“She said she’s tired of fighting, that she’s just waiting for her time to come.” I listen as mum retells her recent conversation with grandma.
It’s not that it bothers grandma to be in confinement. As usual she rarely leaves the compound and the house which was built by Paul, her deceased husband. Years ago, for a reason no one can recall today, someone cut down the mango tree, leaving the courtyard bare open for the sun to bake. Underneath the hot sun is grandma, glued to her favorite spot where she can update her mental note of who’s coming and leaving her property. She argues with the grand children when they’re back after school; about home works and speckless white shirts sloppy tucked in their ironed blue school uniforms.
Grandma suffers from cataract but her eyes convert to magnifier glasses as she scrutinizingly inspects the small pile of uncooked beans and with precision, that only comes from years of experience, separates the good seeds from the bad. She doesn’t trust that her own children can do the job properly (although they’re all over their 50s). When I’m in Congo she forces me to watch how the work is done. Her hands are as efficient as her words when she speaks to me in a mix of Kikongo and Lingala. “It’s important that you remove the damaged ones, otherwise they will ruin the whole stew.” I nod impressed as if it’s the most profound lesson I’ve ever learnt. We both know I’m just waiting for the food to be ready. When not dealing with beans she cuts the green fresh bouquet of vegetables bought at marché de Gambela: pondu, bitekuteku, fumbwa. Always with the same vigorous despite of the knife’s blunt blade. I’m the first to taste the food but in spite of all her hard work grandma never eats until everybody has been fed. Sometimes that means going to bed hungry.
“She is very tired”, mum sighs worryingly on the other side of the line. Just earlier this year I discovered that mum’s real birth name was Kiadi, meaning the one with tears/ sorrow. I couldn’t find her name on the family tree grandpa had carefully drawn but on a thin branch was an unknown Kiadi. I asked who it was and got an answer that seemed to surprise her more. “It’s me! It’s such a melancholic name so I decided to change to something more fun. Eh, I haven’t heard that name in ages” mum replied astoundingly, as if after shopping discovering that she’d forgotten to buy onions. My mum is like that, forgetful or secretive, I haven’t yet figured out which. There’s layer after layer the more you peel. Suddenly a family thing is casually revealed when you’re having dinner. Kiadi, she repeated to herself. As if trying to figure out if she could do without the onions.
My mum is someone who excessively cares more about others than herself. She feels deep empathy for anyone in pain and would shed tears for people she doesn’t know. She’s been in Sweden since 1990 but her worry remained in Congo. It’s either malaria, ebola, her nieces unpaid school fees, relatives dying and now corona. Like Sweden the Congolese gov’t urges people to stay in confinement but in Congo only the rich can afford isolation. It’s ironically how everybody is hustling for a dollar in one of the resource- richest country in the world. That on the other hand is ranked amongst the top 5 poorest countries as well.
Lucky are the ones who have relatives in a Western country to send money with Western Union. Mum asks me to help her write down a short grocery list with ingredients that are cheap, last long and can feed many people. We figure out that rice, salt, onions will do. It’s also the most convenient since there’s rarely electricity. And in some places the price of food have already doubled.
After hanging up it feels as if we somehow managed to control the situation. But soon again I hear that mum is calling. The money she had sent can’t be withdrawn as all ATM:s in Kinshasa are shut down.
New routines, old memories and a cute squirrel
It’s hard to understand the stress of things constantly being out of order when you live in one of the best functioning countries in the world. In Sweden I’m far from the bucket showers days in Kinshasa. And I looove taking long hot showers. Yesterday while I was lathering my body I noticed how I had put on some weight. That’s not surprising as my pantry has enough food to feed a whole family. My corona-stash consists of everything from fresh kale, oranges, chips, milk, pizza and some ice cream for my Netflix days.
Being in isolation has given me new routines. I begin my mornings reading, doing some yoga and have a long contemplating philosophical breakfast looking outside my kitchen rear window that faces the courtyard. You can see in other apartments but many have pulled down their curtains. The three trees in the middle of the courtyard are still naked but spring is in the air, painting a bit of the landscape green and blue. The birds are rehearsing their repertoire while a squirrel jumps between the trees and nervously chews his food as if someone will steal it from him. There’s a calmness just observing nature while slowly having breakfast but a lot of buried memories find their way to the surface when there are no distracting waves.
The tranquility once brought me back to one of my first winters in Sweden. I must have been around five and as now we were also in isolation. I didn’t understand why we had to be so quiet since we were in the middle of the forest and there was no neighbor within any reach. I wanted to ask but mum was always anxious. On her back was my new born brother who instinctively seemed to understand the gravity in the situation. He hardly cried. Something heavy, yet invisible, was after us. I understood this was not the time for my questions. In the background I heard dad trying to make jokes with the old Christian couple that were helping us to hide. I don’t think they understood him but he kept laughing at his own jokes as he always does when he’s nervous. Outside the snow sprawled like a forgotten blanket after a picnic. It looked like someone had carefully tucked us in so that we could have sweet dreams. But instead we were all sleep walking in a collective nightmare. I kept looking for signs of foot prints on the blank surface. Would they find us?
Throughout the days and weeks the landscape continued to be covered in white as far as the eyes could see. Had someone come they would have seen an unpretentious typical Swedish red house. It didn’t look much on the outside inside it was visible that the couple really enjoyed Christmas. Or maybe they just wanted us children to be happy. The old man even dressed out as Santa. That was our first Christmas as undocumented.
Kiadi and grandma
For some reason that forgotten winter just popped up. I don’t think I had suppressed it but I guess it just laid there, waiting for the snow to melt away. Like mum’s name.
My dear mum who left Congo 1990. The same year MC Hammer bragged about being untouchable, World Wide Web was born and Nelson Mandela finally released from prison. But none of this mattered to me. My brother was born yet and I was the one laid curled up on mum’s back, totally oblivious of leaving my birth place and grandma.
It would take another 25 years before I met grandma again. I was an adult with Docs and a tongue piercing. Upon seeing me grandma instantly started to dance, sing and pray to God with grand gestures (Congolese people can really be over the top dramatic when they want to!). I just stood there, aloof as the typical Swede I was. Although it felt weird it strangely enough also felt very natural. Her love was just so pure.
Now I am told that this person is tired of fighting. That she just sits there with eyes deep as tunnels, peering over the horizon to see if what’s she’s been waiting for is approaching. There’s no oxygen to keep the fire alive and it it just by pure will she keeps it burning. The pupils are two black holes, dried wells that only seem to absorb darkness. I imagine how they used to be filled with water and make seeds grow but the constant flood of tears petered out the lost drop and left are two deep abysses in which the sun light never reaches.
I will most likely never bring my grandma to a place where she can take long showers and Netflix & chill with Ben & Jerry. Her ankles are tied down by a heavy weight that pulls them down to a grave in the bottomless ocean, to a cemetery where waves wash away the names on the tombstones. Like many marginalized people her identity has been stripped off and her voice drowned by constant streams of oppression.
Not just a virus
Corona may be an indiscriminate virus but like with other crisis minorities and the poor will always be those most affected. Simultaneously as the Swedish government tries to protect its citizen, the police evict homeless people from their makeshift houses in the forest (without offering a better solution); in Greece refugees are still packed in crowded camps; in China racism towards Africans is on the rise; and on TV prominent French doctors discuss the advantages of conducting coronavirus vaccines trial on poor Africans.
Because that is what my grandmother and other Africans are to the system. Guinea pigs who can’t escape the system. But in Sweden some of my friends compare their confinement with prison. They are bored foe having to social distance. The positive minded friends on the other hand think that the virus is some sort of namaste Ayurvedic raw food spiritual teaching. I ask what lesson there is in punishing the poor and marginalized harder.
My intention isn’t to shame people or sound righteous but I invite us all to look into our behaviors. We all have our struggles and all feelings are valid but I think that we in the West need to admit how our welfare is based on the suffer and lives of other people. Only then can we find a solution to this fucked-up situation. But somehow we keep on closing our eyes, take another chill pill and cover ourselves in the softest illusions of capitalism and imperialism.
My grandma has a lot of faith to Universe but I understand her insomnia. Sometimes I wish that I could put a warm blanket over her shoulders and tell her that everything will be ok. That she can sleep if she wants to. I’m confident that when she must go so will happen. I’m now old enough to understand that death is an inevitably part of life. But there’s truly a great loss to the world when someone leaves in pain. So I hope that she manages to stay a little longer until everything is ok.