The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 38: Illicit April Brewing Rains on My Parade

These were my early days. I lacked shoes and nice clothes. She promised to get me some. I did not care for material things; I knew Grannie did not have them so there was no big worry.

Augustine Kanjia

It was a crime to brew the local hard liquor “Omole,” but it was working well for us, as my grandmother had started buying corrugated zinc panels for the house.

She wanted us to have nine rooms and a big living room. She had big dreams: All her children with rooms of their own.

I was troubled at school by accusations that I stole 20 cents — everyone thought I was the possible thief, even though, this time, I was innocent. I distracted myself with my job at home, going to the bush to brew our alcohol for sale.

That Sunday evening, the rain was dark, our distance home was far. We had just created a new brewing spot and there was no shelter to cover us. We depended on the big trees for protection. Who would trust any tree in the time of a windstorm? My grandmother would have. She insisted we sit under the trees and wait for the rain and wind to pass.

My uncle, Aiah Bongu, did not like Grannie’s over-protection of me. He thought she was spoiling me, but my grandmother was the only person who understood my problem. I was allergic to certain foods, like peanut butter soup or palm oil. Only my grandmother knew it. She would protect me, which bothered my uncle.

Augustine’s last chapter: Grandmother’s New Business Opens Old Wounds Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 37: Grandmother’s New Business Opens Old Wounds

The first consignment of hard liquor was ready to drink — more importantly, to sell. People started coming to the house to buy in bulk or by tot. It cost 20 cents (Sierra Leone cents). Back then, money had value, no doubt.

Augustine Kanjia

Life did not seem to be getting any better.

And it was going to get worse: As money problems rose to the surface a school mate’s accusations of stealing led to a dozen lashes for a crime I did not commit.

Three of my uncles were now living with my grandmother and me. Our house was old and rustic; we needed a better one. I was going to Grade 4 then. My friends always laughed at me for the type of house we slept in. It was not so deplorable, but they wanted to keep me thinking I was lower than them. Glad I did not bother with their provocations.

My grandmother had to call an emergency family meeting to discuss the future of the house. We all knew it was time for action. My grandmother was a brave and innovative woman who had put a lot behind her after the difficulties of her marriage.

She depended on her children, but the children were quite poor. Her eldest son worked in the Native Police Administration. These were special village police who answered only to the paramount chiefs of their jurisdiction. My uncle had first become an army man, but was said to have left due to some very hard conditions. He was quite a strong man, but I think it was not for physical strength that men were selected and accepted into the army. He had run away at night to return to Pakidu, Sierra Leone, their father’s hometown, before deciding to join the NPA.

My grandmother was hopeful. My uncle’s full name was Sahr Motatay James. My grandmother called him Sahr Tay. As a boy, I never understood the meaning — but it was simply the short form of Motatay.

Sahr Tay did not adhere to Grannie’s call for a meeting for the house. Ngainda and Aiah were present, though, and good to go. Or so they said then.

The meeting was of importance to everyone because the rainy season was no plaything. We had already put down heavy rocks and tied wires to the edges of the house on all sides. The wires were buried deep to avoid being taken by the wind. We were still not secure.

Augustine’s last chapter: Signs of My Struggle Begin Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 36: Signs of My Struggle Begin

I sometimes wondered as a child how my grandmother made her family survive.

Augustine Kanjia

My uncle hadn’t yet found his first job. Mom had left with my step-dad to live in Bo, the largest town in the Southern Province of Sierra Leone. My heart was with my mother. I knew she was striving hard to make us happy, but there were no gifts — or food or money — coming, only messages to Grannie and me.

My grandmother had only one of her three sons living with her, Ngainda. He was young and people expected him to get a good job. He would become a farmer. The road to the farm was quite a distance. It was manual farming and required real man power. He was a perfect fit for the job. His muscles were turgid and feasible.

My grandmother depended on him for a good yield. But the farm was patrolled by many birds that devoured the nursery seed or the ripened rice for harvest. This frustrated him, and he reverted to planting okra.

There was no one at home to take care of me when everyone had gone to the farm. There was no babysitting then. Your parents could leave you in the town and go about their business; they will meet you home in the evening. We feared nothing, like kidnapping or abuse. Everyone was the other’s keeper. But my grandmother, Kumba Ngehgba, was never happy leaving me behind. So, I had to miss school several times a year.

Augustine’s last chapter: Family disintegrates, Pa dies Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 35: My Family Disintegrates After Pa Dies

My grandmother, Kumba Ngehgba, had arrived in Motema to seek refuge not long before my dad died. It was a very difficult time.

Augustine Kanjia

My father, Pa Kanjia, had married a lot of women because he was a rich man. He had five wives. My mom was the youngest and most beautiful. My dad was aware of it, Grannie would tell me, and so were the other children.

His first wife could not speak Kono, but Mende. The family was large, with each wife having an extended family. People came from far and wide seeking help from my dad. He was happy with that because he stood for people even before his riches.

I remember my grandmother telling me that he had a heart problem, which did not bother him. But she said he was bitten by a dog. Medicine in those days was underdeveloped, so there was no proper diagnosis of the complicated illness. It was in 1963, a couple months before I was born. My dad died in the hospital, shocking the whole community. He had left quite a lot of riches.

Augustine’s last chapter: Back to How It All Started Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 34: Back to How It All Started

My grandmother was married to a hunter named Kai James.

Augustine Kanjia

He was very popular and had married three women altogether. My grandmother, Kumba Ngehgba, was a local musician and quite popular, too. There were no recordings of her songs, but my grandmother would have gained a much wider audience in a different time.

She got lots of money, and her mates in marriage grew quite jealous of her. She had already had her four children. My mother, Hannah James, was the second among the four — after Sahr James, and before Tamba Ngainda James and Aiah James. My grandmother was a resilient woman, and quite tenacious and determined. But the jealousy in the house was evident.

Nothing seemed to work in those days, my grandmother would tell me years later. They were far from the police and there were no cars close by, either. Bangayima, one of my grandmother’s fellow wives, was at her throat. She would not go for Kumba’s singing, often creating a scene behind her back. The hatred was apparent. Bangayima would physically confront my grandmother to fight, which was quite a challenge for my grandmother because she preferred dialogue and peace with all whom she met.

Augustine’s last chapter: When things fall apart Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 33: When Things Fall Apart

Amid the struggle for a good life in Worcester, one of my children was brave to take a different direction.

Alice Hannah Kanjia is my first daughter. She was born out of wedlock when I was a young adult, and I did not know of her or meet her until several years later.

From Part 11: New Hope, More Troubles and a Gift

A longtime girlfriend had called me. My brother had given her my number during my uncle’s funeral in Gbaama, Sierra Leone. She insistently said, “I have a gift, I said, a gift. How can I send it?” Since I was in need I told her to send it by DHL. “You are still not serious as you are aging,” she responded. She became agitated and rude, which was usual of her. “OK,” she said, “I will send the gift to my sister in Freetown, and you will go pick it up from her.” …

We saw the house and moved directly to see the gift. About 20 meters from the house we saw a thin girl running toward me. She came directly to me and moved to hug Peter. It was then that I realized she was the gift I anticipated.

She looked lanky, tall, very fragile and malnourished. I saw the aunt, Elizabeth, and she handed the girl to me. She asked me for an identity before leaving. I had none, but she let us go anyway. (There was no DNA testing to prove she was my daughter. That was Africa; we accept and go on.)

Augustine Kanjia

She came in and out of our lives over the years, but as we did not feel safe anymore in The Gambia, Theresa and I were able to shepherd her through the resettlement process and help her reach America, which she did a couple of months before we arrived in October 2010.

Alice became recalcitrant after having her first son. She refused to return to school to finish Grade 12 and earn her high school diploma or equivalency. She was discouraged by how poorly she’d done before.

She is a loveable person, but she changed and we grew apart, as she saw me as a stumbling block to her dubious behaviors.

Augustine’s last chapter: To Be a Man is Not Easy Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 32: To Be a Man is Not Easy

My days were quite full. Not only with my new job and keeping my family fed, but with a challenging course schedule at Quinsigamond Community College.

Augustine Kanjia

I had loads of reading to do, piles of written homework, research and mathematics problems to grapple. It was a struggle, but I’d begun by loving school, and I felt the pinch of learning in a corner of my heart. “When you complete your education,” I thought, “you will be respected at home and abroad. In fact, you would get better pay and be on top of things. Why not just pretend as if your grandmother stands by you right now, urging you with a cane to go to school. Think how she wanted you [to become] the most educated at home.”

It seemed sometimes as if I were in a trance. Until I inevitably awoke to reality and realized I had more work to do. I needed to apply more effort. And I needed to not be distracted by what some of our Sierra Leonean friends were thinking and saying about me when they met.

I needed courage, but even Theresa had doubts. I could feel my wife saying, “Now that you are in college with these girls, I know you will fall in love with them.” My main worry was never the girls, but to achieve quickly, stop going to school and get a better job.

People worry about me more than I do for myself.

Augustine’s last chapter: Job offer sends me back to school Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 31: Job Offer Sends Me Back to School

Life was hard as our rent and bills piled up.

Augustine Kanjia

Our food stamps and financial support were reduced. I worked and worked but rarely saw the money. My wife, Theresa, took control of the little salary coming in. She suspected I was too generous and might want to send help to the many people we knew in Africa, even while we suffered.

I thought of my friend David Jordan, president of Seven Hills Foundation. He was the man who had promised me a job, and my wife too, if we had our driver’s licenses. I did not know the nature of the job, but I knew I wanted it.

Getting the license was a big deal. I was prepared for the driving test. Affording it was another question. I fought hard and sent messages to friends who had lived in America for a longer time. Two of them sent me a total of $300. That was enough for the road test, so I went.

I made a mistake by touching the yellow line right by the RMV. The examiner said I had failed the test. I could not object, and in 10 minutes I was dropped at home, quite sad and thinking the examiner was out to get me. But I soon scheduled another test, this time at Central Mass. Safety Council in West Boylston. I went with the examiner for more than 20 minutes. He kept giving me questions on signs; I made a three-point turn; and parallel parked.

I passed with ease. I was given the license. My whole house rejoiced as though I had just found a big diamond.

Augustine’s last chapter: New Year, Tough Beginning Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 30: New Year, Tough Beginning

It was the end of year and there was midnight Mass on Dec. 31. The Mass, meant to usher the congregation into the new year, was exciting and full of joy.

Augustine Kanjia

The fraternity was cordial as we all hugged and shook hands. It was not difficult to smile and exchange pleasantries. We were soon to start the reality of American living, and our thoughts would quickly wander past the new year.

I was not too happy when I realized the enormous task ahead of me.

I only had a seasonal job, and my wife expected more from me, at least a better job.

And we received word that our family homes in Africa had all been burnt down, about four houses. My grandmother’s house was my entire responsibility. That is where I grew up. My two uncles survived and had nowhere to live, though they managed.

They may have been told that I had survived President Jammeh’s countless challenges and was now in the United States. Our first three months were challenging.

Augustine’s last chapter: First Noel in Worcester Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale

The unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia continues … Part 29: First Noel in Worcester

There was excessive cold that November. Many neighbors and friends said the previous year was better.

Augustine Kanjia

We would walk from Ellsworth Street to School Street for classes at Lutheran Social Services [now Ascentria Care Alliance] every day till 1 p.m. or so. Chris Lamboi, our RIAC [Refugee & Immigrant Assistance Center] caseworker, had also taken us to the Cathedral of Saint Paul on Chatham Street. We went there to worship on Sundays and for special devotions and prayer. The winter was not a conducive time for that without a car, but the snow was beautiful to see, I would tell my wife.

“What is beautiful about it? Plenty of water, too much cold and suffering,” Theresa would say.

“But the whiteness is very good for your eyesight,” I’d respond.

Going to class in the morning was terrible. We were marked for attendance and told we may not qualify for college if we were late or absent often. Our teacher, Monica Bond, was not ready for me to move on, it seemed, until her favorites had gone to college. Well, I thought, I should have to make my own moves. But then Monica held a special class briefing about college. “If you go to college on your own you will pay a lot of money. We have an agreement with Quinsigamond Community College that allows students from here to attend QCC free.” She said it was only possible with refugees. I was moved by this and decided to remain patient.

On several occasions, before we knew what frostbite was, the cold with the snow had caused Theresa and myself excruciating pain in the ears and fingers. Sometimes I thought I had no ears left on my head. It was worse for my nose, because it had nowhere to hide. My feet were only moving because I was alive but had very little power to carry me through to School Street every day. Theresa was often in tears; she said on several occasions that the condition was unbearable. She stayed home from class sometimes, and I told the teacher she was not feeling well. But she also did not like the idea of staying home while I went to school with those beautiful Cambodian, Kenyan and Haitian girls. So I was not too happy either.

We virtually cried walking in the snow and feared the cold, too, but we knew we had to venture out anyway. Christmas was approaching, and we needed a plan.

Augustine’s last chapter: The Kanjias’ First Snow Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale