Interview with Nancy Henderson-James
At Home Abroad
Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader Views is pleased to interview Nancy Henderson-James, who is here to talk about her new memoir “At Home Abroad: An American Girl in Africa.”
Nancy Henderson-James was born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1945 but soon moved to Portugal with her parents to learn Portuguese, in preparation for a life in Angola, which was then a Portuguese colony. She lived there until age sixteen except for a stint in high school in Salisbury, Rhodesia. When the Angolan war for independence broke out in 1961, she left Africa to finish high school in Tacoma. She graduated from Carleton College and later received her library science degree from Pratt Institute. She worked in school libraries for thirty years.
Nancy 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. A chapter of “At Home Abroad” was published in “Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing Up Global.” She has received honors from the Southern Women Writers Conference and the North Carolina Writers’ Network. She lives in Durham, North Carolina with her husband.
Tyler: Welcome, Nancy. I’m very excited to talk to you about your book and learn more of your story. To start out, will you explain to us how, as an American girl, you ended up living in Africa?
Tyler: What made your parents decide to become missionaries and make this change which uprooted your family?
Nancy: Even as a high school kid, my father was interested in international affairs. When he was in college in Tacoma in the ‘40’s, Dad was a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and believed deeply in its pacifist tenets. Two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, on February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued the order to intern all Japanese Americans who lived along the Pacific coast. In April, the first of Seattle and Tacoma’s Japanese community, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, were given less than a week to register with the government, pack, and sell or rent their homes, farms, and businesses. Some of them were friends of Dad and his sister. That summer he worked with the American Friends Service Committee to support the evacuees and witness their relocation. When he went to Yale Divinity School, Dad began exploring the idea of international work after he graduated and was especially interested in Japan. But with the war barely over, mission boards weren’t sending anyone there. After a couple of years as minister of his own congregation, the mission board asked whether he would be interested in Angola. Neither he nor my mother had heard of the place, but they were up for an adventure and signed on. While my mother didn’t have an ambition to be a missionary, she did inherit the travel bug from her father. So she was game to try it.
Tyler: Did you and your family move about in Africa or did you always live in the same country?
Nancy: My family always lived in Angola; however, my brothers and sister and I all left the country to go to high school. Our parents felt we should get an education in English. My sister and I went to a British public school in what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and my younger brothers went to an American International school in Congo/Zaire.
Tyler: Nancy, you lived through interesting times in Africa. This is the period after World War II when colonialism was ending. Can you tell us a little about the politics and cultural issues at stake during this time that you witnessed or were aware of?
Nancy: By the time I was age six or seven, I was well aware of the different ways that black Angolans and white Portuguese were treated. As an ardent believer in fair play as a kid, I felt deep antipathy toward the Portuguese and strong loyalty toward Angolans. But I knew a lot of perfectly lovely Portuguese people, and so hating them was impossible. I gradually realized that it was the Portuguese government and officials that were authoritarian and repressed the Angolans, not every Portuguese citizen.
After being back in the U.S. when I was twelve and in seventh grade, I could tell the difference between the free atmosphere in the U.S. and the right wing authoritarian atmosphere in Angola. (I should say that in seventh grade I wasn’t aware of the civil upheavals and violence going on in the American south. I was focused on my experience in Hartford, CT and my longing for Angola.) We returned to Angola in 1958. Ghana has just gotten its independence in 1957 and that put the Portuguese government on edge. They introduced the Portuguese secret police (PIDE) into Angola and political tensions increased. While we were away, my father’s secretary was arrested and sent off to prison simply for belonging to an underground political discussion group.
The Congo’s independence from Belgium in 1960 sent shock waves around southern Africa. Angola bordered on the Congo and we were all aware of it. In 1960 my sister and I went off to Rhodesia for school. The political atmosphere in that country reminded me a lot of Angola, where whites were in power, had privileges not available to the Africans, and were not about to let go of their power. While I was there, violence around the Congo’s independence spilled over into Rhodesia. Soldiers were called up to duty and you could feel the tension. In the meantime, while I was in school in Rhodesia, I began to hear on BBC about skirmishes in Angola: attacks by Angolans on white-run coffee plantations and prisons, etc. Letters were the primary means of communications between my parents and me, but they were constrained by Portuguese censorship from telling me anything about their situation. It was a big shock to me when my sister and I were told we had to leave Africa because of the unrest in Angola. All women and children of missionaries were told to evacuate. My mother and siblings left and my father stayed.
Tyler: You were a girl during this time. How do you think your impressions of your experiences differed compared to your parents?
Nancy: My parents had a far more complete understanding of the politics than me and they had strong friendships with both Angolans and Portuguese. They were dedicated to their work developing churches, schools, and clinics. While I had some Angolan and Portuguese friends, my network of friends tended to be among other missionary kids. They were my childhood buddies, and also the people who felt the same ambivalence about home that I did, who loved Angola but knew ultimately, they couldn’t stay. My parents maintained a life-long connection to Angola even after they left. The 40-year war after I left in 1961, the fact that most of my friends also left, and my need to develop an American life essentially steered me away from more than emotional involvement.
Tyler: Nancy, you say that you loved Angola. What specifically did you love about it? Even the year of your childhood you spent in Hartford, did you not find things in the U.S. to appreciate that you didn’t have in Angola?
Nancy: I loved Angola in the way that anyone loves his home. It’s the place that feels comfortable, where you know your way around, where people know you. I loved the landscape. In Lobito, the bay in front of our house always called me to swim, to walk on the beach, to collect shells. Up country at school we had the run of Dondi, rode our bikes all over, swam in the river, climbed trees, had lots of friends. Hartford was an alien place, where I mostly observed life. I learned a bit about American culture. But the U.S. can be overwhelming. I came from a country that ran on a different frequency, a quieter, slower pace. America seemed frenetic to me. I did learn to skate in the winter; I went to some school dances, albeit just to watch. Mostly I looked forward to going back home.
Tyler: How would you describe your life in Angola? Were you financially comfortable, or did you go without many things? As missionaries, what was your standard of living like? Did your standard of living affect your happiness, or were other issues more important?
Nancy: In the book, I describe our life as wealthy. We lived in the Portuguese section of town in a very nice house; we had several household helpers. We never ran out of food. In comparison to the Angolans, we were wealthy. I was never aware of going without. I learned later that it was often hard for my parents to pay for the household expenses and to scrape up enough money to feed all our guests who would stay for extended periods. My father received a very small salary and my mother was never paid for her work. In those days, the mission board didn’t pay the women, even if they worked hard beside their husbands or at their own jobs. As a consequence, although my parents worked as missionaries for twenty-one years, only my father received a pension when he retired. My mother has told me that when we would come back to the States, we hardly had enough money for the cab from the ship or airport. We lived very close to the bone. We often bought second hand clothing, but I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that. I didn’t have a sense that I was going without. Having stuff never seemed very important.
Tyler: As you reached your teenage years, your beliefs began to differ from your parents. What about their beliefs did you find difficult?
Nancy: I assume you mean religious beliefs. I think when you come down to it, I am a person who doesn’t feel the pull toward religion. I went through a period in my teens when I craved spiritual meaning. During my first year in Rhodesia, Billy Graham came with his crusade. His message of personal redemption, so different from my parents’ emphasis on social justice, grabbed my attention. But in time I lost interest. When I moved to the U.S., I found the churches unsatisfying; their music had none of the incredible soaring harmonies of the Angolan church. By the end of high school, I became convinced that there were many paths to a good life, including those outside the church. In the ferment of the 1960’s I found more meaning in the anti-war movement, the Civil Rights movement, and the Women’s movement. Religion was the reason my family was in Africa. But left on my own in the U.S., without Africa and without family, I didn’t derive much solace from religion. God seemed like an abstract concept.
Tyler: As missionaries from the United States, were you and your parents accepted by the culture and people of Africa?
Nancy: My parents’ mission was established in central Angola back in the late 1800’s. By the time we lived there, it included eight missions with hospitals, schools from elementary to high school, churches, seminaries, a printing press, leper colonies, and outlying clinics and schools, offering great value to the people. In key ways, the message and structure of the church conformed to the culture of the Ovimbundu people. In a traditional village, the onjango, a village elders’ discussion and dispute settlement group, examined an issue from all sides and proposed a solution. The democratic organization of the Protestant churches, which included all members in its governance, seemed familiar to the Ovimbundu and thus easily accepted. Protestants were profoundly scary to the authoritarian Portuguese government and pre-Vatican II Catholic Church. The biggest conflict in the 1950’s and ‘60’s was not between mission and Angolans, but between Protestants and Catholics and government. The government accused the missions of fomenting revolution and independence, which in a way they did just by the way they were organized. Many of the leaders of the independence movements were products of mission schools.
Tyler: Have you or your family stayed in touch with the missionary movement you were part of as a child? Are there still missions in Angola, or did things change when Angola received its independence?
Nancy: My parents maintained contacts with missionary friends, Angolans, and Portuguese friends for the rest of their lives. The war made it hard to work in or return to Angola, but they were active in the Angola Memorial Scholarship Fund, which supported Angolans in furthering their higher education in Portugal, the U.S., or Canada. The missions my parents were affiliated with were located in central Angola, in the heart of the war zone. Most of them were devastated, demolished in the war. Since the war ended in 2002, there has been some rebuilding. Dondi, the mission where I attended school for three years and which was the central mission, is being rebuilt. The hospital and the church are under construction. But there is some controversy about where to put resources. During the war, people fled the countryside and went to the cities. Angola is one of the heaviest land-mined countries in the world. It is being de-mined, but agriculture remains dangerous. The question is now, should money be put into missions in the country or should it be put into schools and churches in the cities where most of the people are? AMSF is currently putting its funds into building schools rather than giving scholarships to university students, because the forty-year war left two generations of children unschooled. That is the biggest need at the moment. But the missions are prime real estate and could become centers again.
Tyler: While living in Africa, did you regularly return to America to visit, or did you consistently live in Africa as a child and teenager?
Nancy: We returned to America every five years, spent a year in the States, and returned for another five years. My interludes in the States were diverting but I certainly didn’t consider them to be my real life.
Tyler: What made you choose the title “At Home Abroad”?
Nancy: When I was young I thought of Angola as home. But since we went back to my parents’ home in the U.S. every five years on furlough, I quickly realized that the idea of home was a bit more complicated. With the title, I wanted to convey the idea that while I was an American girl, I considered my home to be in Africa. And I wanted to say that what may have seemed exotic and unusual to my American peers was my comfort zone, my home, the place where I could relax.
Tyler: Will you tell us about your adjustment to life when you returned to America. I imagine you underwent quite a culture shock?
Nancy: I didn’t know the phrase culture shock back in 1961, but I sure felt it! One thing I discovered from the survey of missionary kids I conducted before writing this book was that my experience was not at all unusual. Most of the survey respondents had returned to their parents’ country as teenagers and 70% found it to be difficult or mostly difficult. Considering the turbulent nature of adolescence and its task of working out identity, that isn’t too surprising. We had to figure out who we were in relation to this American culture and how we could belong. The concept of “hidden immigrant,” from the book “Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds,” describes our predicament very well. When I returned to American culture, my accent was American Pacific Northwest, learned from my parents, my complexion was white mainstream, and outwardly I seemed American. But internally I viewed life as if I were a foreigner. I didn’t understand cultural references; my worldview was international. I was angry that I’d had to leave Africa; I was angry that newspapers ignored Angola and its struggles. I felt different from my American peers and was sure that difference flashed from my forehead like a beacon.
High school was especially hard. Life improved when I went to college. I understood how to live in a dorm, having lived in them for several years as a child. I was also two years into learning about American culture and two years older. The various social movements of the 1960’s gave me focus and a way to participate in America and live my beliefs in peace, social justice, race and gender equality.
Tyler: Nancy, when did you first realize your cultural differences and the difficulty of identifying with one or any culture?
Nancy: When my family came to the States on furlough when I was 12, I was at a prime age for noticing such things. My only other American schooling had been when I was in first grade. Between then and seventh grade, I either took correspondence school at home or attended a small school (twenty students) for missionary kids. Suddenly I was in a large school with hundreds of students. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance every day to a country that I admired for its freedom and democracy, in great contrast to the authoritarian dictatorship in Angola. I was fascinated with television and music. But I didn’t feel like I was at home. I felt more comfortable with the other missionary kids at the Hartford Seminary compound where we lived than with my classmates. I had great scorn for American provincialism and materialism. Then I would have said, “They don’t know anything about the world and all they care about is having more stuff.” I looked forward to getting back to Angola where everything was familiar and I knew everyone. But once there, it hit me that I wasn’t exactly Portuguese or Angolan either. I felt at home, but I was a foreigner and would have to leave some day. Angola could never be my permanent home. A year and a half later, I went to Rhodesia for high school, to another set of African and European cultures. That move only emphasized my difference. My British dorm mother used to refer to the American kids as being somehow alike, as if that was our salient feature. I would guess that they like me felt more allegiance to the countries we had come from than to our country of nationality.
Tyler: Would you say Africa has changed vastly from what it was like fifty years ago when you lived there?
Nancy: Africa is a totally different continent now. The period of independence from the colonial powers was profoundly exciting to me, if also scary. Africans could finally direct their own destinies and lives. But the record of the colonial powers (Belgium, United Kingdom, France, Portugal, et al) was disgraceful, full of repression and racism and greed. In the case of Angola and Mozambique, the Portuguese had not prepared the colonies for governing. They were given independence suddenly with no transition period after fourteen years of war. Both countries then entered several years of civil war. Finally in 2002, after forty years of war, Angola was at peace. Unfortunately, those who now run Angola learned too well from their colonial master. Angola is a very wealthy country, but the vast wealth from oil and diamonds, used by one side or the other during the wars, continues to line the pockets of the governing class. The amount that goes toward education, health, infrastructure, reintegration of refugees who had fled to surrounding countries during the war years, and all the other needs of the people, is woefully small compared to what is needed. The legacy of colonialism will continue to be felt for a long time.
Tyler: Have you returned to Angola since you lived there as a child?
Nancy: I left Africa with my mother and siblings in 1961 when the war started. A year later my mother returned with my brothers because in the early years of the war fighting was local and it was possible to live there. They all stayed until 1969. My sister and I remained in the U.S. because we were close to graduating from high school. In the summer of 1966, between my junior and senior year in college, I went back to Angola. It was wonderful to be back. My folks lived in Dondi then, a place I had always loved, and we spent some time in Lobito, our former home on the coast. It was a bittersweet summer, walking the paths and beaches of childhood with the knowledge that this might be the last time I’d ever be there. In fact it was my last visit to Angola. My relationship with my mother was difficult. I had been independent for a long time and didn’t want my mother to tell me what to do. At the same time, I would be graduating in a year and I was very apprehensive about what I would do then. All the years of living away from family made it hard for me to depend on them or even ask their advice.
Tyler: Of course, everyone has a story to tell. What about your experience, which is far more unique than many other people have, makes it important to share with others?
Nancy: I hope it speaks to the large group of global nomads, Third Culture Kids, missionary kids, Foreign Service brats, and military brats who had similar experiences growing up. But I also hope it opens a window to the world for Americans who have always lived here. I hope it encourages them to explore the world beyond their door. I hope it gives a more balanced picture of missionary life than Barbara Kingsolver described in her novel, “Poisonwood Bible.” I could never be a missionary, but I very much respected the work and values of my parents and their colleagues.
Tyler: Nancy, your memoir only covers your early life as a child and in college. Why did you end it where you did, and do you have plans of writing the rest of your life as a memoir?
Nancy: I doubt that I will write about my adult life. I do write essays that deal with current life, but I don’t see myself writing a memoir. “At Home Abroad” is a coming of age book. It was during that time that I confronted and in many ways solved the mysteries of dealing with several cultures. I will be marked forever by that experience; I’ll always feel a bit of an outsider, but my life is now a very typical American life.
Tyler: If you could go back and change anything about your experience growing up in Africa, would you?
Nancy: I would wish for more wisdom and self-awareness. I would wish for more empathy for those I hated and scorned. I would never change the fact of growing up where I did and the privilege of knowing the people of my childhood.
Tyler: Thank you for joining me today, Nancy. Before we go, will you tell us where our readers may find more information online about “At Home Abroad: An American Girl in Africa”?
Nancy: I will have a full website (www.nancyhendersonjames.com) by the beginning of March 2009. An abbreviated site (www.test.nancyhendersonjames.com) will be available by mid February. I am on Face Book and will post information about the book there.
Tyler: Thank you, Nancy, for such an educational interview. I wish you much luck with “At Home Abroad: An American Girl in Africa.”