Pippa Cookson

Pippa Cookson

The first nine years of my life were spent in a small village in Wiltshire called Atworth, near Bath.  My father was the village school-master, and my mother was a teacher.  I grew up with my brother Charles, who was18 months younger than me.  The only bit we saw of the war was when there was an air-raid on Bath.  We then moved to Wootton Bassett, and I went to grammar school in Swindon.

I first heard about the Faith in 1983 when my husband who was taking the radio round the house with him, as was his wont, called down the stairs to tell me that eight women had been hanged in Iran for teaching children’s classes.  Some years later (probably in 1986) I was at a meeting of what we called the Meditation Group, which met in Kingham, Oxfordshire, and the man who ran it had invited two Bahá’ís, Hassan Taghavi and Steve Vickers, to tell us about the Faith (a teaching opportunity on a plate for them)!  One of the two Bahá’ís (Hassan) lived in Chipping Norton, close to the village of Sibford Ferris where I then lived, and invited me to firesides and festivals.  He and his wife, being Persian, would frequently provide wonderful Persian food, so there was that lovely smell of basmati rice cooking.

I was a Quaker at this point (I was brought up a Quaker) and had become very interested in Northern Ireland.  When I said I was going to visit there, a friend Helina Taghavi, said I must meet her sister who lived in Omagh.  This was Vida Lake – so I did meet her and got introduced to Bahá’ís elsewhere as well.

I liked Northern Ireland and its friendly people, and so went again two years later.  When I split up from my husband in 1988 I went there to live, choosing Belfast.  I soon met Bahá’ís in Belfast and was invited to firesides by Sylvia and Ralph Rossi who looked after me really well.  Ralph picked me up each time to take me to their house, and Sylvia made delicious suppers.  I visited their house regularly, and after about a year I said to myself “Well, I haven’t found anything I disagree with in this Faith, so maybe I ought to join” (which I did, and haven’t regretted, though it has certainly changed my life).

When I became a Bahá’í most members of my family were quite supportive.

I became a member of Belfast Bahá’í community, which at that time was mainly composed of older ladies, who kept the small flame of the Faith alight, observing feasts and festivals, and there was a local Spiritual Assembly, which met regularly.  Soon I found myself a member of it, and after about a year I was elected secretary, which I remained for about 10 years (from approx. 1990-2000).

I got to know an ecumenical group of Christians, called Cornerstone, who lived and worked in a big house in a small mixed area on the “divide” in West Belfast.

I went to their prayer evenings, and also to a meal once a week.  A small house was for sale opposite Cornerstone, and I bought it, and lived there for more than 10 years (1990 to 2003) above a small park which led down to a little lake, Mackies’ cooling dam.  I walked my dogs there regularly and my cats got their exercise there too.  The dam was always the territory of a pair of swans, which usually had several cygnets.

I didn’t try to get a job because I had enough money to live on and unemployment was high.  Instead, I got involved in activities with community groups on both sides of the ‘divide’, especially ‘Women Together’, a group which held monthly meetings on subjects of interest to the women from tough areas, followed by lunch in the host group’s premises.  We met in various hard-line places belonging to one or other of the two sides, and a major success story was, I think, in the year 2000 when the meeting, the week after the Shankill bomb, was still held in Sandy Row (another major Protestant area) and the Catholics still came!

I don’t think I ever did any direct teaching in Belfast but people knew I was a Bahá’í and I suppose I taught by example, being willing to work with either side.  At any rate, the other Bahá’ís said it helped them that I lived and worked there.

Time passed and the Belfast community grew and gained younger members who were more active than the ‘old guard’, and they were elected on to the Assembly. Someone else became secretary and one year I wasn’t re-elected to it so I felt Belfast could get on fine without me and maybe I should do something different.

That year (2003) the National Spiritual Assembly was running a project in memory of Philip Hainsworth, appealing for people to travel-teach or pioneer to various countries including some areas in the Balkans.  I thought Kosovo and Bosnia would still be suffering from the after-effects of the war but Macedonia might be interesting.  I had actually been there before, in 1960, before the Skopje earthquake and during the first year of my marriage. I remembered having pastrumka (trout) in Ohrid, near the lake – two tiny eyes looking up at me!  So I went to Macedonia and spent some time in Ohrid and some in Bitola.  At the end of my visit I felt that I would be more useful in Macedonia than in Belfast so when two ladies from the National Spiritual Assembly of Germany, Gerda Hauf and Janet Rawling-Keitel, asked if I would pioneer to Bitola, I agreed, and returned there at the end of the year.

I shared a flat in the city centre with a German Bahá’í woman, Lilli Buthmann, and the secretary of the National Teaching Committee, Deni Petrovski, lived in Bitola too.  It was an interesting place in which to live and I enjoyed it.  I discovered that Neysan Donnelly, a young Bahá’í from Ireland and Bulgaria, was doing a year of service in Ohrid and was on his own there, all the travel teachers having gone home after the summer. So each week I went over to Ohrid, helped him with prayers, stayed the night and helped with a study circle the next day.  When Neysan left, it seemed to me that there needed to be someone in Ohrid so I moved there in 2004 – not consulting anyone, including my poor flat-mate, who was justifiably annoyed!

Someone who had lived in Ohrid earlier helped me to find an old house in the old town, just near the Lower Gate, and I lived there happily for some years.  In the first week I rescued some abandoned kittens and all the travel-teachers helped feed and care for them.  One, Tomski, black and white, was my faithful companion for about six years.  But then the house was sold and the new owner, after a year or two, decided to have the old house knocked down and rebuilt so I moved next door into another old house.  I had only just adjusted to this change when the police inspector for foreigners decided that it was necessary to have the euro-law of ‘90 days in and 90 days out’ apply to me, and sent me out of the country and from my new home with just five days’ notice.

I decided to go to Albania – to Pogradec – a smaller town on the other end of Lake Ohrid.  A friend took me, my luggage and my cat Tomski, and helped me to find somewhere to stay, which was in a small hotel opposite the FURGON (minibus) station.  This worked very well – the people in the hotel were very friendly, and although the room was on the first floor, my cat Tomski could go along the balcony and out onto the stairs.  And I then started learning Albanian, which I had always wanted to do.  I found Albanians friendly and helpful but very few spoke English.  I was lucky to be introduced to a young American Peace Corps volunteer who was very helpful especially when my arthritic knees suddenly got a lot worse.  He went out and brought take-away lunches for us to share.  He also had a lot of books in English which I was able to borrow.  I also met a couple from Albania who had lived in America and who spoke English.  She taught me Albanian when I could manage to get to her house.

At least the timing of my expulsion (December 2008) meant that I currently spend Spring and Autumn in Ohrid and summer and winter in Albania.  For the summer a friend helped me find a family to stay with in Tushemisht, a village on the lake just the other side of the border.  I have been there several times now and am accepted as one of the family, though communication is limited because they don’t speak English and my spoken Albanian (and understanding of it) isn’t good although I can read a paper with fair fluency.

I learned recently that the couple who have been working hard in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, Thomas and Hilda Schaaff, have decided to return to Germany and pioneer there because they have had so many visa problems.

However, while I still spend half the year in Ohrid, Macedonia, and the other half in Albania, I am also very happy to know that Lois and David Lambert (who were pioneers in Mongolia for 20 years) arrived in Macedonia in January 2012 and are presently pioneers in Skopje.


Pippa Cookson

Macedonia, March 2012