Ugali, by Golly

By Terri Elders

Ugali, by Golly
Ugali, By Golly

A lifetime later I still recall staring at the photos of the children of East Africa that the Quaker missionaries pinned to a curtain in the basement of the Friends Church in Scotts Mills, Oregon. In one faded snapshot a group of children sat on grass mats, hands folded, eyes intent on a white-haired woman who read from a book of Bible stories. In another, the children reached into shoe boxes to pull out crayons, scissors and pencils. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the photos. In nearly every one, the missionary was a woman. This was the late ’40s, and I’d never known that women could go overseas, have adventures or become ministers or missionaries.

After Sunday school, I trudged home up the hill, echoing the missionaries, whispering the musical names of the places they had mentioned; Mombasa, Nairobi, Uganda. At supper, while Mama dished up her special beef stew and cornbread, I announced that one day I would teach children in some distant place. I would, I said, repeating a phrase I heard one missionary use, “answer a call to service.” And, I added, I would eat my stew with chunks of ugali. My parents exchanged glances. “It’s made from corn,” I explained, “Kinda like this cornbread, I think.” “Ugali, by golly,” my dad said. My sister giggled.

Later, on the family Philco, I heard Bing Crosby croon a tune that would become my mantra, Faraway Places With Strange-Sounding Names. I would belt out my favorite line, “Going to China or maybe Siam, I want to see for myself, those faraway places I’ve been reading about in a book that I took from the shelf.” My sister, blessed with perfect pitch, rolled her eyes.

In my dog-eared copy of The Wind in the Willows, I reread “Wayfarers All,” with the “merry Sea Rat,” who was at home in every land. I loved how the Rat urged everybody to “Take the adventure, heed the call, now, ere the irrevocable moment passes.”

Years passed. When my family eventually returned to our hometown, Los Angeles, I lost touch with the Friends Church and my missionary dreams. I married, bore a son, became a high school English teacher and later a social worker. Now and then I heard that old song about faraway places, and would sigh as I recalled my early pledge to heed “a call to service.”

In l961 President John F. Kennedy announced the establishment of the Peace Corps to provide Americans with opportunities to serve overseas. What a great idea, I thought. How nice others would have that chance.

When my son entered college, I returned to school myself, earning an MSW at UCLA. As a psychiatric social worker I worked to combat domestic violence and child abuse, but when I read about children in the favelas of Rio de Janero or saw actress Sally Struthers make a pitch for Save the Children, my feet would itch.

Years passed. My husband, who for years had struggled with alcoholism, and I divorced. My son graduated and moved away. I worked in social services, but always with that feeling that I should be doing something more in some other place.

On my fiftieth birthday, a friend confided that he was joining the Peace Corps. He suggested it would be perfect for me, too. “No, no,” I countered. I had a condo, a car, a job, responsibilities, friends who depended on me right here in Los Angeles. What would I do with my furniture and my books?  I was secure in the familiar comfort of my everyday life.

One day at Al-Anon, murmuring the Serenity Prayer, the familiar words, “the courage to change the things I can,” stopped me short. Could I find the courage to give away all the objects that represented security? Could I join the Peace Corps and finally “heed the call to service” in the way that I always felt I had been programmed?

I joined in l987, eventually serving four times, most recently in Beaumont, Texas, with the Crisis Corps’ Katrina Initiative, the first Peace Corps deployment within the United States. I never became a missionary, but I certainly had a mission…several of them.

In Belize I reacquainted myself with the Society of Friends. Sadie Vernon, the gentle Quaker, who for three decades had been the director of the Council of Churches, asked me to organize neighborhood women to address child abuse. The Council sponsored school lunch programs, and sometimes we would read Bible stories as the children ate their rice, and I would experience a fleeting moment of déjà vu.

In the Dominican Republic, under the aegis of Social Services of Dominican Churches, I rode on the back of my counterpart’s motorcycle to remote rural areas near the Haitian border to promote health and literacy among young mothers who worked in the bean fields.

In Seychelles I worked in the Students’ Welfare Unit, trained people to become school counselors and established out-patient drug and alcohol treatment programs. I mentored youth in the teen pregnancy prevention peer education program, helping them to write radio scripts and film videos.

A former Peace Corps Volunteer visiting the islands asked if I would like to accompany him to Kenya, where he once had been an environment extension agent. Nervous, I hesitated. Nairobi had been experiencing some violent crime, including car hijacking. But it would be East Africa at last. I took a deep breath and agreed to go.

One afternoon we rode the bus from Nairobi to Lake Naivasa. We stopped at a shoreside stand where we dined on a pungent stew, served with a doughy lump that my friend identified as…ugali. I dipped a bit of it into my stew and took a tentative bite. It tasted nothing like Mama’s cornbread. Nonetheless, I reached for a second chunk. Ugali, by golly!

About this writer

  • Terri Elders Terri Elders, a lifelong freelance writer, received the UCLA Alumni Association Award for Community Service in 2006. In her acceptance speech she mentioned the Merry Sea Rat. She is a public member of the Washington State Medical Commission.

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2 Responses to “Ugali, by Golly”

  1. Alex J. Norman says:

    Great story Terri. Keep going to those far away places with strange sounding names (whether in tune or not).

    Much love,


  2. Annie Tait says:

    By golly, this is a wonderful story. To at last enjoy the flavor of delicious stew with ugali as you promised you would do so many years ago must have been a genuine thrill. Not to mention the many adventures you encountered along the way. Congratulations on writing such a great story. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

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