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For two decades, Nate Landman relied on photos and stories to paint a picture of a life he barely remembered but clung to as the core of his identity.

Landman was born in Zimbabwe in late 1998 and moved to America in early 2002.

It wasn't until this past April that Landman returned to the country he still considers home and connected the dots between expectations and reality.

"I would always brag about being from Africa," Landman said. "People would ask me what it was like, and I tried to describe what my parents would say. Now, I can describe it myself."

And he will, with unabashed excitement.

As a linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons, Landman holds the power to support Zimbabwe on a national scale. In fact, the NFL Heritage Program is currently amid its two-week run of recognizing the league's international diversity. More than 330 players and coaches honored their cultural backgrounds by wearing international flag decals on their uniforms last weekend, and they will do so again with this round of games.

In Landman's case, a Zimbabwean flag has been placed next to the American sticker on his helmet. He’s the only one with that combination.

"It means a lot," Landman said. "I have a tremendous amount of pride being born in Zimbabwe."

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Settling on the decision to emigrate took Shaun and Mandy Landman months. Zimbabwe was the only place they'd ever called home. They were both raised there. They each had extended family there. They fell in love as high-school sweethearts and gave birth to all four children there.

But when Shaun's company, a global engineering consulting firm called Arup, offered him a position in California, the appeal of the American Dream was too strong to pass up. 

"The primary driver was the (unstable) economic and political situation in Zimbabwe at the time," Shaun said. "That, coupled with kids being young enough to make that move – Nate was 3 – so it wasn't going to be super disruptive to their lives. 

"We felt if we weren't going to do it then, we weren't going to do it ever. So we took the chance." 

Nate is the youngest of the immediate Landman clan at 24 years old. The eldest is his sister, Ocean, who's 32. Brothers Brendan and Ty are 28 and 30, respectively. 

Because of their older ages, Nate's siblings could recall what it was like living in Zimbabwe. It was only Nate who struggled in that regard. He absorbed every detail shared, though, and his family didn't hold back. 

"We wanted to embrace American cultures as this is our new home – make sure Nate was exposed to that – whilst we maintain connection back to our African roots," Shaun said. 

The house itself was – and still is – decorated with the African furniture and wood carvings Shaun and Mandy had transported over in a container. Songs from the Shona tribe – one of the two largest in Zimbabwe – often carried from room to room, which remained clean thanks to Friday chores.

For the most part, the children were pushed outside. Their father's background as a collegiate and professional rugby player left no choice: The Landman kids would play sports. That's how Nate got into football, since it's much more prominent in America than rugby.

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The sole TV was rarely on. Wednesdays were the exception, because new episodes of "Survivor" aired, and that was the only show the Landmans watched in Zimbabwe and could also in America.

"Because we didn't have any family and friends here to celebrate birthdays or to make my kids feel special on a regular basis, I would come up with all sorts of random traditions," Mandy said. "One of them was 'Survivor' night. … I would always make a dessert. We call it pudding."

Even the weekly treat tied back to Africa sometimes, such as when Mandy baked koeksisters.

Speaking of food, dinner was always consumed at the table, as a unit. Mandy regularly cooked the traditional Zimbabwean dish of "sadza ne nyama ne relish," which the kids enjoyed because they traditionally ate with their hands. Otherwise, table manners and etiquette were taken seriously. No one was excused until plates were cleaned.

"I was quite homesick for a while for the life I left behind," Mandy said. "But, looking back, oh my gosh, they were the richest years of my life. Our family of six really got so close because of that."

His upbringing alone taught Nate what he needed to know most about the Zimbabwean way of life: Family first.

That's ultimately why Shaun accepted the job relocation and Mandy supported the international move. They knew America could ultimately provide a better life for their kids with more opportunities for growth in the United States.

"Their long-term visions are slowly coming true: All my siblings are super, super successful," Nate said. "I think my parents are proud of all of us and the decision – the hard decision – they made sacrificing their comfortability and uprooting their life that they had built back in Africa to come to the United States to make a life for us."

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The car rumbled down the rough roads of Cape Town, South Africa, with Nate, Mandy, Shaun and Nate's girlfriend, Brynna Deluzio, jostling around inside. They had just arrived at the airport and picked up their rental, ready to embark on Nate's first trip back to Africa since he was a child.

To his parents' surprise, Nate knew how to drive a stick shift. Shaun handed over the keys upon that discovery, encouraging Nate to navigate the foreign streets himself.

"It was a couple of jolts here and there," Mandy said. "But we just kept quiet."

Shaun and Mandy wanted Nate to have the full African experience. That included the little things, such as traffic flowing in the opposite direction than the United States.

The crew of four began the two-week April adventure in Cape Town, where Shaun attended college. They ventured to Victoria Falls, which is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World as the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. They fished nearby on the Zambezi River and also in Lake Kariba.

"These are great fishing spots for game fishing, so Nate got to experience that," Shaun said. "He just loved it all. I think he felt a real connection, connecting with the country and with some of the culture that he's grown up to but not really experienced firsthand."

Fishing would always trigger the few memories Nate held from his early years in Zimbabwe. The action itself, not just pictures. Because there is an album's worth of young Nate – normally barefoot – near the water at his grandparents' lake house out in the African bush.

So, for Nate to be able to fish while in Zimbabwe again, his two worlds finally merged into one. Especially when staying in the Landman's hometown of Harare, because his cousins were able to join, picking up where they left off 20-plus years ago.

"Even though they hadn't seen each other since Nate was 3, the love, the bond and the affection was instantly there," Mandy said. "It made us emotional to see. It was hard to leave."

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Shaun and Mandy had previously been back to Zimbabwe a handful of times since the move, but never really on happy terms. They went back for both of Mandy's parents' funerals and also for Shaun's mother's. 

This was different. This was special. 

This was completing the puzzle that is their son, fitting the final piece with him.

"Nobody ever believes me when I say I was born in Africa," Nate said. "Just being different and being able to be proud of something else, I think that's the biggest takeaway. 

"I'm representing something bigger than myself, too. My family that's in Zimbabwe. The country." 

Nate officially earned his United States citizenship at 20 years old, when he was a sophomore at Colorado.

That same year, he got a tattoo of Africa on his chest, the outline of Zimbabwe forever inked specifically near his heart. 

Nate also has a lion – or "shumba" in Shona's native language – tattooed on his upper left arm and an African safari design that acknowledges the two Zimbabwean tribes and also lists his parents' and siblings' birth years in Roman numerals farther down the same forearm.

"I'll always claim being from Africa, even as a U.S. citizen," Nate said. "It's something I'm super proud of, and my family is super proud of."

Nate plans to visit Zimbabwe every two years now. His parents hope to get the whole family out there together, sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, all of the Landmans are happy with their lives in America.

"Home is here now," Mandy said. "But of course, like I say, our roots will always be in Africa."

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