In her new book, “Never Stop Walking: A Memoir of Finding Home Across the World” (Amazon Crossing), Christina Rickardsson, 35, of Umeå, Sweden, chronicles the extraordinary — and sometimes incredibly violent — journey which took her from cave dweller to the founder of the street kids’ and orphanage charity, the Coelho Growth Foundation.
Here she shares her remarkable story with The New York Post’s Jane Ridley.
The growling was enough to make my mother and I shake with fear. And then we saw it — a jaguar on top of our cave, hunting for prey.
It was the only time I saw a big cat up close, and it was in the crude hideaway we called home for the first five years of my life. Jaguars are shy, but their bite is deadly when they’re hungry or feel threatened. Fortunately, this one bolted.
The jaguar was among many creatures which threatened our existence living rough on the outskirts of the town of Diamantina, in the Minas Gerais region of Brazil. Venomous snakes, spiders and scorpions were common. I would wake up in the night to swat away giant, poisonous centipedes crawling over my body.
My mom Petronilia — whom I called Mamãe — had brought me to the caves in April 1983 when I was 15 days old. Before that, she’d lived with her abusive brother. My dad wasn’t on the scene.
Living on the edge of civilisation was normal. I mostly adored the plants and animals, because the colours, sights and sounds were magical.
Achingly poor, we would eat birds killed by slingshot and regularly hike to Diamantina to sell dried leaves and flowers and buy rice. That rocky walk was long.
“Please can we stop?” I would plead, my feet bleeding because I had no shoes. But Mamãe would carry on, telling me stories about God, Jesus and all the saints.
We came close to starvation, but I often look on those years as my best years. Mamãe always had time for me, and I got all her love. We chatted for hours, taking in the beauty of the wilderness, feet dangling over the mouth of the caves. I gained confidence from hunting and scavenging and still recall my immense pride when I claimed my first bird, which we grilled over our tiny fire pit. It made a good meal with fruit, berries and nuts.
“You’re ready to hunt jaguar now, Christiana,” joked Mamãe, using my given Brazilian name.
Then, one night when I was about five years old, we were chased out of our home by a group of men with dogs. Perhaps they were the landowners. They didn’t catch us, but Mamãe knew it was time to move on. We walked to the city of São Paulo. Because we were poor and my mom struggled to find a job, we ended up in one of the favelas, the Brazilian slums.
There, we begged for food and money. Some people were kind. Some spat and kicked at us. Some called us “cockroaches” and “street rats.” Others pretended they did not see us. To them, we didn’t exist.
My mom would disappear for long periods, and I learned to fend for myself. I turned to other street kids for help. That’s how I came to know a little girl named Camile. She became my best friend. We did everything together. We shared all the food we found equally between us. Camile had an amazing ability to tell stories, and she enthralled with her tales of princes and princesses. They took the pain away from living this reality. At least for a while.
Together, we survived by stealing from food markets, rummaging through giant piles of trash and protecting each other.
One night, when I was nearly 7, Camile and I decided to escape the noise and nightly shootings in the shanty towns and sleep in a nicer area of São Paulo. Waking up to the sound of voices, we got scared but decided to look around the corner of the building. We saw men — military police — with guns. Five children stood in a row in front of them. We knew what that meant. All street children do.
One of the men spotted us and yelled: “There we have some more, get them!” Camile and I ran for our lives. I was the faster runner, and she got caught.
SOURCE: Jane Ridley
New York Post / News.com.au