Where is home for an American child in southern Africa?

Certainly not the United States where Henderson-James visited only three times before she was 16. Perhaps not even in Angola where she lived with her missionary parents, for she knew she would have to leave eventually. In this memoir of growing up in colonial Angola, the author learns five languages, goes away to school at nine, and travels 1500 miles for high school in Rhodesia.

cover final1 Where is home for an American child in southern Africa?

At Home Abroad: An American Girl in Africa

In love with Angola, she must leave when war breaks out in 1961 and find her way in an alien America, in her parent’s hometown of Tacoma, Washington.

The summer Henderson-James turned 14 she studied Umbundu, the language of central Angola, with Rebeca Valentim, an Ovimbundu friend. It was her fourth language, beginning with English, the language of her family; Portuguese, the official language of the colony; and French, the colonial language of the Congo next door.

Learning Umbundu was a lifeline, anchoring her to the culture. Her language studies were interrupted by the arrival of an Angolan orphan whom she nurtured for 5 months. Tez, the orphan, arrived a scrawny seven month old, unable to hold up her head, turn over, or smile. By the time Tez was returned to her extended family at age one, she was a sturdy toddler on the verge of walking.

For Henderson-James, understanding the language and knowing the people tied her to Angola in a way that she could never, as a teenager, be attached to her parents’ America.

19 Responses to “Where is home for an American child in southern Africa?”

  1. Hi Nancy,

    I have been listening to your live interview with Reader Views and have just ordered your book to read. I find it so interesting to hear other people’s views and experiences of other African children. I published my memoirs “Born on Friday 13th” in December 2008, and Reader Views was extremely helpful with reviews and interviews for me. I cant wait to read your book. I was born in Kenya, my great grandfather went out there in early 1900′s, as one of the first settlers, and after Independence we emigrated to South Africa and eventually moved to the UK when I was 16 in 1966, and I certainly suffered the same thing you did, fitting in with other British teenagers.

    I never could settle in England, although I am British. I lived in France for thirteen years and eventually came over to the US on 9/11, spending 5 days in Gander, NF with 10,000 others. I think of Kenya as my home, and have returned on two occasions as a tourist, and I even returned to our beautiful hotel in the Highlands, but all is so different now, and so sad. The strip of tarmac that was laid through our small village has never been re-done so the road has these occasional mounds of tarmac in the now dirt road.

    I love it here in the Virginia, with all the space; I think far more so than I like England which I always found so claustrophobic and overcrowded.

    I wish you the very best of luck with your book, and I looked at the date of your launch, would love to come to it, but unfortunately it is one of our busiest weekends of the year. I would love to meet you and maybe one day….

    Anna Murray

  2. Nancy Henderson-James says:

    Thank you for your encouraging words. This book has put me in touch with so many folks with Africa connections, a real bonus!

  3. JANE SHOAF says:

    Nan–I hate to be this late in telling you I can’t be at the book launching this afternoon. Family matters came up which require my attention, so I can’t be there for the big event. However, I want to buy your book for me to read and then pass on to my granddaughter, Brianna, age 15 who lives in RI. She’s a great reader who will devour it, I’m sure. Thanks for including me in the plans, and I know all of you will have a delightful afternoon. I hope to see you soon.
    Love, –Jane Shoaf.,

  4. miranda says:

    V interesting interview.Thankyou. In Africa the land owns the people
    In America the people own the land

  5. Nancy says:

    I like that! May I quote you?

  6. Larry Ashley says:

    I’m out here in La Jolla with Chris, and we were discussing your book, so thought I’d write.
    I enjoyed the book very much. It left me with a lasting (several days) nostalgia and somehow a sense of loss. I was, several times, reminded of A.E. Housman’s elegaic and sad reflections on life love and loss. Are you a fan of his? The lines I remember best and bothered to memorize, from Poem 40:

    Into my heart an air that kills
    From yon far country blows:
    What are those blue remembered hills,
    What spires, what farms are those?

    That is the land of lost content,
    I see it shining plain,
    The happy highways where I went
    And cannot come again.

    This may sound negative, which I don’t mean to be, but I suggesting that the loss of things, community, people(Tez), country, home etc with which you deal so directly were the dominant character of my experience of your book.

    Write some time. I feel reconnected. Chris would like to hear from you as well.
    We are both also saddened by the loss of Ki. Hope you are all accommodating to her absence.

  7. Annah-Pauline Ferguson-Buxcey says:

    Congratulations!! Looking forward to seeing you at the Angola Reunion in July and buying and reading your book. I am sure it will bring back a lot of memories of my own from Angola and from my own adjustments when coming to Canada suddenly at the age of 15 years due to my father’s illness. I see Angola as my homeland and yet feel I really belong in Canada now which I also love. My husband I know will read your book too. He was suddenly brought to Canada when 11 years from England and had to adjust to a country that “talked funny” and to leave his precious Grandparents who had raised him until 7 years of age. He is also a writer and working at his first novel. See you soon. Annah

  8. Page After Page Bookstore says:

    Greetings from Page after Page Bookstore! We would love to have you come to our store to discuss and sign your book ” At Home Abroad: An American Girl in Africa”. Please contact us to schedule.


  9. Guerra says:

    Hello Nancy,
    I am Guerra, an Angolan national residing in the United States, and I am the Executive Director of SHAREcircle (SHARE). SHARE is working on establishing a university in Kuito city, the capital of Bie province of Angola. One of the volunteers from one of our university project commitees brought your book to my attention, and I am looking forward to reading it, and she advised that I contact you. Therefore, I was wondering if there would be a way we could communicate. I enjoyed learning that, in addition to other languages, you can speak Umbundu.
    More information about SHARE and its university project is available at http://www.sharecircle.org and http://www.angolauniversity.org, respectively.
    Best wishes!

  10. This is a gorgeous site that draws one closer and closer to the story and the experience of those reading her story. Hope to attending a reading soon. Especially enjoyed Pat Schneider’s description, but then she was my teacher and is such a spiritual expression of life herself.

  11. Nancy says:

    Thank you all for the words of support. The reading at the Regulator on August 25 drew a large crowd of people full of questions. Check out the Upcoming Events for a reading near you.

  12. Courtney says:


    I had the good fortune to read your book while spending a few days in NC with Pam W and Sally R. The sharp imagery you used to describe the haunts of your childhood enabled me to see, hear, smell, taste and touch places I have never visited. But mostly, I was moved by your story and your courage.

    Congratulations on your book and best wishes for continued connections with others who read it.


  13. Nancy says:

    Good to hear from you, Courtney. At a Congo reunion a couple of weeks ago, I met a man who turned out to have lived in the same hostel in Southern Rhodesia as I did, but he arrived right after I left. We reminisced about living with the Gleggs.

  14. karol neufeld says:

    Hi, Nancy. I just ordered two books using my husband’s Paypal account. I’m excited about getting to read At Home Abroad since I feel as if “I knew you when.” I’m sorry I haven’t gotten to any of your appearances, but perhaps our paths will cross yet. Congratulations on the success of your book!

  15. Karen Kemling Tullos says:

    Hi Nancy,
    My sister Ruthanne loaned me your book to read and what a flood of memories it brought back. How cool to read a book that has me in it! Even though I grew up in Mozambique (Portuguese East Africa)my experiences were so very much like yours when I returned to USA and the experience affected my personality in similar ways. I returned to USA when I was sixteen also. It had to be much more difficult for you since you were sent away to boarding school at such a young age. We didn’t go until we were 12 or 13. That made a big difference. Also, our folks didn’t return to Africa and leave us behind. They had planned to but apparently (I didn’t find this out until later) Mom told Dad that she couldn’t leave us behind and if he felt he had to return she would stay in America with her children. He wasn’t willing to do that so they ended their missionary service after 2 terms. I have lost touch with all the kids I knew at AMF–Mary Seager, Barbara Schaad, David and John Persons, Melvin and Jerry Noah, Terry and Melden Houser,Kenny Enright and Graham and Rosemary (don’t remember their last name) from Australia. We left Africa in 1963 just as things were getting heated up all over. I have never been back.

  16. Nancy says:

    I’ve often thought about the Kemlings and wondered where they were. I’m very glad to hear from you.

  17. Nancy says:

    Dondi was the epicenter of UCC work in Angola, a jewel of a mission. It will be wonderful to see it begin to be restored to use.

  18. Nancy Hazard says:

    Hi Nancy,
    I cannot wait to read your book!!
    I still cherish the stool you brought back from Africa and gave to me!!!
    While I did not grow up abroad, I have lived in a couple of other countries for a few years each, and for whatever reason the USA has never really felt like “home” to me – and so it will be interesting exploring your voyage and your insights.

  19. Nancy says:

    Wow, this is a nice surprise. My last memory of getting together was in Brooklyn in 1973. I’d love to catch up. Did you want me to send you a book or are you getting it in another fashion?

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