“But you are a Bahá’í!”
These were the words of Ridvan Moqbel. We had arrived within a few minutes of each other at the UK National Bahá’í Centre in Rutland Gate. This was my first visit and I was there to attend the weekly information meetings that were open to all. Ridvan happened to be the speaker for the evening! I latched on to him and he made the above comment during refreshments when I told him a little about my background. So I feel it is appropriate that I should start there.
I was born on 14th June, 1936, on my maternal grandfather’s farm some fifty miles from Fort Jameson, a small town in the Eastern Province of Northern Rhodesia, a protectorate of the British Empire. It gained its independence in 1964 and was named Zambia, and Fort Jameson is now called Chipata.
Both my grandfathers were Englishmen, civil servants in the Colonial Service. My grandmothers were both black, but from different tribes. My father’s mother was the eldest daughter of a local chief. I once met a journalist who told me that as her eldest son, my father could have become the next chief! My maternal grandfather went into farming on his retirement and registered his marriage to my grandmother. My paternal grandfather migrated to South Africa – where he married a white woman. My father was trained as a teacher at Church of England mission schools. When I was seven he went to college in Cape Town as an adult student to get formal qualifications. My mother’s family were Roman Catholic but she became Anglican when she married my father. (He was condemned to hell by a Catholic priest when they shared a hospital ward in later years!)
Although not official policy like the apartheid system in South Africa, segregation was the order of the day. An uncle started a school on his farm. This was later taken over by the government and became the first school in the country for mixed-race children. Many who came to the school were children of black women who had been abandoned by their white or Asian fathers. In 1946 the school was transferred from the farm to a location on the outskirts of town. It had been the site of a camp for Polish refugees during the Second World War. There was a school for white children in the town centre and another for Asian children in the ‘Indian Quarters’.
There was no secondary school for us ‘coloureds’, so ironically I had to go to South Africa to continue my education. I went to a school called Zonnebloem College, run by the Anglican Church. It had originally been a wine farm. It was then converted to a school for the children of African chiefs, but had long since been changed to a ‘colour’ school. After two years there I transferred to a government school, Trafalgar High School. Many of the teachers were actively engaged in the political movements campaigning against the apartheid system, and the school had a distinct non-religious character. In 1955 I went to the University of Cape Town (UCT) where I obtained a science degree and trained as a secondary school teacher. As non-white students, we could not be admitted in the halls of residence or take part in university sports. A year after I left, the University of the Western Cape was opened for ’coloured’ students, who could now no longer be accepted at UCT except to study medicine. At about the same time another university was opened in Durban for ‘Indian’ students. An older university already existed in Eastern Cape, and this was primarily for black students.
While I was at university in Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland were brought together by the British government as the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Founders High School had been opened in Bulawayo in Southern Rhodesia for ‘Coloured and Asian’ students, and that is where I was posted. The Civil Service had four ‘Branches’. White teachers were automatically entered into Branch One. I was appointed into Branch Two, at about two-thirds the ‘white’ salary. After one year I was interviewed by a panel of inspectors and promoted to Branch One. I must mention that when I was interviewed in Lusaka for a bursary to go to university, I was asked what I wanted to study. When I said physics, a panel member asked if “your people” would be able to understand it!
The Federation was seen by the African political movements in Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia as a means of perpetuating white rule dominated by Southern Rhodesia which was a self-governing colony. Fierce opposition arose in the two protectorates and in 1963 the British Government dissolved the Federation. Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia became independent as Malawi and Zambia. Southern Rhodesia declared unilateral independence from Britain and renamed itself Rhodesia. After many years of conflict between the white regime and the black resistance movements, it became Zimbabwe.
I married May in January 1964. She was the seventh child of a family of nine. (The first five were girls). The family were all devoted Anglicans. May had been a student at Founders and was ‘recommended’ by some of the staff members as my future wife! After our wedding we moved to Northern Rhodesia, where I was posted to a school in Ndola called Llewellyn High School. My daughter Jennifer was born there in 1964 and Susan in 1967. May and I divorced in 1979 and she returned to Zimbabwe. Jennifer remained in Lusaka until she completed her ‘O’ levels.
Llewellyn High School had been an all-white school. I and two colleagues from South Africa were the first non-white teachers at the school. Of the student population of some five hundred, fewer than thirty were non-white. I expected to have disciplinary problems but fortunately this was not the case. The only prejudice I experienced at the school was when the headmaster, an ex-missionary, asked me not to order laboratory equipment from a certain supplier because “they were a bunch of Jews”.
After three weeks at the school, one of the senior students came to me and said he had had several mathematics teachers and I was the first one who made sense! The teacher in the next room often came in to observe my lessons. On a few occasions I was asked to resolve a dispute between him and the students about the correct answer to a problem. The school secretary began to refer to me, all parents who wanted extra tuition in mathematics for their children. When I asked why, she said the students told her I was the most patient teacher they had ever had! Also for the first time I had black students in my classes. Years later I was in a group of black friends when one of them remarked “I don’t see Alfred as a ‘coloured’. I see him as just one of us.” Although I knew that I was free from prejudice, this was one of the most pleasing comments about me that I have ever heard. I am very happy to say that both Jennifer and Susan grew up in the same way.
Growing up on a farm, we had no access to church and I had no religious education. When the school moved to town, we occasionally had the vicar come round for services. I don’t recall any kind of animosity based on religious differences at primary school, or when I taught at Founders or Llewellyn.
At boarding school in Cape Town, we had prayers in the chapel morning and evening, mass on Sunday and sometimes three services on Feast days. I served at the altar. At Founders we had Christians of various denominations, as well as Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Zoroastrians. At Llewellyn we also had Jews. Although nominally Anglican, I had lost all interest in church since leaving Cape Town. Meeting and getting to know children and parents from other faiths, I began to question why I as a Christian should consider myself superior to all these other people. With this background is it any wonder that I got so excited when I first read the principles of the Bahá’í Faith!
I first heard about the Faith from my eldest daughter, Jennifer. Her mother returned to Zimbabwe when we divorced, and Jennifer and Susan went to live with her. Jennifer came to visit me in Lusaka. I took her to the Bahá’í Centre and to visit Bahá’í families living in Lusaka. The lady in charge of media affairs also took her for an interview on Radio Zambia. At the Bahá’í Centre I was given a small pamphlet with details of the principles of the Faith. These excited me greatly. Of particular interest was the teaching of progressive revelation. I had always wondered why there were so many religions and this was the first time I had an answer. Jennifer had been a student at the International School in Lusaka. Unknown to me, some of the teachers at the School were Bahá’ís.
On pilgrimage I met an American family who had taught at the School. They said Jennifer had told them “I think my mother would be interested in becoming a Bahá’í, but my father, never”!
Jennifer went to a Catholic school in Harare for her sixth form and then attended the University of Michigan in the United States. ‘Doc’ Holliday was a lecturer there and his wife Diane was an administrator; through them Jennifer met Dizzy Gillespie. I met ‘Doc’ and Diane when I visited the university. Jennifer became a Bahá’í when she returned to Zimbabwe.
I attended my first fireside in Harare, at the home of the Ojermarks. I had had business dealings with Paul Ojermark in Lusaka but didn’t know he was a Bahá’í. At the same fireside I also met someone I had played tennis with in Zambia in 1964. When he told me that at the time he was already a Bahá’í when I met him in 1964, I asked without thinking ‘Why didn’t you tell me about it?’
So I met Bahá’ís in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and later in the United States, Canada and in the UK. They were from various ethnic and religious backgrounds but without exception they were all very nice people – open, welcoming and genuinely friendly. This made a very big impression on me, especially having experienced so much racial segregation and prejudice. In Canada I went to several firesides and was invited to many events. If I had remained longer I would probably have declared there. As a Bahá’í I have visited Bahá’í centres in Lusaka, Harare, Johannesburg, Maseru, Addis Ababa and Tokyo, and everywhere I have been welcomed with open arms.
I left Canada in 1991 to return to Zambia. I stopped over in the UK to visit my brother on the Isle of Man. There I met a lady with whom I soon struck up a close relationship. So we decided I would return and that we would get married after I had been able to wind up my affairs in Zambia. I returned to the Isle of Man in 1992 and we married in June of that year. Sadly the marriage was short-lived and we divorced a few years later.
I went to Zambia as planned. On my way back to the Isle of Man I stopped over in London and decided to visit the Guardian’s Resting Place. I lost my way but after walking miles I eventually found the main entrance to the cemetery. I joined a large funeral group, thinking they were Bahá’ís, but discovered it was a Greek funeral.
There were five Bahá’ís in the Isle of Man – John Maher, Tony Alexander, Diana Manuchehri, and Jack and Lorna Parker. Most of the meetings were held at John Maher’s home. I declared in August 1994. The biggest event we had was when a Bahá’í from France, André Brugiroux, visited the Island. He had travelled to all parts of the world and he was completing his mission in the only two places he had not seen – Saint Helena and the Isle of Man. Finding a job in the Isle of Man was difficult, and in 1996 I moved to London to work for a small computer company.
The first Feast I ever attended was in Hillingdon. Toby Doncaster came to pick me up. I was subsequently registered in the Ealing community, which had some fifty registered members. Among them were Earl and Barbara Cameron, Jane O’Brien, Maliheh Pourtabib (at whose home we held most of our Feasts), Ron and Vivian Roe, James Herbert and Gamal, Hoda and Amal Rushdy. I served on the Ealing Spiritual Assembly and was also elected as delegate to National Convention.
In 1998 I moved to Kettering and in 2001 to Brixworth to help maintain the Local Spiritual Assembly there with Kevin and Mina Beint, Dick and Marny Barton, Pouri Habibi and Sherie and Michelle Snaith. I served on the Local Spiritual Assembly in Kettering with the Attwoods, the Habibis, the Joshganis, and Richard Leigh. I was also a delegate to National Convention.
I was in the first group trained as Ruhi tutors by Soroosh Zahedi, and subsequently facilitated the full sequence of courses in various locations. I served on the East Anglia School committee for a few years with Hugh and Deborah McKinley. David Hofman was a participant one year and I also met Betty Reed. I have attended winter and summer schools and also the Bahá’í Arts Academy on a few occasions. Before the inception of Ruhi courses, I learned a lot about the Faith from the Thomas Breakwell Institute run by Khosro Deihim.
I joined the UK Bahá’í Choir, run by Kingsley and Suzanne Swan. In Kettering I was in the Northamptonshire Bahá’í Choir, formed by Richard Leigh before he became a Bahá’í. More recently I have been a member of the National Bahá’í Choir, run by Cosma Gottardi. In 2001 I toured with ‘The Voices of Baha’ in Europe, performing in Bratislava, Madrid, Barcelona, Thonon-les-Bains and Paris. In Thonon-les-Bains we saw the building in which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had stayed during His visit. We then took part in an international choral competition in Wernigerode, Germany, in which we won gold and silver medals. The tour concluded with a performance in the European House of Worship at Langenhain, near Frankfurt. In 2002 we performed in a concert in Carnegie Hall, New York. In 2012 I spent a month in India and visited the Bahá’í House of Worship in New Delhi.
I qualified for the state pension in 2002. Fortunately I was in the right place subsequently to get a job at Bahá’í Books UK, which is where I ended my working life.
I have been on two three-day visits to Haifa, the second with my daughter Jennifer. In June 2005 I went on a nine-day pilgrimage, which was without doubt the highlight of my life as a Bahá’í. I received a very warm welcome from Mr Javaheri and Mr Barnes because they knew Jennifer. I also met Hands of the Cause Mr Furútan and Mr Varqá. Mr Furátan told me he had donated a book to Radio Zambia when he was on a visit there. Unfortunately I did not get to see Rúhíyyih Khánum, but after she died I had a dream in which I was looking at her coffin and saying to myself that she was not dead.
I have been living in Corby for nearly fourteen years. There are three other Bahá’ís there, Stella Herbert and Michael and Caroline Crosby. Our nearest Local Spiritual Assembly is Wellingborough, but I also visit Leicester-based Kevin and Mina Beint, who often host meetings in their home.
Northamptonshire, January 2016