August 2005

The Nation Reviewed

Aminata keeps running

By Carmel Bird
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Mount Wellington is a broad smudge of crushed rose silk glittering in the sunrise. The mountain seems close, partly by a trick of the light and partly because it actually is very close. It is Mother’s Day and the air is free of mist, alert with promise, as you look out the window of a small red-brick flat in west Hobart. The living room is crammed with motley second-hand furniture, spick and span: a couch, armchairs, TV, computer, table and a large statue of sweet blue-and-white Mary behind the TV guide.

Aminata is ten and lives here with her mother, Nenneh. I say she is ten but this is an estimate, for Aminata and her mother do not know when she was born. Two years ago they fled the violence of Sierra Leone for a refugee camp in Ghana. From there they made the journey to Tasmania, separated from all other members of their family. As far as they know, Aminata’s father and her older brothers and sisters have all died. Nenneh speaks very little English and recently bought a block of cheese, which she mistook for soap, and she laughs hysterically when she recalls how useless it was for washing clothes. She works part-time as a cleaner in a city office block. Friends of mine, Anne and Michael, have befriended Aminata and Nenneh, and on Mother’s Day I met them on the grass outside the local Uniting Church.

It was late morning and Nenneh took me into the church hall for a cup of tea. The hall, a sturdy wooden structure from around the 1920s, was alive with people of all ages, black and white, talking, gesturing, laughing, singing, dancing, milling about, eating biscuits, drinking tea. It was as if something unfamiliar had been let loose inside the building and was bubbling up with an innocent glee. There were about a dozen people from Sierra Leone and some from other West African countries, places where they have suffered a form of violence and cruelty they will not speak about. Instead they chattered and laughed and planned for the day ahead and the week to come. There were more women than men at the church, so many mothers and babies and little children, with their hair knotted up in tight black frizzy buds all over their heads. There were well-dressed gentlemen, perhaps retired colonels, with ruddy faces and fat white whiskers; and there were ladies, like the ladies from my own distant past, in soft floral dresses and pale time-warp cardigans.

Aminata is tall, thin and athletic. She won the cross-country at her Hobart school – “I didn’t know what it was about, I just kept on running” – and she says she wants to play netball because the girls at her school love netball. I overheard somebody invite her to join a soccer team but she made a wry face and said: “Naah.” Her language is loud, fluent and inventive, and words such as “hangontathiswillya?” roll off her tongue. Her idea is that we, her friends, will take her to K-Mart and help her buy a present for her mother, who must remain ignorant of the plan. Aminata has organised a “private dinner” for herself and her mother at home. I sensed that they do not have many visitors, that social life for Nenneh happens at the church gathering. So Nenneh is left at the flat while the rest of us go shopping. PJs, says Aminata; she needs PJs because she is cold.

We consulted and selected the pale pink-and-brown pyjamas with writing on the shirt. “Doesn’t matter what it says – she can’t read English.” Then I saw a box of Roses chocolates and I said: “These, you have to have these too.” Aminata asked why and I said: “Because it is the correct thing to do.” And she grabbed them in a kind of triumph, as if she had been given a little piece of a puzzle. In the back of the car we wrapped the gifts in pink shiny paper with hearts on it, then we added frothy ribbons. The card we bought had a pattern of roses and very few words. “She can’t read English anyhow,” Aminata said again in her bright but dismissive way.

I asked Aminata what she would do that afternoon and evening, and she said she would be very bored because her mother would watch TV, and she was sick of it. So we got her some of her favourite Saddle Club magazines, replete with fluorescent shoelaces and a little purse with butterflies on it, and she said she would read them and do the games. She showed us the pumpkins she was trying to grow in a patch of damp soil outside the front door. They had small sad blossoms, palest yellow, sickly green – it was hardly the season to be growing pumpkins. Aminata said the dirt was “too squishy” for them.

Our job now was to distract Nenneh while Aminata showed us, one by one, the table-setting she had concealed under a blanket. The table was set for two, with the gifts placed at either end and a row of hand-made cards down the middle. There were two large plastic goblets for the private dinner. Aminata and Nenneh would be able to look out the window at the twinkling lights in the houses across the dip, and up to the looming velvet darkness of the mountain, where the headlights of lone cars trace ghostly winding journeys through the night, back and forth.

Carmel Bird

Carmel Bird is an author. Her memoir is Telltale.

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