After completing a three-year (1955-58) alternate-to-military service stint in Germany with the Mennonite Central Committee-sponsored PAX program, I was on my way home. It took the form of a road trip in my Volkswagen “beetle” from Espelkamp–the “refugee city” in northern Germany, to the sea port of Le Harve, France where the “beetle” was processed for shipping to the US, then an overnight venture by ferry to Harwich, England, on to London by train and from London by hitch-hiking to the British port city of Bournemouth where I boarded the ship from Le Harve for the ten-day onward voyage to New York where I was met by my father.
Some months prior to my departure from Germany, my father had lent me $1300 to buy a Volkswagen “beetle”. I had entertained this bit of vanity in part because of a general obsession with cars and partly because of the odd expectation that my siblings and youthful colleagues in Illinois would be impressed by a slightly larger-than-pocket-size souvenir from Germany. The purchase of a two-year old 1956 beige Volkswagen “beetle” had been facilitated by a member of Espelkamp’s Mennonite youth group whose brother managed a dealership in the not too distant city of Bremen.
Before the final ‘good-byes’ were said in Espelkamp, I had made two excursions with my “beetle”. One was a farewell sprint southward to youth-group friends in the Mennoniten Siedlung (Mennonite Settlement) in the Sachsenweiler suburb of Backnang, some 30 kilometers from the south German city of Stuttgart. There for a period of more than one and a half years I had participated in the construction of houses for Mennonite refugees who had come from the “east” in the waning days of World War II. Sachsenweiler had been my introduction to Germany, to the south German Schwaebisch dialect similar to my own Pennsylvania Dutch, to war stories from Mennonite refugee friends, and to the ravages of history.
A second excursion was pointed north-northeast from Espelkamp in the company of two friends from the Espelkamp Mennonite youth group. Our youthful excursion took us past medieval “fachwerk” farmsteads in lonely rural areas, through vast expanses of heather in the region approaching the North Sea. We stayed overnight in youth hostels and once or twice in open camp grounds. At one memorable moment we drove up to the East German border, fronted by a huge sign indicating its history and circumstance. Parents of my fellow travelers had fled to West Germany from regions far to the east of this border. They lived now in houses built by PAX boys. How long would this border reality serve as a post-war configuration?
Many years later (1990), only months after the East German border had been removed, my wife Annetta, our oldest son Keith and I motored from Brussels, Belgium to Berlin, Germany. As we crossed what had been the fenced and, in sections, the walled border strip stretching to the northern and southern horizons, we were reminded of the follies of hostile human initiative and its physical consequences .
For the home-bound section of travel from Espelkamp to Bournemouth, I had sensed a strong need to travel completely on my own, for reasons which I can no longer recall. Except for the necessary formalities at the Le Harve seaport and several pre-arranged overnights with a family living in Wilton near Britain’s famous Stone Henge monument, every other aspect of this brief venture in Britain was unplanned, open-ended.
After disembarking from the overnight Le Harve, France-to-Harwich, England-ferry-trip, I was making my way toward the train station when a tall African American man approached me and asked in kindly fashion; “Are you headed for London?” After my answer in the affirmative, he offered: “Can I show you around; I am well acquainted with the city?” My answer again was in the affirmative; an unexpected question and an equally spur-of-the-moment answer.
After boarding the train together, the gentleman began to recount his past experience in London. After his birth and early childhood in the United States, his mother had determined that the country’s racially segregated education system was inappropriate for her children. So she packed up her children together with necessary belongings and moved to Britain. There he and his siblings attended school, grew to adulthood and variously married. As an adult, my friend found his way back to the US where he landed a job within the New York harbor area in the import/export sector. At the time of our encounter he was retired, retracing some of his childhood trails and visiting siblings who had married and settled in Britain.
True to his word, my newly-found guide to London showed me around the big city, paid for my ‘teas’ and ‘tubes’ (underground railway) and took me to the home of his sister for overnight lodging. There I became acquainted with family members, some of them clearly of African American and others of Caucasian British origins. Their careers and life stories reflected, in many ways, readily recognizable North Atlantic middle class trajectories. Except for one striking feature. My guide explained in considerable detail that he was an adherent of the Muslim faith and that his family’s Muslim-African ancestors had been subjected to the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
During the several days we spent together exploring London, I kept wondering just why he was extending such generosity toward me. When his comments regarding his religious commitment and its origins reached my ears, there were no ready slots within which to lodge or to digest what seemed to be highly unlikely information. We corresponded for some years after this unexpected encounter, but did not touch any further on the religious theme.
To this day I try to comprehend why a tall African American gentleman, of Muslim-African faith, would choose to bestow random generosity onto a youthful Mennonite Christian stranger, like myself. I could not have imagined at the time that 50 years of my adulthood would be lived out on the African continent where wanton generosity crossed my path repeatedly and where the Islamic faith was much in evidence.
In the reception area of the New York harbor I was embraced by my father who had made a special trip from Arthur, Illinois to welcome and accompany me on the road trip to our home. Along the way there was an overnight stay on my Amish aunt’s farm near Middlebury, Indiana. My “beetle” was parked, for the night, in one of the farm buildings. On the following morning the “beetle’s” battery was too weak to ignite the engine. So my Amish uncle harnessed up his team of horses and towed the “beetle” into a “kick start”. That little episode had the effect of removing some of the shine off my “beetle”. Between Indiana and Illinois, the weather was cold; I discovered that the heating system of the “beetle” was severely deficient. Another dent in my German souvenir.
Upon arrival in Illinois, I quickly discovered that mine was one of the very first “beetles” to appear in the community. I learned as well that it was considered to be only slightly more than a pocket-size souvenir from Germany, not really to be considered as a car. I was warned, furthermore, that such mini pretend vehicles tended to get sucked into the exhaust systems of real cars!
Months later, I made my way to Harrisonburg, Virginia in the “beetle”, for purposes of embarking on a four-year academic venture at Eastern Mennonite College/University. In addition to my packet of clothing and toiletries, the “beetle” was carrying the hand tools associated with the drywall trade. I was prepared to embrace a full schedule of courses at the College, interspersed with drywall jobs to cover the annual tuition costs.
In addition to earning a BA in History at Eastern Mennonite College, I met the wonderful lady who agreed to become my wife. Beyond the substantive values and aspirations that brought us together, there was the subliminal factor of the mini flower vase mounted on the dash of the “beetle”. The scent and sight of a fresh rose on our dates was delightful.
After several years of marriage and teaching at Eastern Mennonite High School, Annetta declared: “I want to go home.” She had been born and raised in the little village of Mugango on the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanganyika (Tanzania after 1964). After due processing, we moved in mid-1965 to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to take up our respective assignments. Thus began a 50-year sojourn on the African continent.
One day, many years after arrival in Tanzania, I was traveling on assignment from Liberia via Congo, Brazzaville to Nairobi, Kenya where we lived at the time. In Brazzaville there was a day-long layover before the evening departure by air to Nairobi. So rather than sitting in the airport waiting room all day, I made my way into the city center by public transport and then walked to the shore of the River Congo, in full flood at the time. Kinshasa, the capital city of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo could be spotted on the far horizon. I stood on the riverbank mesmerized by the astonishing vista.
Suddenly my reverie was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder. When I turned to see who was touching me, my eyes met a young man who asked: “Are you ok? Do you need any assistance?” My reply: “I am just fine, I am a one-day tourist enjoying your city and this beautiful river.” Apparently satisfied with that answer, he left.
Later I was again tapped on the shoulder by the same young man, but this time he said: “The gentleman sitting in the car over there wants to talk with you.” As I sauntered over to the gentleman in the Peugeot car, I noticed that he was dressed as a policeman, in full uniform. My mind raced quickly in search of any offence that I might have committed. The man greeted me with a friendly hello and asked: “Are you ok; do you need assistance of any kind?” Again I replied: “I am just fine, I am a one-day tourist enjoying your city and this beautiful river.” Then he responded: “Can I show you around town?” “I would be delighted,” I replied.
The uniformed policeman then took me on a tour of the city of Brazzaville, explaining the sights and sounds, all in excellent English [in a French-speaking city]. After an extensive circuit through the inner city, including a state house drive-by, he invited me to lunch at his house in the suburbs, served by his fine-spirited Romanian wife. After lunch he returned me in his car to the point on the Congo River where we first met. With a friendly farewell wave he said: “Have a good day in our city.”
Over the intervening years, those two gestures of random unsolicited and totally unanticipated generosity, offered respectively in London and Brazzaville, have returned again and again in my memory. Indeed, they seem to become more poignant with each recall. With those gestures, the two gentlemen, separated by geography and history, exercised the loftiest of human values; a welcome and an acknowledgment of the stranger, of “the other” on the periphery.