For the longest time, ever since I could remember, I have had to depend on myself. I was taught to be strong and never show weakness. I was not taught by a parent but by the circumstances in life that I had to pass through. I’ve had to grow up with one parent which led me to have daddy issues, I do realize that now, but that aside, I had never heard my mama tell me she loved me. Do not get me wrong, I knew she loved me, it was an unspoken bond but a tough love sort of situation. If I ever got a little out of hand, I would get the beating of my life. When I flunked in school that would be another whooping. I honestly grew up in fear amid all the chaos around us.
I remember watching movies in the “movie halls” as they were called. It was a lucrative business for the only man who as a refugee could afford a television set. My friends and I would pay 100shs to watch a movie. The movie hall was basically a white carpet framed to look like a house and everyone sat on the ground, those who had the luxury of mats came around with them. I would watch mothers and daughters on the screen having a kind of relationship that I had always dreamt of having with my own mama. They hugged often, they spoke about their feelings openly, they joked around together and played together. Key word being “together.” But me and my mama did not have that sort of relationship, we mostly had a question and answer sort of bond where she asked the questions and I answered, where if I was doing something wrong she would give me the side eye and I’d know it was wrong. Slowly I started accepting my fate that I would never have this movie kind of relationship with Mama. Maybe it only ever existed in a make believe world. That was the first time it hit me to start writing and creating a happy make believe world. That’s a story for another day…
I stopped relying on Mama when I was ten years old, so the first time I got raped, I did not call her. I went straight to the hospital covered in blood. Aside from the fact that the man who was supposed to be my father had done the untold deed to his 12-year-old “daughter”and threatened to kill my family, I was scared mama would whoop me for letting this happen to me. So I went to the hospital alone. But of course the doctors looked up information about me and finally called Mama. I remember waking up and telling her “thank you for coming.” She was so mad she wept, that was the first time I had seen her vulnerable.
Being in hospital with Mama changed our relationship a great deal. One day I saw her dressing up since we shared a hospital room that had no privacy. For once I noticed that she had aged—no one ever prepares to watch their parents age, it’s difficult to comprehend. A once-healthy, tall woman had now sagged. She did not stand straight anymore, the bullet scars on her skin from the wars, the scars from the machete blade when she was captured trying to protect my brother from the rebels in Congo, this was the first time I was actually seeing this and at that instant I realized my mama was a warrior. She had fought to be alive for us. Everything she did was to protect us so we would not have to carry those scars. She would lay down her life for ours and that made me respect and love her more.
We had difficult conversations at the hospital. I understood she did the best she could with what she had and I was grateful in that moment because I realized that we could not have the life in the movies because we were facing real life tragedies, running from a war-zoned country to a safe new country as refugees. It was easier for me in a way because I was but a child when it happened and I could adjust, but she had to start her life over in this new country that was so different from where she had grown up. This new place had different languages and cultures and even a new way of life and all that made life hard. I slightly remember her tying me to the back of a tree so that she could look for my brother who had been taken by the rebels, the boys were captured and turned into child rebels. Everyone had left us behind but she did not want to leave him behind too so she hid me in the trees deep in the parts that were dark, she tied a cloth of some mangoes slightly raw for me to eat. I was high up above the ground and couldn’t come down, it was strategic for my safety and she went back for Boyi, that was what my brother was called. I do not remember how long I was at the back of that tree but it was days before she returned with wounds bleeding and the lifeless body of Boyi. I did not understand death at that age but she had watched her child being killed and now I understood that’s when she changed. That moment changed her and this was why she was over protective and mostly quiet.
But she also understood that for me growing up here was hard. In this environment, we constantly had to run for our lives or hear kids at school mock us students who were from the same refugee camp and had sponsorship, telling us we did not belong or permanently labelling us as refugees. Especially in secondary school, when teachers would give examples in history class about war-torn countries and all eyes would be on me. Some students even laughed and pointed. I left most schools without my classmates knowing my real name because I was always referred to as “the refugee girl.” That made me want a safe place and crave validation and acceptance and constant reassurance. I needed that from my mama and I needed to be a child because it seemed like no one out there understood or loved me.
That December at the hospital was the worst day of my life but it also became a happy day within the storm and dark clouds. Because I was a kid again and Mama took care of me as such, I was no longer another adult but her little child. When I tried to get up and get dressed she moved forward to help me because I was too weak to do it on my own. I pulled back and stared at her in shock. She had never done that and I’d never needed her to. But the look in her eyes and her smile made me loosen up to her and Mama helped me dress. I was her little girl and that felt great, better than any feeling I’d ever had. That was my movie moment, but it was real this time.
22 January, 2023