Much of the time before my emergence on this earth, and my first year on it, was spent in a cave, hiding. Somewhere between the cave, the family house that was burnt down, and seven makeshift huts that were hastily cobbled together by neighbours, to shelter our family of ten from the elements only to be burnt over again, I was conceived and subsequently born.
My siblings have never really told me whether or not I was born in that cave, but from their whispers, the knowing eyes, the elbowing, the silences that were exchanged between them, whenever a conversation surrounding my birth came up, I surmised I must have been born in that cave. There are some memories that are best buried and never retold or relived.
Stories about the rest of my other siblings’ births were colourfully filled with women relatives in attendance; fussing paternal and maternal grandmothers; excited aunts; shuffling servants; stories about pots of boiling water to constantly supply my mother; to ease the pangs of contractions; to bathe the new born; to wash clothes. Smells of newborn babies commingling with sweet smells of herb soups and potions, porridge, milk, butter and honey awaiting to revive, feed, nourish and moisturize my mother. All they could tell me about my birth was that when I was born, my father was the midwife in attendance. He used his pocket knife to separate me from my mother, and he pulled a thread from one of my sibling’s sweaters to bind the cord. No relatives, no fire, no hot water, no soup, no concoctions, no porridge, no milk no butter, no honey. In the cave?
I have never seen the cave. No one has ever told me its exact location, I only know its general direction in a gorge between two hills near my paternal grandmother’s home. That cave stood for a dreadfully moist and suffocating place, which served as a hiding place for a few families huddled together, to hide from their suddenly turned murderous neighbours. Neighbours who had been friends just before, with whom they shared meals and had intermarried. During that dark period, the fear was palpable, many people had been killed already, some of them our relatives. There were conversations about dead bodies found along the path to the cave, of middle-of-the-night screams as people fled their burning houses with nothing but the clothes or blankets they were sleeping in.
Many of my relatives were scattered to neighbouring countries by intermittent killing paroxysms that ensued. Some occasionally returned, but my nuclear family never completely gathered under the same roof again. During those brief periods when a few would gather, there were whispered conversations about dangers known and unknown: neighbouring countries with relatives to which they were plotting to flee at any moment; rumours of more troubles to come. Menaces lurked everywhere. Friendly neighbour today, who could turn foe tomorrow and kill you the day after. Strangers who could waylay you on a path to school, to church, to the store, to the market or to the stream to fetch water. Caveats were many: “Never walk alone”, you were constantly reminded, or “scream and run if you sense danger” , or “never accept anything to eat from anyone.” If you played with other children in the neighbourhood, and their parents called them in for a meal, you were instructed to take that as a signal to immediately return home.
My parents never lived long enough to tell me the cave story themselves. My mom fell gravely ill when I was six and eventually passed when I was eight. My father was at the time estranged from the rest of my siblings for remarrying too soon. They stole me away from home to save me from the fabled wicked stepmother, shipped me off to relatives in another country and never took me back home. With facilitation from a relative, I returned briefly to visit my father when I was 21. Shortly after, I moved to another country across the seas. When, at 30, I finally saved enough and returned to my country, my father had died a few months earlier. I have since returned to his grave, to pay him the respect I never did while he was still alive.
As I stared hard at his gravestone, my mind raced, imagining the life my father had led. He lived in the same place where his parents, grandparents and the seven generations before him I was made to recite as a youngster had lived. My father was among his own, he had an address, a trace, a history. As I fought off tears, my eyes wondered beyond the grave, I could see the two hills, between which the mysterious cave. I couldn’t help but think, my father had a permanent resting place, as for me, uprooted from the start, I was destined to roam this world.