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The trauma we bring with us

I had to leave Kenya after my son was murdered. I told myself I would return.

By: /
1 June, 2021

I come from Kenya, and that is where my story begins.

“I cannot trust anyone. My girls and I were raped in that refugee camp, and this one is almost giving birth.”

“This one” was a ten-year-old girl. These are not my words. They were told to me many years ago when I worked with vulnerable women in Kenya. Every day when I went to work, I knew that I would hear a story that would break my heart. Was I dressing the wound without treating it? Yes, I was. I was moving sand with a teaspoon.

It wasn’t just this kind of violence that I encountered every day, it was also the poverty that Kenyan women suffered. There are many stories to tell, but how about I just write about the mother of four who boiled a pot all day while her children played? It was a trick. The pot held only water and she had nothing to give them. But she hoped that they would get tired and sleep. Poverty in Kenya benefits the corrupt leaders who use it to profit from the business of importing maize and rice from Brazil. Poverty is a tool of the wealthy.

The government had misplaced priorities and we women had to step in to address economic marginalization and outdated cultural practices that mainly targeted women and girls. If Kenya were to have real change, we had to sponsor a bill that was favourable to women and we had to address affirmative action by bringing women to Parliament. This is how I found myself running for office.

The author campaigning in 2007. Photo courtesy of Flora Terah.

Having worked for nearly 19 years as a social worker, I had substantial support and thought there was no way the incumbent could beat me at the ballot box. Opinion polls showed I was likely to get elected. Then, those opposed to my candidature arranged for three men to attack me near my home. As they beat me, they warned me to drop out of the electoral race. Their assault left me hospitalized for weeks. I campaigned while hobbled by a leg brace and crutch. I lost, but worse was yet to come. I had shown not even torture would stop me, but there were others they could target. They murdered my 19-year-old son and only child. Amnesty International publicized my case in a May 2008 report. I had to leave the country for safety. I moved to Canada.

   * * * 

I wanted to continue working and speaking for those whose voices go unheard. I wondered if it were possible to do this from a country with so much privilege. I thought my time in Canada would be temporary. Once the situation in Kenya normalized, I told myself, I would head back home to serve my people.

The English language was not a barrier to me in Canada, but cultural differences meant that Canadians and I processed messages differently. The weather and culture were also a shock. It took me a couple of weeks to feel settled. And even though I was enjoying people’s concern for my welfare, my thoughts were fixed on Kenya, and grief chewed at me.

None of my hosts noticed that underneath my smile was worry and pain. The story of the refugee woman back in Kenya, whose child was raped and heavily pregnant kept coming to mind as I watched Canadian friends toast my first Christmas in Ottawa. Thoughts continued to race through my head: “Soon I will have to go look for my own apartment and be on my own. What dangers will I face? Am I going to be as vulnerable as the women I left back home? How can I fight to redeem my son’s spirit?”

No one ever told me about the post-traumatic stress disorder, grief and depression that come with forced relocation. I instead heard a lot about how to integrate into Canadian society. So, I pretended to be happy. But there were missed opportunities and lost friends along the way because of the trauma I held inside. I even thought of ending my life.

Universities, schools and churches invited me to tell my story. I assumed people would see my pain. I don’t know if they did. I shared platforms with world-renowned leaders. I think I inspired people and their hearts, but afterwards I went home a very broken woman.

As I write this, I am travelling back down the valley of darkness. I pass by the raw wounds of desperate single mothers, past women trapped in outdated cultural practices and girls escaping female genital cutting, and finally arrive at the loss of my only child. This is a heavy price to pay for trying to lift up Kenyan women.  

“I have come to realize that Canada is one big social experiment. It has blended people from all corners of the earth, from different cultures, different backgrounds and different faiths into one family.”

I knew I would never have known freedom of speech and what walking without looking behind one’s back was like if I hadn’t left Kenya. But, in Canada, my life inside was torn apart. I needed help. I had to integrate into society and find meaningful employment. I was given a contract by an organization that worked in Africa. This made me more comfortable financially and allowed me to meet women who were willing to listen. After my contract ended, I went to Montreal to search for work and to volunteer in a community centre.

It was a mistake. I did not speak French. I was vulnerable and had a mental illness. I needed professional help more than I needed employment. I got a part-time job but was unable to help myself from within. I was trapped in my own world and no one could see this. I was living in a glass prison. When the psychological pain got worse, I tried easing it by cutting my wrists. I would go to work with bandages on my arms. Finally, I ended up with a serious panic attack and was hospitalized. This was the first time I had a mental health professional attend to me. After about a year in Montreal, I realized I should relocate back to Toronto, where there were familiar multicultural organizations where I could more easily communicate in English. I made this decision on my own, with the support of my friends and my medical professionals.

I had been in Canada almost three years at this point. I made up my mind that I would give back to the country that had adopted me. I started volunteering at the YMCA to help newcomers integrate into the Canadian society. Most of them spoke openly of their own struggles and finally accepted professional help. I was very happy about this because I had done the same thing. I knew I was helping fellow immigrants and refugees find themselves. I knew I was contributing to my new country.

I have come to realize that Canada is one big social experiment. It has blended people from all corners of the earth, from different cultures, different backgrounds and different faiths into one family. That is the diversity that makes Canada unique. It eventually made me fall in love with the country. I decided to stay.

I gathered the application forms for citizenship, the ones that I had sworn to my friends that I would never complete, determined as I was to return to Kenya. I filled them out with hope and trepidation. Those hopes were realized when I became a Canadian citizen. I voted. I loved every one of my constitutional rights. I sang “Oh Canada” loudly. I felt proud.

Adapted from Flora Terah’s chapter “From Scars to Stars” in Finding Refuge in Canada: Narratives of Dislocation, eds. George Melnyk and Christina Parker (Athabasca University Press, 2021):

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