The first installment of the 3 submissions I made to the writing class on Memoirs and Travel Writing — unedited
It was June, 1970, I had just graduated from university, and I was standing in the living room of my grandparents’ house on our family farm in Iowa. My grandfather asked me what I was going to do now I had finished school. I told him I was going to teach school in inner city Washington, D.C., and volunteer with the Institute of Cultural Affairs, an organization that was doing church renewal and community development. I was going to make a difference in the world. My grandfather, who had lived nearly 90 years in the house where he was born, was skeptical.
“Jo, you can’t change the world by yourself!” he admonished.
“I know, Grandpa. That is why I am joining a group that is doing it.”
Grandpa was not impressed but he let it go.
I didn’t know at the time where my naivité and chutzpah would take me, or what I would learn from the attempt to make a difference.
In 1976, our colleague Fred Buss asked my husband Wayne and I to join a team that was starting a new human development project in Egypt. Since we had both grown up on farms, we had a lot of practical skills, and we were eager to contribute and see the world, so we accepted the invitation.
The first challenge was that we had a 14-month-old son, Aaron. We had no place to stay yet in Egypt, and the village that we were going to did not have clean water or electricity, so it was clear that we could not take an infant with us. When we were successful in getting clean water and a safe place to live, we could send for him. We found a colleague that we trusted deeply, and she agreed to take him for an undetermined period of time. We put him on a plane in Chicago with another colleague, who took him to Houston to Jill and her husband. As we sat in the airport restaurant, my heart was breaking, but I was also excited about the impending assignment. After all, we were going to make a better world for our son to grow up in, weren’t we? Little did I know that we would gain at least as much as we could give.
I remember very little about the first few days in Egypt. We arrived in the evening. The airport was full of Egyptian soldiers in white cotton uniforms, carrying machine guns, as there were tensions with Israel and Sudan, and some kind of incident had happened a few days before we arrived. By the time we left the airport, it was dark. The long road into Cairo proper was lined with little shops with bright strings of coloured lights and hundreds of people milling about happily. We did not understand then, but was the beginning of Ramadan, and people were out breaking the fast.
Our colleagues greeted us at the tiny dark Windsor hotel in central Cairo that had begun a hundred years before as the British Officers’ Club. Within a few days, we had moved to Bayad.
Bayad was a small village on the east bank of the Nile, in Beni Suef governate. As Salah drove us down the main west bank road, we stared at the mud-brick villages, the green of one tiny irrigated field after another along the canals, the donkeys pulling handmade plows followed by farmers in turbans and long flowing gowns, women swaying gracefully with large clay jars balanced on their heads, and naked little boys diving into the irrigation ditches.
The Coptic Church had invited us to Egypt to do participatory development in a village that was so close to half Coptic and half Muslim that both sides claimed a majority. While we waited for the final government permissions to be in the village, we lived in an ancient Coptic monastery retreat centre on the edge of the Nile, just outside of Bayad. To get there from Beni Suef on the west bank, we took a felucca, an ancient sailboat, across the Nile. When the wind was calm, the passengers all took up oars and rowed the boat against the strong current.
Once we had permission, we began visiting in the village. The homes were mostly made of mud bricks, but a few were made with white limestone blocks from the nearby quarry owned by the Coptic Church – a rarity in rural Egypt. Just inside the front door of each home was a main room for visitors with a mud mastaba or step, for sitting or sleeping. Those who could afford it covered the mastaba with a quilt and pillows. A faded and dusty photo or poster on the wall gave a clue to the identity of the family – a picture of the Virgin Mary signaled a Coptic family, while elegant Arabic calligraphy meant a Muslim family. Farther inside was the kitchen area, which was off-limits to men not of the family. Even farther back was the stable, which might hold a cow, or chickens, or a water buffalo. This room also served as the indoor bathroom, since there was no plumbing.
Each time we visited a house, we were made to sit and drink tea. “Shrop chai?” was the common invitation – “drink tea?” A small kerosene stove would be brought into the room, along with a small saucepan filled with water. As the water began to boil, the host, usually a man, measured loose black tea generously into the water. He added much sugar, and the mixture boiled vigourously for a while. Then he cooled the tea by pouring it back and forth between the pot and a glass until it had cooled enough to pour it into small glasses and hand it out. Often there were not enough glasses to go around, so the first person would gulp down tea at the risk of seriously burning their mouth so that the next person could have some. I was told that to refuse tea would be an insult. I didn’t really understand this well until one day Ragia and I were visiting a family to talk to them about the project, and the woman of the family went in and out of the house several times as she was preparing to make tea. Ragia told me quietly in English that she was so poor that she did not even own a stove, so she had to borrow the stove, the pot, the tea, and the sugar in order to make us tea. Of course, we drank the tea with deep gratitude for the hospitality.