The Upside of an Unrooted Childhood

Using the term “unrooted childhood” to describe my early years along with describing the difficulty of my “re-entry” might suggest that there was more negative than positive about my missionary kid experience, and that’s not really true. I have never regretted the childhood I had and know that I have been enriched in ways that might not have been possible had I lived the same place my whole life.

I have lots of pleasant memories of my childhood, including (in no particular order):

  • Riding my bike whenever (and almost wherever) I wanted, without fear of traffic or any other hazards. At one mission station, I had a favorite route that included a long loop out into the bush. At another, I remember riding over what I thought was a stick and then looking back and seeing that it was actually a snake. I waited a long time before I came back the same way! I must have ridden barefoot sometimes because I also remember seriously stubbing my big toe while riding.
  • Climbing trees. My memories say that the trees I climbed as a child were much better suited for that purpose than the trees we commonly have in our neighborhoods here in the eastern U.S. At any rate, climbing trees – and sometimes eating lemons picked off the tree we were climbing – was another favorite pastime.
  • Always having pet cats. I once had two male cat siblings who had been transported as kittens to where we lived from another mission station. They were wild and scared of human contact, but I patiently and persistently befriended them until they became tame and loving cats. They even allowed me to dress them up in my doll clothes, although once one cat took off through the corn field fully dressed; when he came back he still had the clothes on although they were a tad disheveled. When we moved, we took the cats with us, but because they were “housed” for the trip in the same container, they developed an intense hatred of each other and fought ferociously from then on.
  • Climbing the rocks at Matopo Mission. My MK friend Donna Climenhaga Wenger was inspired by my recent MK memories to write her own blog post about the rocks in the Matopo Hills in Zimbabwe. Read it and you’ll understand why I too loved climbing these rocks.
  • Playing in the river at Mtshabezi Mission. I have often wondered whether there was any danger of crocodiles in that river like there was in the river at another mission station where we lived. Certainly my brother and I never worried about crocodiles. During the dry season, there often wasn’t much water in the river, so it was fun to find small areas of quicksand and let our feet sink down in the sand. (Lest you think I was risking my life, this was not the kind of quicksand that could swallow up a person!)
  • Riding the train through South Africa and back and forth from Southern to Northern Rhodesia. Think Pullman sleeping cars. We had our own compartment with three bunks on either side and a table in the middle which folded up to reveal a small sink with running water. Most of the time we brought our own food, but sometimes we ate in the dining car. Traveling by train always felt like a luxury.
  • Learning to play the piano. I had wanted to learn to play the piano for many years and finally had my opportunity when for my first year of high school I went to the recently opened missionary boarding hostel called Youngways. The houseparents were Pete and Mim Stern, and Mim gave piano lessons to all the children at the hostel, including me. That one year at Youngways was a more positive boarding school experience; for one thing, I was among other MKs, including my brother, and for another, the general atmosphere was far more nurturing and positive.
  • Playing Scrabble with other missionaries. I actually don’t remember playing Scrabble with my MK friends, although maybe I did. But I do remember with great appreciation being welcomed to join the adults when they played. Whether they felt slowed down by this child playing with them, they never said, and I credit a lot of the modest skill I have at Scrabble to those years of playing as a child with the missionary aunties and uncles.
  • Victoria Falls from the Zimbabwe side. (Thanks to Eugene Wingert, another MK friend, from whose Facebook page I stole this photo.

    Sightseeing at Victoria Falls. I remember the giant baobab tree, the David Livingstone statue, hiking down to the Boiling Point, crossing the iconic bridge by train. I loved it whenever our family took the time if we were traveling by car to stop and enjoy what is an amazing place and still one of my favorite places on earth.

Admittedly, many of these memories aren’t unique to a childhood in Africa, but I describe them to illustrate that despite some of the challenges of being a missionary kid, I wouldn’t want to trade my childhood for anyone else’s. Besides these pleasant memories (that make me nostalgic and wishing I could take a literal trip down memory lane), I believe my childhood on another continent helped make me less ethnocentric, more globally literate and aware of the needs of people in other parts of the world, and more likely to want to understand other points of view. In short, I believe that my childhood is one of my “pieces of peace.”

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2 thoughts on “The Upside of an Unrooted Childhood

  1. Loved those trains. In fact, when my husband and I visited South Africa last December, we contemplated a transit route of landing in J-burg then training down to Capetown. In the end, we didn’t but the thought was very very tempting.
    Trees–yes. Trees here are usually denuded of lower branches. And the orange and lemon groves at Matopo Mission were a favorite play area. I recall sitting in the trees eating citrus.
    Bike riding–another fun thing. And all the places to place–rivers, dams, bush.
    Too too many memories. But, as you say, very much the pleasant balance to the more agonizing effects of separation.

  2. We also enjoyed the train. In 1988 they were still running and worth riding. We asked our oldest where we should go on holiday (we lived in Bulawayo). he said, “I don’t care, so long as we take the train.” We went up to the Falls. Vic Falls is as close to where I began this life as no matter — born in Livingstone — and pictures of the Falls are (to me) pictures of my own beginning. And the rocks at Matopo! Wonderful. There were indeed many good things as well in the life we had growing up.

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