies as in­fec­tious out­casts.

It was dur­ing her time in Africa that Cress­man learned how to de­liver ba­bies and a new phase in her life opened. When the lo­cal com­mu­nity took over the mis­sion hospi­tal, Cress­man was out of a job and headed to Eng­land to re­ceive mid­wife train­ing for two years.

She then re­turned to Africa, this time to a po­si­tion Rusinga Is­land, on Lake Vic­to­ria in Kenya.

Her chal­lenge there would be to cre­ate a health cen­tre from a partly com­pleted hospi­tal founded by prom­i­nent Kenyan politi­cian Thomas Mboya, founder of Nairobi Peo­ple’s Congress Party. Hospi­tal construction had halted af­ter Mboya’s as­sas­si­na­tion in 1969 and it was Cress­man’s job to fin­ish what he started.

With lim­ited re­sources, Cress­man de­liv­ered her first baby there on the hospi­tal floor. This was the raw­ness of Africa: mak­ing do with what you had for the good of its peo­ple. When the lo­cals were able to man­age the hospi­tal on their own, how­ever, Cress­man was again out of a job.

This time, she re­turned to Canada and in the mid-1970s be­gan work­ing at Grand River Hospi­tal (then known as K-W Hospi­tal) in Kitch­ener.

The Cana­dian Press

Elsie Cress­man is shown in New Ham­burg, Ont. in this Aug. 18, 2008 file photo. Cress­man is a woman of few words but big ac­tions — and at 86 she is still ripe for ad­ven­ture.

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