I was born in Kenya in 1936 to a Scottish father and a Welsh mother. Both my parents were born in South Africa, my grandparents having emigrated out there with their families. Later my parents both moved to Kenya where they met and married. My father was Church of Scotland and my mother said she was “Wesleyan” (Methodist). We only ever attended Church of Scotland services and that very rarely. We never had prayers or Bible readings in the home.
It was at primary boarding school in Eldoret in the Kenya Highlands that Sunday services at school first initiated me into the idea of Jesus Christ as a personal saviour. This was reinforced by compulsory Sunday attendance at the Church of Scotland when I moved on to High School in Nairobi. Of greater influence though was the selfless work of a Plymouth Brethren family who ran Crusader classes for the boarders in their home. I remember being drawn by the scrumptious teas served with home-baked iced cakes. For boarders the Sunday outings were a welcome break from routine as well as an opportunity for spiritual development. I progressed to being a leader for the younger girls’ classes and flourished in the love that was offered me by the family and their regular helpers. Since I had no religious background, I accepted over a period of seven years the fundamentalist teaching that everything in the Bible was true. I was surprised by comments on fundamentalism made by my best friend who was also a Crusader but whose parents were BCMS (Bible Churchmen’s Missionary Society) missionaries and who attended the Anglican cathedral. With an insecure family background I was in great need of a belief to hold on to, and I had not yet understood the divisions and schisms within Christianity. I was a Christian, I believed in Christ and it gave me faith and security. As part of school routine there were confirmation classes to be followed before being confirmed into the Church of Scotland at age fifteen. Later when I went to study at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, I joined the Student Christian Association. I became secretary and Alex Boraine, later part of the Peace and Reconciliation Commission after the end of Apartheid, was chairman. I also sang in the Presbyterian Church choir.
Through the church and through becoming a member of the Rhodes University Chamber Choir, I became friends with Norman Bailey, who first introduced me to the Bahá’í Faith. Norman had gone to Rhodes University to study to be a minister in the Presbyterian Church but had changed to studying music instead. He had heard of the Faith from his piano accompanist, Sylvia Schulman Benatar, in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during a vacation. He had been given the address of Rosemary and Emeric Sala, pioneers in Port Elizabeth from Canada during the Ten Year Crusade, and he visited and studied with them when he returned to University. I was shocked when he told me one day that he had become a Bahá’í and was going to leave the church, which was totally incomprehensible to me. One just could not do such a thing. Norman was the first white man to declare in South Africa during the Ten Year Crusade.
Norman gave me a copy of ‘Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era’ in English, which I read and rejected. However, he did not give up and I was invited to spend a weekend with the Salas in their lovely flat in Port Elizabeth where I was received with much love. Rosemary Sala was very astute and as I was studying French, she put a copy of Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era in French on my bedside table. I read it happily and asked Norman why he had not given me that book to read instead of the other one. Does a language really make that much difference? I was hidebound in my fundamentalist Christian beliefs and it took me over two years of further study and experience before I could take the step of becoming a Bahá’í without feeling I was betraying Christ.
My objections and hesitations were slowly worn down by the love and warmth met with in the Bahá’í community in Salisbury (now Harare), and above all by the equal status offered to African Bahá’ís and seekers. I was the daughter of white Kenya settlers from South Africa where Apartheid was still in full force. I had never met an educated African apart from a very unusual situation when I was studying Xhosa, a Bantu language, at university when I was tutored by a Xhosa professor from Fort Hare, a separate college for Africans attached to Rhodes University. Because I was studying this language I used to run afternoon Bible study classes for the Xhosa women who worked in the University residences. I did meet and become friends with Africans who were experienced teachers when I attended the mixed race University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and visited Bahá’í homes regularly in Salisbury. I had also studied Social Anthropology at university which had given me a sympathetic understanding of tribal cultures. My choice of subjects had been guided by my aim of becoming a teacher and working with Africans. The seed had been sown by the sudden sense of injustice I had when, as a child of ten, I was being driven along an unpaved dirt road in my father’s car and a small black child on foot alongside the road was smothered in red dust. Why was I in the car and the child on foot on the road side? This was not a question I could put to my parents so I asked the Christian lady with whom I was doing a distance study course. I don’t remember the answer but it was unsatisfactory. It was the injustice towards the African people perpetrated by “Christian” white settlers that finally led me to accept Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings of unity and justice.
At the end of my final year at Rhodes University in 1956, I travelled up by train with Norman to Southern Rhodesia where I was going to take a Post Graduate Teaching Diploma at the newly opened University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in Salisbury. We stopped off en route in Johannesburg so that Norman could meet the Bahá’ís there. At an evening meeting we met some wonderful African Bahá’ís and several of the American pioneers to South Africa in the Ten Year Crusade, among them Lowell and Edith Johnson and Bahiyyih Ford. I was overwhelmed by the love and hospitality we were offered by the friends.
We were also invited to Bill and Marguerite Sears’ farm outside Johannesburg, The Farm, as it was called. I believe Marguerite was away but Bill Sears and Bob Quigley were there on the evening of our visit. I sat timidly in a corner of the room, overwhelmed by these large men, American and African, who hugged each other like long lost brothers. Unfortunately we didn’t meet the painter Reginald Turvey, who lived at the farm and to whom the Guardian gave the title of “The Father of the Bahá’ís of South Africa”, but we were shown his studio. Among my precious possessions today are two African scenes painted by Reg that were sold along with other works after he passed away, to finance a retrospective exhibition of his work in South Africa. Very much later we were to have the joy and privilege of meeting the famous potter Bernard Leach at his home in St Ives, and visiting his pottery. The American artist Mark Tobey had introduced Reginald Turvey and Bernard Leach to the Bahá’í Faith at Dartington Hall in England, where the three of them were working and studying together.
My studies commenced at the University College and I was elected secretary of the Students Union. It was fascinating because we were starting completely from scratch to create a student tradition. There was a lot of goodwill towards the university but also much anger and criticism of the whole project from both the white and black communities. It was hard to cope with at times but I could always turn to the Bahá’ís for relief and solace. Finally, Naw Rúz 1957, Norman suggested that it was time I declared my Faith and I agreed. We went out to the home of Shidan and Florence Fatheazam for the Naw Rúz celebration with my declaration in mind only to discover that there was no LSA quorum for my area, so we borrowed a van, took an African friend with us, and went to the African township of Harare to collect as many of the LSA members as we could find. It was dark, the roads were unpaved, there was no street lighting, no street names, but we eventually collected enough LSA members and took them back with us. At that time one had to know the station of the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the contents of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s will (a very much shortened version as I only discovered many years later). One had to be interviewed by the LSA before being accepted as a Bahá’í. The Chairman was Nathan Shamyurira, editor of a local newspaper, and he made sure I knew it all. In reality I should not as a white girl have been declaring at all because the Guardian had told the pioneers to teach only the indigenous peoples of Africa during the Ten Year Crusade. The white people had had their opportunity to accept the Faith in the 1920s when Martha Root and others had visited South Africa. However, ‘Sue’ and Sylvia Benatar had become Bahá’ís in Salisbury and Norman had learned of the Faith from Sylvia, and here was I, another link in the chain. It has always seemed to me that I slipped in under the fence as an honorary African.
One thing I read recently in Hasan Balyuzi’s book ‘Abdu’l-Bahá made me realise very clearly how close we are still to the Founder of our Faith. Shidan Fatheazam, in whose home I declared, is the brother of past Universal House of Justice member Hushmand Fatheazam. Their great-grandfather, Mirza Fath-Ali-Ardistani, was given the name Fath-i-Azam (Greatest Victory) by Bahá’u’lláh. Bahá’u’lláh had said that on His journey from Baghdad to Constantinople, Fath-i-Azam had been with Him in spirit.
Three events that stood out in the rest of my time in Southern Rhodesia were the passing of the Guardian in November 1957, the opening of Bulawayo to the Faith with John and Audrey Robarts, and my marriage to Norman Bailey in December 1957. The shocking news of the Guardian’s passing was given to us at a meeting. Grown men dissolved in tears. The friends were devastated but I did not fully understand the station of the Guardian and it was all very strange to me. Later in the university vacation I went to work in the African township in Bulawayo as a social assistant, and the Area Teaching Committee told me to contact John and Audrey Robarts who had recently moved to Bulawayo. John had been made a Hand of the Cause in 1957. There was some misunderstanding about starting teaching in Bulawayo because John and Audrey had not planned to do so that soon. I ended up in tears and John said later that the LSA in Bulawayo was based on my tears. Audrey came with me to meet the people with whom I was working and so the door was opened to the Faith. John and Audrey were wonderful teachers and I believe there was an LSA in Bulawayo the following year. Our wedding was the first public Bahá’í wedding in Southern Rhodesia and took place at the University because it was the only place where we could invite our African friends. There was some difficulty about parental permission because my father said I had not asked his permission to become a Bahá’í so why did I need to do so to be married as a Bahá’í, and Norman’s father said he was over twenty one and didn’t need his permission. It was all sorted out eventually to the satisfaction of the LSA.
We left Africa for Europe via Kampala where we met Lois and Philip Hainsworth and went to see the Temple, before visiting my parents in Kenya, then on to Vienna for Norman’s studies at the Vienna State Academy. On arrival we learned of the 1958 Conference in Frankfurt and decided to participate. We went to our first Summer School that year in Austria as guests of the NSA. Our son, Brian, was born in 1960 in Vienna. We then moved to Linz in Upper Austria for Norman’s first full- time professional engagement as an opera singer. We met Marzieh Gail who was pioneering in Graz with her husband. They came to our flat one evening and it wasn’t until much later that I realised what a privilege that had been. Our daughter Cathy was born in Linz in 1961. The next stop was Wuppertal and then Dusseldorf in the Ruhr. My contribution to the community was teaching children’s classes based on a translation I made into German from a set of American courses for children, which at the time were the only materials available. Children’s classes became a part of my life from then on. Our son Richard was born in 1966 and we moved to London in 1967 for Norman’s career, living in north London and then Potters Bar, where Barnet was our base community. Bob and Margaret Watkins became lifelong friends.
Later we moved to Bedford to help save the LSA there as two elderly Persian friends wanted to return to Iran. The nine years in Bedford were a happy time with several families with young children. Children’s classes were held in our home every Sunday and the parents operated in rotation as teachers so that the children felt the whole community cared about them. There were the wonderful picnics at Ted and Alicia Cardell’s farm in St. Neots and training weekends at the farm for children and youth. Both Norman and I served on the LSA and among other members of the community were Malcolm and Parvin Lee and ‘Sue’and Sylvia Benatar. Their children and ours grew up together. During this time I served on the National Child Education Committee and as secretary for the Area Teaching Committee.
Our next move was to Surrey where we both served on the Spiritual Assembly of Tandridge. We had a large house and grounds with a swimming pool, which made it possible to hold picnics and swimming parties for Bahá’ís and their friends.
Norman, as an artist, got to know many of the other Bahá’í artists but we found that not many of them seemed to know one another. The house was large enough so we invited as many artists with their spouses as we could to come for a weekend to meet each other and discuss art and the role of the artist in the Faith. The event went well and people seemed happy to have had this time together for reflection.
Three of the Bahá’ís present, Ken Carter, Richard Morgan and Tom Plowman, were good friends and the idea was born that they could hold a combined art exhibition at our home the next year. They worked during the year to produce paintings and pottery for the event and it was amazing how the two large and rather bare rooms used were transformed into places of great beauty by their works. The three artists came to stay for the week of the exhibition and were available to talk to visitors and prospective customers about their approach to their work and the influence of the Faith on their art. Almost all the art works were sold, so the two main goals of the event, proclamation and sales, were achieved. A painting by Ken Carter of the legendary ghost-ship The Flying Dutchman was later hung in the main entrance of The London Coliseum, home of English National Opera, while Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman was being performed there, with Norman in the title role.
Sadly, after twenty five years of marriage, Norman and I decided to part. Some years later I remarried and went to live in France with my Bahá’í husband, Gaston Planchaud. After I moved to France I was supporting the pioneer work Bob and Margaret Watkins were doing in Belgrade, and Margaret used to send me reports. One such included a photo of the friends in Belgrade, one of whom was Semira Sohrabian, a young pioneer. When many years later my son Brian asked to bring the girl he wanted to marry to meet me in France, it was Semira. Her photo had been on my study wall for some time. It was one of those amazing moments in life. I was in France for over twenty five years until Gaston passed away after a long and debilitating illness. I then returned to England to live in Chester and to have the chance to see more of my family, and especially my five grandchildren.
In France, Gaston and I were isolated in the rural area where we lived in the Creuse but we worked with the Board member’s assistant, Christine Guerif, and later with the Spiritual Assembly of Poitiers to build an LSA in Limoges which was a national goal. This was achieved and for a time there was a thriving community in which we participated. Sadly there is no longer a community or LSA there now because the friends pioneered, one by one and family by family, to Guadeloupe, Martinique, West Africa, Morocco, and China. I also served on the Area Teaching Committee for some years and was Assistant to two Board members for our region. The longest-lasting and somewhat nerve-wracking responsibility was that of translating the Minutes of the French NSA into English for the Universal House of Justice, which I did for ten years. The NSA rewarded me by making it possible for me to attend the Inauguration of the Terraces. That was an amazing privilege which will remain with me always.
My time in France included the introduction of the Ruhi Institute study programme and there were some great institutes run at the refurbished mill that was the home of Cathy and Sohrab Echraghi outside Limoges. Sometimes over 30 people studied the different books over a week at a time, living and eating together and sharing creative presentations in the evening, such an inspiring and enriching experience. Previously the Ruhi Institute had started slowly in the Department of Limousin with Book 1 spreading out to the communities after the very first session in Tours. I was coordinator for the Limousin for a period at the very start of the Ruhi Institute and was privileged to participate in training in amazing study weekends. It was so exciting being in on the beginning of the whole Ruhi process, and the French friends were inspired to extend their activities.
Eventually I had to give up my Bahá’í activities gradually as Gaston’s health deteriorated and he found it difficult to accept my absences. However, there were compensations in my running of a French-English Club which brought me many new friends. For five years of the previous plan we also held a meditation afternoon in our home once a month as a service to the local community and this brought us great joy and fulfilment. However we were never able to get any of our friends from our hamlet to join us.
I have been privileged to meet and know many wonderful Bahá’ís in many parts of the world, too many to mention them all. I knew Hands of the Cause Bill Sears and John Robarts in Africa and met Hands of the Cause Collis Featherstone in Kenya and Mr Furútan and Mr Varqa in Haifa. I heard Rúhíyyih Khánum speak on several occasions, as well as the great African Hand, Enoch Olinga. Visiting Kenya, Gaston and I went on a travel teaching trip to isolated LSAs and groups of Bahá’ís in the villages with Alison Wood from Mauritius and Arsalan Laloui, a pioneer in Kenya. I took with me photos of Enoch Olinga and talked to the local friends about their Hand of the Cause who was known and loved throughout the world. They were very happy to learn of his station.
When we went on our first pilgrimage in 1978, it was Mr Furútan who guided our group around the gardens and the Shrine of the Báb and he made Richard, who was quite young at the time, “the keeper of the keys”. In London I heard Mr Samandari address the friends, obviously inspired by the spirit, because he had had to be helped onto the stage because of his age, but then stood up and spoke powerfully of his remembrances of Bahá’u’lláh and the early days of the Faith.
So many wonderful memories – the Frankfurt Conference in 1958 when I was a very new Bahá’í; the Bahá’í World Congress in 1963 at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and the moment when that vast assembly sang Allah’u’abha as Rúhíyyih Khánum recovered herself when talking of Shoghi Effendi; 1992 in Moscow for the Centenary and the bounty of meeting the Russian friends; the Congress for the Centenary of the Bahá’í Faith in France in Paris in 1998; two family pilgrimages, one when my children were growing up and the second when their children were growing up; three 3-day visits; the joy of being part of the French contingent at the Inauguration of the terraces, and the opportunity of being with so many Bahá’ís from every corner of the globe, with many of them in their national costumes; meeting Hand of the Cause Mr Varqa, who spent some time with the French contingent. My heart overflows with joy and gratitude.
When Gaston passed away in 2010, I chose to return to England to be near my family and grandchildren, to which two delightful great-granddaughters have since been added. I am now settled in Chester and integrated into the life of a very active Bahá’í community, and there are still opportunities for service in spite of the passing years.
Chester, May 2016