Unedited Excerpt from Runaway Country

January 1st 2006

Ma petite belle,

I am so happy today I could cry. You send me a letter, Mukemba, and now I know you’re alive. It was short but I understand. You cannot tell me where you are or what your life is like in case they are looking for you. I am glad you are getting my letters, and that sending them to your friend instead of to our old home has guaranteed that you get them. I would hate for them to read my thoughts to you if they intercepted our post.

The coin you sent me for luck will be in my wallet until I see you again. And then I will need no luck, because I will have you and the girls back.

When I got the letter, Azekel handed in to me with the biggest smile I have ever seen on his face. He knew it would make me happy, but he wasn’t sure if it was from you or some one who was getting my letters. I recognised your handwriting on the envelope immediately and tore it open, already with tears in my eyes. Thank you for writing, ma petite belle. I love you.

Last night we went to a bar to celebrate New Year’s and I met many people from Africa. Some of them had run away, other had just come here for the city and the beaches and the opportunities. But we all have one thing in common: saudades.

Saudades is a difficult word to translate, but it explains everything we were feeling last night. It is a feeling of longing, nostalgia – it is not quite missing something but missing the feeling of it. We all felt saudades for our home countries because the holidays always make you think about family and the past. But saudades is a good feeling. It is not a sad kind of missing and it does not mean suffering. Yes, you feel nostalgia for what has been but a big part of saudades is being happy that you had those moments you wish you could have back in the present. It is more a feeling of distant fulfilment than a pain of loss.

We all reminisced about the things we missed; our day-to-day life, the food, the weather, the places we used to go. Once Azekel had said he missed going to his mother’s house for Sunday lunch, we all started talking about things we missed terribly. One of the women, a plump and short one with a heart-shaped mouth, told us all about a tree she used to climb, and when she got up there she felt like she was on top of the world. Another woman with the longest hair I have ever seen – it goes as far as her upper legs! – said, as she braided her hair into one big plaid, she used to lie down in a hammock in her house at the end of the day and take a nap, after cleaning the whole house and cooking dinner for her husband, and that she had never encountered a hammock as comfortable as that one.

A wise-looking man with greying hair and kind eyes revealed he missed working in the bank, where he had worked all his life before he came to Rio, and meeting all kinds of people, having access to their money accounts – he used to make up stories in his head for everyone he met, every day. And by the sounds of it he met many people daily. If someone was mean to him and did not treat him well, he would justify it by saying they had had bad sex that morning, or that they had woken up late and were having a bad day. If they had a big hat with a feather, he would think of a story for the feather, long lost by a bird far away who became unlucky since he lost it. If you’d hear him tell these stories you’d think they are real. Maybe he thinks that they are. They are sometimes beautiful, but other times they are awful. Perhaps he knows people who have been part of these stories but prefers to reassign them to the faces of strangers.

A short girl who looked to be a lot younger than everyone else in the room said she missed going to school. She did not look like a child, as her eyes seemed full of tragedies hidden inside, but she looked fresh and stubborn. I would say she is in her early twenties. She told us all that when she lived in the Congo, she used to go to school every day and learn about Africa and its problems, and how to fix them. She wanted to be a teacher when she got older and graduated because she desired more than anything to teach African children that they could grow up to be some one important. She wanted to inspire hearts – and she missed being inspired by her teachers.

Another man, not as old as the first one, broad shouldered and well-spirited, said he missed speaking in the language of his tribe and everyone understanding here. Everyone groaned with the distant pleasure of something that isn’t attainable right now but once was. The conversation we were having was proving to be difficult because there were people from Ghana, Angola, Congo and many other countries there. So we mostly spoke in English so we could understand each other, but sometimes one or two of us wouldn’t really grasp the whole meaning and you could tell their laughter was fake because they didn’t want to admit they were confused. Even the people from Angola understood, and they speak Portuguese there! The accent must be different plus different tribes speak different languages everywhere in Africa.

As for me, my love, I miss the simplicity of life. Maybe this is why I have spent hours and hours reading those comics out loud, it is not because I want to learn the language but because I miss life without complications. And what child has complications? At least when I was a kid the only complication I had was that I had homework to do but I did not want to do it. As I told them what I missed the most about you and the girls, I clutched the lucky coin you gave me to give me strength and not break down in front of my new friends. Every one of them had suffered, I felt like it would be selfish of me to cry because I haven’t seen you in a few months when many of them haven’t seen their families for years. At least I know I can survive without you for a while now that I have met them and I can see they have their own lives despite their tragedies.

It was a good night, as we were all filled with nostalgia, beer, and food. And despite all the bad things in my life I felt happy that I was meeting people and not just in Azekel’s house, sulking because I miss my family. It was refreshing to tell people what I missed about you, and share how much I love my daughters. The best part of it was being understood by people who have been through similar things, who have lost what they knew in life to be given something they had never imagined they would get. It makes me feel a lot less lonely and even though I think I might have spoken too much and probably bored a few people in that party, I am glad that I spoke. It was like a lump was stuck in my chest and I hadn’t been able to lodge it out until last night. I needed to speak, and tell people about my pain.

Now I am thinking we all need to speak out and tell the world how we feel and who we miss and why. Maybe if we told everyone and didn’t just sit here in silence, the other countries would help Africa become peaceful. They would help us be a country that only had a few murders per years and didn’t use rape as a weapon. We’d have a country I would be proud of, not a country I am afraid of hearing about in the news because I dread to hear you are dead or that you might be dead.

After last night I decided I will try to be a positive person, even though I am far from home. The sooner I make my own home here, the sooner you can come to me. The sooner I have money to send you so you can come here, the sooner we will be together. It might take a few years and many, many letters which I hope you will continue reading, but hope is the last to die. I will keep clutching the lucky coin you sent me and power through, not because I want to but because I have to.

When we got home, Azekel and Abena went to bed and I stayed awake thinking about all the people I had met. The plump woman who liked to climb her tree. The short girl with dreams that never were. The old man with imaginary stories about bank clients. I wondered if I was as interesting as they were and if I would ever reach their level of peace with Rio de Janeiro.

Love always,


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