In Botswana, where I spent several years before taking refuge in Quebec, the media kept praising Canada.A local newspaper I used to read, called the Mmegi (pronounced Mekhi), often referred to Canada as one of the ten countries with the best living conditions in the world. People envy its supermarkets, its clinics and its public gardens. They also envy Canadians’ easy access to entertainment. In Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, there are only two cinemas for 500,000 inhabitants.
This fantasized image remains with newcomers for a few days after their arrival. They are in high spirits. Everything they discover is new and stunning: the buildings are imposing, the streets are clean. Although most African countries are now establishing more environmentally-friendly policies, attention to the environment is much more palpable in Canada.
When I landed in Montreal, I was taken to a small hotel. I spent two weeks there before moving into a small house in Laval, north of town. A few blocks from my home was a park, the “Parc des Prairies.” The people walking there looked so quiet, it was captivating. In this park, I breathed that air of freedom I felt deprived of for so many years.
In Botswana, most people live in a state of daily survival.There, anxiety is brought on by situations of limited safety and a very fragile labour market. When you are unemployed, which is commonplace, you get up, wash, go out, and people think you’re going to work, when in reality you are not going anywhere. This constant feeling of insecurity becomes a daily friend that gradually eats you up.
Nevertheless, as far as I am concerned, embracing a new life in a foreign country did not relieve this torment. I quickly had to deal with a new moral system, a new culture, different friendships, and institutions with which I was unfamiliar. I promptly reached a state of anxiety that I was supposed to have left behind in Africa.
In my case, isolation proved to be a primary triggering factor of my anxiety. I was far from my closest relatives. I was far from my daughter who lives in France with her mother, whom I have been separated from for a few years. I spent the first four months of my Canadian life alone, without contact with anyone or anything other than the Internet and my television. At that time, I had not yet found a job. The hours I spent alone by myself were torturous.
Since I arrived in November, and given that Canada’s winter weather is very long, I had to face it during many months. Coming from a very hot area, this icy cold was very hard. These climatic conditions were so tough for me that I wasted weeks, stuck in my small apartment. It was quiet and safe, but I was alone to enjoy it.
Then I gradually regained my strength. I had fled Congo for Zambia, Zambia to Botswana, I had come to Quebec with a one way ticket, and I was legal here; I finally understood that Canada was my final destination. I had to get out of my house and move forward.
I began to leave my apartment more and more. I walked miles around to make my way to the city. But here again, among all these men and women, my loneliness was palpable. I was very stressed about approaching people. I did not understand them. Their behaviors were so different from what I knew. One day, on “Place des Arts,” in the heart of Montreal, I was looking for the Palais des Congrès where I intended to go sightseeing a little. Hundreds of people were passing by me, but people seemed to be in such a rush that I did not dare to disturb any of them with my newcomers navigational dilemma. So I just sat on a bench for an hour, and went back home.
Soon after this unfortunate event, I had to integrate into the job market. And to discover another form of stress. Originally, I was an English teacher. I also taught French in Botswana and directed a small theater company. But I quickly realized that if I wanted to get the same kind of jobs in Canada, I had to go back to school. And I could not afford it. Receiving $640 a month in social assistance and spending $500 for my rent, I had to find a job promptly. So I found a temporary job in a recycling company. Thanks to this job, I earned $320 a week, enough to pay my bills. Being confronted with all these bills is way more tricky when one is alone, far away from one’s own; to whom does one ask for help if the work does not come?
Little by little, I made my way. I changed jobs – I was hired by a call center – and I started settling down properly. But the respite did not last long. The discovery of the Canadian financial system became another factor of anxiety. Among other things, I had to face an absurd practice: credit history. In short, you have to go into debt and repay your credit to be properly rated with the credit bureau. This creates an astonishing segregation among people: the “good indebted ones” against the “bad indebted ones”. The former can borrow more and more money to buy pretty things, the latter do not have the institutions’ confidence of thus have to pay everything cash. Uninformed when I arrived in Canada, I was one time unable to repay an invoice of $850 from a mobile phone company. The company complained to the credit bureau, and here I am: stuck in the role of the bad payer, and so probably for years. I felt cheated by this system that no one had explained to me.
These technical details are so important for one’s mindset. Yet no one talks about it in Africa. People drown between the African coast and Spain say, “In the Western world, people are happy.” It is the beauty that attracts them. But they do not know that this so-called “better life” comes with a price.
The other day I was cooking at my house. I adjusted my cuisine, I often make “poutine”. But that day, I was making an African dish. Caterpillars, dry salted fish, cassava leaves, palm oil. I sent a photo of my preparations to my relatives, who remained in Africa. On the picture, we could see the price of some products. Quickly, I received shocked texts back: “What, 6 dollars for palm oil?” In Congo, most of these products cost less than one dollar. But people do not see these realities. People only see a romanticized version of life on the other side.
Translated from French by Camille Teste & Chelsea Hawkins