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.

Bubaque

Return to England in February 1993 

The grainy CCTV image

My mum planned another trip to England. I was so excited I could hardly contain myself. I was a bottle ready to pop. I couldn’t wait to return to London to see people that look like me, to see the vibrant city full of lights, shops and simply full of life. London is exactly like me, so much energy, so much variety and so exciting. Geneva in the other hand is so quiet and boring compared to London. Of course, I was bragging to my classmates that I was going to London. I always liked attention and standing out from the crowd. My classmates and teachers were used to that and often allowed me to be in the spot light. I don’t know why I love being at the center of attention and loving the limelight too much to this day. Perhaps is due to getting that so much from my dad.

Our return to England, coincided with a shocking tragedy that will take centre stage in that moment in England and for decades to come. The tragedy not only would shock the UK, but it would shock the whole world. In a way, I would feel so connected to that tragedy in more ways than one.

To start with the coincidence, my favourite film of all time, Shindler’s list, came out in February 1993. The film itself recounts the horrors and tragedies based on an eye witness during the 2nd World War.

We travelled again first with a coach to France and took the boat from France to England. Once we arrived, I thought we would stay at my mum’s friend once again. This year it was different. In fact, all was different that time and year we travelled back to London. We stayed in a hotel in Golders Green, located in north London. Somehow, my excitement died down when we arrived in Golders Green. I quickly realised London wasn’t the same that year. London had simply lost its spark. What happened? Who died? I immediately noticed how quiet London was, I could hear the wind whistling and could see almost empty streets.

Once we arrived in our hotel, I was preoccupied wondering what happened here. It is so strange that a big city like London, instead of hearing noises I could hear silence. In the hotel, I could even hear a pin drop. Despite my lack of English back then, I did notice the atmosphere and there’s no language barrier when you can sense something is seriously wrong. The trip was so tiring that we went to bed immediately and were out like a light. My mum as always would read the newspapers or books depending what she fancied.

The very next day, after breakfast, we went out probably for sightseeing. Walking on the street was so weird, yet again hardly no one was out. We obviously stood out because not only we didn’t understand what was going on and we were tourists. As we walked to get our travel pass, the newsagent was plastered with news headlines. Then I looked closer to the headlines. A grainy CCTV image of a little boy, probably a toddler holding hand with a boy older than him, further up, was another boy walking ahead of them. That image was on the cover of every newspaper. I figured, if that image was on every cover, then something bad happened to the 3 boys and because London was so quiet, I thought something bad happened in London. I couldn’t understand English, yet I sensed since our arrival that something very bad happened to silence the city. Also, it was so cold, which didn’t help London’s streets starving for people. Also, with the image which at first seemed innocent, my imagination went overdrive as I tried to understand what happened and I was playing detective.

Once we returned to our hotel, we watched the news. I was so happy to see Sir Trevor McDonald the news reader. Unfortunately, I would also find out what was happening. The grainy image was actually the abduction of James Bulger, a little toddler by 2 boys who were only 10 at the time. The abduction happened not in London but in Liverpool. At the time, it must have been the 13th of February because the search for James was still ongoing. Now, I realised, when we arrived in London, it was the day little James was abducted which explained why the nation was so silent. It must have been the shock which silenced the nation. Just like everyone else, I was hoping for James’s safe return. Sadly, the worst was yet to come. The very next day, James’s body was discovered, he was brutally killed. The investigation started and the story dominated the news, the newspapers and everyone was talking about it. There was no escaping the tragedy. During that same week, the search was still ongoing for the 2 boys seen on the CCTV with James. Finally, the police, after a tip off, went to arrest and question 2 boys called Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. Eventually, they confessed to the crime which sent shockwaves around the world. When I returned to Switzerland, I felt so sorry for the little James. I still do.

Robert Thompson and Jon Venables

I feel so connected only because the 2 boys were my age. I was trouble and troubled like them. I would learn later how they would skip school on a regular basis and the violence was evident in both cases; Robert was living in an abusing home with an alcoholic mum and him and his brothers would fight among themselves. Jon however, was an attention seeker and would use violence to attract attention. I saw myself in them sadly because I displayed the same behaviour, but thankfully, my mother gave me so much love, care and attention which helped me to not take the wrong path like Jon and Robert did. Their friendship was not a good mix at all. In fact, their friendship would prove fatal on that day because it could have been any other child who would have been subjected of pure evil. Jon and Robert aimed to abduct a child that day and sadly it happened.

The other reason why I felt so connected to this tragic case was because when I left Switzerland, in 2001 to come and live in London, that was the exact same year Jon and Robert left prison. Once again, it was all over the news. I was thinking James’s poor parents were not only forced to relieve the tragedy again, but his killers only served 8 years for their son’s brutal and needless murder. A double blow for them. The case touched me so much and I still feel so connected to it; being in London during the same time the tragedy happened, the killers being the same age as me and coming to London the same year the killers left prison. A quick update on the case, James’s mum set up a charity in his name.

Robert Thompson has never reoffended again, however, Jon Venables did and has been in and out of prison (on child pornography cases) since 2008 and is currently in prison as of 2021.

When I came to live in London, I conducted my own research about James and I admit I have often cried. I read many articles, watch the many documentaries on the case and I have read the heartbreaking books written by James’s parents.  Each time I read about James Bulger, it feels like a time machine with the power to bring me back to that February of 1993; the silent atmosphere and the freezing temperature which wrapped the whole nation like a blanket. What I also realised is how James is still in people’s mind and heart. At the time of the tragedy, James’s parents received letters from people over the world and the support James’s family still receive is amazing. What happened to James has touched millions, and according to James’s father the king of pop himself, Michael Jackson, sent flowers to James’s funeral. James was a big fan of Michael Jackson. What saddens me with the case is that James’s story, it seems, has become a property of the public as each time his killers are mentioned, and so is James’s name too. Especially concerning Jon Venables ongoing offences. The case has been used in studies (according to his father) and even a film has been made about it recently which James’s parents were furious about which is so understandable because James’s family were not consulted in any way.

In many ways, I feel connected to James because I saw myself in him too. We share so many traits. James was a lovely boy, very clever for his age at only 2 years and he was full of life. Just like me, he loved being at the centre of attention and had so much energy. I feel connected to James because when I was 2, I was wandering on my own in Madeira. I still don’t understand why I went out by myself. Luckily, I was found by a family friend who returned me to my parents. However, I do understand my experience and outcome compared to James’s is different. In her book, James’s mum wrote that in the shopping centre, the day of the tragedy, towards the end of the afternoon, James was becoming restless and was displaying so much energy. In all his pictures, frozen in time, James displays someone full of energy, someone friendly, very handsome and lovely.

I hope to visit James’s grave one day and this post is my way to pay my own tribute to him. Rest in perfect peace little James.

James Bulger

My fairygodmother

When I was 8 or 9, my mum was looking for godparents for me. The task would be huge whoever the candidate would be. That person must be equipped with so much patience. I was trouble with a capital T, terrible, stubborn but also very sensitive after my father’s brutal departure.

On the search to find the right candidate, my mum considered her sister and my favourite auntie. She is the 2nd eldest and the only one wealthy in the family. I liked her because she was always spoiling me and my sister whenever we went to Portugal on holiday. Also, she was always so elegant and she is very beautiful. Her wealth and lifestyle sadly made it impossible for her to be my god mother. For one, she is always in between Portugal and Guinea-Bissau. Despite how close I felt with her, and loved my cousin so much, she was just too busy with her businesses and her 4 children. My mum sensed I needed someone always available for me. My auntie politely declined, despite she was already the godmother of her best friend’s daughter. She said at the time, although I am not your godmother, in my heart I am. I didn’t really understand it. All I knew was that with my baptism looming ever closer, we needed to find a godmother for me and fast.

In a way, it was a mixed feeling I had, I was sad and yet relieved she wasn’t my godmother. I came down to realise I need a godmother often available for me. I simply needed stability after my dad’s departure which I still didn’t recover from 2 years on.

I even prayed for my mum to find someone suitable for the role.

Then, my mum found her.

My mum back then worked in a clinic and usually spends time with Portuguese workers as she often felt left out and experienced constant racism from patients and colleagues. SO she befriended this lovely woman called Maria, like my sister. The more my mum and her spoke, the subject of our search for godparents came in their conversation. She accepted without any hesitation without even knowing me. My prayers were answered. I was ecstatic. So we set a date to meet up and we met around her area. I was so happy to see her with her husband and their 3 children. Her son, the eldest was called Ricardo, just like my dad. I felt as if this was all meant to be. Even though Maria and Ricardo are typical Portuguese names, I still felt that I was meant to meet them and make that family part of my life. In return, they made me part of their family. I finally got the stability I craved for the past 2 years.

Before the preparation of the baptism, I used to go often to my soon to be godmother’s house. She used to spoil me so rotten with presents and/or treats. Every Christmas, birthdays, Easter, she would always get me presents or even asked me to pick what I wanted. Her house became my 2nd house as I started to go there so often. She always made me feel so welcome and part of the family. I felt fully accepted and she never once made me feel different based on my colour and origins.

She has always been there for me, as I shall reveal soon how she showed me so much love and support through the tough and difficult period I was yet to face. Gradually, she got to know me, and I couldn’t really hide how terrible I actually was. Despite it all, she accepted it and loved me fully for the person I was despite being terrible. Of course I caused mischiefs with her, but unlike everyone else, she never shouted at me nor raised her hands at me. She just spoke to me and just showed me so much love, patience and care, especially when I needed it the most. I have no idea how she didn’t tell my mum she wouldn’t be my godmother any longer. Any people would have simply walked away.

Even after the baptism, our connection was stronger than ever. Life in Switzerland wasn’t easy still. But it was made more bearable thanks to her and her family. We would go to Portugal and meet the rest of her family in the northern region of Portugal (Lamego).

I feel like even talking about her, it isn’t real and godmothers like her are only in movies.

Since I have left Geneva to move to London, she left shortly after to relocate back to Portugal. We are still in touch to this day. When I go to her region, with my sister and our kids, we obviously stand out because in that rural part, there aren’t really any black nor mixed raced people living there. But my godmother, while walking around the village tells her neighbours and friends I am her goddaughter. She is more than my godmother and more than a fairy godmother, she is a family member.

As a tribute to my godfather who has loved me so much and supported me like a father (still does to this day), I have given my daughter second name Fernanda as he’s called Fernando. My son second name Ricardo, is a tribute to my father and my godmother’s son too.