Freedom from Torture - The Phone Call: International Mother Language Day

The Phone Call: International Mother Language Day

On International Mother Language Day, former Write to Life member Uganda shares his harrowing and heart-warming piece about the first time he used his mother language in the United Kingdom. As a person seeking asylum, Uganda only gets £36 a week for expenses. With this budget, the cost of a phone card is prohibitive, making it difficult to keep in touch with his family and use his native language. In this piece, Uganda describes his first phone call home in a very long time…

During the summer of two thousand and ten, I went on holiday to Great Malvern. My host’s brother was a minister in the Church of England and lived in Yorkshire; he frequently went to Western Uganda for mission work. I come from the Eastern side of the country. When I shared my story with my host, she talked of her brother being a Churchman and said ‘My brother goes to Uganda. I will ask him, you never know, he might know your area.’

Two weeks after he had left I was on a London bus, when my phone rang.

“Hello”. I had picked up the call without recognising the number. The voice on the other end sounded British. I assumed it was a sales person trying to offer me cheap electricity.

“This is Reverend Benjamin”. It took me a minute to reply, as I quickly tried to figure out if I knew of any churchmen.

“Would you like to speak to your Mum?” Before I could answer, a voice came through, addressing me by my childhood nickname  - which I’m certainly not going to tell you here. Nobody in this world knew this nickname or addressed me with it, apart from my biological mother. It was a dream happening in broad daylight. I knew it could only be my Mum.

Poor Englishman, he had had a terrible journey to find her. First, he took a four-hour bus to the main town, then a motorbike for twenty kilometres and then a piggyback on a bicycle for another fifteen km, through villages, forests, and dense trees and across a river.  He would walk three miles, then another two… He learned a lesson that when Africans say, “It’s right there”, it has a different meaning. In this part of the world, when you ask for directions and you are told,”It’s over there, just around the corner, not far away”, you need to be prepared for a good walk. To us, walking comes naturally.

In the background I could hear jubilation, songs and excitement: it seemed the entire village had gathered to hear the long-awaited news. This was the place where I was born. My home. My sweet, home I have been missing it for years. I haven’t seen my mother since I was thirteen. Now I am forty-one.

I managed to say, “Mum, I’m alive.”, She asked, ‘Is that you?’ I answered, “Yes it’s me.”

‘Oh my son, welcome home.’ I didn’t know what to say then, I ran out of words. Tears were running down my cheeks, but I didn’t want her to know. I just wanted her to know I was safe and alive, while all the time these other questions were tumbling inside me. The wild celebrations in the background, the noise of happy people shouting…. It was too much for me, I couldn’t take it, so I hung up.

I remember asking about my brother, but I didn’t get the answer because of the shouting, I couldn’t hear properly. I hung up, and then I felt my body shaking. I was like a drunkard who’d gone for days without food. I was shaking uncontrollably all over.

It was the first time I had spoken in my native language since arriving in the UK. Even that was a blessing, to have that feeling of home.  A week later, I tried calling the number again. This time, it was my mother who picked up. He had left the phone with her, and she had to learn how to use it. All she knew how to do was to press the green button when it rang. The Reverend, being a thoughtful man, had bought a phone with big buttons that would be easy for her to use. But it’s still complicated. Where she lives, there is no electricity, so one of the boys from the village has to take the phone to the big town to be charged. The phone is passed round to everybody so I can say hello.

Today, I talk to my Mum once a month. I would love to talk to her more frequently but I am only given thirty-six pounds a week for all my expenses, and a phone card costs five pounds.

That first time she called, I could hear them saying, ‘We need to dig up the coffin’. It took me a while to understand what was going on; I couldn’t add it all up in those few seconds. Then I realised that when I was abducted, all hope of finding me gone, they buried me.  A stem of a banana tree was cut and buried in a coffin. That was it. As far as they were concerned, I was gone.

It was overwhelming. I had forgotten all about this custom, and the culture I had left behind so long ago. To them, I was dead. I didn’t exist. I felt betrayed. I thought, “Did they all give up on me? Even my Mum?” I wanted to ask why they had done this. But it wasn’t the right moment.

It hurts, it's painful to learn that they had given up on me, that as far as they were concerned I was buried and gone forever all those years. They gave up on hope; therefore they had given up on me.

I would love to hold my mother’s hands again, be able to sit down and have a proper conversation about this, between a son and a mother.

Each day when I wake up I hold onto the hope that I will meet her again. I can't give up on hope, it’s the only weapon am left with. As long as I am still alive, I can’t stop hoping. I want her to know that I’m doing everything I can to be with her, and though I’m far away from her, I am always thinking of her.

- Uganda



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