Immigrant Stories: Life-changing experiences in Africa
Immigrant Stories by Walter Gallacher appears on the fourth Tuesday of the month. Gallacher is a photojournalist and an independent radio producer. Anyone with an immigrant story to tell about themselves or relatives is invited to email firstname.lastname@example.org. To read past Immigrant Stories, go to www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.”
Intro: Annie Stephens is an executive administrative assistant for Colorado Mountain College. She shared this story with Walter Gallacher’s Immigrant Stories.
Stephens: I grew up in London. My dad was a “docker” who worked loading and unloading ships. Mom stayed home with me. My grandfather was head groomsman at Leeds Castle in Kent. So summertimes, Christmas and all of my school vacations were spent on the grounds of an English Castle.
We got to eat in the banquet halls where Henry VIII once ate. I felt like I was living a fairy tale when I was there.
Gallacher: Our reference is “Downton Abbey.” Did it feel like that?
Stephens: Absolutely. My grandfather was given the position of head groom in 1927 when he went to work for Sir Adrian and Lady Baillie. He took care of their stables and taught all of the their family how to ride. Sir Adrian and Lady Baillie cared for my grandfather and his family in the same way that the people in “Downton Abbey” cared for their staff.
My grandparents lived on the estate until they died in their 90s.
Gallacher: How did you make your way to the United States?
Stephens: Well, in 1983, I was 30 and living in London. I was feeling called to go out to Africa and work for a Christian mission. It was at that time that some friends from my church introduced me to Randy Stephens, an American pilot who was on his way to Africa to fly for Mission Aviation Fellowship.
We met for five hours and I don’t really know what happened during that time, I just know that at the end of it I was in love and he was off to Lesotho* in Africa.
Gallacher: Tell me how that happened?
Stephens: I don’t know. We met at this couple’s house and talked, and then we all went out to a pub for a drink. That was it. I think we were both on a similar course in our lives. We were both 30, and we were both Christians and felt called by God to Mission Aviation Fellowship, a small airline with about 300 aircraft around the world that helps with food aid and medical needs in underdeveloped countries.
But I don’t know what happened really. I went home at the end of that evening feeling like my life had been turned upside down. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I lost eight pounds in the first week after he left. I knew that I was truly in love.
Gallacher: Did you get the sense that he was as well?
Stephens: I had no idea because there was nothing said that evening that reassured me. He did ask me to write to him and let him know if I decided to go to Africa. But that was it.
However, a few days later I met the couple that had introduced us and they told me that he came back to their house afterwards and said, “Great, here I am going off to Africa and you’ve just introduced me to this gorgeous redhead.” They assured me that I wasn’t alone in my feelings.
So over the next few months we wrote to one another and talked on the phone, and it became clear to me that I needed to go to Africa for a couple of months. I can remember the next call that came from Randy. My heart was nearly beating out of my chest because my pastor had told me that I needed to ask Randy where he thought our relationship was going before I made any plans.
Randy told me, “From the first night that we met one another I have known that I want you to be my wife.” Not long after that I went to Africa for 10 weeks, and three weeks into my stay he proposed to me. Seven months after we met we were married, and we flew back to Lesotho.
Gallacher: Was it easy for you to leave London for life in Africa?
Stephens: Well, the 10 weeks that I spent there was like a fairy tale, so arriving as a married couple was a little daunting. I went through a huge culture shock. It helped that the church workers were from all over the world and had all left their countries to come to Africa. That was something we all shared, and it created a special community that was very supportive.
Lesotho was a very small country completely surrounded by South Africa. Apartheid had made the people of Lesotho resentful and suspicious of white people. Living there taught me a valuable lesson because it was the first time in my life, as a white person, that I had been treated as if I were not welcome.
I got a chance to experience just how destructive apartheid can be. I hope that experience made me more compassionate and understanding.
Gallacher: How long did you stay in Lesotho?
Stephens: We were there a little over eight years. While we were there we had our two sons, Michael and David. When we left Lesotho, Michael was 3 and David was 5 months.
We came back to the U.S. because we were starting to think about the future for our sons. When you work as a missionary you aren’t doing it for the money. It wasn’t the best time to return, though. Pan Am and a few other airlines had gone under, and nobody was hiring pilots. So in 1994, after three years in the States, we decided to go back to Africa and this time to Kenya.
We lived in Nairobi, which was a big sprawling city. Not long after we got there the genocide in Rwanda happened. Randy was actually flying over Rwanda and saw the thousands of dead bodies and crowds of people fleeing. I remember asking him recently if he wanted to watch the movie, Hotel Rwanda. He said, “I don’t need to watch it, I saw it for myself.”
I got involved with an orphanage outside of Nairobi, and we would take the boys on our visits. We would gather food and toys and take them to the kids. Many of these children were desperately poor and starving. As a mother and a human being that experience touched me to my core.
The whole Africa experience has changed the way I see the world. Africa taught me to be grateful when I turn on my faucet at night or open my refrigerator or when I stand in line at our supermarket.
Gallacher: It sounds like Africa changed your life.
Stephens: It has. Toward the end of our eight years in Kenya we went to the coast for a vacation, and while we were there Michael, who was 11 at the time, caught malaria. Three weeks later he died.
The grief of losing Michael was horrendous. After his death we came back to the U.S. for about six weeks. We stopped in England along the way to pick up my mother. And then, together with Randy’s family and the congregations that had sent us out to Africa, we grieved. It was a hard time.
Gallacher: I can’t imagine your pain. It’s a parent’s worst fear.
Stephens: The pain of that first year was a difficult journey. Now, 15 years later, I can say that Michael’s death taught me to celebrate his life and the life of our other son, David.
When Michael died I realized I needed to know what Randy was thinking. He is very quiet, and I needed to know how he was dealing with the loss of Michael. And I needed to help our son, David, talk about the loss of his older brother.
So I created something I call “Memories” [www.MemoriestheGift.com]. I found a little box and bought some index cards, and on each card I wrote a question. And each question had something to do with Michael, everything from the “funnest” of days to the most difficult. There were questions about how we were coping with our loss and questions about Michael’s legacy.
We used these questions with the grandparents and with our family, and it was amazing. It was like bringing together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. We had all experienced Michael in a different way. It opened us up. It wasn’t fun, but it had a lightheartedness to it that allowed us to get this huge loss in our lives out from under the table and make it something we could share, something we could talk about.
I think this process helped our son David see how the adults were grieving. Often, when we were sitting together, David would ask to play the “Memories of Michael” game.
Gallacher: It must have been so painful at the start.
Stephens: It was, but it was so healing. I think there is nothing worse in grief than having it locked inside of you. The day Michael died I remember making two choices. I resolved to not let that day define who I was. It would change me forever as a mother, a wife, a human being, but I wasn’t going to allow it to make me bitter.
And I vowed to celebrate Michael’s life. Even though it was only 11 and a half years, I was going to choose to celebrate that. I would mourn that I didn’t have more but I would celebrate those short years and the life of the son we still had.
*Lesotho, officially the Kingdom of Lesotho, is a landlocked country in southern Africa completely surrounded by South Africa. About 40 percent of the population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day.
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