An African Journal – Post One: Beneath the Surface

With this post, I am beginning what I hope will be a series of reflections and rememberings about a formative part of my life and journey as a Jesus follower – the two years we spent living in Zambia in the 1960’s. As I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, one of my primary purposes in writing here is to have a record for my grandchildren, most especially my two young granddaughters, a record that tells a little about who I am and how I got here. I so wish I had something like this from my own grandparents! I am deeply grateful to my grandson Joel Fischinger for scanning our 500 slides from that time so that I can access them for these pages.
The VW Kombi bus labored a bit as it climbed the hill just before the border crossing. Before us spread the great savannah of central Africa, dotted with trees and brush that were strange to our eyes, yet oddly reminiscent of our southern California home.
This label made us giggle. Yes, it was a BIG tree – a baobab tree.
 I look at these pictures and think, “We were such babies!” I was 21, he was 24.
“Look! What’s that?” I cried from the passenger seat.
“Honey, don’t tell me to look over there,” my new husband begged, with the beginnings of a quaver in his voice. “I can barely manage to keep this thing in the lane!”  After all, he was driving on the right side of the car and the wrong side of the road.
“Just slow down a little bit and look over there to the left,” I continued. “Do you see what I see?”
“Give me a sec,” he agreed, slowing the bus just a little. “Wow! What the heck is that?”
“Look, look, look! It’s a whole tribe of baboons! Slow down, oh, please! Slow down!”
We were too startled to pull out our tiny, square-format Kodak 126 camera when those baboons traipsed across the road in front of us. But here are two unrelated pictures of two different kinds of monkeys we saw at later dates.
And he did, mouth agape, startled to see an entire troupe of 50-60 monkeys serenely crossing the road right in front of us. Mamas carrying babies, larger males, young adults – the whole extended family was there – scampering, to be sure – but unafraid of us or our vehicle.
“Holey moley, honey! We are not in Kansas anymore!”
“You’re not kidding. I can’t believe it! Did that really just happen?”
We had traveled far to be in that van on a sunny Monday morning: California to Brooklyn by car, Brooklyn to Capetown by freighter, Capetown north through Rhodesia in a van to be shared with other missionaries, yet to be met.  We were on our way to Zambia, a land completely unknown to us, a land that would be our home for the next two years.
Married just 8 months before, we were young, idealistic and ready for adventure. It was the mid 1960’s and the escalating war in Vietnam brought deep soul-searching for many men of draft-able age. My husband had a unique up-bringing which led to an unusual choice, a choice which took him far away from the jungles of Southeast Asia.
“The draft” had been part of American life since the early years of WWII and the nation was heaving with discontent as the war in Southeast Asia continued to escalate. A saving grace in the draft process was the option to register as a 1-W – a person “opposed to bearing arms by reason of personal religious conviction.”
And that’s exactly what my husband had done. Raised as a pacifist, with family members on both sides vehemently opposed to killing for any reason, he had registered as a conscientious objector (CO) when he turned 18. He knew that meant two years of service offered in lieu of joining the military.
My husband wanted to do those two years somewhere far from home, somewhere that would require an element of sacrifice on his part, somewhere that the cause of peace could be served in a practical, hands-on way. Every 1-W during those years was drafted. Most of them chose to work within the continental US for their two years, but he wanted something different.
The school that would be our home and workplace from 1966-68.
And that’s what brought us to the center of Africa. Working with the Mennonite Central Committee, we would teach at a boarding school in the small town of Choma. The school itself was run by two denominations – my husband’s and one other, even more conservative in both dress code and theology. Given his own life experience, my husband had more than an inkling of what our life might be like.
I, on the other hand, had never heard of a CO before I fell in love with my husband. Intrigued by the idea – and thrilled at the possibility of a cross-cultural adventure – I was eager to unpack, settle in and get to work. Both of us were committed followers of Jesus, we just came to that place down very different roads.
The small town of Choma, about 2 miles from our campus by bicycle or Kombi-bus. I’ll write more about Choma in later posts.
And now we were driving 1400 miles north on the Cape to Cairo road, blithely unaware of what was ahead of us.  Two fifty-gallon oil drums crammed to the top with wedding gifts – waiting to be opened and sorted; a campus and a town waiting to be navigated; new neighbors waiting to be met.
And most of those looked a whole lot different than I did.
Our home for those two years – cinder-block to distract the termites, 3 bedrooms and electricity most of the time. FAR nicer than the tiny 1-bedroom apartment we lived in while I finished at UCLA.
“Did you see how many of these women are wearing prayer bonnets?” I asked plaintively as we took a walk around our new, small neighborhood.
“And look at the length of those skirts! Wow, do I feel out of place! Who in their right minds wears long sleeves in weather like this?”
“Well, it is a little more ‘cloistered’ than I thought it might be. On the west coast, we don’t see as many with this sort of Amish look. But relax, sweetheart. I don’t want you to look like these women – I want you to be you.”
 We moved into a house that had been inhabited by missionaries on furlough. They planted this HUGE garden, which to my very young and inexperienced eyes looked overwhelming. We managed to keep much of it alive and put up 40 jars of tomato juice our first month on site.
Momentarily mollified, I fingered the pearls at my neck. They had been a gift from Dick on the day of our wedding and I loved them. Somehow, touching them from time to time brought back happy memories of that day and of the courtship that led to it.
I had always considered myself to be on the conservative side – modest in dress, wearing only a little make-up, hard-working and committed to my faith.
But here?
Here, I was a wild-eyed liberal, a hussy who colored and cut my hair, who wore sleeveless shirts and skirts at the knee. And jewelry. I wore jewelry.
What in the world had I gotten myself into?
 A staff Thanksgiving celebration, near the end of our time there.
“What’s this?” I asked my husband several weeks later, fingering a letter from the local denominational bishop.
“Um…well…,” he stuttered, dreading the reaction he knew was coming. “It’s a list. A list of things you are not to do.”
“A what? A list of laws? Are you kidding me?” And I burst into tears. For the first time in our nearly two months away, I was desperately homesick.
Dick folded me into his arms, sighing into my hair – my short, artificially colored hair – and held me while I sobbed.
Between hiccoughs and tears, I sputtered, “Are they really serious? I can’t wear my wedding pearls, even just to the staff gatherings? I can’t wear ANY make-up? I have to cover up my arms and lengthen my skirts?”
Slowly, I calmed down and began to let the shock dissipate a bit. Dick kept apologizing and patting my back, trying to assure me that I was fine, just FINE exactly as I was.
And slowly, I began to believe him.
“You know what? This is not going to work for me. At all. The jewelry thing – I get not wanting to look ‘rich’ in front of the students. I get that. But at Bible study, off campus, with just staff? I will wear my pearls once in a while, whether he likes it or not.”
“That’s my girl!” Dick smiled.
“And I’ll try to talk to the bishop about what I believe, about how I know and experience Jesus and see if we can maybe meet in the middle. What do you think?”
“I think maybe our friend the bishop has met his match in you. And I’ll go with you to that meeting.”
It was not the most comfortable 45 minutes of my life, but that meeting helped cement in my spirit the importance of being open to a wide variety of faith expressions within the Christian community. We both gave a little space to the other – I would not wear jewelry or sleeveless dresses in the classroom. He would not complain if I wore my pearls to Bible study or dressed more casually at home or in town.
Over the next two years, we lived in community well. A new bishop arrived, one with a few less concerns about dress code. And a few women actually cut their hair short and began wearing lighter-weight clothing, with shorter sleeves and hemlines. 
I grew up a little and began to see beneath the prayer coverings and the pinafore-style dresses and sensible shoes. To see the tender hearts and deep commitment of these neighbors who were fast becoming friends.
They introduced me to Pennsylvania Dutch cooking; I introduced them to homemade flour tortillas and ground beef tacos. We laughed, we loved our students, we commiserated over the obstacles in their way and celebrated their accomplishments. We realized that not one of us had it all figured out – and that God loved us all anyhow.

And I was never homesick again.

We arrived the end of August, had that meeting with the bishop in mid-October and celebrated our first wedding anniversary in December. One of our new friends baked us this cake and we had a lovely evening celebrating together.

Because this is an exercise in ‘playing’ with my past story, I’ll be connecting these posts with Laura Boggess’s invitation to a Playdate with God and with Laura Barkat’s In, On and Around Mondays. Also joining with the sisterhood at Jen’s place and a new one to me, Hazel Moon’s “Tell Me a Story”:

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  1. Oh, Diana, this is delightful! I enjoyed every word, every memory. My experiences in Africa were much different but Africa and her people are so special. I look forward to reading more of your African adventures. What a treasure you are creating for your grandchildren!


  2. Your husband is something else! Wow. Not what I expected to read at all

  3. On a day when everything is making me cry, this piece brings the wonderful kind of tears. My own mom, who was a bit older than you are, cherished those hard-won advances women were making at home during those years. Had she traveled to Africa, she, too, would have been their champion abroad. 

  4. I was hoping maybe you would see this, Linda. It’s been such fun to see these pictures again after so many years and to wait for the memories to surface as I peruse them. Thanks for reading!

  5. At the time, I’m not sure I thought about this as making advances for women – but in a way, I guess it was. I just knew I wasn’t going to be dressing like some of the women around me and all of us had to be okay about that. And I was not alone in that, either – and by the time we left, I was even less along. :>)

  6. Make that ‘even less ALONE.’ Sheesh.

  7. Funny how that can work out, hmm? I think great advancements have been made by people who championed no “cause” but saw a practical need for change. 

  8. I think you’re right on target. Just saw that Nike ad that’s been running for the Olympics about women athletes who Just Did It! Hooray for them – and hooray for the medals they’ve been winning. Really stunning.

  9. Ah, 
    I’ll have to look out for the Nike one.  I remember when women didn’t compete in pole vaulting.

    It’s the P & G one with all the little children competing that sticks in my memory: “To their moms, they’ll always be kids.” 

  10. Oh, how I soaked this in–and tried not to be jealous. I wish I’d had your strength and wisdom when I was your age. (My husband was a 1-Y–and apparently reclassified 4-F in December 1971, the month we married, though we didn’t know that then. His blood pressure was too high at two separate physicals–never before and never since.)

  11. I was so far from wise it’s not even funny, Sandy! Headstrong, open to adventure, crazy in love with a man whose religious background I didn’t understand very well – now those things were all true. This particular adventure was one of the best things we’ve ever done and I am deeply grateful for this time, but believe me, we crashed into it when we were SO young and immature, and sometimes we were way too quick too judge. Some of that judging was on target, I think – but it was still judging, you know? Thank God for grace, that’s all I can say at this side of it all. Because it was such a transforming experience for us, I have encouraged every young couple I’ve ever counseled to consider living – or at least traveling – cross-culturally before they start their families. We were both first children in very close families – moving 14,000 miles away was one of the best things that ever happened to us. We became our own family first. I imagine you experienced that in all the moves you and Dennis made earlier in your marriage, right?

  12. Diana, I’ve been so behind in my blog reading, but was so glad I didn’t’ miss this one!  I’ve never had an experience quite like yours but married (the first time) into a church which didn’t allow participation by women in teaching even the children or in leadership in any way.  It was quite an adjustment for me, and I can only imagine what this must have been for you.  I look forward to reading and sharing in your memories as you continue to post more.  Blessings on  you in the week ahead.

  13. Nice to see you, Sherrey. Actually, that denomination is not against women teaching but did have very restrictive dress codes, at one time for both women and men, but in the 1960’s when we traveled to Africa, it was mainly the women who retained the dress. And not all of them. There were others of us there who were moving away from that stricture and we all learned to love and appreciate one another. It was, overall, a very good experience for me.

  14. Diana Trautwein says

    To Megan Willome – a comment of yours never got posted here and I don’t know why. I got it in my inbox through blogger, but disqus is doing its weird thing – Sandy King had the same problem for several weeks, here and on a couple of other disqus comment sections. It got fixed, but I have no clue how – maybe she knows.

    In reply to what you wrote – yes, my husband is an interesting man, full of surprises. This was the very biggest one when we were dating. He actually never told me about this until we just before we became engaged. And I, of course, had no clue such a thing was even possible. And actually, it isn’t possible any longer. I’m eternally grateful that we were able to do this – it was a marvelous experience.

  15. Linda Chontos says

    What a priceless gift for your family Diana. I am thoroughly enjoying your story, trying to imagine what I would have done in your place. You handled it with such grace – and your husband was so wise.

  16. Hazel Moon says

    Thank you so very much for sharing your wonderful story at “Tell Me a True Story.”  I chuckled a bit and was so happy  your hubby loved you just as you are.  Glad you were able to work out a compromise about the pearls, jewelry and clothing too with the ones in charge.

  17. You’re welcome, Hazel. Thanks for stopping by.

  18. I’m working backwards tonight… trying to catch up on my favourite blogs. This is a wonderful story, Diana — a treasure for your family. My brother-in-law and his wife and new baby went to Taiwan (then Formosa) back in 1961. They served for 15 years before coming back to Canada, and then after retirement he returned to Taiwan to teach ESL at a theological college for a further seven years. We heard so many fascinating stories about life there, but except for a brief chapter in a family history he wrote, none of the details of incidents were recorded. Your family will cherish these memories of yours.

  19. Thanks, Carol! And thanks for including me in your ‘favorite blogs’ category – that means a lot to me.

  20. There’s truth in that. We did not live anywhere near our parents, so there was no running home if there was an issue. We learned to depend on each other. And no children until we’d been married for 13 years. No easy babysitting help, either. 😉

  21. We did get babysitting help after we got home, and I’m truly grateful for that!

  22. Joanne Norton says

    I LOVED this.  It reminded me so much of what it was like in Uganda.  The baboons were so mean to us and each other.  The dress issues [in Kampala, basically anything has become OK.. some that really shouldn’t be … but in the Bush, it’s still supposed to be long skirts, etc.], the differences connected to denominations, driving on the “wrong” side of the road in the “wrong” side of the car with the gear shift going the opposite way from our normal situation.  Oh, yes.  Life continues to be a challenge.

    But, again, I loved this.  I felt right at home.  We certainly have a lot in common.  [I think we’re also very close to the same age, considering your description of mid-60s, etc.]

    Thanks so much.  Just filled my heart and made me grin and rejoice.

  23. Thanks, Joanne! We actually traveled with two other missionary couples in 1966 – both of them 7th Day Adventist. One of them settled about 75 miles from us in Zambia – the other went to Rwanda, I believe. We spent one week in Kenya on the way home but have never traveled anywhere else in eastern Africa. I imagine it was much more jungly than where we were. We lived on the high savannah – about 4500 ft. in elevation, gently rolling hills, covered with flat-topped trees and brush. Very southern CA-like, actually. I’m 67 and was 21 when we went to Zambia.

  24. Lucillejohnston says

    Very interesting- didn’t know about your time as missionaries. I am sure you learned a lot and the people
    there were Blessd to have you. 
    That is a darling picture of you two when you were young. You still look great.
    Lov, Lucille

  25. Thanks, Lucille. When we first came to PCC, we showed our slides at a couple of different gatherings – most likely Koinonia gatherings, so you probably never knew this about us. It was a hugely important part of who we became, an experience for which we’re deeply grateful.

  26. I. love. this. Not just these photos (which are delicious) but this peek into your heart. Going over to part 2.

  27. It’s a crazy mixed up heart at times, but I’ve sure lived a good story. And I am grateful.

  28. Mary Ann Smiles says

    Never really knew why you went to Africa. Very interesting. I love that you wore your pearls there!

  29. Well, now you know! Thanks for reading & commenting, Mary Ann. Those pearls were stolen here in SB. They weren’t ‘worth’ as much as a couple of other pieces that were taken at the same time. But they were the ones I cried over. A lot.