A creative nonfiction piece
Published: Thursday, May 3, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, May 2, 2012 14:05
I spent my childhood growing up abroad mainly in West Africa, although I also spent some time in the Middle East and Europe. And no, growing up in Africa, I did not have giraffes and elephants roaming in my backyard. My backyard was a sea of the Sahara desert, rolling cream colored sand dunes as far as the eyes could see. My mother and father fell in love with the poor in developing countries and decided to devote their lives to working with these people shortly after they met and were married in Niger, West Africa. As a consequence, my older brother and I were raised from country to country, saying many hellos and even more goodbyes than I like to remember. Although at times I struggle to appreciate this way in which they chose to raise me, I truly would not have chosen in other way to experience a childhood.
I love and admire my parents deeply. I have aspired to take after my mother’s beautiful heart for people, as well as her striking skills with the paintbrush where she is gifted with the ability to paint her life experiences. My mother is also half French and British which add uniqueness to her character. My father is an Alabama native and is strong willed, brave, and the most selfless man I have ever known. Both of my parents have honestly been my world. It is important though, that I highlight their cultural differences because they have shaped who I am. I consider myself a nomad, a person who has moved place to place with no permanent abode. I have American, French, and British citizenships and a memory full of Africa. I am about to begin my story, or at least where I felt the significance of my life began.
Before certain events of my life, I was in a sort of an indeterminate state. I knew that I had a bizarre life and I didn’t have much of an identity to say the least. The only thing I could really find identity in was my family, because they were the only thing constant amidst my ever changing life. I battled with anger towards my life as a child. I craved normalcy more than ever. I wanted to ride a big yellow school bus to school, have American friends, and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I never pondered the purpose of my globetrotting life until a particular event that occurred when I was only ten years old, living in Mauritania, West Africa.
Prior to the age of ten, I never pondered death, nor should I have. Death was something I saw in action movies. The bad guys get shot by guns, keel over and they were done. When I would think of death it did scare me, but I knew I had nothing to worry about at such a young age. There were too many other important things to be doing rather than worrying about when I was going to die — things like exploring nature and teasing boys. As an adult, I know that death is a harsh reality that it is very possible and if thought about too much can make me rather anxious. As children, we are meant to fear harm, but not death. It is just the way the mind is developing. At the age of ten, I experienced something rare, and something most people will never experience in a lifetime.
Wednesdays were always my favorite days of the week for some reason when I was a fifth grader. I attended a very small American embassy school in the coastal-Saharan capitol city of Nouakchott [nwahk-shot], Mauritania. The school only consisted of some forty students and there was only one other fellow student in my grade, which meant I received much attention. I loved and admired the teachers greatly. That school became my second family and I cherished every day of it. This particular Wednesday on the 17th of October, 2001, was different. As I sat in the dusty parking lot waiting to be picked up, little did I know that I would not return to school for a very long while.
At the end of the school day, my hair was always a mess, my navy and white uniform dirty from all the desert harmattan dust in the air and from chasing the boys, perhaps a little too much during recess. I was hungry and ready to go home to relax in my air-conditioned home, away from the scorching heat. My father was quite busy as the national director of World Vision and my mother was in France visiting family and taking an exam for an art class. My brother attended a boarding school in the neighboring country of Senegal, so it was just my father and me in the country. My father worked till five in the afternoon, so he hired a World Vision driver to pick me up and bring me home most afternoons. The driver was supposed to arrive at two thirty, but you know what they say about African time. No one must ever expect anyone to ever be on time in Africa. The security was also relatively high at the American embassy due to the fact that September 11th had only occurred in the past month, so this also delayed the after-school pick up routine. As my driver pulled up in his white Land Cruiser, I crawled in the back. The hot leather seats clung to my sticky sweaty legs. The AC was barely working and the driver had awful body odor as usual. I greeted the driver in French and leaned my head on the window, utterly exhausted and tried as hard as I could to breathe out of my mouth for the remainder of the ride. We would pass the usual banged up green taxis that honked profusely while drivers exchanged profanities in Arabic to each other, the donkey carts, and the occasional camel or two on the road. This was my life, this was normal to me as a ten-year-old. The driver turned onto my dirt road which hadn’t been paved yet since it was a new development. As the driver dropped me off and pulled away, I dragged my backpack to the entrance of my house, passing our little green paradise of a garden in the Sahara desert.
I was greeted by the cool air of my home and the smell of pancakes that our cook, Abdulleh, would prepare for me as an after school snack. Abdulleh was a kind hearted, quiet Mauritanian man who loved my family dearly. He was also one of my heroes. Anytime I spotted a cockroach, I would squeal and run to him for help. He would tranquilly walk over, grab the insect and flush it down the toilet, all while I was still dancing and shrieking on a chair. He made all of our meals and was ever so patient with my family’s hectic lives. How I wish there was a way I could have warned him about the later events that were going to occur and that there would be no one eating his dinner that night.