Africa and Bigotry


I can’t believe it’s October already. Yesterday I walked the Pup for my first long walk since faceplanting into a tree root, and I sniffled the entire way. It feels like cold season — chilly, dark, and windy. It’s actually my favorite season in New England. I love the chill, which kills the mosquitoes and black flies, but isn’t crushingly frigid as it can get during the winter.

Speaking of my nose, though, it’s still bleeding. I’d love to have a picture of what the heck is going on up there. I mean, I know I fractured it, but where’s the blood coming from? I did yoga for the first time last night too. Maybe that opened up some stuff that had been healing, who knows.

When I was five years old, I lived in Africa for a year. My father worked for the government (yes, American) as an electrical engineer. The government had a beautiful house built for us. In the meantime, we lived in a flat (apartment). I remember making frequent visits to see the house as it was being built. The hallways were dark and unfinished, and the house smelt like cement.

For the rest of my life, Africa evokes smells of cement, and the smell of cement evokes images of our home in Africa.

There was a cinderblock-enclosed patio with a huge cement vase in the middle — probably for soil and plants, although I don’t remember anything being put into it. It was in this patio where they lit fireworks, probably to celebrate the fourth of July. I spend a good deal of my Africa time sick, and I told them to stop the fireworks because they made my feet itch. It must have been during my chicken pox episode.

A cement shack was built for the servants in the back yard. It wasn’t even a shack from what my 5-year-old mind can remember, it was just an open one-room box. We had three servants: a cook, Ousmane; a cleaner (I don’t remember his/her name); and a gardener, John. John is the only person whose face I can remember, isn’t that strange? He must have been exceptionally nice to us. Years later, when my brother told me Ousmane (the cook) was my real father, I believed him without giving it a second thought. I can only imagine it must have been my mother who corrected me eventually.

My brother and I shared a room, and we had a dog, cat, goat, and chameleon. All disappeared for various reasons which are a mystery to me, except the dog. The dog apparently survived, because I remember giving him away when we left. The dog was never housebroken, and shit everywhere. I remember getting mad at my roommate brother and rubbing dog shit on his blanket. I thought it was a fine retaliation for whatever he’d done to me. To this day, he probably doesn’t even know I did it.

There was an enclosed run in the back yard, and this is where fowl were slaughtered. People would come to the house and sell them live, and the cook would take them out back and slice off their heads and wait till they stopped running around headless. My oldest brother lead the boycott on eating a duck that he begged mercy for. He wanted that duck for a pet. The rest of us kids honored his boycott. I didn’t eat duck after that until well into my thirties.

After we returned from Africa, I remember saying how happy I was that I didn’t have to see Black people everywhere. I didn’t think anything of saying this. I didn’t even feel it, but for some reason it felt like the right thing to say. Until one day I heard my father saying it. Even at that age of 6 or 7, I realized I was mimicking my father’s racism — even though he was Asian for crying out loud. It was a lesson that I’ve remembered my entire life. Bigotry is taught.


Written in response to today’s WordPress Daily Prompt Our House : What are the earliest memories of the place you lived in as a child? Describe your house. What did it look like? How did it smell? What did it sound like? Was it quiet like a library, or full of the noise of life? Tell us all about it, in as much detail as you can recall.

Africa and Bigotry

Daily Prompt Memories of Africa


Whenever I smell a particular cement smell, I’m transported back to Africa.  Why this smell has such a powerful deja vu for me is a mystery.

When we went to Africa, there was no housing for us, so the US Government hired local contractors to build us a house with servants’ quarters out back.

Until the house was finished, we lived in a flat.  I remember visiting the building site of the house and walking through the cement-wall hallways, and this is the smell that’s lingered in my brain for all of these years.

I lived only one year in Africa, but it was a transitional year for my life in many ways.  For the previous year, we lived without my father.  Africa was all about getting to know my father again.  He was a complete stranger to 5-year-old me at that time.  Africa was where I began learning that my father was a strict disciplinarian.

My memory of Africa was of being sick and my mother bringing me crunchy bacon as a treat.  Fireworks crackled and popped in our patio for some sort of celebration and I complained that the fireworks made my feet itch.  I was afraid of the Africans who looked like lepers, staring at me because they’d never seen an Asian before.

I hid behind my younger brother as our older brother was bullied by the African kids in our school.  My older brother was eventually home schooled.  The explanation was that there was no schooling for his grade, but I do remember the awful bullying of him in school.

A woman with pastries that tasted like sugared donuts would come to the school and sell them.  She wore the long, patterned robe of an African woman.  I loved those pastries.

Once I spent the night with a British friend.  Her father told us stories about the dolls on the shelves and how they come alive at night, and I believed him.  I thought about those dolls for many years after that.  In the morning we had liver for breakfast.  In spite of hating liver, I ate it.

We had servants for everything — cleaning, cooking, yard work.  The servant who served us dinner let the grownups scoop their own food, but he scooped my food.  One time we watched him butcher a chicken bought from a local vendor.  The chicken was running around without its head.  My brother lead a strike against eating a duck that was butchered in the same way.  He had begged for mercy for the poor duck and failed, so all of us children refused to eat the duck that night.

I’ve never had the desire to go back to Africa.  The thought fills me with fear, I suppose it’s because I was sick so much and had so many bad experiences there.  I got deathly car sick riding around touring the neighboring villages.  One time the car stopped, and we discovered the road had fallen away and just a cliff was in front of us.  The fear of cliffs on roads filled me for a long time after that.

Daily Prompt: Tell us about a sensation — a taste, a smell, a piece of music — that transports you back to childhood.
The Transporter

Daily Prompt Memories of Africa