Wednesday, September 9, 2015

I am Seven

Note: Some of you have asked me to write a bit about what it was like to live in Africa, and I plan to do several posts on the subject throughout the year. I know this piece probably won’t be what you were expecting, but this is the first set of memories that come to mind when I think about my stay in Côte d’Ivoire, and to me it’s the most important.
Seven-year-old me. I promise I don't actually have red eyes.
When I hear the bombs begin to drop, I don’t recognize the banging sounds, loud and irritating. Instead, as I rush to finish my shower and figure out what’s going on, I wonder why Dad keeps slamming the door, over and over again, like he’s trying to break it. I’d heard bombs before, of course, earlier in the afternoon beneath the hot sun as we walked home from school, but that had been different. Mom had been tense, worried at the popcorn popping sound in the far, far distance, miles off, so soft and harmless seeming. But I had been much more concerned with the fact that I was going to miss lunch with my friends, the British girls who liked to mock me for my American accent.

I hadn’t known I was going to lose them—them and everyone else.

As the banging continues, my sister and I hurry to where Mom stands in the dining room, and we ask her about the noise. When she says that bombs are dropping near the presidential palace, less than a mile off, I think at first that she’s joking—that she has to be joking. But who slams a door that often and that loudly? Who shoots off fireworks on a no-name day in a city like Yamoussoukro? And why are people shouting and screaming outside our gates?

Why do I hear gunfire?

I ask where Dad is, and she tells me he’s outside, mingling  with the frightened, angry crowd—screwing his eyes up at the night sky so he can see the slices of blood orange light dropping from the dim helicopter hatch above him. So he can try to find the place where flames flower upward from their points of contact with the ground.

Soon he comes inside, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so worried. It must be sinking in now, because I start shaking uncontrollably when he tells us to grab our bags—the ones we always keep packed in case guerillas attack and we need to flee into the bush. Now I know this is serious, because we’ve never actually considered making a break for it before.

Dazed, I run to my room, feet pounding in time with my roaring heart, and I find Mali—my stuffed dog, named after the German shepherd who had protected us from friendly people, had bitten me and had gotten run over by a speeding taxi (she was a great dog). If we’re going to run, I’m not leaving without Mali.

I hug her tightly and huddle in the little pantry off the kitchen, feeling the cool air rising off the cinderblock walls and the cement floors, pressing myself against cans and jars of food, wondering if this is the last time I will sit in this place and breathe this oxygen. I am seven, and I am old. I am seven, and I am too young. I’ve never been more homesick for the States than I am now.

More gunshots. More explosions. The people outside yell more and more loudly. They’re so angry. Why are they so angry? I hear screams.

What’s happening?

We drag our mattresses into the hallway by my room and lie low on the ground so any stray bullets won’t burst through the windows and tear open our beating hearts or our whirling brains. I cling to Mali and to my sweating thermos, pulling tiny sips of water into my mouth to soothe my terror-dry tongue. But all I can think is that I will lose this place, that I will lose everything except what I hold in my hands—the stuffed dog and the thermos that have suddenly become far more precious to me than anything ever should be.

As the night progresses, I try to fall asleep, but my hands keep loosening on my treasures, and I have to grip them tightly. If I let go, I’ll lose them too. I don’t know what I would be with nothing, so I stay awake and listen to the banging and hold on to my stuff.  

The darkness drags on forever, and I sleep in fits and snatches. When the mob shifts around the house, we tell ourselves that the walls protecting our compound are sturdy and that our gates will hold. We move into the kitchen because, for a while, it’s safer—then we move back into the hallway. At some point Mom pulls me and my sister into our room, sits us up on my bed, and reads Psalm 91 to us. I cling to the verse, the one that says, “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.”

I can’t stop thinking that you could drive to the presidential palace in under a minute—sometimes the high school students run there and back. What if one of the helicopters aims wrong, drops its payload on my head instead of the president’s? What if I die in a brilliant blaze of light and sound?

Will life go on even if I don’t die?


Later Dad sits us down in the living room, my sister and my mother and me. I play with a cheap doll whose limbs won’t stay attached. Past the roaring in my ears, Dad says something about the French peacekeepers from the UN, how the Ivoirians bombed them near Bouake because the peacekeepers wouldn’t let them attack the rebels. He tells us that people have died, that more people will die. That the French bombed back—that’s what happened last night—destroyed every helicopter in the president’s arsenal, attacked the country they were supposed to defend, harmed the people they were ordered to protect. He tells us we can’t stay because we’re white and the French are white, and the Ivoirians don’t want us, are angry enough to kill us because we’re white and that makes us French.

I keep thinking he’s going to change his mind—that the people in charge of pulling us out aren’t actually going to make us go through with this. We had evacuated once before—when I was five—and we came back. Why are we leaving forever this time?

I’m not sure I can take it again—I know what to expect. I remember life in America after our first evacuation. The fire alarm at school had rung, and I’d tried to stay behind and collect all my things from my desk and my cubby. When the teacher had pulled me away, I’d started to cry, and people hadn’t understood. I couldn’t lose everything again. I remember sleeping with all my stuffed animals shoved into my pillowcase every night so I could have them with me in case we’d had to leave suddenly.

Dad keeps talking, telling us the details and the logistics. We’re to take a British Hercules military transport to Ghana, where we’ll wait until we can catch a proper flight. When we decide what belongings we want to rescue—twenty kilos per person—it won’t be nearly as much as what we’ll leave behind.

Once the crying stops and the begging ends and the pleading proves futile, we set to work gathering and sorting and saying our long goodbyes. We have two weeks—two weeks to lie low and hope for the best. Two weeks for them to change their minds, I tell myself. Two weeks for them to realize we can’t go home.

They say we’re safe in the compound, but some of my friends are in the city where the unrest is worse, and I can’t shake the thought that they might not make it here alive.

When we’re not eating together with friends, we sort through our stuff. I shelf my plastic horse that I got in American kindergarten and that everyone had been (rightfully) jealous about. I decide not to bring my favorite quilt because I want to bring my bathrobe and my navy-blue blanket. I choose the stuffed dog I got for my first grade graduation over the stuffed bear I got for some other achievement. I forget to rifle through the mountain of ant-infested papers on my messy desk—I forget to save my first ever writings, the stories that taught me how to love words. I forget so many things. My plastic, squeaky alligator. The action figures that my sister and I fought over, tooth and nail. The massive dollhouse I loved to death. Our collection of books. And we will not be coming back—once we’ve left it here, it’s gone for good. So choose, choose, choose—choose what you keep and what you can’t.

I pack the thermos and the stuffed dog. I cry and then I don’t and I have fun with my friends and pretend we aren’t throwing a party just because we’re all going away. Every time I get the chance, I play with the puppy I always used to hate—I let her nibble my fingers and I pet her while her tail wags and I fall in love with her. So when I turn my back on her for the last time and lug my baggage out into the compound where everyone stands around waiting for the bus to take us elsewhere, I feel this snapping pain in my chest.


And I leave home.


  1. May I just say: Wow. Like I'm sitting in the music hall waiting for my next class to start but I completely forgot because I was completely wrapped up in your story and the distinctive images you put into my brain.

    This is so personal—so scary. What makes it worse is that I have a sister who's seven now, and to have her go through something similar just makes my heart ache. There are so many reactions I feel are appropriate to have—that must have been terrible—that must have been scary—that must have been painful—and yet all those things seem so inappropriate because you have just told us all those things yourself and those words are not powerful enough to describe the seam ripper that cuts you away from the cloth of your home, piece by piece.

    I'm glad you ended up safe in this story. And I going to sit here and wait for more.

    *sits and waits*

    1. Well, I'm glad I could distract you from your boring wait. *bows deeply*

      Ooh, I can totally see where having a seven-year-old sister would make this more personal. You're right--it was terrible, it was scary, and it was painful. And I'm finding more and more that there really aren't words--I think all my life, I've been looking for words without finding them. But I'm glad, at least, that I found these. It took me eleven years to be able to write this much about it, and it was one of the hardest things I've ever done, but I'm glad I was able to share it. And I'm glad I ended up safe, too. :)

      Thanks so much for your comment! And you may be sitting and waiting for a while. I think it will be a few more weeks before I write about Africa again, but your encouragement means a lot to me.

      *sits and waits with you*

  2. Wooooooooooowwwwwwww. I can't wait to read more!!

    1. Thanks! I'll try to post more soonish. I'm glad you're interested. :)

  3. *blinks* Wow. For a moment there nothing existed but the hazy smoke of half-forgotten nightmares that you put into my mind. That was incredibly intense.

    I suppose I can understand because we had to be evacuated because of a cyclone (and I've moved countries, too, I suppose, so I get the saying goodbye thing), but it was nowhere near as incredibly intense and scary as that was. And the way you wrote it, too, it was so real and captured your younger self's voice so well. That was just awesome. Thank you so much for sharing :)

    1. *bows deeply* Why thank you. :)

      Ooh, that stinks having to be evacuated because of a cyclone. Did your house get damaged, or was it fine?

      I'm glad you liked it. :) I have a really good memory when it comes to these things, so I'm just recording all the thoughts and emotions I was experiencing at that time. I'm glad I was able to communicate them effectively.

  4. Liz, This is awesome! I knew you had been thru the terrible, scary times there, but you write with such vividness I felt part of it. I could feel your emotions. I any wait, but have to, for your next article. We are so thankful you all made it home okay.

  5. Liz, This is awesome! I knew you had been thru the terrible, scary times there, but you write with such vividness I felt part of it. I could feel your emotions. I any wait, but have to, for your next article. We are so thankful you all made it home okay.

    1. Thank you! :) I'm glad I could convey my emotions. It might be a few weeks before I write about Africa again, but I promise I will soon. And I'm thankful we made it home okay, too. :) Thanks for commenting!

  6. Wow. That's sad and scary. I don't even know what to say.

    You write excellently though. You transported me out of the college library to where seven year old you were.

    1. *bows deeply* You're right, it was sad and scary--but at least it makes for an interesting conversation piece. :P

      Thank you. :D I hope you enjoyed your trip into the mind of seven-year-old me. :)

  7. Wow. I'm not even sure what to say. This is... amazing writing, but it's so scary and so sad that all of that happened to you.

    I eagerly await the next installment. :)


    1. Thanks! You're right, it was sad and scary. But I guess that's life.

      I'm glad you're looking forward to it--it maybe be two or three weeks before I write another post about Africa, but there will be more, I promise. :)

  8. Oh my god, I'm so sorry you had to live through that. It must have been terrifying! I'm saddened that you had this experience in Ivory Coast because it's the country I'm originally from. I'm eager to read more about your experience in Africa.

    1. You're from Ivory Coast? That's wonderful! When did you move to the UK, if you don't mind me asking? I'd love to share more about Africa in a few weeks, but I'd also love to hear some of your experiences there, if you wouldn't mind. :)

  9. First of all, at the moment I'm in a production of Annie and I was backstage during the performance and I almost missed my cue because I was so engrossed in your story and your beautiful descriptions.

    I think, as an American, I've been raised in a way that makes it hard to forget horrible things like this happen every day. Sure, we see it on the news or read it in the paper, but I don't think we realize that these events are actually real and that horrible things really do happen, you know?

    Thank you for so much for sharing your story. It must have been so hard to remember that day, but your post has really enlightened me and reminded me of all the things I take for granted. I am so glad you and your family made it out safely. Wonderful post Liz! ♥

    1. Well, thank you. *pats self on back for almost ruining your production* That was totally my intention--you know, anarchy and the like. :P

      I agree, as an American, if I had never experienced these things myself, I think I'd be pretty immune to some of the stuff that goes on. And I don't fault people for not knowing how to enter in, but I'm always glad when people understand beyond the surface level. I've had to learn to smile and nod when people say things like, "Oh, you were in a bombing, that's so cool." But I must admit, I think I wrote this post partially to educate (that sounds a bit too pretentious) some of the people who might not get it. *hangs head*

      You're welcome! And thank you so much for reading and responding. It was very hard to relive it all, but I do think I need to talk about it, because I don't as a general rule. I'm glad I could share something worthwhile. (And I'm glad I got home safely, too.) Thanks!