What you need to know:
- Fanta Jallow has never set her eyes on her mother since she was born almost three decades ago and has very little information about her whereabouts.
- She knows her task is herculean, but she says she is ready for a fine-tooth comb search over the next 50 days.
As the sun dips into the horizon tomorrow, Fanta Jallow will be arriving in Kenya for the first time in her life, to search for a mother she never knew she had.
Fanta will land at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) from The Gambia where she has been living with her paternal grandmother since her mother, a Kenyan, was deported from the country after divorcing her Gambian father in 1989, just after Fanta was born.
Although she does not know her mother’s real name, her exact looks, where exactly she comes from, what tribe she is and whether she is working or not, Fanta is willing to travel around Kenya many times and trudge her weary way through the labyrinthine mazes of a larger country, a huge population, numerous and large towns with more than 40 tribes; to search for the woman who gave her life.
The hope and excitement she feels as she travels to Kenya is tinged with anxiety and uncertainty, but she says she cannot give up the pursuit- at least not until she tries.
“I do not know where to start, but I will start anyway. The first idea is that I am hoping to visit the TV stations in Kenya and publicise an appeal for help to find her,” Fanta says with an iron calm that belies her desperation during our phone interview.
She knows her task is herculean, given that an idea of a country to her is Gambia - a country with 11,295 square kilometres as compared to Kenya’s 580,367 square kilometres. The population of Gambia is 2.34 million, which in Kenya is only the population of Nakuru alone, but she says she is ready for a fine-tooth comb search over the next 50 days.
Fanta says that her Kenyan mother whose name according to her birth certificate is Mariam Suware met her father Pateh Jallow in 1988 in Germany in a small town called Elligen. That is when their love blossomed and a union flourished.
The next year, while her mother was pregnant for Fanta, the couple relocated to The Gambia where she was later born, before the couple divorced and her mother left for Kenya, leaving her under the care of her grandmother since her father acquired a United States visa and travelled almost immediately.
Since she was born almost three decades ago, she has never set her eyes on her mother and has very little information about her whereabouts.
The information that her father, whom she has only met twice in her entire life has given her, does not pass muster. It is not even close to giving her a clue of who her mother is, and where she lives in Kenya.
“I speak with my father a lot. He now lives in the USA with his new wife and children. He does not, however, want to give me any information about my mother. All he told me is that she comes from Mombasa,” she says.
Fanta’s story paints a picture of a person who has been forcefully alienated from her mother and made to live like she never had one. She recounts how she used to think that her grandmother was her mother.
“Nobody had ever told me that she was just my grandmother and she treated me well so that I never doubted her,” she says.
However, doubts started setting in when she was handed over to her uncle by the grandmother. Her uncle, who was her father’s younger brother, lived in the city of Banjul. Here, she met people who knew about her mother but were unwilling to share more information about her; or they simply did not have it.
Some of them exclaimed over her striking resemblance to her mother and these reactions puzzled her more and catalysed her urge to meet her mother.
“Others were pitying and consoling me. That is when I started having questions on who my mum was,” said Fanta, adding that she would sometimes eavesdrop at people’s conversations on her real mother but when she confronted them, they would deny knowing anything about her.
She was 14 years old when she finished junior school but until this point, she was yet to see either of her parents.
She had been told that her father had acquired US citizenship and was the one sponsoring her education and other basic needs.
According to Fanta, though she did not experience the basic challenges of food and shelter, she was much troubled by the kind of situation she was living in.
She explains that she felt a huge gap in her life for being away from her parents and having very little information about them.
She says she went through the wringer every time she tried to extract information from her father but reiterates that of all the hardships she had had to face, none was more punishing than the simple act of wishing she knew her mother and stood by her through happiness and sorrow.
One day, she accidentally met an elderly lady who was willing to confide in her something about her mother. The woman, she says, easily noticed her due to her resemblance to her mother and was shocked to see her all grown up.
Fanta explains that the woman broke down when she started narrating her mother’s story. She told her that her mother was mistreated by her in-laws as they lived in Brikama, The Gambia. The woman described her mother as “nice and innocent”.
She could only identify Fanta’s mother as Mariam whom she said had met with her father in a city in Germany where they were seeking asylum between the year 1988 and 1989.
“The woman who told me about my mother said my mother was convinced by some Gambians in Germany to join my father back home in The Gambia and I believe she loved him so much that she decided to move to The Gambia with him.”
The journey back home was successful and the two were warmly received back home by her in-laws. However, a few days after arrival, her father was lucky to get a US Visa and had to travel abroad.
“My mother was then heavily pregnant and they agreed that she would remain behind to deliver and would join my father later,” she narrates.
According to the woman, Fanta’s father left and did not bother to communicate. Her mother was left under the care of her mother-in-law in Brikama where she successfully gave birth to Fanta.
It was after her birth when her mother’s world started crumbling. The woman told Fanta that her mother started facing hostility from her in-laws especially her husband’s elder brother.
As she was in a foreign land, her mother felt she had nobody to turn to and persevered the hostility. But things moved from bad to worse.
“I was told that my uncle kept torturing my mother. He used to beat her every day and denied her food for days.”.
When life became unbearable, the mother called it quits and decided to return to her country.
It is unclear how she managed to book a flight to Kenya, but Fanta was told that she may have been deported.
Fanta says she once stumbled upon some pictures of her mother which were being kept by her grandmother. However, when she became interested and inquisitive, the photos and all other documents about her mother were destroyed.
She managed to salvage just one photo which is the only evidence and connection to her mother and this is what she has kept as the only thing that she uses, with hopes that someone will recognise her mother.
Fanta's long search
In 2009, she learnt that her father was to visit The Gambia. By this time, she had already finished her high school education.
“I was eager to see him. I knew I would finally have all my questions answered and have to know about my mother’s whereabouts.”
When her father arrived for the month-long visit, she was surprised to see him with another woman with four children. She says she came to learn that the woman was her stepmother and the children were her siblings.
Her father had met the other woman who is also a Gambian like him in the US where he is a permanent resident.
“My dad appeared to have moved on with life and was not in any way bothered about my mother. He was also not interested in discussing anything about my mother.”
Fanta explains that she confronted her father about the matter but the action did not augur well with him. He was irked and refused to open up about the issue.
According to Fanta, her father is always very friendly and gentle with her but once she brings up the subject he becomes so upset to a point he would start scolding her.
She revealed that he even promised to support her in everything she wanted as long as it does not involve her mother.
Fanta says her father, who sponsored her college education until her graduation, always wanted her to forget about her mother and focus on her own life.
Compelled to get married
After college, she says, she got a job as a cashier in one of the Institutions in the Gambia. All this time her father kept pushing her to get married and have a family.
“He kept calling, seeking to know whether I am married. He said he wanted me to have a family and give him grandchildren.”
She gave in to her father’s demands and found herself getting married at a tender age. She was blessed with two children before her marriage hit the rocks, ending in divorce.
Fanta said the issue of her mother’s identity never stopped bothering her, more so because she did not understand why everyone was concealing the truth from her.
“I keep wondering what is this thing about my mother that everyone was hiding from me. I am an adult now and I believe I can handle my things so I feel it is wrong for them to push me into forgetting about my mother.”
In 2019, after another 10 years, her father jetted back to the country to visit his family. Still, his position on the subject remained the same.
However, by this time Fanta was so bitter with him that the only thing she wanted to hear from him was her mother’s story.
She even proceeded to report her father to the police in a bid to compel him to reveal the truth but her father finished his business and left the country.
At this point, Fanta felt that it was time for her to do the necessary to pursue the truth on her own.
Trip to Kenya
This is when she began opening up to friends about her issue hoping that one of them would help come up with a solution. One of her friends encouraged her to make a plan to visit Kenya to look for her mother.
She embraced the idea and started saving and mobilising funds for her flight ticket to Kenya.
“From my research, I have reasons to believe that she returned to Kenya. I just want to know what happened to her and how she is living. I also want to meet her people because they are my relatives.”
Her 50-day search will begin on Thursday.
“By the time I leave Kenya, I will have known whether my mother is alive or dead. What happened to her and why she decided to leave me in The Gambia.”
She says she cannot rest until she gets to hear her mother’s side of the story. The void in her life brought by the absence of her parents and the feeling of responsibility are pushing her to take the risk.
“I am a worried person because I do not know the condition of my mother. Whether she’s suffering or in need of my help I do not know because I have no information.”
Fanta concludes; “Mama I am coming to look for you. I am sorry for whatever bad things could have happened to you but am still your child. My children are asking for you and am also yearning to see the person that brought me to this world.”