The Bar J Wranglers were on stage near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, doing their western thing and interrupted their banjo and guitar music to ask the audience “Where’re you-all fraaahm?“. We were on holiday in the States, somewhere during the late 90s, and had decided to test the Bar J Chuckwagon for the “authentic” western experience and cuisine. The cowboy was thrilled that people had travelled from as far as California and New York, but then spotted us lurking in the background and asked us, too. He was a bit stunned when all five of us responded at the same time, with “South Africa“, “Holland” and “Ghana“! He was at a loss for words, couldn’t respond with anything wiser than “wow” and continued with the show. It’s possible he didn’t believe us because we were speaking English. (Just to explain, we were all born in South Africa, but also have Dutch nationality due to our parentage, were living in Ghana at the time, and had travelled to the US via Holland.)
This situation explains the dilemma (trilemma? confusion?) that I experience whenever I am asked where I’m from or where home is. (On that day in Jackson Hole, our home was a cheap tent that we’d bought in a K-Mart, erected on a thin layer of grass covering a boulder bed near the Snake River. Not the most comfortable of beds, but great views of the magnificent Grand Teton range!)
So, where is our usual “home”? Well, it’s a moving target. In an earlier post, you may have read about my somewhat confused heritage and that I spent most of my early years growing up in South Africa. Johannesburg, to be specific. And so I still consider myself a “Jo’burg boykie”, even though my boyhood lies many moons in the past. Decades, actually. For many years, we lived in the northern suburb of Norwood, which then housed quite a few immigrant families, like ourselves. That house, in Nellie Road, is probably the first place that I really remember as my home.
My parents were constantly improving and reconstructing this place, so that by the time they moved out, decades later, it was literally unrecognisable from the way it was when they bought it. Nellie Road is a cul-de-sac where we could ride our pushcarts down to the park, or play with other kids. From this house my brother and I walked to primary school in the adjoining suburb of Orchards, or took the municipal buses towards Johannesburg itself when we progressed to high school.
After high school, this house remained my home when I started attending university. I drove my blue VW Beetle to and from class and sometimes my bicycle, in the days when I felt fit and participated in a pedal car racing team. (There’s a different story, for another time…)
Anyway, through my childhood and up until graduation, Johannesburg was “home”. After that, it became complicated… I married Marina after I graduated and we moved into a cottage behind the house of my in-laws, in Krugersdorp, west of Johannesburg. However, I can’t remember spending much time there, since I started work for a mining company as an exploration geologist, and then lived in a caravan and one or two small town hotel rooms in the country, near to the places where I did fieldwork. None of these were “home”, I was just marking time (and earning a few bucks) in the months before I was scheduled to join the army for two years of compulsory national service.
In the army, you are allocated a bed in a room (or tent) along with a few dozen other unfortunates, but trust me, it’s not a very “homey” situation. Although, we did learn to clean our living space much better than anywhere I’ve ever lived before, or after. And to make a “square” bed to satisfy our corporal for the morning’s inspection. After basic training and some coursework, however, I got an office job and managed to get a “sleep out pass”. Marina and I then made a flat in Pretoria our home, for a year or so.
With my national service completed, we moved to the town of Potgietersrus (now renamed Makopane) and occupied a house rented by the company. This was a real “home” where I mowed the lawn and where we started our family. I had a second “home” during this time, a CI Contractor caravan that I stayed in during the weeks away from home, doing mineral exploration in the far north of the country.
Late in 1984 we relocated to a town called Springs, closer to Johannesburg. Another company house, large and old and comfortable. I can’t remember mowing any lawn there, but I do remember raking up mountains of leaves from the poplar trees in and around the garden. Oh, and the place was homey enough to add to our family.
A couple of years later I changed jobs and, having initiated the third addition to our family during a holiday in Mauritius, we moved back to the West Rand. I took a housing loan from the company and we built our own home. Technically, we contracted a builder to do it, but since he went bankrupt halfway through, before we even had a roof, we had to finish a lot of work with sub-contractors. I learnt a lot in this process, notably that you really do not want to be a tiler who has done shoddy work, in a discussion with Marina!
1994 saw us moving to Ghana, our home for the next 6 years. Very good years. Lots of work-related stress, but also a fantastic experience for the entire family. But even in that relatively short period of time, we moved house a number of times as the company first expanded and then contracted. We started in a space shared with the office, then lived in a succession of another three houses. Eventually the company started withdrawing from the country, the family moved to The Netherlands, and for the last few months in Ghana, my home was once again in a house shared with the office.
While I was finishing off in Ghana, Marina and the boys stayed in a very tiny house that was actually rented by a niece who didn’t need it because she was staying with her boyfriend. I am sure none of us ever considered that place a home. It was so small that when I visited from Ghana, we had to re-arrange the beds and spare mattresses so that one of the boys had to sleep with his feet sticking into the corridor. Fortunately, just before I finally left Ghana myself, we found a lovely house in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, which was our real home for more than 15 years. This is where we lived while the boys finished school, went off to university, etc.
During 2005 I moved back to Ghana for another 3 years and I stayed in a small apartment, with Marina and sometimes the boys visiting for a couple of weeks at a time. This was the start of my consulting career during which I spent time in many countries, mostly in Africa, but also in countries like Colombia and Mongolia. I spent lots of time in hotels or furnished apartments, and even started to feel at home in the hands of KLM and a few other airlines.
During these consulting years the base was still Eindhoven, but from the beginning of 2015 I started a long-term project in Zambia and moved into a house here in Lusaka. Marina joined from early 2017 and now we are already in the third house here.
I’ve written a lot about the places where we have lived, but you will notice that I have not focused on the actual buildings. That is because the house (or tent) is not the most important part of a home. “Home” is best described by the last picture for today, taken a couple of years ago, in a B&B near Amsterdam: