Can you hear me?

By Michelle Kharono Barlow (Published 10th June 2016)

This article was originally posted on

There was this one game that father and I enjoyed playing when I was much younger. He would stuff a polythene bag with dried leaves and stocks and if we were lucky, a few papers we found here and there to create what I later got to learn was a football. The thrill of running after the ball was more exhilarating than kicking it back to father. Other times he showed me how to make tight knots with rope and rubber to create hunting tools he and I would use to trap animals for food.

I grew up in a little village. I had a loving father and an ever present mother. Their love was the strong kind of love that wasn’t hidden from our eyes. Even if they didn’t say much, I could see it in the way father always helped mother lift the firewood or the pot of water from her head and place it on the ground when she returned home. Other times, my mother sang a love song about a stubborn man that kept tugging at her heart strings. They even had a special pot that only they ate from or stored wild honey that only they ate deep in the night. Though my father was the head of the house, my mother was the glue that held us together. My mother often said our father will always be her first born. It was a lie and a truth at the same time.

We all knew each other in our little community and we had principles that saw to it that we lived in harmony with one another. Conflict was rarely heard of – if ever. The children were never allowed to go hungry. Theft, we were taught from very early on, was not beneficial. The women cooked together and shared ideas while the men went on hunts and panned a way forward in times of crisis. When death visited us it was a terrible time. The mourning took weeks and sometimes months. We made songs to let them know we missed them and thought about them often. I wondered if they heard us in that other world father told me they go to. Death was never an end. It was an entry to the next place we all go to.

Growing up, we sat by the fireplace in the evening while the sun sunk into the sky. Our elders shared stories with us about the times that were. The children got to know about the fierce battles their forefathers won and lost. They got to know through these stories what they should do in times of trouble and in times of plenty. It was by the fire and smoke that stories of love and loss were told and new songs were hatched. The fireplace taught the boys to be men and the girls to be warriors in their own right. It was by the fireplace that I got to know my ancestors down to the ninth generation. Song and dance always filled the air and this was where my little feet learnt the rhythm of the land.

My people have known pain and loss. The kind of pain that bites at your heart and will never let go. An unredeemable pain. We have been robbed, demonised and hurt in more ways than I wish to talk about because the memory of it hurts more than death.

I was only eleven when gun men surrounded the hut that I lived in with my brothers and was taken. I watched as my father was tortured and killed. My mother was violated in a way I find hard to express to you. They lay their bodies on top of her, one after another, while she begged for them to stop. My head was held and I was forced to watch. If I dared to even blink, they whipped me. They left her there bleeding and so drained of life, there was no need to administer a final blow of death. She was already on her way to the other side. She could hardly move. She wasn’t fighting anymore. I don’t know how to explain what I felt but it was something found in the middle of raw anger, sadness, frustration and helplessness.

They gave me a load to carry and told me I was now theirs. I was suddenly a man and life was about to change. I wasn’t in my body for a long time. I seemed to levitate somewhere above it but being in it meant feeling things that I didn’t have the courage to. I wasn’t ready. With time, they gave me a nickname and a gun. Later, a woman. A kind timid girl my age or younger to pleasure me. Even though I didn’t want this to happen, it was a source of entertainment to my abductors and so it happened. It was no surprise that one morning we found her body hanging from a tree with a pregnancy believed to be mine.

My mother survived. She was found by a few other women of our community that had been lucky enough to escape. Mother was nursed back to health. It took a while but one bright morning it was announced over the radio that the war had finally ended. Peace had finally come they said. But what was peace to the mothers that lost their children and watched their husbands brutally murdered? What was peace to the mothers who fell pregnant and now mothered children of wicked men? What was peace to a mind in a body that had been violated and left with the memory of its tormentor? What was peace to eyes that saw and bodies that still carried marks of death and war? What was peace to a community scattered and massacred? What was peace to the spirits they broke?

I’m in a far away place right now. I traveled here in the night. The moon was bright and the smell of gunpowder was everywhere. I am not quite sure what sent me here but it ended my life. It might have been a bullet from a gun or something in the ground that I step on. As I lay in the cold and stared up into the sky I asked it to swallow me and put me out of my misery. In my final moments I remembered my father and asked him for forgiveness. I wasn’t brave enough when he needed me most that day when he tried to fight to protect us. I asked my mother to forgive me for what my eyes perceived while they hurt her so deeply. I said farewell to my brothers and sisters that I had not seen in seven years and asked the ones that had gone ahead of me to receive me well.

I see my mother but she doesn’t know that now I watch over her from the heavens. I watch as she cooks my favourite meal of cassava with millet and groundnut paste. I walk with her as she goes to the missing persons hut and tries to summon me home in song and tears. She doesn’t know whether to bury me and put up a gravestone in my memory or hope that one day I will walk back into our compound as a grown man and take care of her. Inside this hut she talks to me and tells me she misses me. She shows me the food she’s made and reminds me how much I enjoyed it. On nights when I ate it I slept with a smile on my face till the morning came, she says. How can I tell her that I hold her face in my hands and gently wipe her tears though she can’t see me? She shuffles her feet and dances while she whistles a sad tune. I dance along with her and in that moment our feet speak a language we both understand – the rhythm of our land.

I’m missing from her eyes, but I’m not missing from her heart. We’ll meet again. Stay strong. I’m watching over you.

Michelle Barlow is a writer. She writes short stories, feature articles and poetry. She has done some freelance writing and shares some of her work on her blog and timeline. Many of these are stories about real people, going through real life experiences but other times they are fictional pieces and purely a work of art. She is currently pursuing a degree in law at the University of Anglia Ruskin and hopes to graduate very soon. Michelle enjoys a good book, the open road and is an adventure seeker. 

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