Irene in 2002

Irene in 2002

I was thirty years of age and a teacher of French and Spanish at a secondary school in Stoke-on-Trent.  It was the end of 1951 and I was at home in Layton, Blackpool, for the Christmas/New Year school holidays. One Sunday evening I went to visit my good friend Kathleen Hyett who, after a few years’ absence, had returned to live again in Layton not far from my home.  There, in Kathleen’s home, while she was temporarily upstairs getting her children to bed, her husband, Peter, an atheist, was enjoying trying to make me feel uncomfortable because I was a church-goer and I was at a loss to counter his criticism of the unscientific aspect of Christian belief and doctrine.  It was not the first time this had happened but that night was destined not to be limited to the kind of destructive commentary I was used to, for at a given moment in our very one-sided conversation my astonished ears heard him say: “Kathleen, you know, has accepted this new Persian religion.”  Apart from being able to tell me that it was called the Bahá’í Faith, he had no further enlightenment to offer but suggested I ask Kathleen about it, and then as soon as she was free to join us again, he most opportunely betook himself out for the rest of the evening, leaving me free to pursue with Kathleen this intriguing new piece of information and later to return home armed with a copy of Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era, although I was very dubious about Kathleen’s statement that Bahá’ís believed Christ had returned.  The vicar of our church had never said that!

I will now go back in time a little and fill in some relevant details of experience to indicate at what point in my attitude and mental outlook I had already arrived when I first heard that strange word Bahá’í!  I was a church-goer, as I have said, but that was because I thought that was what God wanted us as Christians to do on Sundays.  I had taken my Teacher’s Diploma at London University and had the privilege of being accepted to live in `College Rooms’ where the warden accepted into the different sections for men and women fifty per cent from the U.K. and fifty per cent from overseas.  She had interviewed all of us British beforehand to ensure that we did not harbour any racial prejudice.  Thus, for that year I literally lived in an environment manifesting the unity of humanity and at the same time became convinced of the equal validity of Christ, Muhammad and Buddha.

It was there that I met Ali, a Muslim, who helped to restore my faith in God, to which various people in the intellectual world had given some shaking.  More than once he proved to me that a service to God will produce a tenfold (as he said) reward and this of course, he had learned from the teachings of Muhammad.  Thereafter, when present in a church service I could not say the Creed.  Ali also introduced me to that valuable book by Ralph Waldo Trine, entitled In Tune with the Infinite saying that the contents of this book was his true philosophy.  So I reached the knowledge of the truth being found in all the religions.

At about the same time a copy of a book entitled In Search of Truth came into my hands, from which I learnt that the truth will never be revealed until one can cast aside all prejudices of race, religion, nationality, politics etc.  This concept was fully elucidated and absorbed by me.  I may also add the invaluable piece of advice for which I am also indebted to Ali.  I was pointing out the concepts that I did not like, or could not agree with, in the Koran – the permission to marry four wives being, of course, one of them.  He proceeded to read the relevant extracts showing that Muhammad was in fact pointing the way to monogamy by saying that a man with more than one wife must love them all equally – this, however, being impossible.  Then followed the comment: “I hope you will one day learn not to criticise what you do not understand.”

It can well be imagined, therefore, how I loved the contents of Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era.  All the seeds fell into ground so well prepared.  I was back at Kathleen’s two days later begging for a copy of the book to keep.

I did not get very far trying to interest my mother in my enthusiasm for this new religion.  “What was good enough for my father is good enough for me” said she, so that was that.  However, that was only her first reaction.

To digress for a moment, I may say that my mother declared her faith on Easter Sunday morning, 1st April 1956, at the close of a talk by Marion Hofman during the Lyme Hall weekend school where I had taken her following our visits to Bahá’ís in Switzerland and Northern Ireland while I was on my first home leave from Kenya.

To return now to my chronological account:  The Christmas holidays came to an end and I caught the early morning bus back to the Midlands via Manchester, where it was my custom to spend the day with my sister, Betty Shepherd, and finish my journey on the evening bus.

I remember the eager enthusiasm with which I said: “Do you know, I have found a new religion this holiday and there are so many new and good things in it.”  And I proceeded to reveal some of what had so much appealed to me.  “I’ve got a book about it.  Do read it Betty and let me know what you think about this religion.  Betty had not been averse to anything I had said and agreed to look into it.  I continued on my way to my digs in Newcastle-under-Lyme and tried to interest the colleague with whom I lived, but once again I struck a negative response. That was the end for the time being, but I had filed it away in my mind as another good religion.  My study of the book In Tune with the Infinite had taught me the golden thread running through all the religions and the fact, expressed there, that it did not matter what religion one followed so long as one lived up to its spiritual tenets, so I never thought about a need to delve further into the Bahá’í Faith, and anyway I was going to Kenya at the close of that school year in August.  I was booked in a four berth cabin on the “Dunnottar Castle” and was saving every penny I could to pay my way out to join Ali in Mombasa, where he had been promoted to the new post of supervisor of Arab education in the Coast Province of Kenya.

Before I set sail in August the Bahá’í Faith came into my sights once again, for during another of my school holidays at home – the Whitsuntide one, I think – Kathleen invited me to a Bahá’í meeting on the Sunday afternoon in Blackpool.  Richard (Dick) Backwell had come to give a talk entitled “The Divine Springtime” and, following the talk, Kathleen invited me home to have tea with Dick and herself.  However, nothing impinged on my mind about the desirability of doing anything further about this Faith, and I’m sure I must have been an off-putting subject, being pre-occupied with my coming adventure to Kenya.  In due course away I went, oblivious to everything but what the future in Kenya might hold.

I had no job to go to.  I had just two suitcases, my bicycle packed in a crate on the ship and, I remember, the sum of £17 I had borrowed from my mother so as not to find myself penniless when I arrived.  Ali had warned me of the total racial discrimination practised in colonial Kenya in those days, i.e. that the Europeans there did not associate socially with the Africans or Asians, with the exception of the missionaries and the odd exception here and there, one of whom being Dorothy Read, with whom I was going to live in Mombasa in the first instance.  Faith in my mission to be different and stand against the attitude of British superiority, so wrong, as my year in London had demonstrated to me, seemed to be rewarded initially by the happy announcement of Ali on my arrival towards the end of September 1952, that he had obtained a job for me at the Aga Khan Boys’ primary School in Mombasa.

Yet, I was soon to learn how foolish had been my naive intention to play an active part in righting that wrong of the social apartheid practised by the European community in Kenya, for at the end of the school year in December I was compulsorily transferred to Nairobi to teach in the Aga Khan Girls’ School there.  It was hoped that the European environment in which I would find myself in Nairobi would effectively teach me to observe the accepted code of conduct in the `interests of British prestige’ for in Nairobi I would presumably have no reason for doing otherwise.  I was indignant about this and decided to complete only the remaining months of the British school year in Kenya and had even obtained the assurance of the Blackpool Education Authority that I would have no difficulty in getting a teaching post in modern languages for the coming September provided that I would accept one in perhaps an industrial part of England.  After that, Ali eventually hoped to follow.  So at the end of December 1952 I took the train to Nairobi where I had obtained for myself a shared room at the Y.W.C.A. hostel for a month.

Now just before that happened, late in the November, Betty had written me a letter to say that she had become a Bahá’í, having found the Bahá’í Faith to be “the transcendental truth”.  In an earlier letter she had written enthusiastically about having taken up my challenge to look into the Bahá’í Faith, about which I myself had completely forgotten.  She had then said that she did not see how she could become a Bahá’í because in that case she would have to teach the Faith, and with her husband’s antagonistic attitude, she would never be able to do that.  But how different did later reality become, for a better-known and well-loved Bahá’í pioneer than Harold Shepherd of Inverness throughout the sixties, might have been hard to find.  The idea of having to teach the Faith I found very off-putting.  I could not be like the local vicar in church, nor the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I knew of no other way of teaching the Faith.  Well, Betty had had the courage to take the plunge and I really wondered what had happened to her, but I wasn’t really bothered, being far away in my own new sort of world in Mombasa.  But it seems that Bahá’u’lláh was not going to let me escape like that.  In fact, it was all part of my destiny, this unsolicited move to Nairobi, for as soon as I was able to give my address to Betty, lo and behold, what surprising fact does she reveal but that she believes there are some Bahá’í pioneers in Nairobi and would I like to meet them?!  The timing was perfect for I was free from any restricting influences, such as I would have found in Mombasa or perhaps anywhere else where I would have had an established way of life and circle of friends.  I had no hesitation in giving Betty an affirmative answer by return of post.  I remembered my own enthusiasm of a year ago and now that it was shared by Betty, I was only too eager to catch the ball, as it were, that Betty was throwing back to me.  It came in the form of the P.O. box address of Ted Cardell, the one British pioneer who had opened Kenya to the Faith in that same year of 1952. It was now mid-January 1953, a Monday morning.  I wrote to Ted Cardell, took my letter to the Post Office and received his reply when the messenger boy collected the evening mail on that same day.  The next day, Tuesday, on my way to the shops, I called, as invited, at the pharmacy where Ted worked in the photographic department.  Ted was out on a job.  On my way back I thought I might as well ask again, but as I did not really think he would be back so soon I just left my bicycle and stepped inside to make the enquiry on the off-chance.  I was taken by surprise to find him back and myself directed to the photographic department at the back of the shop.  With no other thought in my mind I penetrated deep inside and located not the middle-aged to elderly gentleman I had visualised as the British Bahá’í pioneer to Kenya, but that my quarry was a young blond like myself.  Then it was Ted’s turn to be surprised on learning that it was not Betty who was trying to interest me in the Faith – that in the first place it was the other way round.

During that happy little interlude I learned that, yes, they did have meetings in Nairobi that I could attend but that I would be meeting Africans there, along with some Persians.  Only a German lady called Claire Gung, besides himself, were Europeans, so if I would find it preferable to have a few talks with him first he would be happy to arrange it this way.  Again, Ted was to be surprised by my answer.  “Oh no, I want to meet everybody” said I, without hesitation.  There was only the “The United Kenya Club” where white, brown and black could sit down together and the Bahá’ís met there on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons. Thus, at the end of a happy little chat I promised to be at the United Kenya Club, situated in the same road and very near my temporary home at the Y.W.C.A. hostel, the following afternoon.  Yet not before the intervention of two other significant experiences.

The first struck me down at the moment of parting from Ted Cardell.  My bicycle had vanished, and my first thought was to the effect that perhaps this was punishment from God for getting myself involved with the Bahá’í Faith!  I will never forget my amazement and gratitude when Ted dropped everything to take me in his car first to the Police Station to report the theft and then to the African bus park to see if it was about to be conveyed on the roof of a bus to any of the outlying African locations.  No luck, however, and the police had said there was little hope of its recovery amongst the other eighteen reported that day.

The second occurred after the evening meal.  Also at the hostel on a temporary basis was Joan Powis of a similar age to myself, i.e. older than the young girls from up-country for whom the hostel was intended.  “What have you been doing with yourself today, Irene?” asked Joan.  And my answer:  “Well, I’ve lost my bicycle, met such a nice young man and found a new religion.”   “Oh, a new religion!”  Do tell me about it.”  The result was that every Wednesday and every Sunday both Joan and I enjoyed the Bahá’í meetings at the United Kenya Club.  Yes, Joan too became a Bahá’í eventually prior to leaving Kenya a year or so later to become an air hostess in Southern Rhodesia, but then married and could not be active as she married into the European environment with its social ostracism of the African people.

As for me, I found it was of no consequence to have to walk to the bus park and catch the bus to Parklands for my school every morning.  My step was light and my heart was singing, so I was sure I was after all not being punished by God.  In fact, eight days later God, in fact, showed me His approval by rewarding me with the return of my bicycle.  It had been found, as Ted had predicted, in Shauri Moyo, one of the African locations.

The day after the eventful episode of my first meeting with Ted Cardell, I met the Yazdi family, Aziz, Soraya and their three little girls, another visiting Persian, Claire Gung, and a group of young African students, the first two of whom had already become Bahá’ís.  I was so delighted with the Bahá’í pioneers.  They spoke and acted in what to me was absolutely the right way, all one warm and loving family totally unprejudiced and the very antithesis of the attitude and practice of all the residents of the Y.W.C.A. Hostel except for Joan and myself.   `Christian Association’ they called themselves, whereas the only real Christians in my view in Kenya were the Bahá’ís.

That January of 1953 was the month preceding the first ever Intercontinental Conference, called by the beloved Guardian to take place in Kampala, Uganda.  Thus on my Wednesday and Sunday afternoons at the United Kenya Club I had the bounty of frequently meeting the new face of some Bahá’í having arrived in Nairobi en route for that Conference, amongst whom were Ursula Samandari, Richard St. Barbe Baker and Ezzat Zahrai.  Within four weeks they were all away by car or train heading for Kampala.  I wondered why everybody was so excited about a conference, and I remember thinking with relief that, without these Wednesday and Sunday meetings for a while, I could try and get my letters written up to date.

Joan and I had now left the hostel and shared a room in a guest house, and on Joan’s suggestion we despatched a telegram of good wishes to the friends gathered at the Kampala Conference.  We had settled down to a normal existence unpunctuated by Bahá’í meetings until the Saturday afternoon, which must have been 21st February, when Aziz and Ted drove up in great excitement to tell us that they had returned earlier than planned because several distinguished Bahá’ís were coming through Nairobi.  That very next day, at our Sunday meeting time Mildred Mottahedeh, the Bahá’í representative at the United Nations, would be there and giving a talk.  Could we be there too, to meet her?

Thus both Joan and I were present when Mildred gave her convincing talk on how one could recognise a Manifestation of God.  After her talk she came to sit next to Joan and me to get to know us better and answer our questions.  I loved everything about the Bahá’ís and the Bahá’í Faith with the exception of the tenets requiring fasting, abstinence from alcohol and, as I have said, the need to teach it.

It was 23rd February and I had realised that indeed the Bahá’ís were actually going to embark on the Fast in about a week’s time.  That to me was something the Muslims did from centuries ago but I could not see any relevance in our day and age.  So I took the opportunity of questioning Mildred.  Back came the answer in Mildred Mottahedeh’s ready and forthright manner.  “I will give you three good reasons why we fast” said she.  First she expounded the spiritual significance of its discipline for dominance of the soul over the body, secondly she said that every doctor will tell you that it is good to change the routine of the body especially during spring time, and thirdly she added, “and if you fast for a short time you will have sympathy for the poor and deprived ones who have to fast all the time.”  That answer convinced me:  I knew from that moment that fasting was right.  My second test had struck.  It was right and all these lovely Bahá’ís were going to carry out this Fast but I could not do it, and it started next week.  I tried to forget about it, but all the rest of that day and the next I was in and out of anguish about it.  My troublesome conscience would not let me escape for any length of time.  “You know it’s right”, it kept telling me, “but you’re just a coward.”

As Ted had said, it was a week of distinguished visitors.  Mildred had to leave on the Monday but that day we had tea in one of the Nairobi hotels with the then Hand of the Cause, Mason Remy.

Ted told me that a wonderful speaker, Hand of the Cause Dorothy Baker would be giving a talk at our Wednesday meeting, but for once my school required my presence as it was the date of the official opening of the new Aga Khan Primary School, at which occasion all the staff of the secondary school were expected to put in an appearance.   Ted was sorry to hear this although I would be able to meet Dorothy, he said, during her visit of a few days but there would be no other occasion when she would be giving a public talk.

I was still trying to push my taunting conscience out of the way, and I resisted until some time after the end of school on the Tuesday.  (Our school hours were concentrated between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. each day).  I felt that one thing I could not do was to wait until it became easier to accept the  Faith, i.e. once the Fasting period had come to an end, for that seemed like cheating.  Thus I then felt very disturbed about both the idea of feeling myself to be a coward and being faced with what seemed like a deadline for my decision to be made.  If I do not take courage now, perhaps I never shall, was a disquieting thought in my mind.  It was on that day therefore when I realised that I could no longer dismiss the prompting of my intrusive, niggling conscience, and I took the plunge.  What a wonderful peace then settled on my heart!  My turmoil over fasting had driven my other two problems clean out of my head!

That Tuesday we were to have another meeting with distinguished visitors passing through after the Conference but I had a baby-sitting promise to fulfil that night.  When Joan came back from work and free to attend that meeting, I told her that she could tell Ted and Aziz that I had accepted the Bahá’í Faith.  “Are you sure you know what you are doing?” asked Joan.  No doubts assailed me whatsoever now.  Joan was not too pleased to find me advancing ahead of her, but she delivered my message while I went off to help my friends as promised, aware only of being at last at peace with myself.  I also made the decision not to miss the talk by the Hand of the Cause.  I thought the Ismailis could quite well do without me at the school function and I did not care about any reprimand I might incur for playing truant.  After all, I was only staying for a few more months, until the summer at home, when I would be taking up the threads of life back again in England.  How little did I know!  Nor what a soul-stirring experience this decision had in store for me!

The next day was this fate-laden Wednesday of 25th February 1953.  Quite unconcerned and unaware that I had done anything affecting anybody besides myself I sallied forth to the United Kenya Club, expecting to give the Yazdis and Ted the pleasing surprise of finding that I had considered my duty to be at the Aga Khan School over-ruled by the greater importance I had attached to the talk to be given by the special speaker who had come from America to talk to us.  The Yazdi family had arrived ahead of me and if my appearance gave them a pleasing surprise it could not have compared with the uplifting astonishment, the warm reception and embrace that Aziz and Sue had in store for me, beginning with the welcoming words, “Yesterday you were our friend, but today you are our sister.”  They showed such delight and all the conversation they were having with me seemed to have taken on a new dimension.  I was swimming in a happiness totally unanticipated but this was only the overture of the most moving day of my life.

Shortly Ted came in, escorting this most beautiful lady we were expecting, and the first words I remember her speaking were to ask where was Irene?  She too was eager to welcome me as a Bahá’í.  After the merest momentary greeting for the other friends, she took me to two empty chairs and for the two of us there might have been nobody else in the room at all!  Beloved Dorothy Baker was devoting herself to me alone, telling me, among other things, of her admiration and love for “those blessed British” as she called them, as she told me of their serving the Cause so steadfastly under great hardship during the War.  I was enraptured and enthralled by what I was hearing and already in love with this angel in white with whom I was soaring in a heaven of wonderment.  Only at the moment when she had to begin her talk were we separated from each other but not before she had invited me to have lunch with her at her hotel the following day.

It was a far bigger meeting than we had yet had at the United Kenya Club.  Thirty people, including Hands of the Cause Mr Khadem and Mr Banani and their wives and other Persian visitors passing through Kenya, seated in a circle prepared to drink in the wisdom and knowledge that Dorothy was poised to impart to us.  I began to listen with wrapt attention to Dorothy’s flow of spiritual eloquence, on the return of religion from age to age.  Soon it began to have an extraordinarily moving effect upon me.  I found myself on the verge of tears.  I had always been able to steel myself against any outward sign of emotion.  I could always keep tears in check, but that afternoon I was overpowered by some irresistible force and there was nothing I could do but weep, feeling so embarrassed and ashamed and so much hoping nobody would notice.   But they did, of course, in our circular seating arrangement and in fact the reaction of this brand new Bahá’í had a similar touching effect on several of the older believers.  Not until the end of Dorothy’s talk could I stem my tears.

As soon as the formal circle began to separate into groups I again found myself one of the centres of attention, particularly for the visiting Persian friends.  I remember that one was Dr Farhoumand from Ethiopia because he gave me the gift of a brooch depicting the mosque at Isfahan.  Another gave me my first Bahá’í ring.  Most vividly though I remember Mrs Banani and Mrs Khadem, the wives of the visiting Hands of the Cause, because Mrs Khadem had something so significant to tell me.  “Irene, I envy you so much,” she said.  “I have never had the opportunity that you have had today.  I have known the Faith all my life.  I was born into it.  I have never had the experience of finding it for myself.”  I was anxious to apologise for my silly tears but I learnt to my amazement that I was not just demonstrating what I thought was unbecoming emotion, for Mrs Khadem said, “This is your spiritual rebirth, Irene.”  What a funny thing to say, thought I, but I later understood how exactly right she was.  Thereafter, all the pioneers in East Africa regarded me as the spiritual child of my beloved Dorothy Baker.

Moving now in a new spiritual dimension I wondered how I could get my feet back on the ground to be able to teach my school pupils the next morning.  Morning came.  I cycled into the Aga Khan Girls’ School as usual but when I arrived the scene was unbelievable.  Not a soul was about.  I went in, found the headmistress present in her room and asked in surprise where everybody was.  “Don’t you know?” she said.  “Today was declared a holiday at yesterday’s opening ceremony.”  I thus had to explain my activities of that momentous day.  Happily for me this headmistress had no love for the Ismailis and actually applauded rather than censured my decision.  Thus I was free not to keep Dorothy Baker waiting late for her lunch as my normal morning school session would have necessitated.

At lunch we were a threesome, Dorothy having also invited another American believer, Mabel Schneider.  Dorothy said that I reminded her very much of her own daughter, Louise, of about the same age.  She wanted to know all about me, especially how I came to be at that time in Nairobi and, more significantly, had been able to embrace the Faith in that environment of European ostracism of the coloured people.  The beloved Guardian had counselled the pioneers to devote their energies to the indigenous people, saying that the whites had not gone to Kenya for spiritual reasons, but only to exploit its resources and would be found to be unreceptive.  I remember Aziz Yazdi once saying to the gathering assembled at the time: “We didn’t teach Irene.  She fell straight into our laps from heaven.”

Dorothy’s interest in me, and indeed her affection for me, deepened as she heard my story and she expressed a desire to be able to meet Ali, the Muslim Arab to whom by that time I had become engaged.  She knew that I could now find an unsuspected problem and she wanted to do her best to clear what she could visualise as a thorny path ahead for me.  She warned me lovingly that perhaps I would find that, after all, I would not marry Ali.  She told me that Bahá’u’lláh might have other plans for me, that I should not worry, for Bahá’u’lláh would have everything in hand, and perhaps a different husband.  I should place all my trust and confidence in Him.  She talked of the coming pioneer needs to open all the virgin territories of Africa.  At that time there were a few Bahá’ís in only the countries of Egypt, Ethiopia, Liberia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika and the Union of South Africa.  Catching her devotion and enthusiasm I said that I could go to Mozambique because I could speak Portuguese and Dorothy talked of the need for me to read and deepen in the Faith in preparation for such an undertaking.  After lunch she took me to her hotel room where she needed to rest a little but only her dear physical frame was in need of repose in the African midday heat.  She continued to talk to me as I floated away in my new heaven of wonderment as the afternoon sped by.

Eventually we were walking together along Delamere Avenue heading for East African Airways.  Dorothy was due to leave for Dar-es-Salaam the following day and we were hoping that she would be able to change her direct flight for an earlier one so that she could make a detour to visit Ali in Mombasa for a few hours.  This was Dorothy’s own idea and we were both delighted when this was arranged.  A day or two later I received a precious letter written on the aircraft flying to Dar-es-Salaam in which she related the events of that heaven-assisted meeting, some of the answers she had given and her impressions of the spiritual potential of Ali.  Nairobi was blessed by a return visit of Dorothy Baker for another day or two and I was with her again on all possible occasions experiencing my first month of fasting.  “If you feel hungry” said Dorothy, “just say a little prayer.”  After that her departure meant that she was really leaving us but I gave myself comfort in imagining all the other places where she would be where I might also be able to be present. It was well that I did not know her blessed life was to come to such a tragic end within the year.

From the wonderful day of my spiritual rebirth I not only became, as the Yazdis had said, “their sister” but I felt myself truly an adopted member of the Yazdi family.  I was never left out of all the exciting events of those days.  Neither the Yazdis nor Ted had homes of their own at that time but I remember the dinner party at one of the Nairobi hotels when Hand of the Cause Mr Khadem addressed such loving words to me, as again I was embraced in an atmosphere of wonderment and revelation.  In metaphorical terms he spoke of my new Bahá’í status saying that I was a flower that Bahá’u’lláh had plucked from the garden of the world for special favours and service.

That first month of fasting was nothing like the fearsome experience it had appeared to me in anticipation and I felt such a sense of unity with all the Bahá’ís around the world at that time.  And what a happy day was my first Naw-Rúz with delicious `kishmish polow’ for lunch with all the friends in the first home of the Yazdi family, who by that time had satisfied the Kenyan immigration authority and been classified as Europeans.  Thus they could live in one of the European areas of Nairobi and were house-sitting for a British family on three months’ home leave.  Joan had got a place in a hostel called “Anne’s House” while I myself, now with a new room-mate, had moved to Mrs Davidson’s Quaker Guest House, a black and white wooden building, Tudor-like in its own grounds at Westlands.  I was seven miles away from the Yazdis and Ted at Kilimani.  This was Mau Mau Kenya when nobody ventured out after dusk except by car but in the “Bahá’í Car”, Ted’s blue Ford Consul, I was constantly ferried across Nairobi night after night to be with my new dear family and whenever there was no gathering at Kilimani I was at the Hurlingham Road Asian Hospital talking Bahá’í with Claire Gung, whose latest post was that of housekeeper there, staying until the last minute for beating the darkness back, cycling back home.  Such wonderful days of happiness and excitement!  Nairobi felt like the crossroads of the world, so many wonderful visitors moving through to pioneer in the virgin territories of Africa or passing through on pilgrimage.  Dorothy Baker had first talked to me of pilgrimage and soon we had Jalal Khazeh and then William Sears to thrill us, following their pilgrimages – this before their appointments as Hands of the Cause.

In those early days I wanted to talk of nothing but the Faith, and looked upon anyone who had not the sense to realise the importance of learning about the Bahá’í Faith as totally devoid of interest.  I wrote about it to all my friends in such an exalted frame of mind that two of my closest friends with whom I was in regular correspondence, dropped me as if I were no longer sane.  Even my dear sister, who was so eager to hear of all my Bahá’í activity news to share with the Manchester community, had to curb my over enthusiasm because she had to let Harold read my letters and he thought her sister “had gone round the bend” and he did not want his wife to follow suit!  I wanted to be off in “Bahá’u’lláh’s car” to some African village every weekend to be teaching the Faith with Aziz or Ted and I was stricken whenever we could not go for any reason.  So much for my one-time objection to “having to teach the Faith” when one became a Bahá’í!

I will now revert to the third flaw in the ointment of perfection of the Bahá’í teachings that I have already mentioned.  In Mombasa I had become acquainted with, and accustomed to, the African “sundowner” and I did like sherry.  I wanted to keep my freedom in that respect, notwithstanding the fact that once in Nairobi I had no longer anyone inviting and encouraging me to participate in that little evening ritual.  Well, it happened that during the next school holidays, at Easter, I went back to Mombasa, expecting to enjoy talking to Ali about the Faith and all the wonderful Bahá’ís.  Naturally I had been doing all I could by letter.

What a let-down I was in for, however!  All I seemed to have done was to drive him deeper into Islam.  I couldn’t believe it, after he had played such a significant part in helping me along the road. How sad, but I had to accept the fact that he did not want to know!  It was on one occasion during that visit that I experienced the strengthening grace of Bahá’u’lláh.  I was in the company of Ali and an Asian Muslim friend of his, both of whom were disobedient to the Islamic law of abstinence from alcohol.  They placed every temptation in my way, so to please them I permitted a glass of sherry to be poured out for me.  Poured out, that was all. I simply could not stretch my hand out to lift it for even a little sip.  Thus, my three objections had turned out to be mere figments of my imagination.

The Bahá’í Faith, the Bahá’ís and our activities were everything to me.  On 21st April 1953 I became the secretary of the first Spiritual Assembly in the country of Kenya, Nairobi, and so remained, with Aziz Yazdi equally always the Chairman, for the next six years.  Together we were at the forefront of all Bahá’í activities in Kenya and for me elsewhere in school holidays.  The idea of returning to the U.K. never crossed my mind again.  I was totally committed, Bahá’í activities my first priority and greatest joy, and thus I soon became aware of the truth in what had only been empty words before, i.e. “Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven and all else shall be added unto you.”  As soon as Ali Nakhjavani from Kampala came to visit us in Nairobi, he could not wait for me to be taken to the Yazdi home but had to be brought out to meet me at Mrs Davidson’s guest house, and get a promise from me to spend part of my next school holidays in August as the guest of Violette and himself in Uganda.  And so it was, every holiday;  in fact for a year or two Ali always had some project for me in Uganda or in Ruanda Urundi (the present day Burundi) which took precedence over whatever teaching trip I had envisaged for myself in Kenya.  I had begun to play a role that Ali Nakhjavani once told me was “an inspiration to the pioneers”, or had become, in the words of Rex and Mary Collison (Knights of Bahá’u’lláh for the virgin territory of Ruanda Urundi) “the pioneer who never went through the process.”  I had certainly been guided as surely as any pioneer.  By October of that same year I put paid to my relationship with that first Ali of Mombasa by returning to him my engagement ring.


Irene Bennett

Orkney, November 1990

Irene in Kenya, 1955

Irene in Kenya, 1955

Irene passed away in Orkney on 7 November 2015. – Ed.