Some years back I visited Kenya and Tanzania. I had never been before – although I had spoken at length to someone who lived in Kenya during the 60s and left when he was 16 – and I had no idea what it would be like apart from the descriptions of another person living there. I’ve never forgotten the feeling when I stepped from the ‘plane in Nairobi and felt very strongly that I knew this place. Somewhere deep inside me I felt as though I had come home.
There were things I recognised that could not have been explained to me in such a familiar fashion; the smells of the land and the populated areas, air humidity and the temperature, the sound of the Serengeti and the villages and towns, voices. It was at once strange and unfamiliar and yet known and familiar. I could not explain it.
As distant as it seems, a visit to Sutton Hoo in Suffolk gave me a similar feeling. The link we share with Angles, Saxons and Vikings as peoples of these island countries is evident from their history and their legacy. Our language, eating habits, laws and customs, all share a commonality with our ancestors. I felt the past sweeping up behind me and knew the ground I stood on as my own. This I can explain – I am English, born and bred. What this doesn’t explain is why I feel these things and how I could feel them, when I stepped from the ‘plane in Nairobi, for a land that isn’t mine.
Or is it?
Is my sense of place and the subconscoius memory of where I come from contained in my DNA? Where did the strength of feeling for a country I have never visited before come from? If I felt it in other places I could understand that it may be a vicarious sense of belonging rather than a real one, but I do not feel it in other countries I have contemplated living in – Italy, for instance. I love Italy, but I do not feel as though I have anything other than wonderful memories of the country. I have been to France so many times there are areas that are extremely familiar to me, but I do not feel as though it is home. The sense of coming home I felt in Africa seemed to be ancient and deeper than that, something below the ancient, deep sense of home I experience in England.
So where does that sense of belonging come from in England, in the place I call home? From the land around me; the Estuary and its tides, the stark and beautiful landscape in winter and the richness of it in summer. From a knowledge of my local area and its history, and from the people who surround me; friends, neighbours, family. That sense of belonging extends to the shores of this island, the commonality of language and shared customs, and a history that has made us who we are – generally speaking.
Perhaps it is that one is a learned belonging; something that grows and develops within the sphere of existence and awareness that I inhabit.
But what of the other?