John Gay – Introduction: Looking Back At My Life

I began writing this on a hot summer day in Cambridge Massachusetts, where Judy and I retired in 2001. I wanted to explain where I had come from, and indicate where I think I may be going. We had left southern Africa and returned to a country which, by citizenship and family ties, is supposed to be our own. Why was I in Africa and what was I trying to do? I needed to know, now that in fact I had finally quit trying to impose myself on Africa.

I wrestle with the question with what I have learned and whether my life and work in Africa have done anything to repay my debt. What debt? It’s the debt I owe to Liberia, Lesotho, South Africa, and the many other African countries where I lived, worked, played and tried to become human. Without hesitation I can say that leaving the US in 1958 and moving to Liberia was the best thing I could have done. I have had a rich, full, satisfying life, a life that would not have been possible had I taken a job in an American college or university.

I experienced problems and disappointments along the way, of course. We lost our lovely daughter Lisa, who might still be alive had we stayed in America. We had little contact with our parents as they grew old and died. We did not share the day-to-day lives of our sons when they went to high school and then college. I never really could have become an insider in Liberia or Lesotho, partly because of my failure to find close associates from within local cultures as well as my failure to learn either Kpelle in Liberia or Sesotho in Lesotho. I struggled with both languages and in the end I failed to do more than to give our hosts the limited pleasure (and pain) of seeing me make the effort to learn.

I do agree with the assessment made about missionaries who went to Hawaii. “They went out to do good, and they ended up doing very well indeed.” We returned to the US in 2001 with a substantial investment in stocks and guaranteed retirement funds. We had a comfortable home to move into, and we brought well-polished skills that could make our retirement interesting, active and productive.

We carry American passports and receive monthly retirement checks not only from church and university related retirement funds but also from the US Social Security system. Very real economic ties bind us to the US, and we would certainly not survive if those checks were to stop. I cannot claim to have become an African. I can’t even claim to be a citizen of the world, cosmopolitan, deracinated, an ex-American who can afford to look “with sad and wondering eyes” at the dying American empire. I am what I am, and must go on from there.

Where did my retirement funds come from? I believe I earned them through my teaching, through social activism at the Transformation Resource Center, and through consulting work in economic and social development in my last years in Lesotho. I worked hard and wrote reports that satisfied clients. I have my curriculum vitae in front of me as I write this. It names diverse Lesotho government departments, international agencies, non-governmental organizations, churches, bilateral aid agencies, foreign and local universities, and multi-national companies. They all wanted assessments of development projects, mostly in Lesotho, and offered contracts to researchers who met their criteria.

We might have retired to South Africa, as some ex-missionary friends have done. In moments of fantasy I think of returning to Liberia to decline and die heroically into the tropical sunset, most likely unpleasantly from malaria. Bolling and Marilyn Robertson in the end did return “home”, having earlier left Liberia to retire to rural Virginia. Bolling did die (from old age, not malaria) in the figurative arms of the many students he had nurtured at St. John’s Episcopal High School in Robertsport on the northwest coast of Liberia.

If I had done likewise, I might have pretended to do so in a spirit of identification with African aspirations and culture, but more likely it would only been an affirmation of my being a big American fish in a small African pond. I do believe that Bolling and Marilyn made their choice to identify totally with their Liberian community. I was not and am not now ready for that degree of identification with Africa and Africans.

Instead we moved to what may be the most civilized community in the US. Cambridge Massachusetts, called by some “The People’s Republic of Cambridge”, home to the Episcopal Divinity School (where we spent two sabbatical periods), St. James Episcopal Church (which prayed for us during our time in Africa), and a variety of cultural institutions, including our close neighbors Harvard University and Boston University, where I was appointed a research fellow. Our children all have Boston and Cambridge ties. Peter spent many of his formative post-college years in nearby Somerville before his graduate work in physical oceanography at the University of Connecticut. Stephen studied early childhood education at Wheelock College across the Charles River, and David did his undergraduate degree in mathematics at Harvard before finishing his doctorate at Berkeley.

We were fortunate that Anne Shumway, aunt to our sons and their families, and ex-wife of Judy’s brother George, owns a house in Cambridge. She told us on several occasions that when we retire we must join her and live on the ground floor of her three-story, two-apartment house. We accepted her offer with pleasure and gratitude, and moved in at the end of February 2001. We packed up all our worldly possessions in Lesotho the previous month, throwing out much junk and leaving behind many academic books and papers that really should remain in Lesotho. The rest we entrusted to a local moving company which packed them in a container we would not see again until it arrived at our new house in April 2001.

In 1992 I left the Transformation Resource Center for a fresh start and a new career. I see several big themes during my years before and after retirement.

First: my ongoing involvement with Liberia. In retrospect I can see that I never really left Liberia. I just moved in 1975 to Lesotho, another locale where I could continue caring about Africa. I went back to Liberia several times, in relation to the renewal of Cuttington College and Liberia after the civil war. I was deeply concerned with the larger issues of civil society and governance in a devastated country. I have continued to write and speak about the country, trying to make use of all that I had known and done. My education began there, and continues as I look back on those years of searching for a useful and meaningful way to live.

Second: university teaching, anti-apartheid activism, and research on development in Lesotho. After three years teaching at the National University of Lesotho I did consulting on development in Lesotho, Botswana, Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia. I was called in 1986 to work for six good years at the Transformation Resource Center in Lesotho as part of the struggle against apartheid. After that I worked at Sechaba Consultants with my colleagues Thuso Green and David Hall on such issues as poverty, children, agriculture, education, migration, politics, migration, housing, unemployment, health and urbanization. We were hired by a variety of international and local agencies, and our main concern was to find ways to bring the benefits (if any) of economic and social change to the marginal people of Lesotho.

Third: my concern for the larger issues of a rapidly changing sub-Saharan Africa. During the 1980s, as mentioned above, I worked in Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania and Botswana, on a variety of development projects. I added South Africa and Namibia to the list in the 1990s, especially after independence came to South Africa. In addition, I was involved more and more deeply with research into migration and democracy, first across southern Africa and later throughout much of tropical Africa.

Fourth: my increasing participation in the life of independent South Africa. During the 1980s we had been personae non gratae in that country, but in 1991, after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, we once again were given a visa and could enter into the life across the border. We no longer sought to boycott the country, but instead became enthusiastic advocates for South Africa.

Fifth: the church, the Body of Christ. I committed my life to Christ at an amazing and life-changing Christmas Eve service in 1951 leading to my meeting Judy on 2 January 1952. I have taken an active role in the church, both in Liberia and now in America, in gratitude for a wonderful life in Africa. I taught church history at the Anglican seminary in Lesotho, and then again at the College of the Transfiguration in South Africa. Here in Cambridge I have found a church home at St. James Church and tried to contribute to the life of African students at the Episcopal Divinity School.

Sixth: an uneasy relation with the United States. I returned to what I should think of as my native land, the United States, but which has increasingly become an alien land to me. I feel that I both am and am not an American, and have tried to continue as an international world citizen in the midst of a country I don’t understand. This has meant my opening my life and my mind to other cultures, most recently China.

Finally: my wonderful family. My family has never been just our biological children with their extended families. We put down deep roots in Africa, and our lives have been enriched with Liberian and Basotho “children”. Even now, our family has expanded to include African and Chinese students and visiting scholars at Harvard. We have the privilege of hosting Liberians, South Africans, Basotho, and hinese, all of them students or post-doctoral fellows.

In the chapters that follow I ask if in fact I gave anything of value to the world, to Liberia, to Lesotho, to my friends overseas, or to my family and friends here in the US? Have I fulfilled what I had within me, or have I merely ingloriously failed, thus fulfilling what I heard that September in 1946 so long ago, when I and my freshman classmates at Cornell were challenged to take goals too high to achieve? How have I responded to the pressure to grow and change? Have I become more than the “imperialist” that one of my first African students saw in me back in 1959? Have I learned anything?

In the following sections I will explore what I have done and the extent to which I have helped the African people with whom I lived. Then in chapters 17 through 36 I will explore what I have learned about the ways African peoples think and live.

Next Section: Part Two: Assessing my work in Africa
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