My Childhood

by Rumana Khalifa

I was born into a family of eight, not a big family where I come from. I was born in the small town of Keren, in Eritrea, East Africa – a country that has seen several wars, from the Italian colonization to the Ethiopian invasion. The reason that Eritreans have big families is that we do not have social benefits or pensions. The family has several children in the hope that one day the children will go to work and help their aging parents.

My siblings and I were 11 months to 15 months apart. I was the third oldest and lost between my two older siblings who were constantly fighting, and the younger ones who were constantly crying in competition to see who could get the most of our mother’s time. When we were very little, we were all needy and clinging to our mother for any little thing. She had to juggle from one child to another to make sure that we had equal attention. Our father was never at home. He always had excuses to go out to work or to social gatherings. I never heard my mother complain about my father. The justification she gave was, “He is the breadwinner.” When he came home he had to eat first and the children had to wait. When he finished eating, we had to take turns getting a bowl of soap and water ready for his hands. Then it was our turn to eat.

This ended soon for me, as at the age of four and a half I was separated from the rest of the family and donated to my childless aunt. Since then, I have always wondered, “Why me?” I have never found an answer for my young, wondering mind asking “Why?”

I remember it as if it were today, the day I was taken from my home. The last thing I heard was my mother saying, “You will have everything you always wanted and more, and you get to travel on a bus.” Yah! I had never travelled on a bus or in a car before. However, I thought, “Who needs it?” I cried and said to my mother, “I want you and nothing else!” My mother cried and kissed me and said that she would come and visit me. I started holding on to her dress and refused to let go. I remember that my siblings cried as well and I heard one of my brothers say, “When you come back, bring me ice cream. Our aunt can afford to buy for all of us.” But I was still crying and holding on to my mother. One of my sisters said, “Can I go on a bus too?” My mother said, “We will go and visit your sister, but for now say goodbye to her.” My aunt was impatient to go and told me, “Come on! I have a lot of stuff to do!” She pulled me so hard to let go of my mother that I fell.

I cried for the rest of the trip when I left my small city and my family. My aunt tried to show me the view of the peanut plantations, which looked like a green blanket, and the plantations of corn. Every time the bus stopped she would scream, “Look at the cow on the street!” or “Look at the camel that is blocking our way!” The driver had to stop frequently to move the animals out of the way. The trip seemed so long. It was only five hours but to me seemed an eternity. My aunt tried to talk to me, but with no success. She told me that I would be happy with her and that I could visit my siblings at Christmas. “Who cares?” I said to myself, “I want to be with them now!”

After the long, five hour ride, we reached our destination, Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea. My aunt was all excited. She was trying to show me the world around us. Inside me I was saying, “This is your world, not mine. I was fine in my little town.” I felt as if everyone had betrayed me. I felt no one loved me. If someone loved me they would not have let me go. Once at my aunt’s place, I was silent for the rest of the day and evening and I refused to eat or talk for the days to follow. All I could hear was my aunt saying that I was spoiled, and that she would teach me to be obedient and I would grow up to be a fine girl.

I never saw my family for four years. As a result, I never overcame my anger and my separation anxiety. I felt betrayed by the family I loved.