“Life is lived in the little things.” —Marilyn Beckwith
In the early 1970s, after a year of unemployment, Marilyn Beckwith was in desperate need for change in her life. With her characteristic joie de vivre, she started a new life on a new continent—and didn’t look back. In 1971, she and her husband moved to Africa with their four children, armed with not much more than a penchant for adventure and a sense of humor.
They started their African adventures in Kenya, and they tried life in Zaire (now Congo). Marilyn was called to build a home for her family on the local economy, unsupported by any embassy or company. While steadfastly holding on to her values, she faced a steep learning curve in adjusting to the African rhythms of life. She gamely coped with challenges, from the mundane to the miraculous, including bridging food shortages, navigating the fringes of diplomatic life, outsmarting a mischievous chimpanzee, and adapting to new languages:
“Madame, you speak French like a Zairean.” “Oh, thank you." “Madame, that was not a compliment!”
Journey with this American mother as she discovers that everyday life can become extraordinarily entertaining when circumstances are unusual.
Jambo! The Swahili word of greeting seems to encompass so much more than our simple hello. The English word can seem more dismissal than salutation in its curtness, sometimes more wary than welcoming. But jambo seemed to greet, to welcome, to offer an invitation to friendship and understanding. We were immeasurably enriched by our exchange of jambos in Kenya that year. The plastic prestige of a high-rise hotel was not for us this trip. We were kind of glad that East African Airways put us up at Nairobi’s Mayfair, an older, British-style hotel. We were anxious to quickly fit into our new life. We were missing a family member. Roxanne would join us later. She had stayed in Seattle with friends in order to finish her junior year of high school. What persuaded us on this was the unusual fact that her high school was permanently closing at the end of that school year. She desperately wanted to remain behind for the grand finale. Our other children were tasting and testing their new environment. This included the Mayfair Hotel’s dining room. Knowing that restaurants in the United States serve meals at all hours, it came as a shock to our children that there was any other way. Kenya was less than ten years into independence then. It had been colonized by the British. Wherever they were, the British seemed slow to give up the notion that it somehow served the discipline of the soul if one’s stomach was served only at strictly prescribed times. In the British way of thinking, lunch began not a moment before noon. Nor was it served past two o’clock, or perhaps half-past two in some cases. Tea, a lovely tradition, was served promptly at four at the Mayfair. Fortunately, “tea” also included food. This was usually substantial enough to prevent hunger pangs from growling too loudly before dinner at seven. We tried to set our stomachs on local time. Our children found it fun to change their table manners. These were not bad, just American. If a time and motion study were done on the use of knife and fork when cutting one’s portion of meat, I think the European manner would win hands down, or up as the case may be. In this method of eating, hands are rested at the ready each side of the plate, with knife and fork held poised to pounce. People schooled and skilled in this manner of eating even manage to make it look graceful. Effort and motion are kept to a minimum by keeping the fork in one’s left hand, and thus, with that fork, raising to one’s mouth each bite as it’s cut. The knife remains at the ready in the right hand. Our American family’s switching back and forth of knife and fork brought people clear across the hotel dining room to ask what part of the United States we were from. My own table manners were sorely tried in another way. The first time the waiter addressed my husband as Bwana, I spluttered my soup. There are times when a sense of humor can be a mixed blessing. Bwana! The word triggered childhood tales of Tarzan on my mental movie screen, and my husband really didn’t fit any image there. Hearing myself addressed as Memsahib also took a little getting used to. As for the children, Karen learned to respond to “Missy” and the boys to “Young Sir.” As he came to know us better, our friendly hotel waiter called our children by their first names. Jim plunged into his job right away. My first priority was getting the kids squared away in schools. In our straitened circumstances, that might prove difficult. My husband was on a pay scale geared to the British who got some form of help on school fees. We did too, but not enough from East African Airways for four children who wanted to continue American-style education. In Africa then, we were what I call freelance-type Americans. That is, we had no connection with a parent organization anywhere else. My husband was under direct contract to one particular African airline. This in contrast to being loaned or seconded from some other company, or employed by a large American firm on a technical-assistance contract. Consequently, school-fee assistance was minimal or nonexistent. And we lived off the local economy. There was no question that the whole situation beat unemployment back in the United States, and we were delighted to be there. The real question was how, under the circumstances, to best educate our four children. I did not feel competent to homeschool them. Looking for schools in Kenya reminded me of a few years earlier, when we moved to Puerto Rico. There we had to find schools with an English-speaking curriculum rather than Spanish. At that time the difficulty was more lack of space in the Puerto Rican schools than our lack of ability to pay. But four was a problem then too. We tried to get them into Catholic schools in largely Catholic Puerto Rico. I got used to the following scenario there. “Oh, I’m sure something can be arranged, Mrs. Beckwith. We like to think there is always room for one more. How many children do you have?” “Four, Sister.” That always brought a flustered gasp. And then, if not outright and immediate rejection, I sometimes got a, “Perhaps if you had just one or two.” I was sorely tempted to ask the good nuns if they were advocating birth control, but I could never quite muster the nerve. Schools were crowded when we arrived in Kenya too. The American, or International School, was the least so, but this didn’t seem to help us. It also had the highest tuition rate, perhaps the one fact accounting for the other. Roxanne obviously had to have our priority on American schooling. She was a senior in high school. We couldn’t fight it, there was no way she could switch educational systems at that point. It was bad enough that she had to change schools, though that was eased slightly by her knowing that the permanent closure of her stateside school would have caused her to transfer anyway for her senior year. However, a transfer halfway around the world was admittedly different than one halfway across town. I wasn’t totally happy with our decision allowing Roxanne to remain behind in Seattle those few months. It wasn’t a bad decision, but with the wisdom of hindsight, I feel a better one would have been for her to accompany us. Had she spent those three months in her Nairobi school, she would have made new friends with whom to share the summer and a sense of belonging. Without friends her own age, that summer in a new place, though interesting, was lonely for her when it needn’t have been. I also suspect her extra, unfilled time made the normal dread of fitting into a new school grow to more traumatic proportions than necessary. After an explanation of our finances, Nairobi International School allotted Roxanne a half-price hardship scholarship. It was aptly named. We found even the cut-rate price a hardship. Had our finances permitted, we might have contemplated boarding school for our children. This would have provided the continuity of schooling, and perhaps a certain stability that they missed with all our moving around. Boarding school was a way of life that seemed to work well for the overseas British. Though even with them, confusion could result. I knew one little British girl, on Home Leave from Kenya with her family, who was quite surprised to find England peopled with persons of all ages. Prior to that visit, she had thought England the exclusive preserve of school boarders, grandparents, and Her Majesty, the Queen.
As early as high school, Marilyn Beckwith was honored for her writing skills. She worked as a writer and editor for the National Iranian Television Network in Tehran. Over the course of her husband’s fifty-year aviation career, she lived in nine countries. They retired near Seattle, Washington, where she died in 2011.