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Chapter 1: Growing up in Liberia

My name is Arnelle; I was born in Monrovia, Liberia, West Africa. I am not sure where to start, but I am going to try my hardest to remember as much as possible. I do not have clear memories about everything that happened in my childhood, but the little I can remember I will share with you.

I remember my sister Yahgahbo and I living alone with our mother Deborah in a townhouse in Liberia. It was in a big compound where other people stayed as well. One morning, we woke up and there was a tall darkskinned man in the living room wearing my mother’s pajamas. My mother said, “This is Mr. AmiShasi; he is my friend.”

We greeted him and asked him if he was going to be living with us. My mother replied, saying, “He is only going to stay a little while until he can find his own place, because he has nowhere to stay for now.” We started to laugh, because it was very funny to see a man wearing a woman’s pajamas. My mother asked what was funny. We told her the reason for our laughter, and she said, “He has no clothes over here, but he is going to go and get them.”

After Mr. AmiShasi moved in, we got another big surprise. There was a knock on our door one morning and I opened it to find a white man standing there with a mixed-race kid, so I called my mother. She sent us to our room, but being nosy little kids we wanted to know what was going on, so we left our room door open just a little bit so we could hear.

We overheard the three adults discussing something, but we weren’t sure what it was all about. When the man left, we found out that he was the father to our brother. Brother! We did not know we had a brother, but that morning we got the news. Newsflash! My mother called us into the living room where she and Mr. AmiShasi sat with the mixed-race kid. My mother said, “I would like you both to meet your brother Chakakuka, he is going to be staying with us from now on. Be nice to him; he’s your older brother, so show him some respect.”

I said, “Why no one told us we had a brother?” Mother said it was a long story and she would tell us later. We all went to play, and it turned out to be so much fun to have a brother.

The townhouse only had two bedrooms, so we had to share ours with our brother. One morning, we woke up and said good morning to my mother and Mr. AmiShasi. My mother said to us, “AmiShasi and I would like to have few words with you all, so take a seat in the living room.” The three of us sat down awaiting another surprise, and it certainly was.

My mother sat next to Mr. AmiShasi and said, “I need you kids to listen well, because what I am about to tell you all is very important. From now on Mr. AmiShasi is going to be staying over for good. You are to no longer call him Mr. AmiShasi, but Papa.” We did not know what to think or say, but the thought of having a father seemed fun, so we all agreed.

Surprise! No, it was not fun, because the man who pretended to be so nice at first came along with many restrictions. We could not eat at a certain time, we had to take a nap at a certain time, and our TV had to be turned off at a certain time. This was not the man we wanted, but my mother was in love with him, so we had to live with his rules. We had friends that lived in the same compound who we would often play with, but our stepfather said we needed to be home at 6 p.m. Also, when they were not home, we had to stay indoors after school and weren’t allowed out.

So, when our parents weren’t home we opened the house door with the spare key and went out to play with our friends, and when they came home we would run back into the house, shower, and pretend like nothing happened so they would think we’d been good kids all day.

When we went out to play, the neighbours started wondering where our parents were. We would sometimes tell them our parents were asleep and wished not to be disturbed. Those lies did not last too long, because Arnelle M. Cruz 2 one day one of the neighbour’s kids got hurt while we were playing. His parents insisted on speaking to ours, and even though we told them that they were asleep and wished to be left alone, they said they would like to have a few words with them when they woke up. So that evening before our parents got home, we showered and wore our nightgowns and our brother wore his PJs and we pretended nothing happened.

They brought something we liked home from the restaurant for us, but before we could eat it the doorbell rang, and we knew we were in trouble for what happened earlier. Our hearts were pounding faster than a moving train, and when the door opened, there stood our neighbour Helena with a big smile on her face. We were hoping she wasn’t going to make comments about what had happened. My mother greeted her, saying, “Hello Helena, what wind brings you to my home this evening? I have been so busy I haven’t seen you in a while. Is everything OK?”

Helena said, “No, actually, I came to talk to you about what happened today.”

My mother said, “What happened today?” “The kids were out playing and ours got hurt, and when I wanted to have a word with you, your kids said you were asleep and wished not to be disturbed. So I thought it wise to come later on when you were well rested.”

At that point, our hearts dropped. We knew what was about to happen to us, because first we pretended nothing happened then we disrespected orders. My mother told Helena how sorry she was, and that next time when they needed to rest, they would make sure we stayed indoors. Helena said goodbye. My mother called our stepfather out of their bedroom and told him what happened. She said she was leaving the disciplining to him—big mistake, because we got the whipping of our lives that night. He whipped us so badly, the leather belt he was using was in pieces by the time he was done. He told us to have a shower because we were smelling of spit and sweat. Our whole bodies were covered with bruises and putting water on them made it hurt even more.

We did not get the food they brought for us because they said we did not listen. I was sorry for what happened to us, but I felt even sorrier for Chakakuka, because he is mixed-race and you could really see the red marks all over him. School was closed for the summer, so that made it even worse, because when our parents went out they locked us up in the house and took the key with them. All that was left was our bedroom window to chat with our friends.

That was the only way they could visit us and the only way we could communicate with them. The window wasn’t big enough, so most of the time we found ourselves fighting over who was going to get the better spot to look outside and chat with our friends. Being alone at home made us so bored; we did not know what to do, so our friends started bringing us stuff like candy that their parents gave them. There was no way of getting it, so we decided to make a hole in the window screen. We thought we were the smartest kids ever until we found out that we’d just cost ourselves more trouble. Each time we took stuff from our friends, the hole in the window got bigger, which allowed more mosquitoes into our house.

It became a concern to my mother, because it seemed that each time she used the mosquito spray, more mosquitoes came into the house. She decided to find where they were coming from. She checked the whole house, and when she got to our room, we heard her scream. She yelled for us to come and see what we had done. We knew it was going to come to this, but we were not sure how long it was going take for my mother to find out.

None of us wanted to be the first to enter the room. We heard her scream again, “You guys better get in here very fast, because when I reach out there to get you, you won’t find this funny at all.” We had no choice but to enter the room together. She called us one at a time to the window to show us what we had done. She said, “Do you know how expensive these things were? You are all spoiled and do not even care, right?” We stood there with no answer, because we knew what we had done was wrong. But at the time we did it, it was our only way of connecting with the outside world.

She said to us, “I am going call your father to see this.” She called, “AmiShasi, come see what the children did.”

Mr. AmiShasi entered the room and saw what we did, and said, “So, this is what you people have done, right? Go into the living room and I am going to teach you a lesson.” Silly us, we were so happy when we heard him say “teach us a lesson.” We thought he was going to help us with our schoolwork, but we saw him come out of their room with his leather belt in his hand, and he told us to stand in a line. We got the beating of our lives while our mom stood there and did not tell him to stop.

To her we were just getting discipline. But we asked ourselves how she could stand there and watch while he beat us like that. We started to hate Mr. AmiShasi now; he was always beating us. That day went by, and we continued with our day-to-day life. One evening, while we were watching movies as a family in the living room, Mr. AmiShasi told my mother that he would be right back. She said OK, and when he returned, he had a big smile on his face.

He had a surprise for her and told us to close our eyes, and that my mother should close her eyes, too. We closed our eyes and held hands while he led us outside. He said to my mother, “Happy birthday!” She opened her eyes to see a brand-new BMW. He had bought it for her birthday present, and even being that young I knew it was a very sweet thing to do, because at the time I did not know the word romantic or what it meant.

She screamed and gave him a big hug and a kiss, and he suggested we all take a drive in it. But at that time, my mother didn’t know how to drive, so he drove her instead and promised he was going to teach her how to drive. We then thought that this man was not bad after all, so we started to like him. Although he liked his intense discipline, we still thought it would be nice having him as a father. After a few days, my mother got our window screen fixed and there were no more mosquitoes. Each evening, she would use Spray Gone and we would all go sit outside and wait for a few hours until it was safe to go back inside.

We learned the sound of the BMW because the house was up on a hill, so when our parents were on their way home, we would run in the house and behave as if we had been good all day. We made sure not to cause any trouble while we were out playing so our parents would not get complaints about us and learn what we had been up to. I know you might be wondering how we were able to go outside, since our parents always locked the doors before leaving for work. One morning, when our mom and dad were getting ready for work, we distracted them and took the spare key. That is why we behaved so well when we went out to play, because if we got in trouble and it got back to our parents, we would be in bigger trouble than ever.

Things at home were good. Each day, before my mother went to work, she would cook food for us and put it in a bowl, with different colours for each of us, but we didn’t have much of an appetite. We wanted anything that was sweet in the house, like chocolate, candy—you name it. My mother noticed something was wrong, because each time she got home from work our food would be untouched.

She called us into the kitchen and asked why we did not eat the food she took her time to cook. One of us would say they did not like it, the next said it was too spicy, and the other said it was not their favourite. My mother now had to make three different meals before going to work, and still the same thing happened when she got home. She went out and got us vitamins, thinking maybe that was the problem, but we still didn’t want to eat.

When she checked around the kitchen to find out what was wrong, she realized that all the sweets in the house were gone. She called our stepdad and we had a little family meeting. They said that from then on, they would need to lock up all the sweets in the house and would only give them to us if we did good things. All the sweets were put away, but our parents made one mistake: they left the cookie jar high up on the top of the shelves. So, when they left for work, we got together as a team and planned how we were going to get the cookies down. It sounded like so much fun, so we decided to form a human ladder. Chakakuka was at the bottom, I stood on his shoulders, and Yahgahbo stood on mine, but the human ladder was not strong enough.

When Yahgahbo was passing the stuff down from up above, she slipped, and I slipped, and we all came tumbling down on the big bag of rice, and the rice in the bag spilled all over the kitchen floor. We were in panic, and before we could clean it our parents got home. That’s when they realized that beating us wasn’t going to change anything, it was just going to get us to make more trouble. They both decided to try a different method of discipline: we were not allowed to watch television that evening. They needed to figure out what to do about us being destructive. Our stepfather was not happy about what happened at all.

He was so upset, he decided that my mother would not use the remaining rice in the bag. She called some guys that lived in the neighbourhood over and told them they could have it. Those guys were so happy it felt like Christmas for them. They told my mother thanks and promised to come and help her out with some housework if she needed the help, which she and our stepfather agreed to.

I’m not sure what happened, but one day one of the guys decided that he would disrespect and challenge our stepfather to a fight. I prayed that guy would not challenge our stepfather, but he did, because he saw that he was skinny. He overlooked the strength of Mr. AmiShasi. Our stepfather got very mad and promised to teach the guy a lesson. We knew what he meant when he talked about teaching someone a lesson, because we had been taught by him. We knew the guy was in for some big trouble, but we did not know how big his trouble was going to be until it happened.

My mother tried to stop him from going out to fight this guy, but our father said if he did not teach this guy a lesson, he would think that one day he could come back and disrespect or take advantage of our family.

Our stepfather came outside and didn’t say a single word. He watched as the guy carried on talking and saying stuff. Mr. AmiShasi just walked to him, gave him one punch, and he was on the ground. Then Mr. AmiShasi, with the wooden slippers he was wearing, stepped on the guy’s mouth and broke his front tooth.

People came running to stop the fight, but before they could get there the fight was over. They had to rush the guy to the hospital, and since that day everyone became scared of how strong Mr. AmiShasi was, and no one ever brought disrespect to our family again.

Our stepfather told my mother to tell the other guys that we wouldn’t be needing their help anymore. He told her he was going to send for his sister Emelia from Nigeria to help them out for a bit with disciplining us, so that we could learn to behave ourselves. My mother thought that was a great idea.

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