'She faced opposition going to Africa with a small child, but she was called'

Remembering Cherie Martin, who died last week from COVID while working at Malawi orphanage

On February 3 in Malawi, on the grounds of the Kondanani Children’s Village, an Australian woman was buried.

Cherie Martin had volunteered at the orphanage since 2002 when she decided to leave Australia with her baby daughter, to help vulnerable children.

Last week, Martin died from COVID-19, aged 51. On Sunday, family and friends held a memorial service for Martin at her family home at Lemontree Passage, north of Newcastle, NSW. They streamed the service back to Kondanani and Martin’s daughter, Tandazi.

Many tributes were paid to a woman fuelled by her Christian faith who, as her sister Odette Carter said, “managed the school, a farm and a children’s hospital … She started up a piggery and a dairy farm, she built income for the village, creating cheese and butter by hand.” 

Below is part of the eulogy given by Jane Newton, a close friend who met Martin at Bible College and fondly remembers her laugh, service and love for God.

Good morning, all. My name’s Jane Newton. I’m a long-term friend of Cherie Martin, whom I have always affectionately called Cherub — something to do with the spelling of her name, and I think that’s really fitting.

We first met at a Bible College where Cherie was studying Missions. Cherie had been caught up in the goth scene back then and she wore black lipstick and some outrageous clothing at times. She was never afraid to be herself.

College is a melting pot of young people from many different scenes, and this made it more interesting. One of the first things I noticed about Cherie was that she was just full of energy, excitement and cheerfulness. She was really eccentric and fun. When Cherie told a story, she would do it with such enthusiasm that you were immediately drawn in. And then her laugh. Her laugh was so heart-felt, a belly laugh that usually started with this contagious ‘bah-ha-ha’. She was hilarious. And Cherie’s smile lit up the room.

I know all those that are friends with her had many fond memories and would have been tripping down memory lane over the past week. I have so many, I’ve chosen just a few. Some of my fond memories of Cherie are of dancing with her. We danced in Darling Harbour to Latin Festivals until they closed. And then our feet were that sore that we had to carry our shoes home, and all the way home we were just laughing and talking about the night’s events. I had an absolute ball with her over those years …

As Bible College students we went to prayer meetings and conferences. We were involved in concerts and church festivities. These were really beautiful days. Cherie had a heart after God and was a great prayer warrior. Cherie had many many friends. People were just drawn to her …

There’s an African proverb: when you pray, move your feet. Cherie prayed, and God showed her, and she moved her feet.

I don’t know where she got her skills in the art of persuasion but they helped her with much needed negotiation skills during her travels through Africa, and at times, life-threatening situations in Malawi … Cherie went to Africa, and she said that she fell in love with the place. She ended up getting a job as an overland tour coordinator guide. These overland tours were camping and pretty rough, which was sort of surprising when originally Cherie set off with pink high heels in her suitcase. Cherie returned to Australia … in the late 1990s or 2000s, with the greatest gift and blessing of her life, her beautiful daughter Tandazi, the love of her life.

Tandazi’s name means ‘blessing’ and indeed she has been, and is to this day. A parallel in our lives was that I was pregnant too, with my beautiful boy Isaiah, who was born two weeks after Tandazi. We were both able to love and support each other as single parents. Being a single parent can be isolating, but Cherie knew that she was called to community, and that she needed to be involved in the bigger picture. There’s an African proverb: when you pray, move your feet. Cherie prayed, and God showed her, and she moved her feet. She started to take action; Africa was on the horizon. Christ calls us to action and to be part of a community where we can make a difference.

I remember Cherie and I sitting on the beach one New Year’s Eve — 2001 or 2002 — and we were sharing our future hopes and dreams. Cherie declared that she was going back to Africa, with Tandazi in tow, to work at Kondanani. At that time she had no savings, a bomb car and was not working. I said, “How can you do that?” and she said, “God will do it.” And that’s a statement I heard Cherie say a lot over her lifetime: God will do it.

Cherie, with every fibre of her being, believed in God’s might and power. She was very courageous. She faced opposition going to Africa with a small child, but she was called and whatever anyone else thought did not matter. She trusted: within a year or even less, she had finance, sponsors, and then set off. Cherie planted herself there and flourished. For this woman, she was a leader in virtue and kindness. She faced many challenges and some frightening times but she spoke out and declared that God was greater than anything man could do to her. She had the right words at the right time, and attackers would often retreat.

Over the years when Cherie and Tandazi turned back to Australia, they would always come and stay for a week or two with me. These were some of the best times, just hanging together, enjoying each other’s company, as they were always filled with food, fun, stories, laughter. Over the years I have been witness to the special relationship between Cherie and Tandazi, the gift from God to Cherie, the biggest blessing to her life. The presence of these two beautiful people in our home we always treasured, and felt sad when we had to leave.

Sensing my fear, Cherie said, “It’s OK. I will not die. I will live.”

During Cherie’s last visit, which was January 2020, Covid was breaking. We were fortunate to picnic together with our much-loved friends, Kelly and Toby, and we discussed Covid. There was a lot of talk about it. I said to her, “Why don’t you just stay until it passes?” and she said there’s 150 children depending on her. And I sensed her homesickness and concern and her need to return to Kondanani. But as we hit that stage, none of us fully knew the weight of the pandemic.

They managed to keep Covid out of Kondanani for 12 months. I remember contacting Cherie: she had driven about 1500 kilometres from South Africa and they’d just closed the border behind her. And I remember thinking how incredible it is that she drove all those kilometres across Africa. She didn’t even have air-con, I don’t think.

The word ‘fearless’ has accompanied Cherie’s name a lot this week and, yeah, she was fearless. When Cherie recently told me that she had contracted Covid, it hit my chest hard and I felt panicked. I was very concerned. As a registered nurse I knew the drill and had already seen a friend’s husband not survive it. So a lot of messaging began and I probably drove her mad with lots of information about current lines of treatment and the emerging treatment and the right drugs.

When she said that she had pneumonia and was hong to hospital, I was fearful and had more questions. But Cherie reassured me that they were attentive and caring, but I felt helpless to act as she was so far away. But I was able to tell her that I loved her and how much everyone else did. But I know that she knew that. She knew that she was loved. Sensing my fear, Cherie said, “It’s OK. I will not die. I will live.” She sent me a song about God’s love and that he will never forsake her or leave her.

Within 24 hours, she departed for glory, leaving us all heartbroken. In true ‘Cherie Martin style’, her exit was swift and gracious. She left us all wanting more of her.

When I saw ‘Return to Sender’ on the white coffin I thought, “Indeed, she has been’. But I couldn’t help thinking about her mum Juanita who loved Elvis. And Cherie knew that, and she exited with one of Elvis’ hit songs embossed on her coffin.

I loved her so much and I feel so privileged to have been called a friend by her. A life well-lived, Cherie Martin. I will forever miss her company.

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