Stolen Hope

farida (1)

— By Farida from Togo

On February 5th, 2005, the national television of my country, Togo, went blank, only showing an image of the president. The neighborhood went silent, shops closed, lights were turned off, doors shut: there was panic everywhere. This was the first time ever in our country that all televisions stations went blank showing only the picture of the president. Rumours started circulating that maybe he had died. A neighbor came to our house and confirmed the rumors to my father, the president had passed away. Gnassingbe Eyadema was his name, and he ruled Togo with an iron fist for 38 years. He was the most feared person in the country, and at some point he was considered immortal. 
Deep in my heart I was relieved because I had longed for so many years to see my country freed from that dictator. I had silently prayed for it every time my father or one of his activists’ friends was jailed and tortured by the military at the command of Eyadema. I wanted to celebrate that moment with my dad, who was sitting in the dark; it was dark throughout the entire capital city because of a power outage  For the first time in my life, I saw my dad crying. I was very much surprised because I expected him to be relieved. This was the man who had jailed him numerous times in the past, tortured him for months, broken thirteen of his ribs, 9 of his toes, expelled him from the university for life, and killed several of his friends. I asked, “Dad why are you crying?” and he replied, “All my life, I was hoping that one day, Togo would be freed from this regime and this man will face trial for all the atrocities he has committed. And when I think that he gets to die, and my friends who were killed will never have justice, I feel devastated”. All I could tell him was sorry. At 8pm, the General of the Army appointed the son of the deceased president as the new head of state, even though our constitution states clearly that the president of the National Assembly was to take over when the president dies. Everybody was shocked and confused by this, a military coup, and this was the beginning of a new horror story in Togo. However, thanks to pressure from the opposition and protests, the regime finally accepted to allow the Vice President of the National Assembly take over as president, because the President of the Assembly was exiled to neighboring Benin. Elections were announced for the 24th of April. 
The electoral campaign of 2005 was extremely dramatic. The opposition formed a coalition to support one candidate and all predictions were pointing at his victory. Never in my life have I witnessed such vivacity in my country. Every campaign day was a celebration with almost everyone wearing yellow, which was the color of the main opposition party. “Ditia Kpoe Leyi,” was the slogan for the opposition militants, and it substituted as a greeting wherever you went. Then came Sunday April 24th 2005; the very day we believed would forever mark our history, like April 27th did when we got our independence 55 years earlier. Polls were to be opened at 7am, and by 5 in the morning polling stations were already overcrowded. People were determined to vote, and stay to protect their votes. There was lots of excitement and militants were touring polling stations to report on the voting activities and the trends at each station. At 5pm, polling stations closed and the vote counting started. At the station in my neighborhood, people gathered outside the school classrooms that served as voting rooms to hear the polling agents give the results. The screamings that came with the announcement that the opposition candidate, Bob Akitani, was the winner of that station, was close to the screaming that followed the victory of our soccer team at the African Cup of Nations qualifications. People were singing and dancing, and people all throughout Lome, the capital, were celebrating the victory of their candidate. Although I was 15 and didn’t vote, I also took part in the celebration. That was without knowing the worse had yet to happen.
As people were chanting victory songs in the whole city, militaries attacked every single polling station, teargassed and arrested numerous people, and seized the ballots. We were all in shock and couldn’t believe what had just happened. Two days later, at night on Tuesday April 26, which was the day before the celebration of Togo’s 45th independence day, militaries were sent in all the opposition stronghold neighborhoods to “neutralize” the youths, as the electoral commission was declaring the son of the deceased president, Faure Essozimna Gnassingbe, the winner of the elections against all predictions. Over 1,000 Togolese people were killed that night. In a country of 6 million inhabitants, that was a huge number. Over 60 thousand people fled the following days to Ghana and over 30 thousand fled to Benin. The city was torn completely and there was smoke, blood, and debris all over the place. On May 3rd 2005, I was reading about the victims of the massacres in a newspaper when I found the name of two students from my high school. One was in his freshman year, like me, and the other was a senior. Like about 1,300 other Togolese, their only crime was to live in a neighborhood tagged as an “opposition stronghold.” 
I was angered, sad, and had never felt that helpless in my life. And whenever I imagined that it could have been me, or a sibling of mine, I couldn’t help but cry. That was when I started writing about dictatorship, military repression, and human rights abuse in Togo. I wanted the world to know about us, to hear our stories, to feel our pain and our helplessness. From then on I have never stopped, and as of today I have published over 400 articles on Togo and have become one of the most known activists from my country. When I started blogging in 2009, I never expected my voice to be heard. I was just a 19 year old trying to express her anger against injustice and hoping for change to come. But the more I wrote, the more audience I built as people were connecting to my stories. People will contact me and ask me to write about their stories, because they are afraid to do it themselves. They assumed that I was not afraid of anything, because the multiple threats and attempts on my life never stopped me from voicing my opinion. But the truth is, I too am scared. I am scared of crying just like my father for failing to one day bring justice to my friends. And whenever I think of that moment, I say: “Farida, you must keep going. You must keep going, you must keep going.”
Writing not only gave me a voice, it also made me an opinion leader, and my attempt to reject that leadership role was a failure. I became someone that others wanted to hear from and seek guidance from. Whenever there is a political turmoil in Togo, people will reach out to me to seek my opinion. So I am trying to improve myself so that my words will not create more division, but bring more closure and have an impact for the betterment of my community.

How I Lost My Sweet Childhood Nickname, “Tiyenda”

Sam

— By Sam from Uganda

What I didn’t learn from home, I learnt from Kindergarten. I spent my first three years of life at home learning how to eat by myself, brush my teeth, bathe on my own, greet people while shaking their hands and looking them in the eye, making alarms in case of danger, and notifying mum in case I was feeling pain.

Since I was mum’s first born, she had all the time to be curiosity and to learn about mothering. She had to know what I was saying, why I was crying, and what I needed. Dad was an occasional visitor in the house since he was always on the move on errands and his other families. On days when mum was away, grand mum would always step in to play the motherly role, with occasional assistance from Uncle Sam, Richard, and Fred who ended up being my playmates because my siblings were too young. I was never allowed to leave home to play with children in the neighborhood, everyone lived in their own fenced house, and it was hard to know what was happening on the other side.

I started school when I was 4 years old and by that time; mum knew she had equipped me with all the basics I needed to socialize with the rest of the children. She instructed me to do what the teachers told me, never to fight, never to have bad manners, and never to leave school until I was picked up by someone from home.

Mum would pack for me enough food, with instructions not to admire anyone else’s food and not to beg from others. Bread, popcorn, and orange juice were a must have in my container, and once in awhile they would pack me chicken. My school was just a stone’s throw away from home, though I kept insisting on being dropped off in a car. Initially, I felt weird walking through the neighborhood while putting on a school uniform. I kept having this feeling that everyone was staring at me and making fun of my appearance. The car offered me some sense of assurance that no one was seeing me.

School had its own dynamics. The teachers dictated who to sit with and where to sit. I never wanted the front rows because of the unnecessary attention from the teachers and the expectation to learn faster than the ones seated behind. I was also shy, too shy to be seen in front by all of the class, but that is where the teachers instructed me to sit.

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“Here is a family photo taken in 1991. That’s me in the red trousers, next to me is my brother, Allan, next to Allan is my last born sister, Wini, next to Winnie is my mother’s cousin, Nsadha, and next to him is my sister, Lillian. Behind me is my Uncle Sam, my late mum, Loy, my uncle Richard, my uncle Ronald, my grand mum’s friend, Tezira, and my grand mum Leah. This was the first Christmas we were having after my father’s death.

Seating me next to a girl worsened my manners. I had barely interacted with any girls before and one of the instructions I had from home was not to have bad manners. In my head I thought the teachers were indirectly choosing a marital partner for me, and completely going against what mum had told me to do.

During breakfast, it was mandatory to share food with the neighbors. To me, sharing anything with girls was criminal and I utterly refused to follow that rule. The teachers tactfully changed my breakfast schedule for me to start sharing with the boys, but I remembered that mum had told me not to covet other people’s food, so I still refused. Whenever they offered me their food, I would respond to them with “tiyenda” (“I don’t want”).

Little did I know that I was innocently hurting other people’s feelings and self-esteem by refusing their genuine offers. As time went by, no one wanted to associate with me; as the rest were seated in pairs sharing their breakfast, the teachers decided to seat me by myself. I felt so hurt and isolated. My pain was worsened when the whole class started sarcastically calling me Tiyenda instead of Sam. I felt like they were mocking me as being proud, arrogant, and selfish because I refused to share with them. I started crying whenever someone called me Tiyenda. The teachers sat me down and advised me to start sharing and playing with everyone if I wanted them to stop calling me Tiyenda.

Hard as it was, I had no option but to abide, because I found the Tiyenda name too derogatory to bear with. I unconditionally started accepting food from all the kids. I had to do away with some instructions from home and started playing with the girls. All my classmates enjoyed playing with me and everyone wanted to share with me. I stopped feeling shy and I grew comfortable with everyone around me. I learned how to co-exist with my peers, and to this day I have never heard anyone call me Tiyenda again.

A Stand Against Oppression

Abdulmumin (1)

— By Abdulmu’min from Nigeria

It was back in high school some years ago, on the Lagos Island of Lagos State, Nigeria. We had finished prep class, and it was around 9:50 pm on Tuesday night, in the boys-only high school in which four different houses: red, yellow, blue, and green, served as the major difference in the lifestyles of the boys.

We were in our finals, and as the most senior students in the school, we had every other thing going easy. We usually had our whites sparkling, well ironed out such that it could tear one’s skin. Every student had to respect our seniority, those were the benefits of being a senior class student, except of course for the tight schedule of having to prepare for the senior school exams. Everyone barely had time to do other chores, so we had to do those chores after prep class, which usually ended at 9:30 pm leaving us with just 30 minutes before lights-out.

Lately we had been complaining about our stuff going missing from the large building which the final year students of the four houses occupied as dormitories. Every dormitory contained bunk beds, arranged in rows and columns, and locker rooms to keep some of our belongings. We had started to blame each other for the theft.

The Sunday before I was up at night, like every other day, studying, when I suddenly noticed one of the security guards, employed to secure the school, trying to find his way to the hostel, which was already locked, around 2:30 am. I alerted some of my housemates who were awake then to also see what I had seen, we decided to pretend to be asleep. Just as the security guard jumped in, I switched on the lights; the guard noticed this and absconded. There were about ten security guards in the school.

The next morning was a Monday morning, at the beginning of the week there was much to do so we didn’t discuss the incident. It was Tuesday and we had just 10 minutes left until lights out, and I was determined to end the treacherous acts of the guards.

I was standing with the utility prefect, Stanley, when we saw one of the guards by the name Innocent, heading towards the hostel. Now aware of what had been happening, once prep was over, Innocent alongside two other guards nicknamed Boko and Haram, Boko was friendly while Haram was the strong faced guy, would all come into the hostel claiming to send everyone to bed even before lights out, with the aim of getting everyone to sleep at the same time to give them enough time to do whatever evil act they had to do. Innocent was the team leader.

One funny thing about the Name Boko Haram is that, it’s actually the name of the dreaded terrorist group which had been causing insurgency in the Northeastern part of Nigeria, where over 280 schoolgirls were kidnapped.

Innocent wasn’t just heading towards the hostel, he had a bamboo stick in his hand. I told Stanley, “What the hell does this guy think he is going to do with that stick in his hand, hit anyone of us! Hell no, just see what I’m going to do tonight, this will have to stop.” As he got nearer to the hostel Stanley cowardly went into his dormitory, while I went to the front of mine.

There were five of us from blue house, Steve, Owuri, Tobi, Toba, and myself. I informed them of the incident and asked them not to move when Innocent arrived, we had to stop the act. Innocent was in the hostel and as usual chasing everyone to go to bed, he got to where we were standing and suddenly Tobi and Toba made away to their beds, while Steve, Owuri, and I were left. Innocent said “Go inside,” but we didn’t respond so he told us to get on our knees.

By then the whole building was quiet, Steve and Owuri were about to kneel down, when I moved forward going head to head and chest to chest with Innocent, even though he was the leader of the security guards. My words to him were, “Why should we go to bed? Is it because you and your gang want to come and steal our valuables, No! This would have to stop today.” 

Owuri had left, Steve was about to do the same when Innocent suddenly dragged him back and hit him hard on the head with the bamboo stick. Haram was with his boss by then and both were fighting against me. We were exchanging blows and words, more students now trooped out and aided the struggle against oppression after hearing the noise, and finally the fight against the oppression of innocent students had been won.

I thought to myself the school management wouldn’t have believed us if we had gone ahead to report the incident, since we had no evidence, but now we had fought, I had fought for us. They stopped coming to the hostel, which wasn’t their responsibility in the first place, and our properties were safe again. What if I had not taken my stand against oppression?

The Incredible Destiny of a Handicap

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— By Mamadou from Guinea

Once upon a time, in a small village in the midst of the thick green mountains of Foutah Djalon, lived some farmers whose source of livelihood was always determined by the season. During one of those seasons that it rained, there was a huge downpour and a son was born to the family of the Diallos. The rain barely subsided before his dad went from hut to hut in the entire village to share the good news with fellow villagers. The joy in the family knew no bounds. A week after his birth his parents gave him the name Mamadou. At this moment, no one could have imagined what the life of this little boy would be.

Three years later, Mamadou was growing up very fast for his age. He could play around the house of his parents under the admiring and watchful sight of his mother. One of the nights, Mamadou’s mother was awakened by his cry. Mamadou had become sick and this sickness would eventually change his life forever. His parents took him to the traditional doctors and healers in their village and other neighbouring villages to find a cure to this illness. These doctors could not help the child and convinced his parents that the young Mamadou has contracted an incurable disease from the evil spirits. This was the beginning of suffering for the little Mamadou and his mother. Some believed his mother is being punished for the sins she might have committed in the past and some claimed the boy is a wizard. A few months later into his illness, Mamadou lost his father and those who believed he was a wizard concluded he had claimed his first victim.
Mamadou lived under this condition until he was six years of age. At this age, he was supposed to be in school just like his mates. His mother had an important choice to make between leaving him at home to protect him from others and sending him to school so that he will have equal opportunity to excel in life like his mates. Fortunately, she settled for the second option. On the first day he was to leave for school, his mother was sad and in anguish, because she had doubts about if the other students would welcome him at school.


======Mamadou’s First Day in School:=========


The long awaited day arrived and he had to go to school. Very early in the morning, his mother woke him up and he prepared himself, wore his uniform and headed for school. On arrival, what his mother feared happened. When he arrived, all the children looked at him because he was the only one who walked with a stick. This was only the beginning of his troubles. At school, he had to sit with other children. The children had to sit two by two on a bench, a girl and a boy per bench. No girl wanted to sit next to him and yet he was not the ugliest in the class. He did not understand why all these girls rejected sitting with him. The teacher finally had him sit with another boy. At some point, he noticed several children who imitated his way of walking, which was quite different. He had resisted everything that has happened earlier in class but this time, he cried. He returned home in tears and with many other questions that also made his mother cry.

=====The Encounter that Changed His Life:========


Days and years passed quickly. In his nine years of study so far, he was never sent to write on the board like other students. Whenever his teachers wanted to send him there, his friends and his teacher made it clear that Mamadou could not go to write on the board. This happened until the day that his chemistry teacher Momo Camara forced him to go there (to the blackboard). “Mamadou on the board!” The teacher said and Mamadou, after nine years of studies, had to go to the board in front of his friends, he wrote, sweating, and finally everything went well. At the end of the course, Mr. Camara summoned Mamadou to his office. He said to him “Mamadou, it was not out of wickedness that I sent you to the board, it is because if I treat you in a special way you become a special person, which is not good for you. You know there are two types of disabilities: Physical disability and moral disability. You already are physically handicapped, with it alone, you can live your life but if you add the second (moral disability), your life will have no meaning. If you do not accept yourself as you are, know that others will never accept you. You have the choice.”


These remarks got him thinking. Since that day, Mamadou began to change the way he saw himself. He began to consider himself not as a person with a disability but as a person. From that day, he accepted no special treatment. Sadness was written all over his face whenever he was forced to sit on the edge of the field watching his friends playing football, sitting on a chair while his friends danced, or sitting alone while his friends are having a nice time with their girlfriends. Now when his friends play football, he is the goalkeeper. When they (his friends) dance, he dances too (hmmm, you need to see him dance) and as far as love goes (hmmm, that one is complicated). As each step passed, at each success, he shakes hands and quietly thanks Mr. Camara for the tips that he would share with each person who would be discriminated against. Grace to you Mr. Camara, my life now has a meaning, giving great happiness to my dear mother.


=========The School, His Saviour============


After eighteen years of study, the little Mamadou who was expected by all to be in a corner begging is now an engineer. He is gainfully employed and now lives with his family. That is not all. He works with organisations to educate parents to vaccinate their children against polio because he eventually learnt that his illness was because of poliomyelitis. He is also involved in encouraging parents to send disabled children to school because for him, education is the only way to facilitate the integration of people with disabilities.

What Can we Learn from Traditional Healers’ ads?

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— By James from Kenya

Walking in the streets and on the roads of Kenyan cities, towns and even small shopping centers, you are likely to find so many posters pasted everywhere advertising different things. This period of time, being an election season, the most common will be posters of different politicians promising heaven to the mwananchi, the citizen. But on a closer examination, you will discover a rather curious category of these posters. These are posters from waganga wa kienyeji, traditional healers. This is the gist of this article.

I can’t say for sure when these waganga wa kienyeji, traditional healers, started advertising their services publicly, but I am sure there is no city, town, or shopping center in Kenya that you will miss these posters. They seem to occupy any clearly visible point. Their major spots are the electric poles, street lamp poles (the few that are available), walls, pavements and on flower pots (particularly in Nairobi). Note that they don’t bear any official stamp of any respective administrative authority.

The content of the posters, mainly on cheaply designed black and white A4 papers, is the name of the healer, an introductory line saying, “Helps in:” followed by a list of burdens the healer lifts from people. Some healers write their messages on rectangular pieces of plywood, I guess for durability, then nail them especially on electric poles just above the danger warning from the electricity company.

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A poster in Nairobi CBD. The Healer can help in Love matters, business, men’s libido, lost items, and quick money.

The healers’ places of origin are all curiously superstitious and stereotypical. Every region (at least in Africa) has those places that are “respected” for witchcraft. In East Africa we have Sumbawanga (Tanzania) and Kitui (Kenya). The coastal cities of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) Mombasa (Kenya) are also mentioned highly maybe due to the belief that these regions are frequented by jinns. Therefore, most of these healers claim to come from one of these regions.

And what do they heal? An assortment of “ailments”.

Among the five healers that I sampled, their services are in the areas of love matters, business issues, identifying a thief, homestead protection (certainly against witchcraft), Men’s libido, court cases (to be ruled in your favuor), increasing riches, treating madness, providing magic rings (hope not from the land of Mordor), TB, epilepsy, impotence, promotion at work places, charms for body protection, and least of them, women’s libido.

One Dr Muhamed, whose posters are all over Nairobi CBD, can help you in the following areas: Love, Business, men libido, returning anything lost and quick money. Meanwhile, Dr. Eru, whose posters compete for same spaces with Dr. Muhamed’s, can help you in: Lost lover, lost items, family affairs, marriage, riches, business boosting and men’s libido. Dr. Rashid on the other hand advertises in Karen, Nairobi. If you need anything on love, business, identifying a thief and homestead protection, then he (or is it a she?), is the person to see.

Four hundred kilometers west of Nairobi, the towns of Rongo and Nyabohanse are not left behind. They receive these services. Although all traditional healers seem to read from the same script, the one in Rongo is a step further because he can help you get the coveted Green Card and Visa to the US. In Nyabohanse, though there are several advertisers, one deserves to be mentioned here. The healer is the only one I noted that helps in women’s libido.

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A traditional healer’s notice at Nyabohanse town, Migori County. Among other things, the healer can increase women’s libido.

These cases set me thinking. Where are the adverts prevalent? Among the poor or among the rich? A spot check in Nairobi’s upper middle/upper class residential areas of Lavington, Kileleshwa, Kyuna, Karen and Spring Valley as well as slum areas like Kibera and Kayole bear these adverts. Nairobi CBD that experiences people of all walks of life bears them too. So I am at difficulties to ascertain the main target of these services.

Another thought that passes my mind whenever I see these services advertised so aggressively is the gravity of the issues advertised. It pays to mention that cure for men’s libido is the most frequently mentioned followed by love and third comes business. Can this be used to draw a conclusion that libido is a serious concern in the Kenyan society than even the want for money?

Should the trend worry the nation?

And She Went Away…

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— By Alexandrine from Burkina Faso

It was one April evening, in two days I was going to celebrate my twentieth birthday. Night had barely fallen on my peaceful town. Sitting in the courtyard of the house, just in front of the door to my room, I was looking at the sky. A beautiful starry sky, it looked like the stars were celebrating. Without really knowing why, my thoughts had gone astray to the theme of death. I thought it was a beautiful night to die. The next moment I felt guilty, as if I had just committed a murder in thought. I quickly chased these black ideas and turned back to my little sister. She sat in front of me in an armchair leaning against the wall. Her head slightly inclined to the side, she was quiet. From the height of her 14 years, she was beautiful, my sister. I was five when she was born. I remember as if it was yesterday. Dad brought us – my brothers and I – and told us that Mom was going to come back from hospital with a little sister. I did not understand much of it. I just knew I was happy to see this sister. At the ceremony of the eighth day, the ceremony in which the baby goes out publicly, I asked my mother, “By the way, how is she called, the little sister?” “Solange,” answered my mother. Solange – this name will forever be etched in my head and in my heart…

I was watching her frail body and her peaceful face, empty of emotions. This face once so cheerful. She was the joy of life of the family, sparkling and inquisitive. Her contagious laughter resounded throughout the house. The youngest, as she was called, was the favorite of all and enjoyed all the attention. I was jealous sometimes.

Now she is only the shadow of herself. A disease whose name is unknown has taken possession of her body, and she is perishing day by day. After days spent in the hospital without much satisfaction, we returned home. Day and night I was with her. I had asked permission from the university to spend as much time as possible with her.
That night I was observing her without knowing what to say to ease her pain. Despite her apparent suffering, she never complained. She suffered in silence and when she could, she even offered us her childish smile.
That night I was observing her and unintentionally, I began to think of all the moments of happiness we spent together. Our complicity, the little disputes, the laughter, the little tricks we played to our two brothers. A battle of girls against boys…

That day, all day long, she did not want to eat. She rejected everything I brought her. Meals, medicines, everything. In the evening, to give her a little air, I helped her to sit in that chair and I sat in front of her. I was observing her when suddenly her head bowed abruptly. I rose hastily from my chair and shook her. I shouted her name several times without answers. The continuation of the events is only fog in my head. I saw my father in tears, covering the little body with a sheet, and he lifted her from the armchair to the room.

Solange was gone. Forever. It was a beautiful night to die!

What Unfairness Has Fate Brought?

— By Editoro from Nigeria

It was not the rays of the sun that seeped through to the road, nor was it the dog barking with so much ferocity, the stench from the heaps of abandoned refuse has given them an enduring purpose: to become the downtrodden and the wretched in the society.

They neither smiled nor frowned, perhaps they were content, but their eyes were begging pleas. Clinging to their arms were children, that have already become a mockery to the perfect deity anyone worships. Buzzing from giant flies was more of an accompanying tune, rather than a discomfort.

I walked faster, with haste, head down in weariness. Knowing I could have become one of them with a mischance in the game of genes sent shivers down my spine.

The aroma of richly cooked food hit my nose, it was from an adjoining fence. Before my eyes were the glitz, the glamour, the ostentatious nature of wealth. Cars of varying sizes and colours were laid one after another spectacularly, like rainbows. Bulky cheeks, potbellies, and proud disposition characterised their features. These were the elites, the ones whom fate had been ‘partial’ to. A mother with richly designed headgear and shoes that made her tiptoe, held her son who was suckling his lollipop. If only he understood what was happening to his peers few metres away.

I scuttled along, my feet dragging on. My eyes watered, not at the deep social divide that has plagued most third world countries, nor what unfairness fate has brought, but the ever-present lacking of the poor.

That experience gave me a powerful sense of responsibility and purpose, and it became my compass in the midst of my travail.