Return to Bissau 1993 

The heartbreaking and brutal murder of James still sent shockwaves worldwide. Even in Geneva, the story was still shocking. The only positive outcome about James’s murder was the vigilance of parents everywhere. The grainy CCTV image of James being led away to his murder is still frightening to this day. The fact that we were there during the most shocking murder by kids my age to a defenseless little toddler has left me such an impact today. It has left an impact on my own mum. Due to my volatile and full of life personality, I just had so much energy.

As always, it was hard to keep me near or contained. So what my mum used to do, at the time, was with an umbrella who had a cane, she used to catch me by the neck with the cane bit. By doing that, she ensured we would never run away too far.

Also, since the murder of James Bulger, I was often so reflective. I used to question whether God existed. Why would God let that tragedy happen? Most importantly, I used to reflect on my personality and the type of person I was. Although I was troublesome, hands down, I could never do what Robert and Jon did. I was no saint; I would fight people physically and verbally in school, in scouts and even during birthday parties. However, I could not commit a murder. I also realised and appreciate my other side. Despite my fiery temper, my physical strength despite my small size, my strong character and personality, I was sensitive, self-conscious, I was also insecure and most importantly I loved to read and always ready to learn. To be fair, I was quite clever at school, but I did the work in my own term I guess, which is why I used to get in trouble with teachers always. Following instructions and doing what I was told is something I always struggled with. At times even now I still do.

Around that time, at school, we started to learn German which was exciting. I also started to find out languages would soon become a passion of mine. The point is, I was enjoying my time at Marcelly so much. We had a teacher who used to spoil us, taking us to the lake and buying us ice creams, often we used to have lessons in the morning and afternoon we used to be free so as a class we had full access to the playground. Of course, I used to push the buttons all the time and get myself in trouble as always. The best of all, our teacher used to allow us to do sketches and oral presentation where we used to express ourselves. At times, to stand out, I used to come to school in my scout uniform. I remember in one occasion, I spoke about Guinea-Bissau and brought the fur of a leopard in class. Everyone was so amazed, and as of today, I am ashamed of it because I am so against the use of fur. For the past couple of years, I was so happy in a school where I was fully accepted, where I had friends. Unfortunately, the good times were soon to be over. Because we moved, we were told we had to move schools too. What doesn’t make sense still to this day, Marcelly was less than 5 minutes’ walk. My future new school, Adrien Jeandin, is where I would experience the worst year of my life up to that point.

Bad news kept on dropping like a ton of bricks. My mum told us we would be going to Guinea-Bissau, where I spent 2 horrible years prior to my move to Geneva. For many people, Africa means sunshine, beach, safaris, wild animals. For me, it meant a living hell, forced labour and getting smacked or beaten on a daily basis. I was not enthusiastic at all at the prospect of returning to a place where I had constant nightmares and the constant beatings that was awaiting me. I couldn’t even lie to my friends for they knew I wasn’t going to have a great time. Also, I had to say my goodbyes which was so heart trenching.

Once we started packing for our trip, for me reluctantly, it was time to return to Bissau together. It was going to be 2 very long months. As soon as we landed, flashbacks emerged aggressively where even the scent brought back painful memories. The ferocious heat, even in the evening, had no mercy. The mosquitos devoured our fresh flesh repeatedly. We stayed at our aunty’s house, one of my mum’s eldest half-sister. What I enjoyed, and probably what some people made fun of, was the fact my mum brought food from Geneva; cereals, the famous Swiss chocolates, biscuits, pasta and more. My mum brought a piece of home to Bissau which felt good. The good times, as soon as we landed in Bissau, lasted only one day, well only one night. To begin with, we were welcomed with open arms. In Bissau, despite being outsiders, we were made to feel welcome. I quickly remembered how in Bissau, socializing is mainly outside where neighbours in the village meet up, talk and eat together.

Village in Bissau

The bad times started the very next day. I also sensed how my mum used to be often absent I think for visiting her relatives outside the village. We would stay with our grandmother and aunty. Obviously, the chores started the very next day as we had to clean, help with preparing meals, usually separating the grains of rice, help neighbours with their babies, which was fun. Our grandma also taught us sewing and knitting. In all fairness, we were taught life skills to help us when we grow up. What I wasn’t used to was the constant beatings when we didn’t do something right. I used to often get the most beatings due to my stubborn personality and refusing to comply with following instructions. I just didn’t make it easy for myself, and all I wanted was to just play, after alI I was only 10. I would have quite been happy to just read if I could, watch TV or anything that doesn’t involves chores. Also, I was looking at boys differently. Even that wasn’t allowed. I would usually be rough and wanting to play with boys, but I also realised how boys used to look at me in Bissau. In their perspective, I was quite attractive as I had a lighter skin and softer hair. Of course, we couldn’t socialize with the boys. The only person who used to socialize with us was a neighbor of our aunty. She used to come to our aunty’s in the afternoon once we have all completed our chores. In one afternoon, as my aunty wasn’t there, we used to jump in the beds, finally having some fun as it seemed fun wasn’t allowed.

Then we heard my aunty shouting at us. Before I knew it, I felt a big slap on my face. I was the only one who was treated harshly since I was older than my sister and our neighbor. I can’t remember if my sister and our neighbor also received a slap or were simply shouted at. From that day, I would be smacked on a daily basis. Sadly, I was also getting used to it. I also witnessed how other children would get smacked harsher than me and sometimes out of nowhere. There was one girl, perhaps as stubborn as me. We were all doing something, perhaps the endless chores. I heard my grandma shouting and then screaming at the girl repeatedly. My grandma asked the girl to complete her chores but she just sat there. And worse, she was pretending to not listen. Ignoring my grandma would put you in deep trouble. She was very respected in the village and she was known even beyond the village. I already knew what was coming to her for I was probably smacked already for not doing my chores properly, so I tried and this time really tried not to get smacked again for the day. As my grandma became more impatient of the girl’s disobedience, suddenly, my grandma grabbed her and smacked so hard that you could hear it and feel it. She also took a broom and smacked her with a broom so badly that she quickly got up and started to sweep the floor. This episode used to shock me when I was living in Bissau, but as I became so used to it, I wasn’t shocked anymore. Despite often being outside for socializing, doing our multiple chores, cooking and rarely playing, I felt like I was a prisoner. I was even envious of the hyenas and vultures who dared to venture looking through the trash for food.

My troubles with my aunty would go up a notch as I used to drive her mad. I would prank her to get back at her for all the beatings I received from her. There was one time, my prank was not intentional. One day, while sleepwalking, I messed up the entire house. The next day, my aunty was very upset and complained to my mum. I had no recollection of the past event. Sadly for me, the beatings grew so severe and sometimes for no apparent reason that my mum even told my aunty to stop. The beatings ceased completely from my aunty from that day on. I was so resentful towards my aunty for I can forgive, but I can’t forget to this day her harsh treatment towards me.

At last, my aunty, my mum’s younger sister delivered us from the living hell to take us to Bubaque, some islands in Guinea-Bissau. After only few weeks in Bissau, which seemed to be an eternity, our holidays would finally start. We took the boat, which we had to share with cattle and we finally arrived in paradise. Finally, we had fun and no more chores in sight. Playing, having fun, being carefree is how holidays should be.

Of course, where ever I would go, mischiefs would follow. One day, me, my sister and a random girl, made this pact to not forget a promise we made to each other. I grabbed a spoon and put it in the fire, then used the spoon to mark our faces. The mark is still visible, but after the years it is not as bad as when I first did it. I always had ideas and great imagination, however this wasn’t my best idea, in fact it was plain stupid. As we brought some toys from Geneva, we played in the beach with local children, mainly boys to my delight. We went to have dinner in one of the relatives or friends of my aunty. As we were about to leave, I couldn’t find my sandals. Apparently a boy hid my sandals as he didn’t want me to leave. I was so smitten. I cherished lovely memories of Bubaque, the only time I had a great time in Bissau.

The other thing I could never get used to in Bissau, was the bugs. They came in different shapes and sizes. While you attempt to sleep, you could hear them creeping in and it was scary, especially at night. Seeing them during the day was equally as scary.

When we returned to Bissau, it coincided with my birthday which was fun. My best present however was returning to Geneva very soon. No matter how hard life was in Geneva, I would appreciate everything I had because I realised life in Geneva was better than Bissau. The contrast between Geneva and Bissau was great. The only similarity is the difficulties adapting to the environment; in Geneva, I would always face racism and injustice on a daily basis. While in Bissau, I struggled adapting to the beatings and doing chores on a daily basis. I found life hard in Geneva mentally while I found life hard in Bissau physically. Geneva offered more than Bissau such as the opportunities, great education and health care. I slowly started to adapt to Geneva having mastered French like a native and enjoying the enviable sightseeing especially the mountains who were patiently waiting for me.

My new school somehow spelled bad news however. I could sense it before I even landed in Geneva. Even from the outside, the school made of bricks, looks like a prison. My instinct are usually right and as soon as we arrived back in Geneva, some luggage was stolen and along some valuable and irreplaceable belongings. I had only a few days or a week at most to prepare for a brand new beginning in a new school. I was right to prepare myself because very soon, l would meet the worst teacher I have ever had in Geneva.


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