I was born on 13 May 1953 in the Greater London Hospital where my mother was nursing. I was the first child of Norah and Peter Robson. The first nine years of my life were spent in Rayners Lane, near Harrow, and we then moved to Langley, Slough when my Father started doing well in his business as a quantity surveyor.
My parents were not outwardly religious in any way and God and spiritual matters were never mentioned at home. However, I remember thinking to myself when I was about 10 or 11 “How can Christians say that they are the only ones that are right when all the other religions say the same thing?”. It seemed totally illogical to me. I do remember asking my Mother at around the same time “Where is heaven?” and she said “In your heart”, an answer that had a profound effect on me.
At the age of 13, being totally in love with music and singing, I joined the church choir of St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Langley where my school music teacher, Gillian Eason, a brilliant choral director, was choir mistress. I stayed in this choir until I left school at 18. I loved the music and I loved the singing and I learnt a lot spiritually from the hymns and anthems but nothing from anything else! My best friend, Pam Lewis, and I used to play around and giggle in the choir pews during sermons.
After school I went to Dartington College of Arts to study Music in Education and got my certificate of education from Rolle College Exmouth.
After finishing college in Devon in 1974, I decided that I did not want to go straight back into school as a teacher (it seemed to me a rather narrow experience of life) and so I got a job as an au pair in Mountain View, California, not far from Stanford University where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had spoken at one time. Being away from home and in a different culture, I started to question what was around me. I saw many bad things in the world and became very depressed, to the point of considering taking my life. However, I thought that there must be some hope and so I hung on, dreading each new day and relieved to get into bed each night.
I used to attend the international coffee house at Stanford University and I met many people there and had many deep discussions about the world. I became very interested in Communism but could not accept the way that these good teachings were put into practice. I also enjoyed Buddhist teaching. At this time I did not believe in God, something you could not logically ‘prove’.
Eventually I met a Puerto Rican boy called Mario. We became friends and he taught me much about philosophy and eventually we travelled across the USA together, ending up in Bloomington, Indiana. Mario introduced me to an African American lady called Jeanette Washington. Jeanette took me under her wing. She was desperately poor but shared everything with me as I didn’t have much money. She also shared Bible study (she had been a Baptist preacher previously).
Then one night, I had the most amazing experience. I had become upset because someone was very cruel to me. Standing outside at midnight, crying in the warm and humid Bloomington air, I suddenly felt I was being lifted up and, at last, I knew that there was a God and that He had an answer to the world’s problems!
Jeanette believed that all the other Faiths were from false prophets but I could not accept that. Even as a child I had thought it ridiculous that Christians could claim to be the only ones that were right. At this point, I realised that I needed to come home to the UK. Jeanette lent me the money for the bus fair to Toronto as I had a plane ticket from there. Since that day I have not been able to trace Jeanette and this really bothers me as I have never been able to repay that money.
When I arrived home in England, I was very excited as I now knew that God had an answer to the world’s problems. I spoke about it freely but became disillusioned as no-one else believed the same and, in fact, thought I’d gone mad! Then late one night, as I sat reflectively by the fire in my parents’ house, I heard a voice. The voice said “Go to Belgium!” So I went to Belgium for a weekend. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to return two weeks later to look for work as a chambermaid in a hotel.
When I got to Dover this second time and wanted to queue for the boat, I just could not see the channel for UK citizens. I saw the one for EEC citizens which did not list the UK and thought that they must expect us to know we were part of the common market now! The queue was massive, crowded with many French and German people but I was standing next to someone with a British passport and so we both thought we were OK. We were not! Because there were so many people we missed the boat. We chatted nineteen to the dozen about everything as we waited four hours for the next boat. We carried on chatting whilst on the ferry and at last I was hearing many things that I agreed with. As we approached Ostende in Belgium, I said “Oh you really love life don’t you?” and the lady, whose name was Isobel Sabri, said “Of course – I’m a Bahá’í!” The moment I heard the Greatest Name I recognised that this was the truth and the answer to the world’s problems that I had been looking for.
Isobel and I travelled a little further together by train (she had been putting her son into university in England and was now travelling to Luxembourg to visit friends but actually lived in Kenya). Isobel gave me the details of Louis Henuzet, a Bahá’í in Brussels. I visited him and then went to a public fireside in the city where there were many young Bahá’ís, including American and British. I became friendly with a British girl (I forget her name unfortunately) and we hung out together. About five days after arriving in Belgium, we went to the town of Namur and whilst in a grocery store there, I must have said something that amounted to a declaration of Faith in Bahá’u’lláh. We visited a family later where I signed a card.
Bahá’ís were very kind and gave me books to read and a picture of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá but I didn’t know who He was! I wondered whether it was Bahá’u’lláh but didn’t like to ask! I knew NOTHING about the Faith. I had only recognised the truth of it. I started reading Gleanings and didn’t understand a word but I persevered and once I got to the end I started again and gradually the words started to make sense.
I failed to find a job in Belgium and thought that God must want me to return to the UK and start my career as a teacher. I returned to England and stayed for a few weeks in Brighton with my best friend Pam Lewis while I did voluntary work in a local school and applied for teaching jobs. I was a new Bahá’í and I really appreciated the friendship of Lynda Hill (who used to work in the Bahá’í office). I am sorry to say that I had very little support as a new Bahá’í from the rest of the community and there was no institute process at that time but my Faith was strong and weathered this difficulty. After a short while I got a teaching job in Billingshurst, West Sussex in January 1976 where I was part of the Horsham community.
Although part of the Horsham community, the nearest Bahá’í to me was Cecilia Smith. She really took me under her wing. Her husband was away a lot as he was an airline pilot and she had two small children. We would pray, deepen and attend meetings and sing together and I would spend the night in her house often. I suppose it was at this time that I started taking my guitar around with me and singing at meetings and I would be invited to go to different places to do this. At about this time I managed to get a cancellation for Pilgrimage and was able to visit my ‘home’. During this time I also went on some travel teaching trips. One of these was to the Rhondda Valley in South Wales and another was to Southern Ireland. Judy Oakeshott, Zhaleh?? and I all went in my mum’s Fiat 500. I am amazed when I think how we managed to pack our camping equipment in this tiny vehicle as well as three people! I think that it was during this trip that we attended the summer school at Waterford where Hand of the Cause John Robarts was one of the speakers.
Eventually I met Simon Mortimore at a meeting somewhere in Surrey or Sussex. Simon continually asked me out and eventually I caved in! We were married in October 1978 and our first daughter Catherine was born in November 1980, with Jennifer coming along in February 1982. Simon served on the National Spiritual Assembly at this time and it was very stressful for me to have him away so much as he had also started his own business which kept him in the office for long hours.
As for my Bahá’í service during this time, it included a lot of singing at various events and a lot of taking children’s classes, especially at national events. I was a member of the Local Spiritual Assembly of Epsom and then of Mole Valley when we pioneered the four miles over the border to help out there. We always went to summer schools and felt that this was important for the children from an early age and always attended National Convention and other events also. We were privileged to attend talks given by Hands of the Cause William Sears and Ruhiyyih Khanum and also to meet Hands of the Cause Mr. Furutan and Dr. Varqa in the Holy Land.
In 1988 we moved to Nottinghamshire where there were no Bahá’ís and where property was cheap (we had some financial problems and couldn’t stay in the expensive Home Counties). We used to drive down the M1 to Leicestershire where we would attend the Thomas Breakwell School and I would do the music. At this time I was also teaching music at a comprehensive school in Kirkby-in Ashfield. Life was challenging in Nottinghamshire and the music teaching was very hard work in a mining town where the mine had closed. The students were disaffected and came to music lessons to let their hair down!
Then, one day the Bahá’í Journal came with an advert for a teacher on the arts side at the Bahá’í School in Swaziland, Southern Africa. I knew that I was meant to apply for this as soon as I saw it. I wrote off a letter and soon got a reply from Debbie Conkerton, the head teacher, saying ‘’Come!’’ This was a bit of a shock as I was expecting some kind of formal application process. Then there was a problem: Simon really did not want to go. I decided that I could scrape together the air fare for him to go and have a look and, the same night I decided this, my sister called and I told her what I planned. The next day she called back, offering Simon a free ticket! Simon went and fell in love with the country and from here everything went smoothly, with doors opening easily and we arrived in Swaziland on 21 June 1992.
Pioneering was a profound experience. I went with the attitude of ‘helping the poor Africans’ but very soon realised that I had much to learn from them. There were many crises at the start, especially with the work at the school and, when we started to rent a house, our tenant in Nottinghamshire stopped paying the rent there so we had very little to live on. We were never sure where the next meal was coming from. One day Simon was walking downheartedly in the capital Mbabane, gazing at the ground and praying for God’s help as there was no money for food. Then he saw a bank note sticking out of the mud in the centre of town in what was usually a very busy area. He looked around and there was not a single person there, so he picked up the note which was worth 50 Rand (about 10 pounds then) and a fortune for us!
There were many other miracles and our children really learned to rely on prayer. We lived off a road that was beginning to be tarred. In the meantime vehicles had to drive over a steep muddy hill. When it rained it was very difficult to get up this hill and many buses would overturn. One day we were struggling to get home. The girls and I said the prayer Remover of Difficulties nine times together and I stuck my thumb out. Immediately a stranger in a vehicle stopped who was going to visit our neighbour. Another time our car was stuck in a mud-filled ditch after taking a local Bahá’í home to his township. I tried to teach Jennifer to drive while Catherine and I pushed but it was hopeless. Again we prayed and I decided to flag down the first car (a potentially dangerous thing to do late at night, in the dark in a township). This I did and that car was driven by a Bahá’í who had a tow-rope in the car and had just decided to go up to visit someone! There are far too many miracles to mention here but the important thing was that we learned how to rely on God and knew that He was always there to assist us.
For a short time I was a member of the Local Spiritual Assembly of Mbabane when we had to move into town after security problems. Then we moved onto Swazi nation land (tribal land) where we were able to help establish the first LSA of Mahlanya. Living here was also an amazing experience as we were the only European people around. It was like living in a fish bowl. We went to many funerals here and organised some Bahá’í ones (due to HIV/AIDS); one of the 8-year-old girls died on our homestead – very sad.
During my time in Swaziland I started the Donna Taylor Bahá’í Choir (Donna was an American musician and pioneer who died and is buried in Swaziland). I used to joke that I had to write western notation for some, tonic sol-fa for others, words for others and nothing for the one person who could not read or write but sang beautifully and picked up things quickly by ear. The choir became quite good and we travelled to South Africa to perform as well. I would also take choirs at the international summer schools that were held in various locations, including Zimbabwe.
During this time I also became a member of the international Spirit of Africa committee. We brought together young Bahá’ís from many different countries in Southern Africa and trained them in singing, drama, public speaking etc. We then sent out teams to different locations in South Africa for teaching projects. Jennifer and I were part of the project in Mpego village in what was then the Venda province of north-eastern South Africa, while Catherine went to a place near Pretoria. It was an amazing experience and the project carried on in other countries though I was not involved in this.
Gradually my family’s financial stresses eased and, after four years at the Bahá’í Primary School, I became first an assistant teacher of music at Waterford Kamhlaba United World College and then Head of Music at this internationally renowned school. The children received their secondary education there also and it was a brilliant place to teach at with all the different nationalities. At the end of their time at school we were able to go as a family on Pilgrimage and one blessing at the time was that the girls and I were able to sing ‘Ya-Bahá’u’l-Abhá’ in 3-part harmony together in the Shrines when no-one else was around.
After the children left to go to university in Britain, I carried on teaching for a while but then left my job as I realised that I needed to grow professionally. I decided to go to the UK to study for an MA in Arts and Cultural Management. I had been organising arts projects for the British Council in Swaziland so had some experience, in addition to the teaching and Bahá’í work, which helped me to get a place back at my old college, Dartington, along with a bursary.
So, in 2003 I left Swaziland, first to volunteer with the Association of Bahá’í Women in Wales, where I lived with Alicia Bancroft-Lloyd in North Wales, and we organised tranquillity zones for women amongst other things, and then to start my degree in Devon. I didn’t know that I would not return to Swaziland but, during the first year of my degree, I unfortunately became divorced.
Having nowhere to go at the end of the degree, I decided to stay in Devon and got a job with Faithnetsouthwest, a regional organisation that supports ‘faith in action’. This was an amazing job for a Bahá’í as I was working with all faiths and later was able to make a DVD with about 20 young people from eight faiths and beliefs (including Bahá’í) about their lives and beliefs. The DVD was called It Matters to Me and was produced in 2011. The process that the young people went through together was thrilling as we did activity days and a residential where they bonded immediately, having something in common – a strong belief that the majority of their friends did not have. They had no barriers with each other and shared their beliefs without tension or fear.
During my time in Britain I also managed to complete the Ruhi Institute courses to book 8 (unit 1) and was able to tutor several times.
In 2009 Michael Skinner and I met at the summer school at Wellington College. We were married in May 2010. Mike had become a Bahá’í in May 2009 so his life changed rather dramatically over a short period. It was to change even more radically: In November 2010 we went for a 3-day visit to the Holy Land. As we were approaching the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh, I heard a voice in my head telling me that He had a message for me. I had no idea what this might be. We had the bounty of being in the shrine alone and there the message came through very clearly ‘’Go to Africa!’’ I was shocked but cried copiously as I recognised that Africa, to where I had never thought to return but which I had loved so much, was beckoning once more! Mike had already had a meditation where it had been revealed to him that he’d end up living in Africa and so he was fully on board with the idea. On returning to Devon, we saw an email on the Bahá’í News email service, offering rent-free accommodation in Lesotho for pioneers. We applied for this and arrived on 17th June 2011.
Although a little prepared for this post, the first winter was dire! It was so very cold and we were on a farm near the ‘town’ of Mokhotlong where there was nothing to do. However, gradually the weather eased and we were able to get involved in local activities, assisting the teaching work, driving people and materials around, and singing of course. We have also been trying to learn SeSotho but it’s very challenging for us! As I write we are experiencing our first summer in the beauty of this mountainous area. We have been teaching Breezes of Confirmation at a local secondary and primary school and are just starting the new school year where we are doing four groups of junior youth at St. Michael’s Primary and not sure if we are continuing at the secondary school or not as yet (they are a bit old really). I am also tutoring Ruhi Books 4 and 8.
So here I am 36 years after my discovery of Bahá’u’lláh and, although there have been tricky moments, I have never regretted my decision to become a follower of Bahá’u’lláh. He entered my heart from the first moment I heard Bahá’í and has never left it. My mind and behaviour just had to catch up – and still are trying to do just that!
Lesotho, January 2012