The Cat God Sent to Africa
by Barb Heins
No one asked Henrietta if she wanted to see the world. But when her family was assigned to Maputo, Mozambique in 1987 as part of the US diplomatic corps, they took her with them.
Our lives intersected with hers in 1988, about a year after my husband John and I arrived in Maputo to teach at the university and establish a presence for the Bible translation mission we belonged to. Like Henrietta, we had been taken from all that was familiar and thrust into a completely new environment. There weren’t very many Americans in Maputo in those days, so it wasn’t long before we were invited into the home of the cultural attache for the diplomatic community’s weekly movie night.
For a few hours every week we were transported back into the world we’d left behind, and Henrietta was part of that world. A striking tortoise-shell with luxurious long fur, she embellished the diplomat’s already beautiful home. She had been named after the Henrietta Pussycat of Mr. Rogers fame – even that reminded us of all that was familiar and comforting.
I adored her.
As is the case with every embassy family, the Friday night inevitably came when they announced that they had received a new assignment and would be leaving Maputo. Among the belongings they were leaving behind was – heartbreakingly – Henrietta. I offered to take her, and bundled unceremoniously into a box, Henrietta left her lavish surroundings for our simple concrete-block apartment in the university compound.
Gone were the kitty luxuries an American ambassador could provide – the fancy litter box, the canned cat food, the imported medications for flea and parasite prevention. She learned to go outside to do her business, she adjusted to the boiled fish we could buy in the market, and we treated her with our own mebendazole for intestinal worms. Every night I brushed her and picked burrs out of her fur. I earned her trust and she became my inseparable companion.
In Maputo in those days there was a general mistrust of cats. Cats and owls were associated in the minds of many with witchcraft, and our sweet Henrietta was no exception. It didn’t help that she had the disconcerting habit of vocalizing to anyone nearby in a way that sounded downright conversational. Many was the time I got a knock on the door from a nervous vendor of artifacts or fruit who was afraid to go past my cat on the stairs to visit the second-floor apartments. I’d open my door to find Henrietta looking them fully in the eyes and talking to them with complete earnestness.
Whenever I left our apartment, she followed me. If I was visiting neighbors from the US, Russia, Czechoslovakia or Great Britain, I let her tag along, and she became a welcome guest in the homes of many an expat longing for a feline companion. But when I had to walk the dusty path to the university or trek across town to the market, I would turn at the end of my walkway and tell Henrietta to stay. She would sit down, flick her tail and talk to me until I was out of sight. No wonder our Mozambican neighbors shook their heads. But in any culture, isn’t there something a little bit magical about the bond between a cat and the human who understands her?
We enjoyed four wonderful years with Henrietta before we had to return to the US. We had found out we could not have children and were taking time off from our work to try to adopt a baby. Our British neighbor agreed to care for Henrietta, and my heart broke when I had to leave her. I blamed God for the transient lifestyle he had called me to, with its endless string of good-byes.
As I held her for the last time and passed her to my friend, I raged through my tears, “Can’t I ever have a cat for its entire lifespan?!”
Two years passed, and we returned to Maputo with not one, but two babies – adopted twins Derek and Hannah. I couldn’t wait to see my Mozambican and expat friends again, and I couldn’t wait to see Henrietta. When we were reunited, I called her in my usual way – and got no response. No verbalizing, no purr, no squinting happiness. She had no idea who I was. I sadly started picking the burrs out of her fur, resolved to leave her with her new owner as we prepared to move north to the city of Beira. All of a sudden, she let out a chirp and began frantically rubbing on me and purring! That simple act had brought back all her memories of me and she was ecstatic.
Six months later, we did move our little family to Beira. We packed two babies and all our belongings into a single-cab pickup truck and drove across Mozambique, through South Africa and Zimbabwe and back across the country to Beira. But not Henrietta! Being the VIP that she was, she caught a ride on an Airserv flight with some friends of ours and was spoiled rotten by them until we arrived and set up house in a little apartment near the beach. She lived another seven years before passing quietly in her sleep, snuggled next to me, at the age of 15.
I’ve said good-bye to plenty of other cats since, but there is a special place in my heart for the kitty God sent to Mozambique just for me, who helped me navigate a new and unfamiliar world and gave me a little glimpse into God’s extravagant generosity. The cat I got to keep for her entire life span.