“In the Shadow of Freedom” Casts Light Upon the Africa We Ignore
Genocide, mass atrocity, and human rights violations are all too common in Central Africa and its surrounding countries. It’s a region of the world that foreign nations tend to deliberate over during campaigns; but afterwards, the talking points evaporate and the tragedies continue to boil on the back burner until the next election.
Countries like Nigeria are overrun with volatile Christian preachers who indiscriminately label children as witches, which often leads to the murder of that child, or at the very least their banishment from the village. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof considers that next year’s possible secession of Southern Sudan from the North could lead to “the world’s bloodiest war in 2011,” which may reignite the country’s recent campaign of genocide. The Holocaust in the Democratic Republic of Congo continues, with more than 6,000,000 dead, while nearly one million have been displaced.
But the voices of these tragedies are often concealed to that continent, and perish unheard.
However, one newly released memoir from Atria, In the Shadow of Freedom, poignantly details the horrors rooted in Africa.
Written by Tchicaya Missamou and Travis Sentell, In the Shadow of Freedom is Tchicaya’s heart-rending story about growing up in the impoverished Congo-Brazzaville in the 80s and 90s, where bloodshed ingrains itself into the culture.
At first, his story paints an innocent Africa, and follows a young, naked Tchicaya to school-a large hollow baobab tree-as he quotes Schwarzenegger’s lines from the Saturday film. The memoir recounts the life of a boy who savors his mother’s monkey stew, who plays soccer with a plastic-wrapped coconut, and who is awed by his white friend’s rich life, where people eat at tables and dogs have their own food bowls.
But like most stories that spawn from the Congo, Tchicaya is forced to trade in his childhood for guns and militia service before his teenage years. He receives his first pistol at age eight, which is replaced by an AK-47, delivered to him by militiamen.
“I was not forced to join the militia,” he told me in an interview. Instead, he called it ‘volunteering.’ “If you don’t volunteer,” he explained, “well, you’ll be killed or your family will be brutalized. They will always find a way to hurt you.”
Propaganda is the militia’s tool and militiamen tell the children that the other ethnic groups in the Congo, like the Niboleks and M’Bochis, “want all the Lari”-Tchicaya’s people-”dead.” The lies are aided by liquor and marijuana. “You will be bulletproof,” they convince these child soldiers.
“I began to realize how powerful a man can be when he is holding a gun,” a young Tchicaya declares in his book. “It felt good.”
“Things changed very quickly,” he writes. Tchicaya and the other boys-aged 13 and 14-spend evenings patrolling the neighborhood. His friends fantasize about killing Niboleks and on the one day Tchicaya is late to his patrol duties, he discovers his friends in the interrogation room, raping a woman, and smiling. Her baby lays beside her, crying.
“I was too weak to stand up for what I knew was right,” he admits. But rape in the Congo is used like a weapon and is rife in this tragic narrative.
Less than a quarter of the way through the book, on one page alone, the horror is almost unreadable:
“I watched her explode into a million pieces, blood, guts, and body parts raining down on the trees, coating them in viscous syrup. It looked to me like the leaves were bleeding,” Tchicaya says of a woman who was handed a grenade by a child soldier. “I saw a young boy,” he continues, “contort as he was blown apart.” And then comes the image that most horrified Travis Sentell while writing Tchicaya’s story-a husband and wife from different ethnic groups split up and argue over who will keep their newborn child, which ends with the father chopping the baby in half.
“I could feel the child spasming, jerking, quietly choking on its own blood,” Tchicaya says of a second baby, this one shot in the face, his jaw obliterated. As they race to the hospital, he writes, “He died in my arms.”
The carnage is ever-present-”[The street] was a cemetery of decomposing bodies,” he notes-and the reader recognizes that the grim reality of Tchicaya’s life belongs to millions of Africans.
But Tchicaya does not remain as some helpless witness, and unlike many of his countrymen who are forced into terror under the strong-armed militias, he avoids corruption. After completing his gendarmerie service, when the second civil war erupts, Tchicaya is hired to ferry white diplomats, as well as their jewelry and cash, from war-torn Congo. Though he could have kept the riches for himself, the honest Tchicaya risks his own safety by stopping his men from looting and by returning the treasures.
His earnings, nevertheless, bring misfortune. Men from the Lari militia, his own people, demand his money and when he refuses, they stab him, rape his mother before his eyes, and leave the family for dead in their burning home.
“My soul had perished in that room,” Tchicaya says, but uses every last ounce of energy to save his family and bring them to the hospital-”a human depot”-twelve miles away, pushing them in a cart “over fallen bodies, over dismembered limbs, over headless corpses.”
Though In the Shadow of Freedom places readers in the scorching heat of tragedy, there are moments where the shade of contentment trickles in. Tchicaya escapes the Congo, dupes the customs agents with a fake passport and his well-plotted wooing, and arrives in America where he eventually serves the United States of America as a marine in the Iraq war.
And as irony would have it, the laughs are uncontrollable when the freshly immigrated Tchicaya attempts to tackle “the moving staircase,” which leaves him ascending the escalator in full split and has him imagining his Tom-and-Jerry-esque demise as he approaches the metal teeth at the end of the ride.
Last month, I attended Tchicaya Missamou and Travis Sentell’s reading at a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan. Travis shared Tchicaya’s story to a large audience, while the decorated warrior sat beside him in his dress blue coat and white trousers. Medals gently dangled from his chest as he listened to Travis tell perfect strangers about the rape of his mother and the sacrifice his father had made to smuggle him out of the country, which led to his father’s arrest, torture, and infection with HIV.
Travis explained how after serving in Iraq and receiving American citizenship, Tchicaya had returned to the Congo in 2004 to see his family, but was arrested on dubious charges and shot while attempting to flee. They played for the crowd the original 911 recording that Tchicaya initiated from a clandestine cell phone that he had in the Brazzaville prison cell. As the tape played, Tchicaya’s lips clenched and a solitary tear streaked down his cheek.
“As we speak right now, a woman is being brutalized,” the then thirty-one year old Tchicaya told his audience after the recording finished. “As we speak right now a child is being taken away to be a soldier.”
“I made a promise to the prisoners,”-men who were serving time without any sort of due process, some without having committed a crime-he told me. “To tell their story… I had a chance to tell the story because I was privileged to come to America… In the Congo, if you try to speak, you can be killed.”
So Tchicaya, the ambassador, the voice of the voiceless, speaks.
“I want to make sure this won’t happen anymore.” He reminded the crowd “We are the most privileged people on earth” and that “Freedom is not a privilege; it’s a right.”
Then Tchicaya Missamou, whose name means the flower that heals problems, led the audience in a sing-along about healing. “I want you to say Imam,” he told the people. And with each refrain he sang, they answered-Imam. Yes, we can heal the world, they were saying.
“One finger cannot wash the whole body,” he reminded me, reciting an African proverb.
But until the most privileged people on earth start to act like a hand, until the talking points overreach election time, we will remain most privileged and free, while the Congolese, and many Africans, will remain in a dark, dark shadow.