My name is Robert Murrell, and I am a TCK (third-culture kid). My parents moved to the Central African Republic (CAR) from England with me and my little sister when we were three and two. They went to CAR to help translate the Bible into Mpyemo, a language spoken in the south-west of the country. I am also deaf, though I have had hearing aids since I was six months old.
I spent most of my childhood in Africa, apart from a couple of brief trips to England in 2007 and 2010, and we returned to England for good when I was 11. For the most part, we lived in a rural village called Bilolo, though we often went on trips to Bangui (the capital city) and sometimes to Yaoundé in Cameroon. We also often went to Kribi, a beach in Cameroon; it was around a thousand kilometres away, a long way!
My dad would occasionally travel to Bangui, the capital city, without the rest of the family. Despite that, he always made an effort to be present in mine and Karys’ lives.
Growing up, Karys and I were very close – and we are still close today! In a lot of ways, she was my closest friend. Part of that was because we were home-schooled together. We spent a lot of time playing together; I remember we used to have water-fights – we’d throw water at each other from cups. When the level of water in the buckets got too low, we’d tip the remaining water over each other’s head!
Our parents have a picture of us ‘escaping’ from the house by standing on a tricycle to unlatch the garden gate!
I had lots of friends in Bilolo
There was an American couple in the village who were also serving with Wycliffe. They had two daughters, Kylie and Christi, who were a few years older than me. My sister and I both got on well with them; now, we consider them family. Kylie and Christi had cousins who were also TCKs in CAR – the youngest, Timoté, is my age. He was one of my closest friends; I remember the most painful thing about leaving CAR in 2013 was being separated from him.
When I was younger, CAR was, in many ways, more home to me than England – the only things binding me to England were relatives and friends I’d made before I moved. In Bilolo, I had lots of friends, both local and expat children. I remember that we always had a lot of fun together – skin colour didn’t matter in Bilolo. That was typical; while there were some people who were wary of my family, most people were friendly and kind. In turn, that has had a significant impact on how I see the world; I have an open-minded attitude towards cultural, religious and ethnic differences. I vividly remember an occasion at school, after I returned to England, where the teacher asked the class whether they thought boys or girls were better. I (loudly) declared that neither were better – both were equal!
I also remember that my parents were unofficial medics in the village. Because they had medical supplies and a book on injuries and illnesses, people would go to them for help. Their willingness to move across the world to help people has inspired me to want to do the same; for a long time, I wanted to be a doctor. Even though I haven’t been able to help people in the same ground-shaking ways that my parents have, I still enjoy trying to help people; for instance, I frequently look after people’s pets while they are on holiday.
Travelling so often has made me good at coping with new situations
I find that one of the biggest benefits of growing up as a TCK is that I adapt easily to change. Travelling so often, between England and Africa, Bilolo, Bangui and Yaoundé, has made me good at coping with new situations. One such instance that I remember was when my family was trapped hiding in our house in Bangui when the civil war started; I adapted easily to the situation, and I wasn’t outwardly scared. I did experience fear – I remember fearing that the rebels would find us, kill me and my dad and torture my sister and mum. The difference was that that fear didn’t directly affect the way I behaved – it was internalised. But the five days we spent waiting to be rescued felt like forever.
Transitioning to university has been surprisingly easy. I have adjusted quickly to cooking meals myself every day; it’s fun! I’ve also adjusted easily to lectures and seminars, as well as the increasing difficulty of the workload. I get on quite well with my flatmates and the other people on my course; making new friends at university hasn’t been as difficult as I expected it to be.
Another thing about that adaptability is that I love travelling – I find that there’s something exciting about being on the move, even if it’s a journey to someplace familiar, such as my grandmother’s house.
I’ve felt caught between two worlds
A more negative effect of growing up as a TCK, for me, has been isolation. Growing up, I wasn’t able to remain in contact with my friends back in England. As a result, when I came back to England in 2013, I felt disconnected from them; throughout my years in secondary school, I never made much effort to spend time with them because I believed that they wouldn’t want to be friends with me. At the same time, being in England separated me from my friends in Africa and as a result, my friendship with them has faded. Throughout my teenage years, I’ve felt very isolated and cut-off – caught between two worlds. I’ve always felt that my identity has been split multiple ways – travelling/sedentary, deaf/hearing, British/African. That sensation is partly what made me feel so isolated – I was, and am, singled out, unique. While I know that’s God’s work, part of me wants to be like other people – capable of hearing, having grown up in one place.
Part of me wants to be like other people
I wonder, sometimes, if my adaptability has been wholly a good thing. It makes me adept at accepting situations… even negative situations, such as loneliness. During my teenage years, grew used to feeling alone and isolated, accepting it rather than fighting to resolve it.
Over the years, I’ve become cynical, less optimistic, and I’ve started to lose the ability to see the light side of things – instead accepting the darker option at face value, because it’s ‘more realistic’. As a result, I’ve lost sight of the more positive person I used to be, and I don’t know how to get back to being that person.
Similarly, my connection to CAR has faded; while I used to feel disconnected from England, more at home in Africa, it’s now inverted. I’ve grown used to staying in the same place for years at a time. It feels like I’ve lost a part of myself; feeling at home in CAR, rather than the place of my birth, was one piece of uniqueness I didn’t mind so much.
Overall, though, I feel like my experiences as a TCK have broadened my mind. For one, I feel that I am accepting of other peoples and cultures; given tensions around the world, I think that’s a very important gift to have. Additionally, because of those experiences, I have a unique perspective on the world – if I’d stayed in England as a child, I probably wouldn’t be as adventurous.
Above all, my ability to adapt to new situations has prepared me for events such as starting at a new school. Similarly, the change to university was relatively easy for me. Moreover, this ability to adapt has enabled me to adjust to lockdown and the ensuing isolation of Covid-19.
I feel that, overall, being a TCK has been beneficial for me, even though there have been some hardships along the way.