Refugee Camp, Moving to Benin
My family and I found ourselves living in a refugee camp in Benin. We moved to Benin after living in a secret refugee camp in Kinshasa, capital of Republic Democratic of Congo, for a few months. Benin represented hope, freedom and a chance for a new life. The refugee camp was located in the village of kpomasse, an hour drive from civilization and bigger cities. In general, Benin was a beautiful place. In the rural villages, fruits and vegetables grew everywhere. Benin was also a very mystical place. Voodoo is practiced there. In fact, Benin is the birthplace of voodoo.
The refugee camp was state of the art, with tin roofs and brick walls. For refugees, it was pure luxury, living the high life. The camp was divided into three parts. About 2,000 people lived there at the time. There was the Ogoni tribe from Nigeria (longest) and Togolese from Togo. There were also freshly-resettled Congolese, mostly Rwandans and Burundians refugees, who went to Congo after the genocide and were then being massacred by Congolese people because of the civil war. In the Congolese side of the camp, most people knew and looked out for each other. I started school with other kids in the camp attending a local elementary school with Native Beninese. At school, I learned about a secret paradise lake nearby. My friends and I plotted a plan to go see the lake and swim in it. For weeks and weeks, we discussed our plans. I was eight years old at the time. It sounded like the perfect trip to take outside of the camp. The day came when I and five of my friends decided we were going to find the secret lake. It was Sunday around 11:30 am. I told my mother I was going to play with my friends. My mother said that was fine. I was excited! I met up with my friends near the main camp gate and then ventured out.
On the Road to Paradise Lake
It was a hot day. We started our journey on a red dirt road heading east. Sometimes we stopped to eat. We didn’t bring any food with us, but the forest offered an abundance of things to eat—oranges, bananas and apples. After walking for about an hour, we reached the end of the dirt road and headed through the bushes. Our excitement about finding Paradise Lake kept us filled with energy. We were singing, dancing and telling stories about some of our favorite actors—Chuck Norris, Jean Claude Van Dame and Jackie Chan. Sometimes one of us would start demonstrating the fighting moves from one of their movies. The voodoo practices of Benin were visible once we started walking through the bushes. Claimed territory was marked and the first mark I saw scared me. One of my friends was climbing an orange tree to grab us some snacks. While I waited, I leaned back on another tree. Suddenly, another friend screamed and cried, “Deo! Move away from the tree!” Skulls hung from the branches. On another branch was a basket containing rotten mangoes, oranges and bananas. I thought it was either a territory mark or some kind offering. Either way, I didn’t like it.
Immediately, we helped our friend get off the orange tree. We started running. We ran so fast our hearts pounded and our chests hurt. We stopped to catch our breaths. Then we heard some loud cheering. The closer and closer we got to the noises, the more openings there were in the bushes. It sounded like chanting and drums. When we walked out of the bushes, we found ourselves in middle of a local soccer game. Music played loudly on the radio and people played drums and chanted for their team. The natives knew we were from the refugee camp. They were very friendly. We asked one gentleman if he knew where the lake was. The man pointed.
Reaching Paradise Lake
We had been walking for two hours. As the noise of the soccer game faded, we found ourselves walking on the property of local villagers. People would stop and look at us and smile. Benin folks were very friendly. We passed more voodoo displays. But now we were less afraid of them.
We came to a small town with cars and local market. People were selling fish and smoked meat. And then we saw it. On the right was the beautiful lake—Paradise Lake! I looked at with excitement and smiled. But before I could say anything, my friends ran towards the water, taking their clothes off on the way. Once in the water, we cheered, screamed and splashing each other. “Woohoo!” I shouted. “I knew we’d find it. This is awesome.” We sang, danced and messed around. I was very happy. At that beautiful moment, I had no worries. All my problems were washed away. The water was calm and clear. Being away from the refugee camp, I felt free.
One of my friends sat on the rock watching us play. He screamed out, “Hey guys, do you think anyone will be looking for us?” We had left the camp without telling anyone. My other friends told him to chill, that everything would be fine. We played for another thirty minutes. Then we headed back through the bushes.
Heading back to the camp
On our way back, we told jokes and sang and danced. Time passed quickly. Luckily, we make it back to the camp just before the sundown. I don’t know about you, but I was not going to be walking around the bushes of Benin with all the voodoo stuff around in the middle of the night. When we reached the front gate of the camp, we said goodbye and parted ways. Alone now, it suddenly hit me. I had been away from home for seven hours. And I didn’t tell my mom or my brothers where I was going. And my mother was not a type of woman to play around with.
Confronting my mother
My heart beat fast. I was sweating heavily. I thought maybe I should lie and say that I was at my friend’s side of the camp playing and I lost track of time. I arrived home still wondering how I could explain my seven-hour absence. But I could say something, my brother Vinny said, “Mom Deo a ye.” Mama Deo is here.
My mom said, “Deo!”
“Mama nazo ya, nazo ko kende kosokola,” I said. Mom, I’m coming. I’m going to wash first. Our shower was outside.
My mom said, “Yaka awa.” Come here.
I took a big breath and swallowed. I walked in the room and my mother shut the door behind me. She asked me, “Okendaki Wapi?” Where did you go?
I just looked at my mother. Again she asked, “Okendaki Wapi?” And when she added that I was not going to disrespect her, I knew the beat down was about to happen.
I looked around for something she might hit me with. If there was something, I thought that maybe I could distract her from picking it up. She said “Yaka awa” Come here. I prayed under my breath, Lord please help me. I took one and half steps towards my mother and anticipated a slap. But then there was a knock on the door and someone said, “Bernadette, kosimba yete.” Don’t touch him. Bring him outside. I opened the door and saw a group of people, including my friends, standing in a common area in front of my home. My head was down. I walked towards my friends. Some were crying. Others were just watching. I joined my friend in the center.
One of the elders said “ponpage,” which meant pushup position. We got down in pushup position. Some of our other friends, who had not gone to paradise lake, watched and laughed. It was very embarrassing. But this wasn’t the worst of it. Someone next to the elder held six belts. He handed one to the elder. Then it began. We all received fourteen lashes. For every lash, the elder gave a speech. One, I still remember. He said, “We did not make it out of Congo for you guys to die here in the village of Benin.” The lashes hurt. After mine, I heard my mother’s voice. She screamed in front of everyone, “Nasa na bmeli, kuta ye.” I have a knife, let's cut him for disobeying. I was like, Oh hell no!!!!! Everyone screamed back, “No, no, no, Bernadette! He has learned his lesson. My mother retreated. As the crowd dispersed, I got up slowly from the pushup position. I walked away with my head down. My back hurt terribly. But the worst pain was the pain of shame and feeling I let my mother down.
Conclusion and Reflection
Looking back at this event as an adult, it means much more to me than when it occurred. I was one of the lucky ones, having spent only two and half years in a refugee camp. Most refugees today spend 10 to 15 years. It is important to understand that this took place in a different continent with different cultural practices. It is easy to be judgmental about these practices. In order to fully understand it, you must separate it from the context of your own life—the rules, regulations, moral standards and disciplinary practices you live by.
At the time, being eight years old for me felt like I was 18 years old in the US. I would say the same for some of my friends. We went through so much that forced us to grow up fast. We had a lot of responsibility given to us from our parents. At that age, I was taking care of my brothers and was the father figure of my house when my mother was not around. I washed my bothers, fed them, changed their diapers and protected them.
The discipline we received might rub you the wrong way if you view it in relation to your standards and your preference. Physical discipline was part of my upbringing when I was a child. It is not a right or wrong argument. It was part of my culture. It was how my parents and some elders instill respect, discipline and obedience. But sometimes when I was disciplined, it went overboard. I remember when I was in third grade, and I forgot my homework. A teacher hit me several times with a ruler on the tip of my fingers. This was normal in the society I grew up in. I would also say that it informed a lot of my behaviors as I was developing as a young child. I associated bad consequences with physical discipline. I am not a supporter of physical discipline, as a father of three today living in the most utopian nation in the world. I find the most effective way to discipline my kids is to take away things they really enjoy playing with. But the physical discipline worked for me as I was growing up. I feared the punishment.
The elders, who disciplined us, cared and wanted the best for us. And they actually lessened the intensity of the discipline we would have received from our parents. They wanted us to be safe and not risk our lives by leaving the camp on our own. We were all strangers brought together in this refugee camp by life and death situations with the hope of receiving a second chance to start over. We looked out for each other. We built relationships with each other and supported each other. If another parent saw you misbehaving and your mom or dad was not around, they would stop and confront you. This is very different than the US, people tend to mind their own business and keep moving. There are fewer shared community values for moving children forward collectively in their neighborhoods and schools. It is very isolated.
The discipline hurt and it was humiliating, but it was needed in order to instill character and discipline in us. When my mother screamed “cut him,” it was out of frustration. She was not going to really cut me with a knife. She was a single mother in her twenties with four children doing a hell of job trying to protect and provide for us. At times when we rebelled, it was overwhelming for her. I am not justifying my mother's emotional reaction. But it is important to keep in mind the context of this story: different culture, different environment and a lot of uncertainties.
How would you handle being in this situation?
If you ask me today, “Would you still have gone to paradise lake if you knew what the consequences be?” what would my answer be? I’d say, “Heck, yeah. I still would have gone!” As an eight-year-old going on 18, living in that camp, I was fully aware of our situation as refugees. I did not have much time to reflect on the impact of what was going on. I focused on the responsibilities that were given to me, but I also pursued any opportunity for me to be a child. Venturing out to discover paradise lake was exciting and freeing. For a few hours, I did not feel like I was confined to a refugee in a camp in the middle of nowhere. I was free forever—at least for those few hours.