Literally, Not Quite A Mennonite

I came to Goshen, Indiana, in the winter of 1987. My flight from Harare had landed in Chicago. From there, I made my way to Wheaton, Illinois, where my late brother Richard was then living. After a couple of days visiting him I took a connecting flight to Indiana.

This was my great big adventure. I was nineteen years old, and just five weeks before had been at an all-girls’ boarding school in Harare – Arundel – nicknamed the “Pink Prison.”


I’d seen all the movies but, for me, New York, New Jersey, Goshen . . . it was all AMERICA and I was far away from home, and free. I had sat my A-level exams (the end of a Southern African high school education) just weeks before and had left the heat of a Zimbabwean Christmas for the unforgiving cold of the deep Midwest.

In order to equip me with clothing that was warm enough, my mother had had to persuade the manager of Barbour’s, then Harare’s biggest department store, to open up the basement so we could go through their stock of out-of-season winter clothing. Even then we didn’t find enough, and I had a suitcase full of my mother’s old American skirts and dresses, cut down to fit me. But, being a boarding-school girl, used to wearing a turquoise blouse and brown pleated skirt and sensible librarian shoes every day of my school life, this was just another uniform. I didn’t know enough to be worried that I had the look wrong.

Those first weeks, my South African roommate and I braved the cold and deep banks of snow, scuttling from classroom to library to canteen and back again with barely a glance around us. Palesa was older than me in years and experience: a street-smart student activist from Soweto who had defied her country’s apartheid laws and a challenging background to make her way to college in America. She was, even in those early days, a woman on a mission.

In contrast, I was the relatively spoiled and thoroughly sheltered daughter of American-educated parents, with a British accent (the result of some privilege and a lot of elocution lessons) who was there to “find” herself and maybe become a journalist, with a vague idea of being a war correspondent. We became, in the course of our time at Goshen College, sisters – an unlikely comradeship born of being the only Southern African women we knew of (though I was still very much a girl) in Northern Indiana and equal sufferers when it came to surviving the cold.


The summer of 2012, almost twenty-five years later, Palesa and her daughter Nozizo came to London to visit my family. I had long wanted my daughter Gabrielle to have the chance to spend some time with her godmother, and I sat back, smiling, as they discussed human rights law and the impact of the NGO “industries” on women in developing countries. Gabrielle had just graduated with a degree in international relations and Spanish and was looking for a way to make a career out of her passion for “knowing how things should work” and improving the lives of women. Palesa has fulfilled her dream of working as a psychologist in Johannesburg, focusing on the treatment of victims of trauma.

I was young when Gabrielle was born – twenty-five – and there was a lot I didn’t know. But I knew what I wanted for her: a life of purpose and meaning. Choosing Palesa as her godmother was part of ensuring that would happen. I knew that at some point, this was a friend I could trust to look into her eyes and see every bit of her potential, just as she had done for me. And that Palesa would be, regardless of what happened in the years between the birth of this baby and her needing to call on her godmother, a woman who would inspire her.

I wasn’t wrong. Through completing her education in America and moving back to a country undergoing dizzying and at times difficult change, raising a family and, with her husband, shepherding a church, my college roommate arrived in all her glorious beauty, common sense, grace and fierce ambition and I knew I had made the right decision.

Palesa’s visit was a chance to cast my mind back to my time at Goshen College. She reminded me of people and incidents as we reminisced for our daughters. But most important, she reminded me of the two and a half years we spent together in Indiana, and of the people and experiences that shaped who we are today. I cannot say that Goshen changed me profoundly – but what it did provide is perhaps more valuable. There I found the space, the safety and the acceptance to become myself, and there I found the challenge to make that self one whose life would have meaning.


The clip clop of a horse-drawn carriage driven by a man in black, wearing a broad-brimmed hat, was not my vision of America. Yet there it was. My parents had neglected to mention the Amish, or the fact that it was their land (rather than John Travolta’s) that would be my destination. And they were probably right to keep quiet about the conservative, somewhat sleepy nature of the place that was to become my home. I’m not sure I would have skipped up the steps of the plane so eagerly had I known. Yet it was in the quiet of this little town, amongst a people who deliberately – and at times through history with great bravery and cost to themselves – set themselves apart from the world that I discovered a way to live within it.

It’s not an easy thing to articulate my Mennonite self. I am an untroubled agnostic whose work has no obvious connection to any faith. And yet, there is no doubt in my mind that the values of Goshen College are at the very core of my being. I believe that what I do can make a difference and that it is my duty to make that difference one that benefits others. I believe that where I am given, I must give back. I believe that I am responsible for the well-being of my brothers and sisters – and that that category includes all humanity. I believe that it is important to have a voice, and to use that voice for the good. All of these things, which I learned in my parents’ home, were reinforced at Goshen and I was challenged to make the creed my own.

One of my most profound memories is of a summer class, an introductory course to theology taught by Marlin Jeschke. I had, for years, muttered equivocally when quizzed about religion. But in this class, in true Anabaptist tradition, we were all challenged to learn, to enquire and to make up our own minds. I am still grateful for the acceptance with which our instructor listened to the responses of his students: the respect and thoughtfulness that not merely allowed but encourage honest enquiry. It is a model of nurturing that I hope I have brought to my own parenting and professional mentoring.


In my final year at Goshen, I found myself in an English department elective course with a syllabus that felt incomplete. I declared – with all the irritating self-riotousness of youth – that I would not be reading any dead white males. My professors, who could well have insisted that I read the proscribed reading list or fail the course, instead challenged me to come up with an alternative syllabus. It was another example of the teaching style and atmosphere of rigorous enquiry that I experienced at Goshen. Having had my bluff called, I had to work hard to be equal to the task. This was not just learning for the sake of passing exams or gaining a degree. What a Goshen College education gave me, in this course and beyond, was the assurance that, if I thought it through and was willing to back up my talk with meaningful action, then I could change things. That a minority view could and should be listened to. And that my voice could be important.

Today I work as deputy editor of Granta, an international magazine with a distinguished history as the magazine of new writing – one that has introduced many of the leading lights of international literature to the reading public. I am editor-at-large for Granta and Portobello books and I sit on the board of the Writers’ Centre Norwich and of the Caine Prize for African writing. I am on the arts selection committee for the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre, and every year I am privileged to help choose writers for their coveted international residency. Every other year, funding permitting, I spend a week teaching editors and publishers in developing African countries. Wrapping together all these activities: I make books, I find writers, and I help develop publishers. There could be no better work for someone like me – a girl who hid in the trees so her brothers couldn’t bother her as she read; who read under the desk when lessons didn’t seem important; a woman who will hide from her family – pretending to be taking a bath – so she can finish that last chapter.

The work is rewarding in itself and can, at times, seem an indulgence. After all, being an editor is not really an “essential” profession. No flight attendant has ever interrupted in-flight entertainment to declare an emergency and ask if there is a publisher on board. But literature can make a difference. And this is where my Mennonite inheritance assures me that there is meaning in what I do. The stories we tell can change lives. In the pages of books we find a way to comprehend others and ourselves, we are challenged to put ourselves in situations and places we may never physically inhabit. At the best of times, good writing expands horizons and encourages understanding.


Though Palesa and I were always going to end up in very different professions, during the summer of 2012, as we caught up on news of our families and shared memories of the time we spent together at Goshen College, and spoke about the work we do, it struck me that there is a clear inheritance we share, one that isn’t, after all, that difficult to articulate. The college’s motto – “Culture for service” – is not one that I had ever paid much attention to. It is too easy for my sometimes cynical self to dismiss it as just another comforting aspiration from a people who mean well. But there is a profound truth here. If culture – the arts, literature – is to have as much meaning as the work my sister Palesa does to guide the victims of trauma back into living in the world, it has to be towards something. To my mind, that something can be, as the Amish say, “Just for nice.”

But there has to be more. And that is what I continue to strive for – to find stories that have meaning and value and to bring those stories to readers whose lives will be enriched, challenged and enhanced.

About the Author

Ellah Wakatama Allfrey

Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, is a London-based editor and critic. She was Visiting Professor and Global Intercultural Scholar at Goshen College, Indiana in 2016. She is on the judging panel for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award and was Guest Master for the 2016 Gabriel Garcia Marquez Foundation fellowship in Colombia. A recent guest contributing editor for the 'Fear' issue of Transition magazine, she is the former deputy editor of Granta magazine and was senior editor at Jonathan Cape, Random House and assistant editor at Penguin. She served as a judge for the Man Booker Prize in 2015. She sits on the selection panel for the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Fellowship and served as a literature selector for the Rolex 2014-15 Mentor & Protégée Initiative. Allfrey is series editor of the Kwani? Manuscript Project and the editor of Africa39 (Bloomsbury, 2014) and Safe House: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction (Dundurn/Cassava Republic, 2016). She has also served as chair of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her journalism has appeared in the Spectator, the Telegraph, the Guardian and the Observer and she has been a regular contributor to the book pages of NPR. Her broadcasting includes reviews for NPR’s All Things Considered and BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Review. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Archive on Four and Open Book and commissioned short stories for broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She has also chaired events at venues including the South Bank and at festivals including Hay Festival (Bangladesh and Colombia) and the Emirates Literary Festival. She sits on the boards of Art for Amnesty, the Caine Prize for African Writing, the Jalada Collective (Kenya) and the Writers Centre Norwich and is a patron of the Etisalat Literature Prize. Her introduction to Woman of the Aeroplanes by Kojo Laing was published by Pearson in 2012. In 2011 she was awarded an OBE for services to the publishing industry.