Baked in Pain

When Amanda Dambuza declares that “I am of a very strong positive mind and I have amazing self-confidence,” I ask myself, after all that she’s been through, how it is possible. Abandoned by her mother, Amanda and her two older siblings are brought up by their abusive and sadist relatives. She endures sexual abuse from one of her uncles, physical abuse from the other and emotional abuse from the family matriarch. As if that was not enough for a young girl, Amanda also endured bullying at school. The latter impacted her so severely that she developed sores just out of fear and trauma.  As she emphasises, hers was “an abusive and neglected upbringing.” Yet she managed to rise above, and in Baked in Pain she tells her story.

The chores that Amanda was subjected to, in my view, are reflective of the reality of life in rural areas. But I have often wondered where one should draw the distinction between abuse and teaching children responsibility. Perhaps the difference is the context within which such chores are allocated and performed. Amanda’s were part of a broader abusive environment. She was downright ill-treated.

Most importantly for me, Amanda’s story challenges the all-encompassing notion of a nurturing and caring African family. At one level, in a western context, the three siblings would most probably have ended up in an orphanage or somewhere similar. But in an African context a child does not just belong to their biological parents. They are the responsibility of the whole extended family. However what is seldom examined and talked about is the impact this has on children.  For these three young siblings clearly “the price of that plate of food and roof over (their) heads was too high.”

Amanda’s resentment towards her mother is palpable throughout the book. Although I am not necessarily surprised, she does not voice the same for her father, who she does not even know. She simply writes him off. Underlying these different reactions towards her parents, are gendered expectations which kind of let fathers off scot-free when it comes to children. But for mothers, children are a lifelong cross! Amanda puts the blame for her difficult childhood squarely on her mother’s shoulders. Her yearning for her mother’s presence in her childhood, and even in her adulthood is deep. For her that yearning is beyond physical presence. It is more about the emotional presence. Amanda cements the notion that home is where a mother is. If she is absent in your life, in her place is a lack of belonging and “no strong family roots.” For Amanda that absence left a deep festering wound that continued to leak.

But I somewhat sympathise with Amanda’s mother. She herself was not mothered, and so she did not know how to be a mother. This “un-motherliness” of her mother was a source of disappointment for Amanda who talks about “how as a child, your world is modelled on your mother being a saint, your saviour”. Perhaps it is this very flawed sainthood notion of motherhood that drives Amanda to be so judgmental towards a woman who clearly had deep unresolved childhood issues herself. As I went through the book, I kept asking myself why are mothers never allowed to be themselves, to lick their own wounds, to err even. I guess the answer lies in the very conceptualisation of motherhood as espoused by both culture and religion.

Amanda says “I have learnt to embrace my pain and myself…(and also) grew to embrace the emptiness and the spaces.” Although she was “skeptical about (her) ability to hold a proper relationship”, she has gone on to get married and has three children of her own. Although in the book she talks about making use of life and spiritual coaches, it is not exactly obvious to me why and how amongst the three siblings she emerged as the one to break the cycle. Unlike her siblings, she has not allowed herself to be held back by her past.

Baked in Pain is an apt title for Amanda’s journey from a difficult and painful childhood to a charming and successful business woman who won the Elle Veuve Boss of the Year Award in 2017. I recommend the book to all those in need of inspiration  that their past does not have to define their future.