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CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize

"Where I Am From" by Sarah Habben

In this shortlisted story for the 2014 CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize, a "foreign" land becomes girl's real home over years of a vibrantly lived childhood. 

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Here is a fistful of memories from my first five years of life: 

The smell of warm pine needles as I ride my father’s shoulders in the Colorado Rockies. Counting to 100 for my kindergarten teacher. Paddy Paws panting and expelling glistening sacks of kittens in the middle of the night. Wobbling triumphantly on a 2-wheeler in the church parking lot. 

And a single breakfast. Sunlight drips down the walls like honey and lights up the crumbs on the table, slides along the rings of milk. My dad sits back in his chair and gives my mom a sidelong glance. She is scrubbing a patch of counter by the coffee pot. She looks tired and nervous and resigned, the way some women look just before they tell you they are pregnant. My dad’s announcement is along those lines, life-changing and non-negotiable. But bigger. He drums his fingers once against the dark table top. He smiles at me and my siblings. He says, “Who wants to go live in Africa?”

We arrived in Malawi, “the Warm Heart of Africa” in 1980, at the tail-end of the rainy season. My new classmates were Malawians and fellow nomads whose parents had asked them, rhetorically: Who wants to go live in Africa? We had blown in from all corners of the world: the offspring of teachers and missionaries and specialists in irrigation, infrastructure, disease, and nutrition. Oblivious to whatever enormous odds our parents faced, we gulped and entered the world of international school: buttoning into crisp blue and white uniforms that smelled like Indian stores and mothballs, and that were quickly thinned and faded by the impartial African sun. 

Our countries of origin lingered in our vowels and the way our tongues worked around an R, but in play we were unbiased, plundering nature for our entertainment. 

Our uniforms could not hide our differences: the awkward legs that extended from sagging white socks were every shade from clotted cream to scuffed ebony. Nor did any two lunch boxes smell the same. Their contents were geometrically packed and summarily traded: ochre curries and limp samosas swapped for clumpy peanut butter sandwiches or dark swatches of seaweed draped over mounds of rice. Seasonal fruit was the common denominator: the ubiquitous naartjie, peeled in a spray of citrus, segmented, and cursorily inspected for the milky twitch of maggots; mangoes whose bitter skin we ripped off with our teeth, whose flesh we sucked away right down to the pale bone.

Our countries of origin lingered in our vowels and the way our tongues worked around an R, but in play we were unbiased, plundering nature for our entertainment. Pitiless entomologists, we squatted next to finger-sized holes in the dirt and used a cylinder of grass as both rod and bait to fish out unwary camel worms. The grubs had fearsome heads and a hump on their backs that was armed with tiny teeth. Hauled into the light, they would attack anything that moved, snapping their tail over their heads like a bludgeon. If two were caught, we set them in a dusty ring to fight to the death: a purple, swollen affair. 

In the wet season we chased torrents of slick brown rainwater through the gutters and crouched over puddles that speedily hosted twitching ecosystems. One year, those of us with tolerant parents raised lab rats. The babies were snow-white and no bigger than our thumbs, at least for the first week. They had deep pink eyes, ears as soft as new leaves, delicate claws. We brought them to school and shut them inside our desks, sliding a book over our ink wells so that no escapees would dismantle the day’s lessons. We dropped the tiny, warm creatures down our shirt fronts during recess, and they ran in frantic circles around our waistbands until we were breathless with giggling. A few months later, my own two rat pups had become large, greasy, yellow adults…and not both male as we had thought. They produced litters of their own; so many that we stopped naming them and had to toss the babies, naked, blind and chirping, into the maize field for passing predators.

Though we would not have recognized the term, many of us were third-culture-kids in the making: unconsciously assimilating elements of both our parents’ culture and the one we lived in, yet belonging to neither. That realization, and its repercussions, would come later. For now, we laughed and fought, bragged and wooed and betrayed each other. We never asked each other where we were from. Our lives revolved around recess, around the seasons, around our lunch-box trades. We were from Lilongwe, Malawi at that moment, which was the only moment that counted.

At age 13 I transferred to a secondary school some 300 kilometers from my home town. My dorm mistress pinned me with her pale blue eyes. “Where are you from?” 

“Lilongwe,” I replied, without pause. The city had been my home for the last 8 years. 
Miss C. snorted.
 
“No. Where are you FROM?” 

I hesitated, then repeated myself. Implicit in my answer were my filed-away UNICEF projects on deforestation and water conservation. My wardrobe of uniforms. The mango tree in my backyard whose branches my siblings and I climbed and looted and sailed. The revolving door of friends who returned to their distant origins after a few years in Malawi; they never spoke of their exodus as going but as leaving

Miss C. gave an exasperated sigh. Her fair British skin was perpetually sunburned and sublimely freckled. Her little eyes drilled holes into mine. I was either being cheeky or appallingly dim.

“Weren't you born in the United States?”

“Well, er, yes. In Colorado. Miss.“

“You see?” Miss C. elbowed her nearby co-worker, “I told you she was an American.”  

It was the first time I realized that my birth country was meant to be significant and personal; that my parent’s nationality was somehow mine as well. That my home was not the same thing as where I was from. Of course I knew I wasn't African: a bike ride along village paths would bring Malawian children spilling out like marbles and screaming, “Asungu!” White person! And if I stopped, myriads of dark hands, heedless of the equatorial cliché, would grab and tug my incongruous hair. Still, up until that moment, I had felt I belonged in Africa as much as anyone else I knew. I had clambered into Aunty Africa’s arms long ago, laying my head on her breast to hear the beat of her warm heart. I never supposed I was anything but another of her adopted children. She winked at my appearance, blowing the same sweet, dusty breath on me as everyone, blessing us with her rains, and pulling mangoes from the folds of her impartial bosom for us all: those of her womb, the orphans, and the exiles alike.

In 1990, when I was 15, my dad gathered us in the living room and made another life-changing and non-negotiable announcement. We were returning to the States. My stomach and my heart swapped spots with a lurch. How had I not seen this coming? How many of my friends had heard the same pronouncement in their own living rooms? And yet the truth snagged me out of my hole of willing ignorance and flipped me through the air to land, lost and bristling and exposed.

They are Canadian, my daughters; for now. Their nostalgia will come in the colour of mountain summits and canola fields. And me? 

I completed my education in the Midwest. I was surrounded by Caucasians, fair-skinned and light-eyed: like me. I had never felt so alien. After the novelty of my accent, my foreign phrases, my tall tales wore off, after I boned up on the decade I had missed and pinned my jean cuffs and could mimic breeziness, I held the memory of Malawi protectively below the surface, felt its beating heart and tiny scrabble for purchase in my tilting world. Where was I from? It was a question I could not find words to answer. As a child I had buried and mourned butterflies and bunnies and dogs, but this loss of my not-a-home was a bereavement that built a nest in my heart. There it gave birth to emotions, naked and squealing and helpless, that I learned to examine in solitude.

Now, decades later, those little clawed feet have ceased their pricking, aimless circles. Many of my memories have been picked over or snatched up by the passing years. Those that survive have swelled with a significance they never had at the time. It is these familiars that I hold in my palm and put through their tricks when my own children beg me, “Tell us about when you were little.” 

They are Canadian, my daughters; for now. Their nostalgia will come in the colour of mountain summits and canola fields. And me? One of my passports identifies me as Canadian; the other as American. And yet a whiff of wood smoke and dust, or a certain bend of sunlight on a blue school wall, or a pile of green mangoes far from their parent tree can still make me turn my head and sigh for a place that I once was from.

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