My Child, My Refugee

Erin Lang - Senegal


March 22, 2011

“Yama!  Yama!  Would you hurry up? Your appointment was at nine! It’s nine fifteen!”  I shouted, annoyed and trying to make it to the dentist’s appointment that was already paid for.  I found Yama sitting outside of my door, going through my trashcan for old papers and pens.

“Yama!  WHAT are you doing?  And where are your shoes?  Great, you haven’t taken a shower yet, have you? GET out of there and go change!  We’re going to miss the appointment.”

She shuffled off to her bedroom with a devilish little smirk on her face.  I walked into my mother’s bedroom and asked her if someone else wanted to take Yama to the dentist…again…the second day in a row.  My mother laughed and said “You’re her mother! You do it”!  Although my mother was not serious about me actually being Yama’s mother, I understood what she meant. My host mother is Yama’s grandmother, and really is the only one in the family who always has her best interest at heart.  Her mother is pregnant and already has four other children to look after, and her father is off in the Casamance, working with the army.  So to say the least, Yama, the oldest of the children at the house, is the last thing on her mother’s mind.

I could tell Yama was nervous when we got there, frankly, I was too.  She doesn’t exactly have the best record of being well-mannered in situations that make her uncomfortable.  The nurse was warm when we came in.  She kindly asked us to step into the waiting room for a few minutes while they prepared for Yama’s procedure.  The nurse came and got Yama, and told me the tooth-removal would only be about fifteen minutes.

About fifteen minutes later, the nurse came into the waiting room and politely remarked “Madame, could you please come here?  She is refusing to open her mouth.”

Oh for crying out loud. Typical. Why should I ever have expected for this to actually go smoothly?  This is why I wanted someone ELSE to take Yama to the dentist, I thought to myself.  I didn’t say anything until I saw her resisting the force the dentist was using to try to get her to cooperate.

“Yama! What is the matter with you?  Open your mouth! They can’t help you if you keep your mouth shut.”  She refused, and rolled off the dentist’s chair to get away.  Without realizing that we could see her, she began crawling around the chair, and then got up and took off running directly towards me in the doorway.  I don’t know if she thought she could knock me over, but she definitely tried.  I grabbed onto her and began pulling her towards the dentist’s chair.  She roared up in a fit when I tried to get her to go back in the chair.  The dentist walked out and told me he was going to find a big, strong man off the street to hold her down.  When he returned with the man, he yelled (over Yama’s hysterical sobs) what we should do to get her in the chair.  The big man went for her feet and I grabbed her shoulders.  As we were lifting her, she managed to break a lamp, snap a curtain rod, and kick the dentist in the face.  Once we had her in the chair, I had to try to force Yama’s mouth open, which was nearly impossible, because she kept trying to bite my fingers.  The dentist finally approached with the pliers, forced her mouth open the rest of the way, and quickly removed the tooth.

But it didn’t stop there.  Even after the tooth was out, she continued to throw a fit.  It was so bad that the dentist didn’t get to disinfect it afterwards.  Instead, he handed me a sheet saying to come back a week later, commented on how “terrible” of a child she was, and walked us to the door.  As we walked home, Yama tried to bolt from my presence whenever possible.  I grabbed her by her upper arm, and marched straight forward, not stopping to greet anyone on the way.  As I was walking home, I noticed the looks on people’s faces, and thought to myself how so often I was in their shoes, judging mothers for not being able to keep a handle on their children.  I was horrified when I realized they were looking at me this way, but how could they not?  From the look of it, Yama was just a really sad little girl, and I was just another angry “mother”.  This experience definitely revealed to me many things I had never realized before.

For starters, everyone always talks about how Yama is trapped in her home situation, a neglected child with no one to stand behind her.  My host mother says that the Fellow before me was the only one who ever really gave her acceptance and loved her, and that this was the first positive impact she had really ever seen on Yama.  But despite how far she has come, there is always that much further to go with her.    This was the first time I had really witnessed Yama being totally and completely nasty.  I have always known that she is neglected, for I see it in the way her family and friends react to simply her presence in a room.  It is because of this reaction that Yama has become my child.  I do know that she can be immature and hateful, but she also can be extremely generous and loyal.

When we got back to the house, I told my host mother what had happened.  She started laughing and said “Well aren’t you learning a lesson in parenting?  You know you’re her mother when you still claim her after that kind of adventure in public.”  I smiled to myself and shook my head thinking, Yama, can’t live with her, and certainly can’t live without her.

Erin Lang