Thursday, February 14, 2008

Growing Pain

Oumy and my mother were neighbors and classmates and since they grew up together and probably shared a lot of time with each other, they quickly became best friends. My mother was reserved and very shy while Oumy was everything but and for some unexplainable reason, the friendship between such different people wistood the test of time and distance. My aunt-by-friendship had no children. She never married and as such, couldn’t move out of the familial home, not that it would have been against any laws, but in the Patriarchal Senegalese society, single women living alone or together is very unacceptable and even offensive to some.
Oumy was a little over 30 years old when her oldest sister’s marriage became her jackpot; she finally received her ticket to partial freedom by moving in with her.
So, on what I imagine to be a sunny day, Oumy, her three nieces and newlywed sister moved into a two bedroom apartment in an up-and-coming neighborhood. As you can imagine there was little space to spare. But this didn’t stop her from convincing my poor mother, a few years later, that sending me to live with her would turn me into a well behaved lady. She promised to watch over me and teach me manners. In reality, she had secret, ulterior motives: Oumy desperately wanted to fulfill her dream of a family and children of her own. I was the closest thing she had.
As usual, with every new relationship, I was welcomed with open arms and even treated like a family member. I ate to my heart’s content, slept next to her at night and even got along great with the three little nieces. It felt like home. Since Oumy’s sister was the second wife of a prominent man, she was expected to bear him children, like his first wife, before her had done. But for some reason, she wasn’t able to and somehow, this made her less than a woman. By the second week of my being there, as the newness wore off, I was quickly demoted to third class mooch. My loving aunt-by-friendship suddenly transformed into an evil, gossip fiend stepmother. She divided to conquer and looking back, I was nothing more than a chess piece. Since her highness couldn’t bear to share her queen size bed, because doing so kept her from a good night’s rest, I was presented with a blanket, 3 square, red ottoman pads and the cold, tiled dining room floor: This was my new bed.
The resident couple’s relationship was rocky at best and since our salvation and housing rested in their hands, we silently lived on edge, in fear. We anxiously laid in wait for the inevitable day the tension would burst in our faces. In the meantime, we quietly lived together and hated each other.
Although my parents sent a monthly stipend for my wellbeing and care, it became obvious that once again, the money was being put to various, other uses but the one intended. As the marital problems arose, the cable was cut off; then food became scare around the house. I still remember the hunger skipping meals brought on me; the kind that painfully pulls at your heartstrings, slowly churn your stomach in tight knots and leaves you dazed and brain dead.
Alas, no matter how much water I drank, it always failed to quench my hunger; my empty stomach still growled. I laid awake most nights as the icy floor caressed my scrawny legs and the ottoman pads ran away from my frail body.
I cried myself, my anger to sleep. I questioned God’s existence, His love because as much as I called out to Him, as much as I wanted Him to be there with me and give me back my parents, He always answered me with His silence.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Girly L♥ve

We lived on opposite ends of the same block and quite frankly, I don’t even remember the first time I met her. But if there is one thing I know for sure, it’s the fact that I will never forget her.
We’d always say hi to each other every time we met outside; but that’s where it stopped. I was young and quite shy; she was older and so much cooler than me. She had a reputation for getting around and there were even rumors circulating about her getting paid 250.000 Franç to star in a -tourist produced- porno movie. But whether this was deserved or even true, I still am not sure to this day, mostly because back then, any girl risked getting tagged a whore simply for rejecting guys. And she definitely could afford being picky.
Kiné barely reached 5’5 but what she lacked in height, she surely made up for in beauty and chutzpah. From her deep, dark and smooth ebony skin to her wide, almond shaped eyes, every ounce of her curvaceous, ripe body oozed sensuality. She was young yet fully aware of her assets and their powers.
Like my little sister, she was charismatic and outgoing, so I wasn’t very surprised the first time she brought her home. Kiné had just returned from her yearly vacation trip to the Big Apple and had pictures to show for it and lots of stories to tell.

From then on, Kiné and I were inseparable. She was always at my house and slowly but surely, I started coming out of my shell. She always told me how pretty and smart I was. She showed me the right way to put on my make-up and even how to walk in heels without stumbling. She was there to console me when I failed the 8th grade, she comforted me when I disappointed my mother to the point she refused to speak to me for days. I looked up to her and looking back on it now, I realize that I had a crush on her. It didn’t feel weird or wrong, it was just what it was, it was there, unconscious yet undeniable.
I knew that nothing would ever happen between us. Did I want it to? Certainly!
But we were Muslim girls from good Muslim homes, in a peaceful Muslim country and we all know that Muslims girls don’t fuck each other.

The night before I was to leave for my mother’s friend Ouly’s house -my soon to be new guardian in charge of taming the Gaïnde in me, Kiné invited me over and as we sat on her bed and shared secrets, an undeniably pleasant and incredibly sexual tension creeped into her dimly-lit room; a not so innocent attraction had developed between us. We kissed: She kissed me and I kissed her back. I don’t know how long it lasted; but I have only been kissed in that manner twice and both times, it awoke my soul and restarted my heart.
I will never forget her; I could never forget him…

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

I, Bully

I believe that hidden deep within every class clown, every attention seeking jerk is an extremely wounded child desperately looking for approval, for love. A child who tries to conceal his insecurities, even his shortcomings by entertaining his so called friends and followers at the expense of those deemed not cool or pretty enough.
From a very young age, I knew what it felt like to be bullied, both at home and in school. I still remember how it felt to be inadequate, to never be good enough, to always be the last one picked, the first one mocked. I couldn’t, I wouldn’t let it happen again. This time around, I made sure that if there was any bullying, any beating or name calling to be done, I would be the one doing it. So, from the first day of class, I vehemently vied for the designated clown spot and once status reached, I took out my frustrations on everyone around me. Having lived in fear most of my childhood, I could smell it from a mile away and I never thought twice about taking my wrath on the weak. Putting others down and stomping all over them not only made me feel better about my weak, cowardly self, but it also made me feel so very powerful.

I had popular, rich friends who never failed to invite me over to their beautiful suburban homes. Cool friends who always notified me first before skipping school, because I just had to be there for it to be fun enough. I had friends, I was liked. In my immature and needy mind, I belonged, it was everything I ever wanted and it was more than enough.
The teachers were intimidated by our parents’ money and the status it bought them. We were the children of Baba Maal, Ismaela Lo and hard working immigrants. The rules didn’t apply to us, so, we routinely skipped school to spend the day flirting at the beach, downtown eating burgers -with our tuitions money- or at a friend’s house dancing to the latest releases from America, the land of dreams.

For a long time there were no consequences because the right amount of money into the right hands fixed anything. Our parents were oblivious to our bad behavior but soon enough, my grades started catching up; my missed days added up. I miserably failed the 8th grade and in the process, got kicked out of school for turbulence, disobedience and disorderly conduct. One of us thought it funny to set the class on fire and I as a loyal friend kept my loyal mouth shut -only to pay the ultimate price.
Left behind were my dear and ever so true best friends forevers; friends from whom I never heard from again. I, the bright future journalist who only brought home As and was her grandmother’s pride. I, the oldest, the one who was supposed to set the example for her little sisters; I failed a grade and wasted my parents’hard earned dollars. My mother wasn’t having it.

After rightfully telling me how much of a selfish, ingrate disappointment I had been and refusing to talk to me for the next following days, I was ordered to pack, by my mother and spend the summer at her best-friend Ouly’s house.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Mame Bana

By the time my aunt intervened and moved us out of the house, I had blossomed into a hunchback nursing, awkward pre-teen on her way to Dakar’s own 90210 High School. My height and bony figure made me standout like a sore thumb amongst my friends and other 7th graders. Years of fighting off bullies, after school to get my name back from giraffe and skeletor had all but drained my self-esteem and while all of my suddenly curvy friends were pmsing and having secret crushes, I was left deeply insecure and uncomfortable in my own skin. I became angry, even callous towards those around me; so much so that my grandmother nicknamed me Gaïnde, the lion because it didn’t take much effort to upset me. I spent my days beating up my sister, my cousin and roaring at anyone who dared defy me.
Although I didn’t understand a word they were singing, I would lock myself in the room the three of us shared, listen to Boyz II Men’s Evolution CD and cry my eyes out. I needed my mother and I wanted my father to give a fuck about me; I hated, I hate him for abandoning me, for relegating his fatherly duties to someone else.
I envied what all my friends seemed to have. I wanted to be pretty, to be wanted and loved like they were. I wanted their parents to be my parents. I wanted love. I was surrounded by people; but I was lonely. I felt so unwanted, so ugly. No one, not even I understood what I was going through. I was in so much pain. Pain I couldn’t describe or pinpoint its’ source. Not even my grandmother’s unconditional love and patience could appease me. Looking back, I can honestly say that she saved me from myself.
Like my mother, my grandmother was a spunky, petite woman. The 3rd out of 4 girls, her family migrated from a neighboring country when she was very little. Although her father forbade her and her sisters from ever going to school, she was smart enough to realize the value of an education and the importance of a degree in a woman’s hands. That is the only thing no one will ever take away from you djaja, she used to tell me; and I believe her. She can’t read nor can she write, yet she taught herself French, raised 8 children; and 3 grand-daughters on her own. She made sure that regardless of gender, we all went to school and had access to the same opportunities as others. She insisted on good grades and wouldn’t accept anything but from me.
I have many flaws; but all of my qualities as a woman, any good deed I perform, any success I ever achieve in life comes from my Mame Bana.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Foam Mattress, Cold Showers

By the time I returned to Dakar, my mother had moved into a brand new house, on a better development and I was enrolled at a nearby private school. Although my uncles still lived with us, I felt safe because my mother and aunt kept an eagle eye on him. But as usual, we swallowed hurt emotions, swept raw wounds under invisible rugs and pretended that nothing ever happened. We were one big happy family, the perfect household indeed.
Soon thereafter, my mother was granted a visa; she went to join my dad in New York and my unsuspecting grandmother moved in with us. She was still the same loving grandmother I remembered. Less than a year later, my aunt was on her way to New York City, to join my parents and try her luck at the American dream. I was left with nowhere to hide, a defenseless 9 year old girl, living in a house with a brazen, shameless predator. I didn’t want to be sent away again nor did I want to be questioned with a belt in a locked room; so I wet the bed at night, had violent seizures and unexplained illnesses; but I kept my mouth shut. This went on until my oldest aunt and her children came back to the city and proposed my grandmother move us in with them.
The house was rented, ways parted.
Life at my aunt’s was wonderful at first। My parents sent her a monthly stipend for our expenses and her trouble; but soon enough, problems started arising, and the house quickly became divided: It was them against us, us against them. My aunt was irritated by my grandmother’s blatant favoritism of us over her children and she, in turn, was infuriated by our second class citizenship and treatment. Frustrated and fed up with the constant conflicts, she woke up one day, packed her belongings and without a word, moved back into her home.
Around that same night, we were presented with a gift; an antique foam mattress that had clearly seen better days. It was our new bed. I remember it so perfectly, with its’ deep, centered cavity- that I, as the oldest had to fill in with just the right amount of clothes, so that I wouldn’t spend my nights on the cold linoleum floor of my cousins’ pink bedroom, under their queen sized mahogany beds. Every morning, just before I took my daily, cold showers- it was auntie’s orders that the maids lock away the propane tanks right after my cousins had boiled their water- I would wrestle the reeking beast into the courtyard, then onto the wall; so that it didn’t disturb from my cousins’ flawless décor. The matted giant that never failed to leave its’ trademark yellow specks, embedded into our braids, dusty specks that made us feel like unwanted, dirty orphans, specks we would painfully point at and laugh about having, then quietly help each other remove on our way to school so we wouldn’t be laughed at by others.
We went to school hungry; we came back hungry and some nights, we went to bed, huddled against each other’s warm, slender bodies; hungry. It wasn’t because there was no money for our care, our parents constantly called and always sent whatever amount was asked of them; money they were told would get us fed, clothed and kept happy with, but in reality, it was used for a second story add on. On those nights our stomachs, accompanied by a silent chorus of tears, grumbled in the dark and begged to be filled, we told ourselves that someday it would all end because someday, we would be reunited with our parents. We would be home, we would be safe. This we knew to be true; it was the fuel we held onto.
Almost 2 years later, my aunt came back from New-York on a surprise visit. Needless to say she was enraged and by the end of that week, along with my grandmother, we were moved back home, into my mother’s house.

Friday, January 11, 2008


I stood outside our front door, my grandmother by my side and watched as my mother, aunt, sister, cousin and all of their belongings sped away in a moving van. I felt my heart ache, my throat tighten, my eyes sting. I wanted to cry; but there were no tears. I wanted to run after them, but my feet wouldn’t carry me. We silently stood there and stared until the van made a right turn and disappeared, breaking the spell. My grandmother had lost her husband, now her daughters. I lost everyone. Her warm hands silently took me by the shoulders, and led me back inside the house. She explained why because of school, I couldn’t move until summer. My grandmother became my mother, my friend. I loved her and she adored me. Every morning, she boiled the water for my bath and the kinkeliba tea for my breakfast. Although illiterate, she made sure that my homework was done daily. We would sit together on her bassang rug and she would explain why school was so important, how I could travel, dream and hope with a book. She was so wise…

On Friday afternoons, I rode the bus to my mother’s house and returned on Sundays. For safety reasons, my dad’s two younger brothers moved in with them. Although my mother was very strict, I loved visiting her. She was so pretty, so glamorous; her teeth were perfectly aligned and bright. I wanted to be just like her! I wanted her to love me as much as I loved her. But she terrified me. Misbehaving was unacceptable to her and back when I was a child, beating your children was the only way known to punish them: there were no explanations, no discussions. So when I misbehaved, just like any other child, I was taken into her room by the ear, stripped naked and whipped with a belt or an extension cord. My whole body would be covered by deep bruises and bumpy welts that burned when wet and lasted for days. But they were nothing compared to the emotional scars I was left with. Don’t get me wrong, my mother is by no means a monster or a hateful person. She just did the best she could, as a 23 year old mother of two, the only way she knew how.

I was so afraid of my mother, her belt and extension cord; so when my dad’s youngest brother started molesting me and threatened to tell my mother when I refused to let him, or tried to run away, I kept my mouth shut. Unbeknownst to my mother and grandmother, I was constantly humiliated. I lived in fear, in pain. I would lay next to them at night, wide awake afraid that if I closed my eyes, even for a second, God would come down from the Heavens and strike me dead. After all, I was dirty; I felt so ugly. I still feel dirty most days and sadly, I am also afraid of the dark.
I became a very sickly, withdrawn child. I had routine epileptic-like seizures, unexplained illnesses and weight loss so sudden and apparent that I quickly became a bully target in my neighborhood. I was always getting into fights. Yet, I still managed to get good grades that never failed to light up my grandmother’s face and get me compliments from my mother.
A little after 1992, on the night of Tamkarit (Achoura), my mother noticed my strained walk and pain from peeing. Along with my aunt and my dad’s second brother, she locked me in her room and with a belt in his hand, I was swiftly questioned. I told. I was so relieved. I would finally be safe. I just knew it.
Early the next morning, my mother took me to a doctor’s office who confirmed what she’d been told the night before. When we returned home, I remember him crying his eyes out. He called me a liar, swore that he would never do such things to me and that he loved me like his own child… He started packing to leave, but his brother reminded him that the house belonged to their brother; he didn’t have to go anywhere. By noon that day, my duffle bag was filled with my belongings and I was sent on my way, to my naive grandmother. The following morning, two men came to pick me up in a rusty, light blue Nissan sedan and drove me to my oldest aunt’s house, 450 kilometers away. For over a decade I was left to fell like everything that ever happened to me was my fault.
This, I can never forgive.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

My Uncle Omar

My grandfather was the glue that held my family together. With his death, his firstborn son, Omar was to take his place as the head of the family. Instead, he seemed to quickly unravel. My uncle was an intelligent and kind man when he wasn’t high and wrecking havoc around the house. A High School dropout, he didn’t work nor did he feel the need to. Most of his days were spent, roaming around town with his junky friends or lounging in his room, listening to Bob Marley and constantly getting high with money he sweet talked out of my grandmother, mother or aunt’s hands.
My uncle stole my innocence. He destroyed my childhood and raped my mother’s trust.
Maybe he thought that he would get away with it or that I was too young to ever remember. I have been starved, beat and left to sleep on a rotten mattress but nothing has hurt me more than being sexually assaulted, at five years old by my mother’s brother.
I never told him to stop, I was too scared. But it hurt, it still hurts. Being touched, being forced. I never told anyone because I was so ashamed.
When I was 8 months pregnant with my second child my mom, over the phone, innocently suggested that he be named after my pedophile uncle. After all, she said he was always so kind to me. He always gave me baths, bought me candy and walked me to school. I exploded. I tried to hold it in, but like food in an anorexic’s throat, it just wouldn’t go down. I couldn’t hold it in any longer. The pain, the anger, the shame, the loneliness, through sobs and tears, I told her. I told her everything. I told her how much I hate him; how I wish he would die. A weight had been lifted, part of the elephant in the room, tackled.

We were the first in my neighborhood to have a Color TV and VCR player, courtesy of my dad and like most people in poor countries; one TV in the neighborhood is a TV for all. Our backyard turned into a movie theater that never emptied. One night, as we watched “La Vengeance Aux Deux Visages” (Return to Eden), Uncle Omar came home drunk and for no particular reason went into a dark rage. He stumbled his way into his tiny room, on the dilapidated section of the house, picked up his baseball bat and without warning, turned our beloved box into a pile of crushed plastic and broken glass. My usually pleasant, mother was livid. Not even my grandmother’s teary pleas could stop her from having him arrested. After 24 hours at the local commissary, he returned home. I was almost seven and in the first grade. Maybe his stint in jail had a positive impact on him because he stopped abusing me.
My uncle never married, never had children. He amounted to nothing. Today, he lives off of handouts from my grandmother. He still lives in my grandparents’ house, in the old middle class neighborhood junkies like him turned into a slum.
My dad was a hardworking man. Less than two years after leaving for New-York, he made enough money from selling T-shirts, knockoff bags and watches to buy my mom her dream house: a two bedroom house, less than a mile away from the Atlantic Ocean.
And again, it was time to move.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

My Childhood

One of my earliest childhood memories is embedded with the smell of wet cats, the kind of fear that shields you from paralyzing pain and the horror of finding out that you are covered with blood. I must have been about four years old. I slept under a broken window, on a small mattress, laid on the linoleum floor of my mom’s small bedroom, in my oldest aunt’s house. It was an ordinary night and as usual, I laid there, in innocent slumber, happy and unaware of life and its treacherousness. I clearly remember slowly waking up to the sound of two or more cats fighting on the roof, above us. This was a familiar sound that I would grow up to not only love, but also find comfort in. without warning, one of the cats falls through the barely standing shutters, lands on me, rips my shirt and scratches my entire shoulder, exposing my flesh in the process. He was as terrified as I was. Then there were quickly wiped tears, relief from my mother’s embrace and muffled laughter that accompanied my step-in-dad’s futile attempts to get the now furious cat to peacefully surrender. There were 13 of us living in a 4 bedroom house yet, we lived quite comfortably. We weren’t poor or hungry by any standards.My father is over 15 years older than my mother and what she ever saw in him, I cannot understand. I know little of him, because he chose to share little with me. I can barely remember his face because I want to erase him from my memory; I want to hate him into oblivion. Yet all the lies, all the un-kept promises he made, I cannot forget.
My mother is a beautiful. The kind of women others envy for their long hair, smooth skin, graceful ways, pearly smiles, and subtle power over men that makes them deadly. Had she been born in another place, another time, she could have been an Oprah Winfrey, a celebrated news anchor or at least, a flight attendant. But she is African and like most women from poor countries, she had to submit to her father, then her husband.
My parents divorced even before I was old enough to remember them being together. Shortly there after, she met the man whom I’d grow up to know and love as my father. My step-in-dad was always kind and loving towards me. He treated me better than the children my mother bore him. I remember staying up late, as I waited for him to return from work because he never came home empty-handed and the first thing he would always do was to lift me up in his arms and ask about my day. We washed his golden Mercedes on Saturdays and rode around town, on Sundays. He was a great father! He is the one I looked up to. I remember him buying me a doll that was the same height as I was. She was white as snow, had long blonde hair, rosy cheeks, and a permanently happy smile. The only thing we had in common, were the two small dimples on our lower backs. But I loved her; she was my friend, my most prized possession. She made me the envy of the whole neighborhood and everyone wanted to befriend me, just so that they too could play with my domoo toubab. Bliss seemed to have lasted forever. But less than two years later, it suddenly ended.One day, as my mother was hospitalized, my dad came home with a handful of plastic covered suits. With the help of my youngest aunt, he packed a suitcase, hugged me really tight, and gave me a coin. He was so excited, so happy. He left in a yellow and black taxi, the second person to ever leave me. I would be 15 years old before I would ever see him again. Shortly thereafter, my life crumbled.
Life went on as usual with the drama that never fails to arise when married sisters with children share a house, until the day my oldest aunt accepted a job offer that required her to move to another state. I watched as she and her kids packed and left. Soon, we found out that the house was to be rented. The day my mom, aunt, sister, cousin and I landed at my grandparents’ house was the best and worse day of my life. I remember my grandfather, giving us his bedroom and moving into a dilapidated section of the house. One made of rusty aluminum, grim wires and wood that seemed to have given up on rotting any longer. Like most grandparents, mine spoiled me rotten. Each one insisted that I, the newly crowned princess, ate with them, and it was ordered that lunch be cooked, ready and served by 1pm, so that I wouldn’t starve. My grandparents took me everywhere with them. They protected me and always defended me against everyone, including my mom. I could do no wrong. Two years later, my grandfather fell sick and had to be hospitalized. I never saw him again. I was 6 years old, the day my grandfather and protector died. It is then, that I lost my innocence and was forced to keep secrets that weren’t mine...