Harry, Roy Ellsworth (father), Roy David (me), Ruth Marie, and Ruth Shaffer (mother), 1925, Kenya

CHAPTER I Childhood in Kenya (1925-42)


My childhood was shaped by a variety of influences. My parents were evangelicals (in the 1920’s sense of the word), and that evangelical motivation brought them as missionaries to Kenya, then a classic colony within the British Empire. I was born in 1925 in Kenya. A mission station at that time was commonly comprised of one missionary family living in proximity to a local population and living in harmony with that population. My life at Syabei and then Lasit mission stations was of that nature. In those days home-schooling and local schooling was not considered practicable for missionary kids. Hence the need for boarding schools. Rift Valley Academy (RVA) and Westervelt Home were examples. Each of these contexts (evangelical, colonial, mission, boarding school) has changed over the decades, and those changes are reflected in my personal life experiences. My future wife, Mary Elizabeth Lane will be introduced in Chapter 2 under Lanes.


  1. Shaffer family background
  2. Birth, and childhood at Syabei
  3. Youth at Lasit
  4. Grade schooling at Rift Valley Academy.
  5. High Schooling at Westervelt Home
My father Roy Ellsworth Shaffer, World War I, 1916
  1. Shaffer family background

My father Roy Ellsworth Shaffer (RES) was son of poor farmers in West Virginia. He had minimal schooling but much drive. He was an itinerant preacher before enlisting in the Army in World War I. He served in France as a chaplain’s assistant. After discharge he enrolled at Moody Bible Institute (MBI). While working in the kitchen there he met Ruth Hale Thiers whose background was in Oklahoma. They fell in love, were married and felt a call to be missionaries to Africa under Africa Inland Mission (AIM). They were assigned to the Maasai tribe, to be stationed at Syabei, near Narok. Their first home was a one-room house of mud-and-wattle walls and iron roof. They later built a cedar log house with three rooms and a detached external kitchen. After ten years they moved to Lasit near Loitokitok on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. Here, their home was made of mud and wattle walls, cow-dung floor and a grass roof.

  1. Birth, and childhood at Syabei
Roy David Shaffer, 1925

I was born at Kijabe on 9 February 1925. When I was two weeks old we moved back to Syabei. One mode of transport was a Harley Davidson motorcycle with wicker side car. The spacing of the three wheels did not conform to the spacing of motor car tracks, so the ride was bumpy. Prior to this my parents had used a 4-wheel cart pulled by two mules which they called a “mule-o-bus”. Our first home was the “stick house”.

Our first vehicle
The Mule-o-bus fabricated by my father (RES)
Dad (RES) returning nurse Bessie Stevenson to RVA in his Harley Davidson with wicker sidecar
“The Stick House” Our first home in Africa. World War 1 stove


1930s view of our Syabei log cabin built by Dad in the ’20s

I have few specific memories of my pre-school years at Syabei. But the overall recollection is that of tranquility, closeness of family and good fellowship within the missionary family.

Life in our log cabin was simple. The floors were hand-adzed cedar, walls were of papyrus matting, ceilings of cotton cloth and the roof of cedar shingles. We had a large fireplace which took the chill off the nights (at 5,000’). Chair and couch frames were of shaped vines with seats of kongoni (Hartebeest) hide. Cooking was done in a room separate from the log cabin.

Water came in a half-inch galvanized pipe, pumped up from a spring in a valley near the house. The water was pumped by a simple hydraulic (water-powered) “ram”. This machine, requiring no fuel energy input and ran almost flawlessly for many decades.

Appropriate Technology

That ram was a classic example of technology that was truly appropriate, i.e. it matched the actual local needs with the actual local resources available. In the 1980s the UN sponsored a celebration of “Appropriate Technology”. Some of the projects presented were actually inappropriate technology in that they were not based on actual local needs or resources. For example, baby weighing scales which required batteries.

Shaffer family transport, Ford Model A

“Hooting” (horn-blowing) on arrival home from RVA

Our home at Syabei was a cedar log cabin sited on a promontory overlooking the Syabei river. When coming from Kijabe one had to cross the river to gain access to the promontory on which the station sat. At vacation time, when dad brought us home from RVA we would approach that crossing with horn blowing and loud shouting to announce our arrival. It was an emotional high to be “home-sweet-home”. That is not to infer that we felt liberated from a tyrannical RVA. No. In my mind and heart RVA and home were complementary. I was spared the anguish of some MKs in later generations who either suffered or were influenced to believe in an oppressive environment at RVA.

Main Highway

Fifty years later the main road from Nairobi to Narok was re-aligned to pass immediately below our house at Syabei. Hundreds of tourist kombis now pass daily en route to the now-famous Maasai-Mara Game Park.

Roy, mid-1930s


We went to US on furlough in 1930­ and 1936. We traveled “steerage” across the Atlantic. The accommodations, next to the ship’s steering machinery, were cramped and noisy. The noise was from the rudder mechanism constantly at play.

In 1936 we were transiting the Mediterranean on a German ship. This was during the Spanish Civil War. At a port of call in the Balearics tension among the German passengers was palpable. Only later did I understand how the Spanish civil war was a stage for confrontation between Fascist (Nazi) and Communist ideologies and politics. It presaged Syria 2017.

Years later (’49) again on a transatlantic run, we were in the front end of the ocean liner. We were right up against the mechanism which tried to reduce the side-to-side roll of the ship by extending “fins” into the water. These heavy devices made as much noise as did the “steerage” mechanism on earlier ships. I recall little of the first furlough (1930). We seemed to do a lot of traveling within US as our parents spoke to various supporting groups. I recall a session at Moody Church office when Pastor Harry Ironside dedicated my younger sister Grace.

US Politics

The 1936-7 furlough was more interesting as I was now 11 years old. I was staying at Christs Home (for the elderly). I was fascinated by the US presidential election, pitting FDR against Alf Landon. Two “old codger” residents, one a Democrat and one a Republican were highly political and at war with each other. Every evening they sat in front of the old style radio with its many knobs/dials and a large trumpet speaker listening to speeches. It was acrimonious but not nearly as debased as the debates of 2016. That 1936 scene left me hooked on politics.


My parents were evangelicals and thus the movies had no place in our lives. But I did get a taste. I was staying with my Uncle Jack and his wife Cordy while the folks traveled. One afternoon Cordy took me to a movie titled “The Devil is a Sissy”. She figured the supposedly high moral tone of the movie made up for my illicit attendance. I don’t recall that my folks ever knew of my attendance and I have no recall of the content of the movie!

Bow waves on SS West Cawthon, South Atlantic, 1937

Ship across the South Atlantic

En route back to Africa in 1937 we took passage on a freighter, The SS West Cawthon which also took twelve passengers (mostly missionaries). For them this six weeks on a boat was the only really restful part of their 5-yearly “furlough”. I enjoyed the trip because I was allowed to hang out with the sailors, doing routine maintenance work such as chipping paint and fixing hatches. The ship stopped at five ports around the southeast African coast exchanging cargos. So we got to visit Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London, Durban, Beira and Lourenco Marques (later Maputo).

3. Youth at Lasit

Roy and Ruth’s camp where they later built Lasit mission station in ‘30s. “Lasit” trees with Mt. Kilimanjaro in background.
Maasai women building the house. Dung, mud, and wattle trees.
Completed house at Lasit
Lasit home with Mawenzi and Kibo (Kilimanjaro peaks) in background. Left to right L.H. Downing, John Stauffacher,Roy (RES) w/2 kids, Grace, visiting couple, and Ruth (my mother)

In the mid-30s at Kajiado, my Dad was preaching from his lorry. A visiting Maasai Chief, ole Kulale, came up afterward and issued a “Macedonian call” to Loitokitok. Thereafter my parents moved their residence from Syabei, near Narok to Lasit, near Loitokitok on the northeastern slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. At Lasit their new house walls were of mud-and-wattle, the roof of grass thatch and the floors of smoothed cow dung. The house was shaded by several large acacia (genus) Olasiti trees. Dozens of weaver birds formed a noisy community in those trees. One hundred yards below the house was a natural spring and below that Dad built a dam. A hydraulic ram pumped water up to a 2,000 gallon elevated tank by the house. My parents were the first ever resident “Christian witness” in that area. We had cordial relations with the Maasai community there and especially with chief ole Kulale. The government agent at Loitokitok (6 miles up the mountain) was L.E. Whitehouse. Many years later he was the “jailor’ to Jomo Kenyatta at Lodwar.

At Loitokitok there were a few Indian dukas where we could procure sugar, salt and petrol. We also had occasional social contact with the duka owners.

I enjoyed a bit of bird hunting with a .22 and general rambling in the surroundings. Maasai kraals were a mile or two apart. Otherwise there was no human habitation or farming. It was not uncommon
to see elephant wandering in the area or hear lion roaring at night. Decades later the nearby Amboseli area became a National Game Park.

On the way to train to get to RVA. Note Harry’s cello strapped onto Model T
  1. Grade Schooling at RVA (Rift Valley Academy).
Rift Valley Academy (RVA)

RVA had been established at Kijabe by Charles Hurlburt, head of Africa Inland Mission. The founding teacher was Josephine Hope Westervelt. She had been trained in the Montessori School pedagogy. The corner stone for the main building Kiambogo was laid by ex-President Teddy Roosevelt in 1907 whilst on a hunting expedition in E.A. The school is well written up in “School in the Clouds” by Phil Dow.

Cover of book on RVA by Phil Dow. Teddy Roosevelt on left.
RVA student body 1930

 About 1931 when I was six, I started attending RVA. Since my older brother and sister were already there I had little difficulty adjusting. It felt like extended family. In the ‘70s there emerged  among some MKs (“missionary kids”) a wave of paranoia and sense of victimhood over their psychological status as a result of being sent away from home at a young age. I was spared that feeling completely.

Sub-Topics below (under Note #4 Schooling at RVA): a. Staff; b. Family life; c. Meals; d. Health; e. Outings; f. Music; g. Sports; h. Personal.

a. RVA Staff

Miss Muriel Perrott

I recall Miss Perrott only as a figurehead of great authority and respect. I doubt that she ever spoke to me personally. But I’ve always had the impression that she left a good and solid imprint on the academic character of the school. I have positive recollections of things like emphasis upon penmanship, study-hall, morning grooming inspections, friendly competition between houses, and a general sense of esprit-de-corps.

 McKenrick piano practice

Mrs. Betty McKendrick was a piano teacher. On regular nights she would gather all of us (15+) around the ping-pong table for finger-practice. In unison we would go through various exercises – soundlessly except for the tap of fingers on the cedar boards. I don’t recall getting to practice on an actual piano till later.

Esther Ford (later Andersen) teacher

Esther was one of my earliest teachers. She was very caring and I was very careless about behavior. She never disciplined me with a strap or hand-paddle, but her admonitions, set in spiritual terms were more impressive than a strap.

Bessie Stevenson, nurse

She was short, lively, friendly, firm and accomplishful. I believe one of the wards at Kijabe Hospital is named for her.

The Downings (Herb and Mildred)

He Downings seemed so “fresh”, in contrast to the home-makers Farnsworths and McKendricks who were approaching retirement. Downings seemed like “Renaissance” people, though that attribute would likely have been pejorative in AIM circles! In today’s jargon we would say they could “think outside-the-box”.

Herb’s innovations:


Late one evening, after bed-time we were aroused by a deafening din back and forth downstairs. Herb had arrived from Nairobi with a set of drums. This a very dramatic “overture” for them before the whole school. They added a lot of accent to the orchestra and later band. He knew how to use drums to COMPLEMENT other instruments. To my ears that touch is lost today. Herb set in motion an emphasis upon instrumental music which reached its peak later under the baton of beloved Jim Hollenbeck. Jim was a living example of the movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus”.

 Performance stage

Herb’s proclivity for fostering art in all forms led him to build a stage in the main classroom. It was a very big deal in those days. It probably cost upwards of fifty dollars! . The stage greatly facilitated all future performing arts at RVA.


Mildred was a strict-but-caring teacher. One felt that behind her straight face there lurked a smile more often than there lurked a frown. Her affect was very steady, no evidences of exasperation or despair over a poor student. Her lessons on geography opened my mind and imagination in a special way.


Herb was a great raconteur of both stories and accounts of his own broad practical experience. In the latter he always played down his own role. His ego needed no external reinforcement. To me, he was always his real self. It came as a shock to me decades later to read in “School in the Clouds” of the sadly murky circumstances surrounding his departure from his post as Headmaster of RVA. We were in Africa at the time but were oblivious to the goings-on at School Board and Field Council level.

 The Lehrers (1936)

I have no specific recollections of Lehrer’s first days. They just “arrived”, quietly, and seemed to fit in gently and smoothly. “Pa” Lehrer was extremely gentle, sometimes to the point of paralysis when it came to discipline or decision. I believe they had worked in an orphanage in Kentucky before coming to RVA. I often wondered how they would have handled their own children. On matters of puberty, Pa did not “connect” with my own mind or imagination. But, nobody had a more caring spirit and he earned our great respect.

“Ma” Lehrer was of above-average build so seemed to tichies a bit intimidating. Her personality was a bit austere or judgmental, though in my mind not harsh. She was much more generous with “black-marks” than was “Pa”. I don’t recall “praise” coming commonly from her lips. I have no idea to what extent she could relate to or counsel pubescent girls. But as a couple the Lehrers were, in my mind a great blessing to RVA.

Devitts: Welles (“Bwana Jambo”) and Edith                   

Welles was in charge of the Industrial School for Kenyans. but spent much of his spare time helping at RVA. I admired his great friendliness and tendency to treat kids as full persons. I think Pa Lehrer once encouraged him to risk taking me out on a lorry logging expedition just, to give me a chance to be “useful” for a change. Wells mentored numerous young Kenyans into jobs on the station. One, Peter Gitau ended up owning his own lorry. His younger brother Solomon (?) would have been my age-mate. Twenty years later Solomon and I served together on a team doing night-watch duty during Mau Mau times.

Edith taught at RVA before and after their marriage. My memories of her teaching are vaguely positive. As I was pre-pubertal their marriage left no imprint upon my memory. In later years their daughter Helen was a student of ours at RVA. When I was accepted to medical school she and her friend Lois Teasdale made a toy model of a classic doctor’s bag. They presented it to me at a science class. I was deeply moved. Edith Devitt after retirement wrote an autobiography “On the Edge of the Rift”.

b. RVA Family life

Devotions as family

Every night the students gathered in the girls’ living room for devotions. This was what most families did at home. I recall the sessions as being short enough and simple enough to be comfortable to a 6-9 year old. I don’t recall them as “brain-washing” sessions. Singing was an important feature which I enjoyed. We did not need the enhancement of instruments or electronics. We gradually learned to sing in the four-part harmony which is so absent in today’s “contemporary” worship.

Games night              

A wide porch which ran the full length of the main building, “Kiambogo”. From it one could enjoy the grand vista of the Great Rift Valley below. It was the main social venue for the school. On Saturday evenings we played exciting competitive running games up and down it. As we got older the focus of the recreation tended to wander towards inter-gender interests. Dating was of course unheard of, but there were a few romances. As I entered adolescence I thought I was sweet on a girl named Lucille Andersen, though she may have been oblivious to my feelings. Some Saturday nights we played parlor games – both mental and physical. They were just plain FUN. The fun did not depend upon devices or smart talk. There was reciprocity of involvement between all ages.

 RVA “Broadcaster”

Radio Broadcasting was in its infancy and seen as far-out technology. So the first school Annual was called the “RVA Broadcaster”. The first issue included a poem of mine commenting upon my enjoyment of playing in the mud.

 RVA Student Semantics (some may have a Latin derivation)

filyies –girls

bags – for boys’shorts

tichies –little kids

swot – study/homework

gudgi – the outdoor latrine. (Name derived from”ngiti gaji”, Maa for little house)

dibs – a prior right to something

six-of-the-best – a British term for corporal punishment by six swats with a cane

snot-rag – handkerchief

Orchard snitches and apricot tree (immortal)

Mr Lawson Propst grew vegetables and fruit and shipped them around East Africa by rail in long bamboo-strip baskets. The orchard was on the slope between RVA and the forest edge. We sometimes sneaked in there to steal big blue succulent figs and peaches. A pair of apricot trees near Kiambogo seemed immortal. They were productive in my early days (‘30s) and are still there alive in the ‘90s.


Herb and Mildred had a very balanced approach to youth. They were good at balancing privilege with responsibility, and the idea that self-esteem is earned. The “mutton-guzzle” was just a barbeque celebrating objective, positive accomplishments in student-hood. Poor performance earned you “black-marks”. No one questioned their value or importance. They were a wry radar on real life. They told you where you stood. I laugh to think of what today’s child guidance experts would think of them. I wonder if the later removal of “black-marks” system might have contributed to the ambiguous feelings of later RVA-ites as reflected in the novel “The Happy Room”.

c. Meals

Pre-meal inspection We lined up on the porch for physical inspection of hands and face.I was often sent back to the bathroom.

Dik-dik pot pie

A favorite dish was Dik-dik pot pie. The crust was supported in the middle by an egg cup. There was no lack of Dik-diks in the forest.

crumb trays

A carry-over from Victorian days was the presence on each table of a silver crumb-tray and brush. I don’t recall who used it. The crumb tray was used like a dust-pan.

 napkins n rings

Each student had a napkin ring made of a segment of bamboo or animal horn.

food as at home

My recollection is that the food resembled what we had at home i.e. very simple and mostly home-grown. Breakfast was “posho” or cornmeal mush. Fresh meat was episodic, depending upon the hunt. I doubt that they could afford to purchase beef very often. The most common dessert was tapioca pudding. Fruit was mainly bananas from local suppliers at the kitchen door.

d. Health.

Health was seldom an issue. I think the student body were an unusually healthy cohort of human beings.

Cod liver oil

For a short time we each got a spoon-full of cod liver oil daily. This was welcome because the oil was mixed in a sweet tasting malt . In retrospect I doubt that we needed it.

merthiolate in pharynx

For a brief time we had our throats painted with merthiolate once a week. I presume this was to ward off meningitis or other threat. I don’t know if the impetus came from Dr Davis (a homeopathic doctor) or someone else.

Dr Davis’ homeopathy pills

On the rare occasion when we were sent to the hospital we usually were treated by Dr Davis with a small box of sugar pills from his array of dozens of bottles of homeopathic medications.

Graham Reynolds’ death

An early room-mate, Graham Reynolds became sick, was sent up to Theodora Hospital and shortly died. I recall none of the details, only the great distress that shook the whole school.

Andersen’s death

Andrew Andersen was a powerful man known for his creativity and strength. He drove a charcoal-gas powered truck, he could lift a sack of maize and he promoted water-powered maize grinding mills in Kipsigis country. In retrospect I see him as having been A Renaissance Man, though most Africa Inland Missionaries (AIMers) might have been repelled by the concept. His daughter Lucille was a classmate.

When he died suddenly of a heart problem it shook the whole mission. His was the earliest funeral I can recall. In later years and generations our two families would be intertwined happily and interestingly in many ways in many places. In particular has been our closeness with Herbert “Dilly” Anderson and his wife Ruth. “Dilly” is a legend in AIM for his intuitive aptitude for truly appropriate technology.

e. RVA Outings

About once a term the whole school would pile into a lorry and go to some special place for the day. Favorites were the gorge (later called “Hell’s gate”), Lake Naivasha,

Mai Mahieu (the springs at the foot of the Rift wall) and Suswa volcano.. To minds un-stultified with TV and movies these outings were just plain fun. To modern sensation-addicted minds the outings would be rather “boring”. I really believe these simple expeditions yielded more joy of spirit and camaraderie than their expensive equivalent in today’s materialism-driven world.

Though the student body included some well into their teens there was little idea of dating as known today. But there were infatuations. Saturday evenings gave scope for open fun with the opposite sex in the form of organized games.

f. Music.

I was introduced to classical music by attendance at the Saturday evening record-playing sessions at Stauffacher’s house at Syabei. John Stauffacher, though an evangelical Christian, dearly loved opera. Since he was one of the most elder of AIM missionaries one did not boycott his soirees. But I assume there must have been some mental reservations in the minds of those few missionaries who were worldly enough to be aware of the lurid stories behind the operas we heard. For some, including my mother, it probably bordered on titilation.

When Herb Downing came to RVA he occasionally would break out into selections from opera, such as “O Sole Mio”. In orchestra he introduced us to Strauss and Mozart. He made my early violin practices more tolerable by using excerpts from their works.

Shaffer family string quartet in the bush. Harry,Roy,Mother,RuthMarie,Grace

When I first attended Mrs. Farnsworth taught everyone the rudiments of piano. Then in the later ‘30s Herb Downing initiated a vigorous, broad-spectrum music program. Under his very enthusiastic tutelage there emerged an orchestra and choir and related personal tutelage.

In the ‘20s my mother helped teach stringed instruments at RVA. In her youth she had  played semi-professionally in a family string quartette and later with the Evanston Symphony. She taught me, but it was not an easy task as I was rather lazy. The breakthrough came with a bicycle. Mother decreed that I could spend as many minutes learning to ride the bicycle as I did practicing on the violin.

I loved playing violin in the RVA orchestra. It often set my spirit soaring. To give the orchestra a better presentation Herb built a stage in the main classroom. This development was, in my mind equivalent to a Bill Gates Fund donation. It facilitated the liberation of many talents otherwise rather inhibited by the conservatism of the evangelical mission ethos.

In the ‘50s (see Chapter 6) came Jim and Vivian Hollenbeck, Jim was an experienced US high school band director. Following Herb’s musical mode Jim created a band that turned everyone on. He took the band to Nairobi numerous times to play in public events. He was a remarkably perfect model for the ‘90s movie ”Mr. Holland’s Opus”.

In the ‘70s teacher Don Fonseca (nicknamed “Psych” as he taught psychology)  further strengthened the choir and it became well known of in Kenya. They once performed for President Kenyatta at his home. Fonseca had “flair”. This was stimulating to students, but perturbed some adults.

 g. sports

Organized sports have always been an important part of life at RVA. When I first attended (when the principal was Miss Perott, a Brit.) we played cricket and rounders i.e. girls’ baseball. But tennis was the main sport. I enjoyed pulling the cement roller which kept the murram (red volcanic soil) tennis court surface flat.

In the ‘50s (see Chapter 6) we organized a “Field Day” in which every single student had a part to play in some sport or other. The main competition was between the two houses, Livingstone and Stanley as they vied for highest total points for the day.

The school was as yet too small for teams in the usual sense. But by the time our son Dan attended RVA (‘60s) it was becoming the premier rugby school team in the country. This pre-eminence was largely the product of the enthusiasm and coaching skills of two people, David Reynolds and later Colin Densham. In our teaching days (50s) Lois Danielson and her brother Willy were rather outstanding RVA athletes.

h. Personal

I had been almost put off of science in an experience with a car battery. I was washing it under a tap on the back side of Kiambogo. Someone older remarked that the acid might destroy the building. I was horrified at the possibility and felt momentarily like an inadvertent terrorist!

 Head smash

In my first year I had a hard encounter with a swing. A game was to run under a swing during the upwards part of its back and forth passage. I misjudged my timing and got hit by the descending swing board. My head was lacerated and bloody enough to resemble a scalping. I ran screaming for Mrs. Farnsworth, fearing I was going to die. Strange, because I doubt that I had ever thought of death before that. I was sent to the hospital where a dresser bandaged my head in a way that the dressing resembled a grandma’s bonnet or babushka. This earned me the detested nick-name “Gran”.

Darning socks

We had a weekly session for sock-darning. We would use a wooden ball (or old light bulb) as a mount for the sock. We darned by sewing and inter-weaving strands of wool. Once when I could not find a ball or bulb I used a round spool of wool to hold my sock steady. I failed to realize that in repair darning I was weaving my sock into the spool of wool.

KUR&H (Kenya Uganda Railways & Harbors) – logs and steam

Garret steam engine being refueled at Kijabe station, 1930s

I greatly enjoyed going down to the railway station to watch the giant (to me) Garratt steam engines hiss and blow back and forth as they took on water and wood. The wood was yard-long pieces of split eucalyptus logs grown in plantations below Kiambogo. The wood was stacked and then loaded by battalions of African stevadores carrying the wood on their shoulders. After WWII power for the engines shifted to diesel fuel.

i. Locusts

In the 1930s  Kenya was overrun by swarms of locusts arriving from their breeding grounds in Somalia. The swarms could be so thick as o darken the sky as much as a partial eclipse. When a swarm landed upon a maize field at its peak of leafy green, within a few hours there would be nothing left but brown stalks. A swarm could be thick enough to break a branch upon which the swarm roosted. My parents in desperation covered their lettuce plants with mosquito netting. But the locusts still found ways to get at the green leaves. The government tried many measures to combat his existential threat. The railroad ran along Kijabe’s  border. There it was on a rather steep up-grade as it climbed its way from the Rift floor to the top of the eastern wall of the Rift. On occasion the locusts would settle on the rails, where the locomotive crushed them. The resulting liquid was a lubricant which caused the locomotive to spin its wheels, losing traction. The engineer would have to back the train down a ways and then get up enough momentum to carry it over the locust mess.

Harry, Ruth Marie and Roy Shaffer at Westervelt Home 1940




  1. High schooling at Westervelt Home

The Westervelts

Mrs. (Josephine Hope) Theodore Westervelt, the founding teacher of RVA, had returned to US for health reasons. Back in US she started a home for missionary kids who needed to be in US for their education. This was the Westervelt Home in South Carolina. We went there from Kenya because RVA education was not yet to high school level. I enjoyed the academic life. The teachers were mostly young, dedicated and able. I also enjoyed the mandatory twelve or so hours a week of manual domestic or farm work.

Westervelt’s son Romeyn Westervelt had been semi-paralyzed in a car accident. But he was bright and imaginative and dedicated to modernization of the farm. Early in my time he discovered me working hard at digging a deep ditch in hard clay. The work was totally out of sight so I could have been slacking at this unpopular assignment. But I enjoyed the work as a physical challenge. I think that encounter influenced Romeyn in later decisions to trust me with horses and machinery, ahead of my peers. I learned about terracing, fruit trees, getting an early start to vegetables by starting them under plastic tents, erosion control, soil rehabilitation and chicken raising.

On the terraces we made we planted the, then, wonder plant kudzu. We could not predict the carnage it would later bring to the south. Because of Romeyn I was content to be at Westervelts despite the somewhat conservative social climate.

Mrs. Westervelt was a large woman and had a large, strong personality. Coming from the relative laissez-faire life of a kid in Kenya I was a misfit. I think it is a fair generalization that the kids from Africa and India were in general misfits like me, while the kids raised in a South American mission milieu were more conformists. There might be a PhD worth of research in testing that idea. One of my non-conformist buddies was Charlie Gunderson from India. I think he also went into medicine. My sister in Chicago once sent me a half pound of toffee squares from Kraft where she worked. Such a luxury was un-Westerveltian. I have difficulty remembering how they got past Mrs. W’s eagle eye.   I consumed them parsimoniously at the rate of one quarter of a square a day.

Mr. Westervelt was a meek and quiet man not given to casual conversation, but on a one-to-one basis when on a task he could relate OK. Those who worked with him on his “worm farm” seemed to get along well. He was dedicated to improving the soil through propagation of worms. Mrs. Westervelt did have a strong sense of culture and self-improvement. She started a literary society for promoting discussion and even debate, though we never got to the latter. I was assigned to the “Philomatheans”. Romeyn started the orchestra and I enjoyed playing violin.

 Teachers at Westervelts

At Westervelts I enjoyed the academic side. Our teachers were young and dedicated. My guess is that they worked for next to nothing, so their performance was remarkable.

Cicero McClure made algebra as exciting as a detective story. Miss ?____   helped me appreciate the satisfaction of building a good sentence. Miss ______ intrigued me into making an almost successful electric motor.

I also enjoyed the mandatory work side of the program. One did housekeeping chores an hour or two daily during the week (dish-washing, food preparation, sweeping etc.). Then we worked every Saturday morning. I delighted in the farm work which involved raising vegetables, caring for horses and chickens, building a machine shed, clearing bush and plowing with a mule. Romeyn Westervelt was the senior Westervelt’s only child. He had graduated from U. of South Carolina and had a penchant for scientific farming. He gave me an appreciation for soil conservation through terracing and cover crops. He started kudzu there for soil conservation. In later decades it turned out to be an environmental curse! Romeyn also taught us how to give vegetables an early start by planting them under 6” diameter fabric cones.

Gladys Wright, a graduate of Wheaton had served in Congo but had to leave there for health reasons. We were enriched by her friendship in later years when she was on staff at the College. She mentored and got jobs for many MKs.

When Raymond and Sarah Stauffacher could not get back to Africa because of the war they joined the staff. They added a lot of empathy, since Raymond had been one of the original “Westervelt Boys”.

Mrs. Westervelt was a proponent of active Christian service and outreach. So with my older brother and sister, I went every Sunday morning to have a Sunday school outreach to a collection of black sharecropper kids down the road. This was quite a cultural revelation. I do not recall giving any thought to their African origins. Another time we ministered to a white family who were no better off economically or culturally than the blacks. Locally this family might have been derided as being “poor, white trash”. But I don’t recall being aware of that expression back then.

Mrs. Westervelt also promoted among us an awareness of history and world events. Once she gave an evening to a transient “scholar” who illustrated the political scenario of the march towards WWII using a sketch-board of maps etc. with predictions of Hitler’s might. I was fascinated. The visitor had a rather shabby appearance and demeanor and I suspect, in retrospect, that he might have been an academic who had fallen victim to alchohol.

Chores were a given. They gave meaning to who we were. They did as much for social bonding as did the few sports available (mainly baseball and soccer). I was hopeless at both. In addition each and everyone worked a couple of hours weekdays and all Saturday morning. I have no idea what my parents or other parents were contributing in money. But, given the depression and its impact upon missionary stipends it was surely very little. Without the produce of the farm the school could not have survived. In those days there were not as many philanthropic organizations to call upon as today.

Once Jim and Lila Propst came to visit. Jim (then known as Herman) had been one of the original “Westervelt Boys”. Jim was now a doctor. The couple by their grace, encouragement and challenge had a great impact upon us all. We were enriched again, in later years as we were colleagues of Jim and Lila at Kijabe in Kenya. And again in another generation as two marriages melded the three clans: Shaffers, Armeses and Propsts. Our youngest daughter Gini Shaffer married RVA MK John Armes, whose sister Laura Jean Armes married Jim and Lila Propst’s son Jim.

World War II

The onset of WWII was a matter of great interest at Westervelts since so many of us were from British Empire spheres. On my way to join Westervelts I had traversed Southampton for a day or two, a few weeks before war started. People were carrying gas masks and air raid ditches were being dug in the public parks. But I do not recall any overt sense of public panic or emotional stress.

In 1939 in New York, enroute to Westervelts,  I spent a day at the World’s Fair. It was of course extra mind-boggling to this kid from the African bush. In later years, comparing notes, we realized that Betty and I may have been at that Fair at the same time.

I was still at Westervelts when Pearl Harbor was attacked. This of course galvanized everyone in a new way. I recalled my Dad’s stories of service in France in WWI. Twenty seven years later I, as a GI walked in his footsteps along the Meuse River in Belgium! It was “Deja vu”. Somewhere in those lands are many dozens of graves of US GIs who my Dad, as Chaplain’s Assistant helped bury. I have his typed lists with details on each. They are chillingly similar to the nightly TV news roll-call of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

From Westervelt to Wheaton

Despite the satisfactions of farming and academic learning I was decreasingly “at home” at the Westervelt Home. The atmosphere was just a bit too authoritarian for one of my background. So, I would guess that it was with some relief that Mrs. Westervelt, sensed my discomfort and acceded to my request to go join my two older siblings who were studying at Wheaton College.

Out of some missionary barrel (I guess) Mrs. W. produced a traveling suit for me. It was of fine material and comprised of a jacket and a matching pair of “plus-4s” i.e. golf pants which ended in a cuff just below the knee. I went by Greyhound bus and was fascinated by mid-east America.

The next chapter covers my time at Wheaton, Ill.

Link to Photos for this chapter (01: Childhood 1925-42)

 Link to next chapter (02: Together 1942-43)

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