Of Coat Hangers, Red Earth, and “Home”

In 1992, more than thirty years after I left the African continent, I returned for the first time. As my plane landed in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, the city where I was born, I was overcome with emotion, as though I had finally arrived home after a long absence. For the previous 31 years, I had lived quite happily in the United States – finished high school, graduated from college and graduate school, pursued a writing and editorial career, married, and raised two children. Home has been here in the U.S. since 1961; why was I overcome with emotion when I set foot again in the country and city of my birth?

I thought about these emotions this past week when two very different things reminded me of my childhood in Africa. First there was an unexpected response to my blog from someone who went to the same school I did in Zambia. Thanks to the Internet, Jane had happened across the blog when she was searching for “Beit School,” the name of the school we attended in Choma. We were even there at the same time for a couple years. Unfortunately I don’t remember her; she is three years younger than I am and therefore probably was not in my circle of closest friends.

We e-mailed back and forth a couple times, and I found out a little more of her story. Jane and her family moved around a good bit, and she went to several different schools in both Zambia and Zimbabwe. Shortly after her marriage, she and her husband moved to the United Kingdom where she has lived ever since. In 2000, when white-owned land in Zimbabwe was being seized by the government and other vigilantes, her farmer parents were attacked and beaten; they soon left the country and also moved to the U.K. Jane was prompted to do her Internet search by an episode of the TV show called “Who Do You Think You Are?” which was narrated by a South African journalist born in Zambia. The show made her think about how she has never felt like she belonged anywhere; the one time she went back to Zimbabwe in the 1990s, she knew she didn’t belong there. And she doesn’t feel like she’s really “at home” in the U.K.

Then there was the coat hanger. A few weeks ago, a friend (a missionary kid himself) who has been working in Zambia for the past several years returned to the U.S. for a few weeks. He e-mailed me to say he had a coat hanger in his possession with the name H. A. Sider printed on it. Would that be me? He and his wife found it in the house where they’ve been living at Macha Hospital in Zambia.

DSC00080Of course it’s me (H. A. Sider = Harriet Alice Sider, my birth name), but how did a coat hanger with my name on it end up in his house? The hanger was probably one I carried back and forth with me to Beit School. There were lists of items boarders were supposed to take to school and everything had to be labeled with each student’s name. The list may have included a certain number of hangers. The last place our family lived before we returned to the U.S. was Macha Mission. I’m sure my mother didn’t think there was any need to transport hangers across the Atlantic Ocean and so this hanger stayed in the main mission house at Macha after we left. (She made similar decisions about other items that I regret more than her decision not to bring this hanger – like my Raggedy Ann doll which would have far more sentimental and potential monetary value!) As various people came and went out of that house in subsequent years, the contents were likely shuffled among the other houses on the Macha Mission compound. Eventually it ended up in the house where Chris and Marlys live; they recognized the name on it and decided to reunite it with its owner.

DSC00081So this week I took possession of the coat hanger again. It’s not in the best shape and it certainly isn’t fancy – just a simple curved piece of wood with a long nail threaded through a hole and bent for the hook. The nail/hook is loose and doesn’t stay in place. My name is faded. Most people wouldn’t take a second look at it. But it’s still a “working” coat hanger and it brings back a flood of memories from those days when everything I owned had my name on it, when I was in boarding school with girls like Jane.

In her e-mail, Jane sent me a link to a poem called “Homeland.” The author was also born in Africa, and Jane resonated with the feelings expressed in the poem. I did too. The poem talks about “flame-coloured earth” and “blood-red clay beneath my feet,” and in those phrases unwittingly connects with my coat hanger from Macha. In my memory, one of the distinguishing features of Macha Mission, where the coat hanger lived for more than fifty years, was its red earth. My brother and I used to play in that red dirt, building towns for his collections of Dinky Toy cars and trucks and accessories.

The title of the poem is key to its meaning and emotional impact. For many people who were born in Africa and/or spent a significant chunk of their lives there, it will always be “home,” and they would identify immediately with these lines: “Home of my heart. Land of my birth” and “Never complete. Never whole./White skin and African soil.” I’ve heard former missionaries to Africa talk about how the continent and its people captured their hearts and they left part of themselves there when they returned to North America. I think my dad was like that; if it had been totally up to him, he would have been perfectly happy to have spent the rest of his life in Africa and be buried there. He would have understood deep within him those words, “Home of my heart.”

The poem and the feelings it captures also help to explain my own emotions as I landed in Zimbabwe in 1992 after having been gone for more than 30 years. I’ve had a good life in the U.S. and I love my family and the country of which I am a citizen and that I call home, but there’s a part of my heart that is still in Africa and still calls it home too.

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8 thoughts on “Of Coat Hangers, Red Earth, and “Home”

  1. I hold on to stuff that makes little sense–except that it does make coat hanger sense. A dried fruit–what we used to call a kaffir orange. (No idea what the proper name is.) A seed from the flamboyant tree. Reminders of home.

  2. Harriet, I’ve been thinking of Africa a lot in the last few days and of my MCC years in Botswana. I struggled mightily during those years, primarily because I was too immature and unsure of myself and I thought I’d never want to go back. But now, every time I read of African farmers or see pictures of life and land there, I have tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. It seems that is what Africa will do to anyone who will let it. Have you read the book, The Last Hunger Season, a story of farming and change in Kenya? You will be moved, I think…And lastly, would you post the poem you wrote of?

  3. On Sat, 27 Jul 2013 13:20:53 +0000 Pieces of Peace writes: harrietbicksler posted: “In 1992, more than thirty years after I left the African continent, I returned for the first time. As my plane landed in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, the city where I was born, I was overcome with emotion, as though I had finally arrived home after a long absence.”

  4. The late John Stott commented that once you have tasted the waters of Africa you must return to quench your thirst. It was emotional for me returning as a wdow in 2002 (in lieu of a 50th wedding anniversary celebration) ruminating on how green and inexperienced Pete and I were when we arrived in 1950 and the many things that endeared the place to our hearts.
    It is cheaper to die there.

  5. Harriet, I arrived in Bulawayo 9 years after you left and have been in and out numerous times since (between Zambia and Zimbabwe mostly). Returned to the US less than a year ago and that thirst Mim wrote about continues. Thanks for sharing your reminiscences. Already missing some of the things I left behind, but really what are things in comparison to the wonderful people that are my friends. Phyllis

  6. We are all ‘wanderes’ seeking that special place to call home! I and my brother were born there too in the sixties- he lives in canada now and I in Germany. I have lived in britain too.
    But now in the Autumn of my life I long for the African Soil and Foliage and fresh air and blue skies!
    Reading your article has convinced me to go back one more time-God willing!
    God bless you all ex-Rhodesians everywhere!

    • Thanks, Sam, for this comment. There definitely is something about Africa that stays in our blood and our souls.

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