By Laura Walusimbi
It was a day like any other. The year was 1986. Sixteen-year-old Pat was listening to music on the family’s little cassette radio. Her favorite song was playing – USA for Africa’s 1985 record of the year “We are the world”. She had written all the lyrics in one of her exercise books and was singing along word for word. She knew all the artists who performed that song and which part each sang. Music was her escape. It helped her forget what was happening in her beloved country.
When Pat was not listening to music, she spent some of her spare time reading a newsletter produced by a clandestine group that was resisting the current government. Her father always had a copy of the pamphlet. He was a politician after all. A member of the opposition. She never talked to him about it, but she was disturbed by what she read. It all seemed foreign and unreal. This could not be happening. Maybe if she had talked to her parents they might have prepared her for what was to come.
Although Pat knew how deeply unstable her country had become and on several occasions had witnessed soldiers roaming the streets, she never thought the war would affect her family directly. Until that day!
Her father had gone to the village to gather support for his party. Her daring mother had gone about her day as usual and went to her office located in the heart of the city. Early afternoon, her mother came home. This was unusual, Pat thought. Normally she would return home at dusk or later. What appeared even more unusual was that she was accompanied by an armed soldier, dressed in the national army uniform.
You would think that would have been enough to frighten Pat and her siblings. Instead, they politely greeted the soldier. Pat noticed her mother looked uneasy though she tried to cover up by making small talk and smiling nervously. Pat thought nothing of it at the time. She had seen soldiers before at her mother’s business place. She thought this was one of them. The soldier calmly responded to their greetings. He then singled Pat out and asked where her father was. Something told her this was not one of the good soldiers. Trying not to show her panic, she smiled and said that he had traveled to the village. Unconvinced, the soldier did a quick check of the house. Satisfied that he wasn’t there, he told Pat’s mom to go back with him to her car.
As she was walking away, their mom told them to go to the guest quarters at once. A family they had taken in recently occupied the building. Afraid of what might happen to their mother, but not brave enough to follow her, Pat, her five siblings and a cousin bolted out of the house. They left the doors wide open. To their surprise, they found the doors of the guesthouse locked. Apparently the occupants had seen the armed soldier too and were cowering behind the closed doors. After much pleading and begging from Pat’s older brother, the head of the family would not let the children in.
What had just happened, Pat asked herself as she was headed to the back gate of the family compound. These people were like family to them. They played with their children every day after school. They were in and out of each other’s spaces without a thought. But their friends abandoned them when they needed them the most, pretending they did not know Pat and her siblings.
In her young girl mind, Pat decided that no one could ever be trusted in life and that she would never turn her back on anyone who was in need. As long as it was in her power to help she would make the world a better place.
It was time to come up with an alternative and Pat’s brother decided to split the group in two. He figured that the next home they went to might be more receptive to a smaller group. Next door in an apartment lived one of their mother’s friend. Pat and her little sisters were welcomed there and to their delight found their mum hunched over a radio in the living room with her friend. After a tearful reunion, the girls were given a spot on the carpeted floor of the living room where they would spend that night listening to “We are the World”. She found out the next day that her brothers and cousin made it safely to another neighbor’s house, where they spent the night.
The emotions and events of that day brought the reality of the war home. Never had Pat imagined that the government soldiers she had been reading about would come looking for her father. She will never know what would have happened if he had been home that day. But it is certainly a day she will never forget – the betrayal and rejection of close friends, the acceptance and kindness of others and the uncertainty of whether the soldier would come back to the house all weighed on her puny shoulders for months to come.
To this day a mental picture of the abandoned house, the recollection of the harsh rejection of her brother’s pleas plays in her mind like a movie on a loop.