It was the big day. I dunned on the lovely white sweater with navy blue colored stripes across the sleeves. It was boiling hot outside, humidity created beads of sweat on my brown forehead. I would suffer through the heat I said to myself. I’m going to Switzerland, a cold place and I had to show everyone my new sweater.
My mum said it had belonged to my cousin Andy and I snug even more deeply into it because I loved Andy so much. We were the same age — well he was three months older — and he always jokingly teased me about that. He was my best friend. I always wanted to be the older one. To this day, we are the best of friends, however, I don’t want to be older than him today. He’ll soon be turning 50, that sounds too old for me!
As the yellow Peugeot 305 approached the house, my heart thumped in my chest loudly — we were really leaving. Excitement sprinted through my veins, untamable, unstoppable.
We were going to Genève, and in my nine-year-old mind, my only objective was to eat as many apples, Rice Krispies and Cornflakes there over the next two years — and then we’d come back home. We’d come back to that perfectly inclined hill right in front of our house where we’d sped down on the brakeless old twins’ pram, back to climbing the mango trees, back to hunting snakes and rats and frogs. In two years we’d be back.
As the car sped away, I registered the sights one last time, the lush green forest in front of our H8 house, the red ochre-colored earth, the stubborn sun beaming from the heavens, the strong musky scent of the violet bougainvillea, the citrus aroma of lemongrass that my grandmother used to make tea. At that precise moment, I did not realize that it would be much longer than those two years before I would return to H8.
Uncle Jide followed behind us in the Renault 5. My mum sat beside him making some final arrangements. I wondered what she thought at that moment: moving to a new country with five children and her mother in tow.
I had heard the discussions. She had been told she could leave us behind in Freetown, that she would receive a full education grant for us and that she could support us from Geneva. She had also offered my estranged father an opportunity to come with us — to start over again. The organization would fully support him. He refused, it broke my heart.
I watched her in the rearview mirror as we drove toward the ferry terminal. It was impossible to discern the slightest amount of stress or sadness on her face, there was just this indomitable courage, this perseverance to move forward, to play the cards the universe had dealt her without drama or complaint. It was and is this graciousness and resilience about her that I have always admired.
We arrived in Geneva after a night flight on UTA. We went quickly through immigration and customs and then came a sight I have never seen before: the baggage carousel. It looked like quite a bit of fun and I craved an opportunity to jump onto it.
Before I put my foot forward to climb onto it, my grandma gave me the most disparaging look and I immediately refrained. “But”, I protested “it looks like fun”.“It isn’t a toy”, she remarked sternly. I waited for her to turn her back, I was going to ride that carousel no matter what.
As our luggage came tumbling out, I realized that most of our clothes had fallen out of one of the suitcases. Everything from sweaters to underwear were strewn across the carousel. Onlookers laughed discreetly at the sight, it must have been hilarious to observe: five African children, their mother, and grandmother staring at clothes being churned out of the baggage carousel like an industrial washing machine.
As we stood watching in awe, stunned by the disarray, Siaka jumped onto the carousel, pulled out the empty suitcase, and started stuffing our belongings into them. In a matter of minutes, the closed suitcase stood like a well-disciplined soldier called to attention at our feet. “It’s all taken care of Mummy,” he declared reassuringly. “Let us go get our taxi”.
I could sense the palpable relief on my mother’s face — Siaka had fixed yet another problem, had resolved yet another challenge. He had taken control of yet another stressful situation and had fixed it — and he was only 12 years old.
We got to our new home. My eyes felt heavy and I went to bed. Tomorrow was going to be another “big” day, I was going to my new school.
“Monkey, monkey”, the little children yelled pointing in my direction. I quickly looked behind me expecting to find one of the numerous brown monkeys common in Africa. “No, you are the monkey,” they laughed, “you are brown and ugly just like poo”. I could feel the tears swell at the back of my throat and I held them back.
We had only been in Geneva for two weeks and I was in emotional turmoil. Despite being at one of the foremost international schools in the region, the children were racist and unkind. From blackie, to nigger, to monkey, to poo, I was called all these derogatory words and even more.
I spent breaks alone in the playground, following girls I wanted to be friends with, begging them to talk to me. I was desperate for a friend — just one friend. No one cared, no one listened. It was at this time that I realized how nasty children could be to one another — how such cruelty can sometimes lead persecuted children to depression and suicide.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to explain the amount of pain and suffering I went through. I refused to be a victim though and fought back at every opportunity. I found myself in the Principle’s office more often than many. To this day, I support the underdog, the weak, the person or team that all the odds are against because I understand these characters with every fiber of my being.
If you want to read more about my specific experience of racism in Switzerland, please click here: Continued here….