Volume 13 Number 4
The Snow King in Africa
01 August 2000
Otto Pulkkinen has spent years working with the underprivileged at great personal cost. Paul Gundersen tells his story.
Not much in Otto Pulkkinen's early life marked him out as someone who would devote much of his life to the underprivileged in Africa--except possibly the fact that his own background was poor by European standards. He was born in 1945 on the four-acre family farm in the Kuhmo district of north-east Finland. A plaque in the same village marks a turning point of the 1939-40 Winter War, where the Finns halted the Soviet Russian attempt to cut their country in two. The frontline trenches can still be seen just four miles away.
The Pulkkinens' farm had two cows, two horses, some chickens and a dog. The unpainted log farmhouse consisted of one big room with a huge oven. There was no electricity or telephone, no tractors or machines. Otto's father died from tuberculosis contracted as a soldier in the war. All six children caught the disease but survived. Otto's mother kept the family going by picking blueberries in the forests and baking bread for the lumber camps. She never had the chance to go to school but taught herself to read and write, without punctuation or capital letters.
At 12 Otto worked in the woods in his spare time to help support the family. This did not prevent him from starting regular programmes for the village youngsters.
Otto Pulkkinen was the first from his district to complete secondary school, and a Lions' scholarship opened the door to university studies. Even as a teenager he knew what he wanted to do with his life. 'It dawned on me that my task would be among the suppressed and the poor, having experienced poverty myself.' Not knowing how to proceed, he decided to do his compulsory military service first.
On leave from the reserve officer school he came across a Moral Re-Armament event in Kuhmo, initiated by a family friend. A student group presented The Ladder, a play by Peter Howard about an ambition-driven man finding new priorities in life. Pulkkinen's attention was captured. Next summer he went to an MRA conference in Värmland in Sweden, which he described as a 'great spiritual lift'. He decided to look at his life in the light of absolute standards of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love, and to discuss his findings with a trusted friend. 'My childhood Sunday school faith which I had hidden in my innermost self now became alive,' he says. 'I surrendered my life to be used by God.' He wrote letters to put things right with various people.
Pulkkinen's studies were postponed once more when he accepted an invitation to travel with a cast of the MRA-inspired musical Sing Out/Up with People through 40 American states and other countries. He worked with the technical crew but also sang in the chorus. In Wyoming he took part in a winter sports event and was acclaimed as 'Snow King'.
Pulkkinen became a close friend of the African cast members and later invited one of them to his home in Kuhmo. A conviction grew in him that Africa was to be his future. To get the necessary qualifications he studied agriculture and then obtained a Master's degree, specializing in African conditions. During the holidays he trained as an editor with an agricultural paper.
His studies completed, Pulkkinen set off for Africa with his wife Liisa and their two-year-old daughter. Soon Pulkkinen found himself working for the Zambia Christian Refugee Service as an inspector of aid projects. Talking with the refugees during the next two years, Pulkkinen began to understand the African liberation movements and the refugee problems in all their tragic dimensions. He used his agriculture to give basic training in small scale farming.
In 1979 a state of emergency was declared because of the attacks of white commando forces from Rhodesia on Zimbabwean nationalist bases in Zambia. The Finnish Embassy advised Pulkkinen not to travel outside Lusaka but he constantly ignored this. For several months he spent time each day in the ZAPU controlled JZ Moyo camp where 10,000 boys between eight and 18 were based.
When the Zimbabwean war came to an end Pulkkinen was responsible for repatriating 25,000 refugees under the auspices of the World Lutheran Federation and the UN. The situation at the border was chaotic with frequent skirmishes. One day when he was supervising the dismantling of a camp he was badly wounded by an exploding hand grenade. He was taken to hospital in Livingstone and only just survived. The doctors tried without success to remove the shrapnel from his body, and he had to return to Finland.
Back home Pulkkinen worked for a while as an agricultural editor but the thought of returning to Africa was irresistible. By 1986 he was back in Zambia. His family joined him half a year later. Pulkkinen's task was now to organize and coordinate agricultural training in the northern districts around Luapula, a notorious malaria district. The whole family had constant health problems. Liisa and their daughter had to return home but Pulkkinen stuck it out till the end of his contract. He was subsequently employed as a consultant in various agricultural projects.
In spite of physical problems Africa continued to draw Pulkkinen. From 1990-92 he coordinated agricultural development projects in Ethiopia, Zambia, Tanzania and Sudan. When a revolution started in Ethiopia and President Mengistu fled the country Pulkkinen had the difficult job of protecting many foreign workers and getting them to safety.
In 1992 a medical check-up revealed that Pulkkinen, now 47, had leukemia. His only hope was a bone-marrow transplant, which his sister Aune gave him. He struggled to carry on his regular work until the operation, and continued to pursue it between sessions in hospital. But he finally lost his job.
For the next six years Pulkkinen did not have a single good night's sleep. He was in continuous pain and the doctors expected him to die. 'I sometimes prayed that God would allow me to die,' Pulkkinen said. 'I cried like Job until my voice broke and the paralyzing pain made my body numb. But God seemed to have other plans. Sometimes a certain quality of silence entered the grey monotony in my soul, a silence that was singing. I heard no words, no sermons, but something warm came from heaven and filled my battered body.'
This experience led him to write a series of poems picturing both his suffering and his trust in God, Voices of the Night. Another collection, Spice in the World, inspired a Finnish composer to create a church oratorio which has been widely acclaimed in Finland.
Liisa Pulkkinen was also discovering a deeper relationship with God. Molotov's redrawing of the Finno-Russian border in 1944 had reduced her family's farm to a small holding and placed the family home in the military border zone, continually watched by Soviet guards. She had developed a great bitterness against the Russians.
Many years later, after the fall of Communism, Otto and Liisa were at an MRA conference in Caux when a large group of Russians arrived. Liisa stiffened at the sight of them. 'I don't want anything to do with them,' she said. But one day she heard some Russians describe what they had suffered under the Soviet regime. Compassion and love for the Russians was born in Liisa.
Otto's cancer unexpectedly receded but other diseases set in. His eyesight deteriorated and for a period he could not read. A chest inflammation destroyed his right lung. At one point doctors thought he was dying and summoned his wife and daughter to the hospital.
Now 55, Pulkkinen is mostly bedridden. He says that all the uncertainty, loneliness and large medical bills have also brought much to be thankful for--a new family togetherness and a capacity to see life through the eyes of the unemployed, the sick and the forgotten. 'I still want to defend the rights of the weak, but how to do it when my health prevents me from being active? Every day I struggle with this question and I have not found a satisfying answer. The person who stops to listen and ponder can perhaps perceive in my poems a flash of hope in the midst of suffering. It is hope we need. Without hope there is no future.'
Once when all hope seemed gone Otto Pulkkinen wrote: 'Often when the pain is intense and I would like to turn my back on life, I walk in my thoughts to the final Gate. When blissful dreams pull at me, God turns my face towards other people and tells me: "Brother, many riddles will be revealed at the Gate but life still has much to offer you. You are permitted to wonder and to ask. Your Creator is amazing. There is grace for all, there is usefulness for all. For this you can be truly grateful." '.