PLEASANT HILL -- When Janice Lever was 50 years old, the mother of grown children, she did a gutsy thing. She moved to East Africa.

Looking back, she said, it was a decision based on the colloquial, and in her case literal, "leap of faith." She was a spiritual woman whose values stemmed from her Baha'i faith. The leap led her from her job at the Baha'i National Center in Wilmette, Ill., to an opportunity to be an administrative assistant to the secretary of the National Baha'i Assembly of Kenya. But when the job in Kenya didn't pan out, Lever became headmistress at Auntie Claire's Kindergarten, a Baha'i school in Uganda.

Lever wrote about her 18-year living experience in Uganda in the recently-published "Bye, Mzungu! Memoir of a Californian in Uganda," which she will discuss June 27 at the Walnut Creek Library.

"I have often been asked why I went to Africa in the first place," Lever wrote in the foreword of her book. "I don't really understand my motives for going, except that it seemed the right thing to do at the time. There was an adventure waiting, and I was pulled into it."

In her book, Lever describes a life filled with a fair share of triumphs as well as challenges that she thought would interest readers.

"I was open to new challenges. It was probably faith -- the door was open, so I walked through," said Lever, a resident of Pleasant Hill, her home since her return from Africa in 2004.

Lever considers her time in Uganda as her living her "third act." At barely 20, she married her high school sweetheart and raised a family. After 18 years of marriage, Lever found herself out in the working world to make a living. Then came her life-begins-at-50-in East Africa-phase.

She found that keeping a journal of her first few years in Uganda in the late 1980s and 1990s helped her write the manuscript of her memoir which includes memories gathered from letters and photographs.

Lever didn't start out in the Baha'i faith. Her father was an Episcopalian clergyman, and when she was 10 years old she wanted to be a nun. Later, as a young wife living in Guam, Lever happened to pick up a library book about the Baha'i faith and was drawn to its teachings.

It was her faith, she said, that got her through 18 years of living in Uganda, where she got to teach children and make lifelong friends. Among the highlights of her stay there was teaching using her early vocal training.

"We prepared children to matriculate to primary school so they'll have a competitive edge," said Lever. "We primarily did that through phonics, songs and nursery rhymes."

Another highlight included a visit from her youngest son, which turned into a permanent stay when he married a Ugandan woman and raised his family there.

Her commitment to education and her love of the East African culture made Lever's stay worthwhile.

"I felt I was really doing something important -- there was personal satisfaction from the work I was doing," she said.

In "Mzungu," which means "stranger" in Swahili -- a common nickname for white foreigners -- Lever shares several personal anecdotes, including the time she and her friend met a member of the Ugandan royal family.

Doug Krotz, of Orinda, Lever's friend and fellow member of the Baha'i faith community, said he read the manuscript and encouraged Lever to publish the book.

"She's a gutsy girl who was more than just a person who did mission work," Krotz said. "She wanted to do something meaningful, something many of us wish we could do, but how many of us would actually get up from our desks and travel halfway around the world to a foreign country and make a difference? She did exactly that."

Krotz said Lever's memoir offers readers a variety of fascinating stories as well as the "day-to-day duties of keeping insects away and keeping clothes clean."

"People of all ages, all ethnicities and all religions will enjoy this book because it's a story everyone will be able to relate to in some way," he said.

And it's a story with a happy ending. Lever, who remarried her husband whom she first married in 1956, is excited that her granddaughter from Uganda will attend her senior year at College Park High School.

Lever, who still stays in touch with friends in Uganda, said she hopes the readers of her memoir will realize "the oneness of humanity."

"We all want the same things," she said. "We realize the gifts that other cultures and races have to teach us. We all have a special contribution to make."

Author Janice Lever
  • WHAT: Book discussion of "Bye, Mzungu! Memoir of a Californian in Uganda"
  • WHEN: 6 p.m. June 27
  • WHERE: Walnut Creek Library, 1644 N. Broadway