I could answer this by saying Croydon in south London where I was born. Only my parents moved from there before I had any memory of the place. They lived for a time in Herne Bay on the Essex coast where my sister was born but unlikely she would remember that place either because we were soon on our way back to south London, Hern Hill this time. Then from there to Hartlepool in the frozen north where a different language must be learned in a hurry, and then back to London, this time to Palmers Green in the posh northern suburbs.
So you could say I come from London… ish. Not a true cockney of course and sufficiently messed with accent wise to give the game away.
When people ask, that is what I say, I come from North London, mostly as I can remember that place.
When I was in my mid-twenties I got on a plane and moved to Zimbabwe.
Clearly not satisfied with the vagrancy of my youth, I opted for a big getaway that ended up lasting nearly a decade in Africa and is still going in the Antipodes. Almost before the plane touched down among the blossoming jacaranda trees of a vibrant Harare in its 1980’s livery that still worked for most of the people, I felt something homely. A sense of place.
At the time I put it down to youthful enthusiasm and excitement for the adventure. When it kept coming I noted it. I did feel comfort here. It was more than the friendly people and the stunning nature that was a European ecologists fantasy. It was a feeling in your gut that you were close to the truth. Near to something very important.
I travelled to the bush as often as I could and in the Brachystegia woodlands or among the leadwood and apple ring acacias on the banks of the Zambezi River or the majestic granite dwalas of the Matopos, the feeling kept coming. A sense of calm and peace that became a sense of belonging.
All the while I was reminded of the reality of my temporary status. A year-long residence permit with a renewal process that took six months did not even cover the postdoctoral research contract. There was very little pay and the tension of a struggling economy still limping after a decade of sanctions was starting to hurt folk. Most of the cars were older than I was and there was always one failed rainy season short of a food shortage. Yet even though I was alive to the reality of being a temporary guest, this feeling of place grew stronger.
After a couple of years of this delight, I moved again. This time to a more stable situation in Botswana, the next country along. This time the two-year contract was a little easier to renew and the salary was generous enough for a very comfortable life.
On one of the first explorations of the drier yet still magnificent acacia shrub of the granite sands, mopane woodlands in the north and desert grasslands of the Kalahari, I went to the easternmost arm of the Okavango Delta past Mababe village into a place of lush grasslands and mature acacia trees known as the Mababe Depression. This is a place where the water from the delta sometimes goes when the flood is strongest. It is a wilderness of the finest style, impala and sable and even roan mixing it with giraffe and elephant drawn to the water and the sweet grasses, a place to know where you come from.
As I got out of the truck and stood on the sandy clay in awe and gratitude that feeling came to me like never before. A powerful vibrancy in every cell just telling me that this is the place. This is where you are from. And for a moment I wasn’t in my body, I was in the grass and the trees and the impala grazing quietly in front of me.
It all sounds a little fanciful as I recount it now, but it was very real at the time. I knew there was something very special about the earth in that little far away corner of Africa. Only twice more in my life have I felt so connected to the greater universe and one of those occasions was after bypass surgery.
Mababe was truly special.
Fast forward a few decades and I come across a report in the Gaudian on new research from Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney that used analyses of mitochondrial DNA to find where we all came from.
The claim is that “The swathe of land south of the Zambezi River became a thriving home to Homo sapiens 200,000 years ago, the researchers suggest, and sustained an isolated, founder population of modern humans for at least 70,000 years.”
Here is the map I borrowed from the article and added the location of the Mababe Depression. Surprise, surprise it is right there where the founders lived.
There is conjecture as to the veracity of these DNA results and the interpretation but this time I’ll take it.
You see my cells knew.
They vibrated to the energy of ancestors that started it all. That founder population that stood there and contemplated how to catch the impala for supper.