When We Were Young in Africa by Carol Claxon Polsgrove

“O waste of lost, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this weary, unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?

O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.”

― Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel

Carol Polsgrove was born Carol Claxon in Kentucky, in the 1940s. When she was three years old her parents signed on with the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board. They applied to go to Hawaii, but God had other plans and they were invited to Africa. Carol’s story begins as the only child aboard a Norwegian ship on the vast ocean, bound for the Gold Coast.

I should tell you right here that this is not a story about abuse, even though I am featuring the book on my blog about abuse. It is, however, a story about loss and grieving and sacrifice, things all of us MKs can relate to.

MKs often feel like fractured people, with many different lives somehow stitched roughly together. Very often the pieces can’t fit at all, the edges rub painfully, and one or more of them must be cast away completely. This way we lose a part of our life and a part of ourselves. This book shows a journey that begins to fit those parts back together to make a whole person.

Carol has a fantastic memory not just for events but for the underlying feelings and sensations she experienced as a child. This is supplemented by letters written by her parents to their families in Kentucky, and by her own letters written from boarding school. It wasn’t until after her mother’s death that Carol really began to explore these memories. Until then she had played the game so many of us missionary kids know, fitting into American society as best we can and not mentioning “that part” of our story.

The Claxon family started out living in the Gold Coast, a British colony that would become present day Ghana. From there they moved to Nigeria, and then frequently around that country, living in Iwo, Oyo, Ibadan and Lagos. Carol also went school in Oshogbo, and every three years they traveled back to spend time in the United States. It is the familiar story of a nomadic existence that doesn’t allow attachments or friendships to form.

You can feel the richness and beauty of Carol’s life as a young girl growing up in Africa. This was a country full of rocks to slide on, trees to hang from, fairy pools, bright flowers and foliage and tropical fruits ripe for the eating. Many of the hardships that bothered her parents, like dust, insects and snakes, were just considered a part of life, and the way things were. Many find this concept hard to grasp. I still get people today remarking on how strange and wonderful it must have been to grow up in Nigeria. Nope, not strange at all. It was normal life for me.

It took years of experience, an adult viewpoint, and a look at the correspondence of her parents for Carol to realize the veins of sadness and sometimes desperation underlying their lives. Each of her parents on separate occasions received letters from home telling them one of their own parents had died. The family suffered chronic pain with a lack of health and dental care. Superhuman demands were placed on them by a workload that seemed like enough to keep several families busy, and by their account was placing them at times under “terrible strain.” Trade offs had to be made in order to survive on a very limited amount of money in a world that kept getting more expensive. Her brother Billy fell ill at the early age of four months, and suffered with severe illnesses for the rest of his childhood.

I think many of our missionary parents suffered similar hardships of an overworked schedule, constant travel, lack of health care and the stress of adapting to a tropical lifestyle. It is a credit to them that many of us kids had no idea what they were going through. They managed to create a stable and worry free home life for their children, in spite of their own duress.

Carol spent two years at Newton, a Southern Baptist boarding school in Oshogbo. On the surface her time there seems full of activity and enrichment, packed with lessons, plays, music, boyfriends, sports, and an active social life. It took some digging into the memories to uncover the hidden feelings of confusion, over-stimulation and loss of control. I can relate so much to the whirlwind of going from a solitary life as the only child on a mission compound (my sisters were both older so I was left at home for two years) to a highly structured school with hundreds of classmates and lots and lots of rules.

If you are from a Southern Baptist mission, or are in any of the Nigerian MK groups on social media, you will recognize many of the names of Carol’s playmates and classmates.

One of the casualties of the lack of health care was that Carol was not properly treated for an eye condition called strabismus. Because her brain is unable to fuse two images coming in at different angles, she has no depth perception. As an adult she reflects that this is “an appropriate disability for a girl growing up on two continents.”

The majority of MKs will go on at length about how fortunate and blessed we all are, and how rich our experience as children. This is true, but it denies the other side of the story, which is that every missionary and every MK necessarily experienced great loss and sadness, and sometimes worse. It is a tough journey to fuse these parts together. I appreciate Carol so much for her truthfulness and transparency as she tells her story.