BOOK REVIEW: When We Were Young in Africa 1948-1960 by Carol Claxon Polsgrove

By Mary Popham (Contributor)

I am struck with the loneliness of the MK, Missionary Kids, which they forever call themselves. They were not at home in Africa, not allowed to congregate much with other missionaries—“. . . there were mission taboos against too much togetherness”—and felt like strangers at home in the U. S. In her youth, during the time of establishing identity, Carol Claxon Polsgrove always felt apart, the white girl among Africans, or in the U. S. pointed out as the girl who had once lived in Africa. In her book, When We Were Young in Africa 1948-1960, she delineates her parents’ story, too. “In today’s world, they might have joined the Peace Corps.” It was their “calling” to a life of service that gave her and her little brother Billy the fascinating and unusual experiences that delight us by her recollection.

It took many years of ignoring her African life, dodging the questions of having grown up in this far-away, mysterious place, for Carol Ann to write about her early years. Feeling foreign, “adrift between two continents” it was easier to stop mentioning her past, to get married, obtain her Ph.D. in English literature, and fulfill her career in teaching. Returning to Africa several times, to where her parents still did missionary work, did not bring back the closeness of home that she longed for. After getting divorced, traveling all over the states, ignoring religious beliefs, and having a daughter on her own, she made peace with her parents. She settled down and began a teaching career at Indiana University in Bloomington, where she is now Professor Emerita of Journalism.

After her mother’s death, the author explored her childhood. She read letters the family had sent back to Kentucky, journals they had written, notes she had made during her twelve years away. The richness of her years on foreign soil came back. It is her powers of story-telling, her capabilities of honest documentary that take us on the journey of her family’s time in West Africa.

During their first service among the Yorubas in Kumasi, the Claxon family felt akin to the blacks, and walked in their midst as if belonging. Having lived at the Southern Baptist seminary in Louisville, Carol Ann had possibly never met a black person. Her father preached, taught and organized, while her mother assisted in a hundred ways—directing the household, teaching, typing her husband’s work, entertaining constant missionary guests. Photographs accompanying the text show them living among the desperate poor, their church life, childhood education, the local dress, friendships and games.

Stationed in Nigeria they had a car, and the natives must have thought it was lost effort to make friends since the foreigners would always go home. The little girl, Carol Ann and her brother were called “Ay-bo, ay-bo” translated as “peeled skin.” Always feeling different, she observed her life of contrast to the people around her. “They went barefoot, slept on mats on the floor. We wore shoes, slept in beds. While their children’s bellies swelled with kwashiorkor, we went through the pleasant paces of our imitation Euro-American lives.”

Still not fully aware of the changing times in Africa, with independence a reality or on its way for the Gold Coast, Ghana, and Nigeria, Carol Ann left Africa on June 17, 1960. But in the late 1960s she became involved in politics and journalism. As she began her life of teaching she was also writing for the Associated Press, the Lexington Herald-Leader and other papers and magazines.

Working in various cities as writer, editor, and lecturer for prestigious outlets like The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, and Mother Jones among others, she has a strong presence in academia and has written many biographies of editors and writers. She has been a significant force for change both politically and culturally. Her books include: It Wasn’t Pretty, Folks, But Didn’t We have Fun?: Esquire in the Sixties; Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement; and Ending British Rule in Africa: Writers in a Common Cause.


Title: When We Were Young in Africa 1948-1960
Author: Carol Polsgrove
Publisher: Culicidae Press, LLC; 1st edition (December 11, 2015)
ISBN:  978-1941892077
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 172

Mary Popham holds an MFA from Spalding University. Her fiction, nonfiction, poetry, essays and book reviews have appeared in the Courier-Journal; LEO; New Southerner; Appalachian Heritage; and The Louisville Review. Her novel Back Home in Landing Run was published by MotesBooks.


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