We drove away. I didn't look back. In my mind's eye though I could see my last memory of them. The reel plays when I close my eyes like a clip from a black and white movie. Clear, yet deliberately faded and grey. Just like the weather that day. Clear, yet grey, matching the drabness of our existence.
It would otherwise have been an ordinary day but for the fact that the intermittent rumbles interrupting the greyness was not the signalling of rain. It was the pulsating sound vibrations of shots in the distance, answered at intervals by the rumbles of bombs. It was the sort of surreal and unreal eventuality that happened only in movies. Just like in Demolition Man which my brother (pictured above) and I chose to watch in the middle of it all earlier that week.
Our sister who lived in Montreal had made it through the overloaded phone lines while we were watching the movie. "How's it going?" she'd asked. A fearful and rhetorical plea in her voice. "It's not too bad today," we'd answered. "Less bombing, so we're watching a movie." "Which movie?" she'd asked - I imagine she'd thought that to be a safe question to fill the silence of the unspoken anxieties in the air between us. "Demolition Man!" we answered, then simultaneously collapsed into each other in peels of laughter while my sister let out a choked sound and started crying into the phone line. She'd attempted to tell us how ridiculous it was that we were watching that movie between her tears and our gallows laughter. It was a morbid escape to the fantasy extreme of the reality actually happening around us, we knew, but what else were we supposed to do? We asked her.
So in that moment as we drove away, I tried again to wrap denial around myself by my refusal to look back or cry. The pain threatened to break me so I could only dissociate and watch in a black and white reel at the silent crowd whose morbid farewell I could feel pressing at my back with every inch of road we covered as we drove away. It was the day I learnt that the feeling of a farewell cloaked in the shadow of death was worst than the finality of a loved one's funeral. The pain in my body in that moment far surpassed what I'd felt just nine months prior at my father's funeral. So I did not, could not, say bye when we drove away.
The day prior I had done the same. I'd kissed my boyfriend (now husband) with a fervency that only comes from the anticipation of being gone from each other forever. We said a final bye, foreheads touching. When he turned to walk away, so did I and I didn't look back. He jokes now that I left him to die that day and we laugh at our fortune that we are alive and together, because the truth is his joke is morbidly true. When I left the next day, I left him and the 75 relatives watching us drive away, including my brother, to a fate that could have included violent deaths. There were five of us in the car that drove away. It was war-torn Freetown and Sierra Leone in January 1999 and I had just experienced the worst month of my life.
Before all that, my life was that of a typical college-aged young adult, growing up in a middle-class urban family. I lived in residence on my college campus, made it through my classes and typically spent the evenings hanging out with my friends or going to a party or event with my brother or boyfriend. In fact, on the morning of January 6, 1999 when rebels entered the East-end of Freetown, I was getting tired of being home after the Christmas break and was anticipating my return to campus that week. I am now so thankful I was home instead! More than that, I am thankful that all 75, plus my hubby and other loved ones I left behind were spared death.
The bombing and shooting continued for months, but the rebels were never quite able to defeat and take over the rest of the city, so relatives like ours who made it out of the East-end quickly enough remained safe, albeit constantly hungry in the west-end.
Yabome and her husband.
The memory of that day and the period preceding it is my bootcamp in growing up. When I left my family to die, I returned to Conakry, Guinea and began my journey to understanding what it means to become a 'refugee' and 'immigrant' in the world. Suddenly I was constantly being interrogated. Unwanted. Untrusted. Unsafe. I also became aware of my social vulnerabilities as a black African woman. But more than all that, the image of driving away from our home with my mom and three cousins, is crystallised in my mind and forever seared in my heart as the day I realised my relative privilege.
We were driving to the airport to get on a flight that was just cleared to leave the country after all foreigners had left and I got to be on it while they didn't. That moment is my mental and visceral reminder that in today's world, there is no choice but to speak out and work for social justice no matter where I find myself. It is why my heart beats a little faster when I watch what's happening in Syria and why I stay up all night writing about experiences of being marginalised in the world or doing research about posttraumatic growth after trauma like a war experience. It is why when it comes to Africa, I believe we, who own her in our blood, or whose people have suffered for her, must first lead her forward.
For Yabome's books about African Identity and leadership, visit her Amazon page.