Author, Scrabbler, Traveler

Team of Nobodies

Author, Scrabbler, Traveler

Emil Rem

I was born in 1955 in Tanzania to East Indian, Muslim parents.

My mother, who possessed no education but held impossible dreams, divorced my father when I was five and was immediately ostracized by her community. She moved to England and took me with her.

The only work she could get was as a trainee nurse. She found she couldn’t look after me. An English working class family volunteered to take me in until she could find a permanent home for me. The initial two weeks turned into 12 years before my mother took me away from them.

Father continued to work for an airline which permitted me to travel free on standby.

Initially, the tickets were for visiting home every holiday I had. From the age of 12, I began to travel the world on my own. Neither of my parents could afford to come with me. My mother gave me a pittance for my travels—it was all she could afford. I would arrive at London airport with a carryon bag and a wad of tickets and take whichever airline had space available. I could be in Moscow or Rio De Janiero, I never knew. Nor did my family.

With enough money to last me a week, I had little choice : either talk to the passengers and have them invite me to stay with them or sleep on the airport floor and walk to town and back. There were no guide books. I walked and walked until my thighs came to look like slabs of ham.

Travelling to Africa, I saw the gradual disintegration of my community as Africa gained its independence. Until 1970, when Idi Amin threw out our community overnight in Uganda and the rest followed suit nationalizing businesses and property.

In England, my English family gave me a St. Christopher’s cross to wear to protect me in my travels. Reaching Africa, the cross was replaced with a green armband of cotton thread and a Muslim missionary hired to knock some religion into me. The harm had already been done. Not being forced in England, attending school and joining the cubs for Sunday church, I fell in love with hymns and psalms and the beauty of prose in the St. James’ version of the Bible. That and the learning of Christmas carols for the school play and the reading aloud of Tom Sawyer or Wind in the Willows every Friday by my teacher brought on the love of literature. Books were an escape from the misery and solitude. Apart from my English family, they were the only stability in my life.

To spite my Indian mother who was always hovering around me demanding the best from me, I failed my exams and sped headlong into accounting to escape my mother’s wrath and the threat to retake my final years at school.

In my last years at school, my natural mother yanked me away from my foster parents. On finishing my accounting apprenticeship, I escaped to Calgary and became a scourge to my employers—I found I couldn’t add!

My mother always discouraged me from writing or anything creative—there was no money in it ( I now wish I had listened to her).

In Calgary, I married a Filipina—much to the distress of my mother. We married in our thirties bearing two boys within 21 months of each other. By mutual assent, both boys became Roman Catholic—much to the disdain of my beloved mother.

It was not until little by little as I heard the death of this family member or that close family friend that the thought came to me to preserve these memories for my boys. The thought was precipitated by the death of my father, who had now joined me in Calgary and was beloved both by my wife and children.