High heating costs, rising food prices, skyrocketing rent - these are the issues that everyone in France is complaining about. Now begins a time of renunciation, the media often says. This big word, “renunciation,” makes me smile a bit.
Renunciation, after all, means having a choice between two options.
For example, I can choose between smoking and not smoking - or I can give up smoking. But those who talk like this forget an important detail: Many people don't have the option of going without anything at all. They have no alternatives to choose between.
For the longest time of my 58-year life, I was also one of these people.
I was born in the Central African Republic, more precisely in Bimbo, a suburb of the capital Bangui. If you don't know anything about life there, the following statistic will help: Every year, the World Bank lists the Central African Republic as one of the poorest countries in the world.
“From today's perspective, I would say that I was still youth when I was married off by my father.”
When I was one year old, my parents fled south with my siblings and me. They wanted to escape the poverty and political unrest that had gripped the country for decades. In Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, they hoped for a safer life than in Bangui - and there was work for us.
In fact, my father landed a coveted job as a bodyguard there shortly after our arrival. From then on, he guarded a family member of the Congolese president. But after only a few years, the tide turned again for our family.
My mother fell seriously ill and died, and I had to take care of my younger siblings day and night. There was no time to go to school - and even if there had been, I probably would not have ended up on a school bench.
Education was not considered particularly important by my family, especially for girls.
“When I think back to that time today, most of all I remember how unhappy I was.”
Then, when I was eight years old, the situation in the Central African Republic had calmed down a bit, and we returned to Bangui. From today's perspective, I would say that I was still a youth when I was married off there by my father. But the term “youth” did not exist for me at that time.
I had no idea what “being young” meant and with what freedoms this state was associated elsewhere. So, as tradition demanded, an arranged marriage occurred. I quickly became pregnant with twins. Three more pregnancies followed at short intervals.
When I think back to that time today, most of all I remember how unhappy I was. There was no running water or electricity in our neighbourhood, life was very hard. And when my husband died, I was a widow solely responsible for my family.
“In the salon, I was able to breathe freely for the first time and felt a little more independent.”
I raised five children alone. To be able to feed them, I became a hairdresser. The work was poorly paid, but it enabled me to send my daughters to school. Besides, working in a hair salon was a breath of fresh air in my life.
At that time, my extended family seemed to me like a closed system, a place where I was always under observation and lived under the gaze of others.
In the salon, I was able to breathe freely for the first time and felt a little more independent.
“I hid with my children in the forest near Bangui, where there was nothing but trees.”
In 2001, however, the uncertain political situation caught up with us once again: an attempted coup shook the country. In the eyes of the world at that time, the events may have been little more than a footnote in the history of the crisis-ridden African continent, and today they have long been forgotten.
But for those who had to witness these events first hand, it was the exact opposite. For us, there are no small wars.
After the coup attempt was put down, rumours spread in a flash that the masterminds behind the coup effort were from the Yakoma people - my people. A real hunt began for people of my tribe. I was also arrested. I escaped only thanks to a lucky coincidence; a policeman friend of mine let me escape.
I hid with my children in the forest near Bangui, where there was nothing but trees. And snakes! We slept on the ground, with the canopy of trees above us as our only protection. Fortunately, acquaintances provided us with a little food at the time, just enough to survive.
I later learned that 300 people were killed and 50,000 had to flee the country during that time. Only after sixty days, when the political situation had calmed down somewhat, did we return to Bangui.
“My daughters and I were attacked at home by armed men.”
By chance, I met the French author Yves Pinguilly there, and through him I found my way into writing. Together we wrote my first novels. I wrote about my everyday life and what it means to be a woman in my country. And I wrote about the incumbent dictator and his clique.
But my honest words were both a curse and a blessing: on the one hand, they helped me discover my passion for writing, and on the other, they soon brought me my first death threats, which were soon followed by action.
My daughters and I were attacked at home by armed men. To this day, I do not know whether the perpetrators were rebels from Chad or militias loyal to the government. The attackers ransacked our house and would certainly have raped us if our neighbours had not rushed to our aid.
It was then that I made the decision to leave Bangui for good. First, my children and I found refuge in the Republic of Congo, more precisely in the capital Brazzaville. From there, I then applied for a visa and was actually able to leave for France in 2014. My children, however, were denied the visa.
At that time, they were already adults, and one of my daughters had two children of her own. Nevertheless, it was enormously difficult for me to leave them behind in Brazzaville. To this day, I worry about them every day.
“I miss my country. I can't give up the desire to return one day.”
For a few years now, I have been living in France as a political refugee. In 2016, I received a residence permit for ten years. I live in a social housing on the outskirts of Rennes, I cannot afford an apartment in the centre.
In French exile, it is often the small things of everyday life in Central Africa that I particularly miss.
I long for dishes like ngoudja, a fish dish cooked with leaves from the forest. I also sorely miss yorogo fonda, or plantains, and the famous gozo, or cassava bread. And whenever I get a chance, I replace the drab European clothes I bought with my colourful African Pagne wraps.
I miss my country. I can't give up the desire to return one day. I miss my family, and my grandchildren who I've never met. I can't return, though, because that might endanger my status as a refugee. So I write - and work part-time as a geriatric nurse.
The job is hard and poorly paid. Every passing month my wallet empties faster.
Many of the people in my neighbourhood already can't make ends meet on their wages and are forced to go to the food banks for support. Often they are women, refugees, single parents. The little they have, the little I have, is shrinking.
translated by Claudia Kotte and Jess Smee