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SUPPRESSED TRAUMA by Gisele Ishimwe

Illustration of a child walking with a backpack on their backThere was nothing normal about my childhood. At just two weeks old, I knew the sound of a gunshot. Unlike many newborn babies my cries quickly turned into silence at the sound of grenades. Such experiences predetermined the nature of trauma that I would carry into adulthood.

At the age of six, I became aware that I existed in a highly political country. We had experienced the unthinkable since colonisation. Mass killings had been brewing since the country became an independent state. For generations, our ancestors had been engaged in a tug of war for power. Every push towards any direction came with a blood price as tribesman attempted to become a nation.

At that age the consciousness of my existence was not necessarily an intellectual one, rather an observatory one. I didn’t understand what I existed in the midst of, but I saw a lot. There was the despair in my mother’s eyes. Then the anger that usually disrupted our peace at home. The hidden tears of my father as he attempted to play father for his orphaned siblings. Then there was the stories of aunties, uncles, and cousins that I had never met but were now missing. My observations sometimes left me clueless about my family.

Life got worse as I grew older. At eight years old, my family was displaced. I didn’t fully understand what we were now doing in a foreign country attempting to speak a language I had never heard of. I had to learn how to take one day at a time because the thought of trying to understand my circumstances always left me with more questions than answers. I took life as it came, dealt with challenges as they rose, like learning how to cook for an entire family at eight and accepting that some days we will have to go to bed on an empty stomach.

In the following years, I learnt that we were seeking asylum in this foreign land. An experience that came with many other challenges. I learnt that being displaced is multilayered. I felt displacement in all sorts of ways, my first language that was slowly leaving my tongue, my friends faces that had started to become a distant memory, the warmth of my extended family that now felt too painful to recall. I sensed my parent’s pain but couldn’t say much. I really had no idea why our lives had ended up the way they were.

My story was beautifully disrupted when I came to learn that I would be spending my thirteenth birthday in another foreign country. This was like no other foreign country though, it was Australia, a faraway land where my family and I could start over again. It felt like we went from poverty to riches over one airplane flight, like we had just walked from darkness to light in an instant. Little did I know that in addition to the trauma I carried, I was about to accumulate more in this new safe heaven.

Unlike before, where the oppression against me was evident, you didn’t need a magnifying glass to see that we were displaced, regularly scared for our lives and daily meals were a miracle and, though traumatised, we kept moving forward. While this made my childhood incredibly difficult, as I grew older, I become more grateful of how explicit these experiences were. In the western world, I have learnt that some of our issues are insidious. Our version of violence extends beyond the physical to psychological. Like racism for instance, sometimes it’s not the loud hateful comments that hurt; it’s the unconscious bias that most times neither of us have the words to articulate. In my opinion this is a worse form of violence. Because it kills you slowly. You only realise how deep it is when see a distant black man like George Floyd begging for his last breath…

“I CAN’T BREATHE”

“I CAN’T BREATHE”

…and you can’t hold back the tears in your eyes as you realise how personal this stranger’s pain is to you.

What continues to make my childhood experiences challenging is how much of it I didn’t understand, process, and even reflect on. This inability to engage with my experiences has left me with a level of suppressed trauma that I am sometimes oblivious to. I am unaware of how deep it has sunk into my soul. That’s probably why the death of George Floyd took me into a deep depression. First it was the numbness, then the tears that never seemed to end, and then the fear that crippled my bones. It felt like all my badly nursed wounds were laid in the open for the world to see. I felt a certain level of vulnerability and a deep craving for mercy from strangers who seemed to struggle seeing my pain as relevant.

You see the experience of war, displacement and resettlement is difficult for anybody, let alone for a child. But to add on top of that, the experience of being black, the colonised, the enslaved, the gangster and the ‘struggling to resettle’ foreigner, it all adds another layer of difficulty. It’s no wonder some of us don’t and won’t make it far in this land of opportunities. I would like to be radical and believe otherwise. I mean these protests and noise from the masses should count for something, right?


Gisele is an emerging researcher, creative, and public speaker. Gisele has a passion for stories, whether it’s uncovering and writing them through research or a blog, sharing them in speaking gigs, or reading them in our recently established AfroHeritage Book Club. You bet Gisele will be there with a big smile on her face, her heart and mind wide open, ready to learn.

Copyright © 2020 Gisele Ishimwe.


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