- Review: At Home Abroad: An American Girl in Africa
Review: At Home Abroad: An American Girl in Africa
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Author: Nancy Henderson-James
Publisher: Plain View Press
With At Home Abroad: An American Girl in Africa, Nancy Henderson-James has proven herself to be a masterful talent in crafting a captivating memoir infused with a great deal of vivacity, introspection and even some humor and poetry. It is not a memoir to rapidly gulp down, but one to mull over as the author unfolds her childhood through impressionist morsels.
At the tender age of two, Henderson-James together with her three-
year old sister Kathy and her Protestant missionary parents were
stationed in Lobito Angola. Every five years the family would
temporarily return to the USA. In Lobito, her mother would be
occupied with caring and feeding an endless stream of guests in
transit from America and at the same time she would also be
overlooking the education of her children as well as taking care of
the missionary issues that took up most of her father’s time.
Henderson- James points out, “As a woman in a male world,
especially the colonial Portuguese culture in Lobito, my mother’s
voice was barely heard, however as the church was more open to women
as leaders, she ran the Sunday school, sewing, and literacy classes
and brought comfort to the sick.”
Her father was administrator of the mission on the coast and it was up to him to make sure that the hungry and needy had schools, teachers and supplies, the clinics had nurses and first aid medicines, and the churches had deacons and pastors. In addition, he was also involved in interceding in disputes between Portuguese authorities and the Protestant community.
Notwithstanding her family’s bustling life, Henderson-James’s
mother grumbled about feeling isolated with the expatriate European
community of Portuguese, English, Dutch and white South Africans as
they didn’t exactly warm up to the practice of her parents’
entertaining Angolans in their house. And as a small child she wasn’t
always aware of her parents’ small acts of courage.
We are told that the devotion of her missionary parents was akin to those in the military and the Foreign Service to their callings. “The mission mandate controlled not simply the missionary, but the whole family. Children became miniature advocates and supporters of their parents’ enterprise, ceding, without knowing it, an intimate family for the good of the organization.” Moreover, they were expected to fit into their parents’ lives without making messy demands.
It was not until she was well into adulthood and parenthood that Henderson-James fully appreciated how little she understood about being a family and parent. Henderson-James states that family wasn’t very important to her father. As she further notes, she suspects that the loss of family affected her stance toward religion.
Henderson-James also discloses that her particular growing up
experience led her to an unending questioning of her relationship to
America, Africa and the wider world. It was religion that provided
her with a home and a reason for living in Africa. In fact, at the
age of six she was old enough to notice differences between her
parents’ idea of home, which was America, and hers, which was
Angola. She mentions that she had to choose between loyalty to
American and Angola and at times when she did return to America, she
never felt she belonged.
As we continue reading the memoir, Henderson-James chronicles her school years in Angola as well as Rhodesia. At nine she left her parents and home for school in Dondi, three hundred kilometres away, where she spent the next three years. And as noted, she lived through a fog of longing and loss: “I imagine a girl child wandering in a cloud, her voice muffled, losing sight of herself, and disappearing from view of parents and world.” She goes onto elaborate that for a child who is away from home, experiencing homesickness and feelings of isolation from the family, letters could not replace the instant comfort of a mother’s hug. In these circumstances, her emotional development was largely solitary and internal, as it had taken place away from the warm arms and encouraging voices of her parents.
Even now, she states that Dondi evokes in her longing, tenderness, and saudades, the Portuguese word connoting a “bittersweet aching for an irretrievable past.”
Unfortunately, the endless wars of liberation and civil conflict left Dondi’s landscape in shambles with land mines strewn throughout the area, preventing human habitation and crop tending.
Among other themes touched up in this compelling narrative are the
author’s comments and perceptions of the political, social and
economic climates of Angola where segregation was the norm.
Henderson-James characterizes her world as wealthy, protected and
white. However, in every interaction between black Angolans and white
Portuguese, danger sulked. Lobito was separated into the black
sanzala on the barren flats and the white city on the sand split,
with its spacious houses on shaded lots by the water. Even as young
as she was, she well understood how distinct these parts were
notwithstanding that her parents invited Africans into their home
without apology to their white neighbors. Succinctly summed up,
Henderson-James states that her life in white colonial Angola was a
fleeting period of safety in the midst of a system fast coming
Henderson-James has written a wonderfully constructed memoir filled with honesty and tenderness describing an intriguing childhood life compelling her to straddle different cultures. And through its elegant prose, resonant images and informative commentaries, this gem of a book effectively presents a thoroughly engrossing and moving account about experiences that most of us would know very little about.
Henderson-James has published essays in newspapers and magazines and compiled Africa Lives in my Soul: Responses to an African Childhood, based on a survey of missionary kids and other global nomads. She has been the recipient of honors from the Southern Women Writers Conference and the North Carolina Writer’s Network. She lives in Durham, North Carolina with her husband.