Leaticia Hannah was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and she grew up in Kinshasa. As a teenager, she moved to Luanda, Angola, where she went to the French school. Now she’s a senior at Deering High School in Portland, Maine. Leaticia is also the oldest sister in her family and is an adventurous traveler. Her goal is to go as far with her education as she can, and she dreams of being a lawyer and an author so she can speak for people who don’t have a voice. Leaticia was the recipient of the Telling Room’s 2021 Founders Prize.
When I was 5 years old, I was really close to my grandparents. We lived together with the rest of my family in Mwene Ditu, a big city in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was supposed to help my grandma with small things around the house, like going to buy bread or milk or anything she needed for cooking. This allowed me to leave our family’s compound and walk on the street, which young children normally weren’t supposed to do, according to my grandpa’s rules. I liked having the responsibility. But only when I wasn’t already busy with my toys or my friends. Sometimes my grandma would ask me to buy something for her, and I would refuse because I was more interested in playing with my friends. And if she really insisted, then I would start crying. And my grandmother would smile at me and say, “Even if you are crying, you are still going forward.”
I didn’t realize how important those words would become in my life. Going forward would always matter.
Grandma had long hair and a quiet voice and was usually very patient with me. Even when life was difficult for her, she always showed her heart. At night, she would sing songs in her native language and tell me stories so I could sleep. As a child, I’d do silly things to annoy her, like poking my finger into a fresh loaf of bread and leaving a big hole in it. She told me never to play with food – that if you are lucky enough to have plenty to eat, your obligation is to share your food or give it away to those who are hungry. But still, I poked holes in the bread. I was a feisty girl who liked to play tricks on adults, especially my grandma. If she was mad, then I would be happy. My family members gave me the nickname “Charlina,” saying that I was so silly that I reminded them of Charlie Chaplin.
One day other family members came to stay at our house for a vacation. Because my grandmother was away for the day, helping out at our family’s farm, my 14-year-old cousin Clariss was put in charge of making dinner. I was happily playing with my friends outside in the yard, when I heard her calling to me from across the compound. “Charlina!” she shouted
I knew what she wanted. She was going to ask me to go buy ingredients so that she could cook our dinner. She called my name many times, but I pretended not to hear. I never went to her.
She called again and finally I called back, “I am coming,” I said.
But I never went.
Instead, Clariss had to go shopping by herself. When she returned a while later, she was carrying a small bag and eating something from it. At this point, I was hungry from all the playing I’d been doing. I ran quickly to see what she had.
She showed me a piece of golden dough that was shaped like a star. I had never seen one before and I wouldn’t see another one for many, many years. “It’s a samosa,” Clariss said. I’d never heard that word before.
“Can I have some?” I asked.
My cousin looked at me and didn’t say a word.
“Can I have some, please?” I asked.
Clariss broke off a tiny bit of her samosa and gave it to me. It was one of the tastiest things I’d ever eaten: crunchy and crisp on the outside, and soft on the inside, stuffed with meat and vegetables. All I wanted was more.
When I mentioned it to Clariss, though, she refused, saying, “When I asked you to go and buy things for me, what did you do? Did you help me with that?”
I made a pained face. “I wanted to, but I forgot,” I said.
And she said,” Well, also, you can forget about my food.”
I cried as if she’d stolen the food from me.
I think now about our family home, about my grandparents, and the life we lived there. I realize there were many things I didn’t know yet about the world. Many connections I was too young to make. There was instability and war in our country. There were people suffering due to famine and lack of water. In my own family, there was fear and worry, though the adults tried their best to protect us children from feeling any of those things. What I remember from childhood is my grandmother’s warm smile, the delicious chicken and plantain dinners she made for us, and the abundance of our small compound. We had banana, apple, and avocado trees growing in the yard. We had okra and cassava from the farm. Even if my grandma wasn’t around to feed us lunch, there was always food to be found.
It wasn’t until 2017 that I understood what hunger truly feels like. My mother and two younger brothers and I had been living in Angola and were hoping to immigrate to the United States, where my uncle was living and where my mother felt we could get a good education. I was 15 years old and understood that America had good schools and good opportunities and there was no war there. We flew from Africa to Ecuador, with a one-night stop in Cuba. I had the idea that going to Cuba might be like seeing heaven, since it was on another continent, but it wasn’t exactly that way.
Havana was warm and beautiful, but much quieter than what I was used to. I looked out at the ocean there and felt emotional, knowing that the only obstacle between me and America was that body of water. But we were headed to Ecuador, and from there would travel north by bus and on foot to the U.S. border. In Havana, we rented a room in a house for the night so we could rest before our next flight. I went to a supermarket and bought some spaghetti, which was made in a shape different from ours in Africa. My brothers tasted it and they grimaced. Their faces looked like they’d seen some zombies. When I tasted it, I wrinkled my forehead. Was I cooking it wrong or was this just how pasta tastes here? I got sad, thinking of the spaghetti we used to eat back at home. But my mother scolded us, knowing that we were only at the start of a long journey. “You guys don’t have another choice! When the hunger comes and the stomach begs for food,” she said, “you will eat whatever your eyes can see.”
Being hungry is not something you can imagine until you’ve experienced it. When your stomach is empty, you can’t think. Your brain stops working. You don’t feel anything like your regular self. Over the next five months, my mother and brothers and I traveled by bus and taxi, truck and boat. We walked miles and miles and more miles, climbing over mountains, hiking through forests, and wading across rivers. We never had more than a little food – only just enough to keep us going, and sometimes none. Each food we brought with us had a function, for instance, peanut butter and bread because the stomach can support that. For more energy, we had some cookies, and juice powder to make juice with the lake and river water we might find on our way.
To wear, we bought rain boots and raincoats. From Ecuador, we went to Colombia, and from Colombia we traveled to Panama, where I was separated for a while from my family when a guide told us he couldn’t travel with us all at once. For three days, I hiked without my family, only with the guide and a small group of other immigrants, through the Darién Rainforest and along the Río Turquesa. I didn’t know how bad it would be. I had agreed to enter the jungle and believed it would be fine. Even though I didn’t expect this part of the journey, I had to proceed. The water was behind us, and the forest was in front of us. The only way was into the forest. There was no other option. It was like my grandmother used to tell me: Even if you are crying, you are still going forward.
I had no food during those first days in the jungle. It was hot, and one day we couldn’t even find water. I was so tired; I didn’t want to walk another step. But then finally we found a mango tree with one mango very high in the tree. We threw stones until we got it. And three of us split that single piece of fruit. The next fruit we found was a ripe avocado sitting on the ground, so big and sweet it reminded me of my grandpa’s plot in Africa. My grandpa always teased that a large avocado was “as big as your head.” I remembered how I used to poke holes in the bread and my grandma would warn me that food isn’t always available. “One day you will look for food and you won’t be able to find it.” I knew then that the “one day” had come. Leaticia Uriel Hannah was here in this forest, looking for food and not finding it. But at least we found the avocado!
I ate a lot of avocados that day, since we soon found trees full of them. I didn’t want to leave any of them because we didn’t know what was waiting for us in the future. I put a lot of them in my backpack while the others were laughing at me. I didn’t want to experience any more days without eating. I considered throwing my clothes out, just to have space in my bag for more avocados. When I tried to carry my bag, it was too heavy. But I bore it on my back. I now had a little trust that things might be different soon because when you meet fruit in a difficult time, something great is always going to happen. At the end of that day, I’d eaten so much fruit that I had a headache! But it gave me the strength to continue and soon the hard times would disappear.
I am 18 years old now and have lived in Portland, Maine, for nearly two years with my mother and brothers, my uncle, and cousins. I’m a senior in high school and I have grown into my responsibilities. That is the point of growing up: you start understanding things. You start realizing and connecting what you couldn’t before. I cook for my family five nights of the week. I’ve learned to help. I’ve learned to listen.
Not long ago, we were getting ready to celebrate the new year and I thought it would be nice to make something special for the family. I sat for a while in the kitchen, lost in my mind. I was thinking about what my grandma would be cooking for the holiday back in DRC. I guessed she would probably make cassava, and beans and rice. Maybe my grandfather would kill a goat. Or they’d eat fresh things from our farm. The compound would be noisy with babies crying, and crowded with family members visiting for the celebration. My grandmother, I knew, would be happy having all those people around.
And then I remembered the story of my cousin Clariss and that one little taste of food I’d had 12 years earlier and thousands of miles from where I am now. Even though I’d traveled through 10 countries since that time, I’d never once tasted or even seen anything like it again. I wasn’t sure what it was even made of. But I did remember what it was called: Sa-MO-sa.
I went on the internet and searched for “samosa.” And I found it – exactly the star-shaped thing I’d seen my cousin eating. It turned out, too, that we had all the ingredients I needed to make it. We had garlic, ginger, onions, beef, and peppers for color. I put the ingredients in a bag so nobody would touch them. I watched a video online that showed me, step-by-step, how it was done. And when the new year arrived, I made more than 20 perfect samosas and served them to my family. People were eating and eating them, and telling me how delicious they were. I’d make one and take it out of the pan, and someone would instantly come take it and gobble it down.
By the time the pan was empty, I’d eaten just one samosa myself. But that was all I needed to feel happy, and to know that I’d grown.