A couple of weeks ago, I left my home in Paris and my country to study abroad, in an American university. Two days before leaving France, I went to a studio apartment in the 5th arrondissement of Paris to say goodbye to Christine, the woman who has raised me since I was 9 months old.
Christine is an immigrant, but as I migrated to continue my studies, she barely knows how to write and read. At the age of twenty, with no job opportunity in Cape Verde, off the coast of west Africa, she decided to try her luck in Europe.
While we sat on her bed in a room where the smell of cigarette smoke lingered, Christine grabbed some photographs.
â€œLook Phadou â€“ the nickname she has always given me â€“ it is you at your first birthday. Already a star!â€ There I was, in a black and white picture of a baby girl holding her head in her elbows.
Underneath my photo, there were faded pictures taken in the 1960s, all starring a baby, a boy, and then a teenager. I showed the photos to Christine and she told me a story that I already knew, the story of a mother who had to leave her son behind while trying to make it in Europe.
Christine left her country in 1974 and worked in Italy for twelve years. But she didnâ€™t know that when she would go back to Cape Verde every summer, her son Philibert would not give her the nickname â€œmumâ€ any more. When she decided to immigrate to Europe, she knew that it would be detrimental to her family, but she also wanted to provide a future in Europe for Philibert.
And that is what she managed to do. When she came to France in 1986 to work as a housekeeper in the Gabonese embassy, she took her son back to France with her.
â€œHe did not want to come, Phadou,â€ she said. â€œI had to buy a plane ticket for him and my mother. Otherwise he would not have agreed to come to France with me.â€
Christineâ€™s mother went back to Cape Verde a week later and Philibert went to a private Catholic school in Paris. When I asked Christine why she had chosen a private school for her son, she answered simply, â€œbecause it was the best.â€
Does she regret all her years away from her son? No. â€œIt was the best for himâ€ too.
Even though she would never admit it, I think Christine misses a strong relationship with her son. She began working for my family in 1990, when Philibert was already in a boarding school. When I was a child, she gave me the tenderness and kind gestures that she could not have given him when he was away from her. And now, whenever we meet someone she knows in the street, she tells them, â€œcâ€™est Phadou, câ€™est ma fille.â€ This is Phadou, my daughter.