‘I killed another child to survive’
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.
I was on my way back to try to help her when I heard her panicked cries telling me: "Run!" I fled. Once I was sure I was no longer being followed, I returned to the scene. Peering from behind another building, I saw Camile standing with the five children. While I was trying to figure out some way to rescue her, something odd happened to her forehead. As the bullet hit, her body fell to the ground in the strangest way. My hands came up to my mouth to stifle a scream.
I turned and ran as fast as I could. I lost my friend, my sister, that night. I also understood how little our lives were worth.
Time means nothing to a child on the streets, but it wasn't long afterwards that I was responsible for taking one of those lives. I hadn't eaten in days and found myself in an alley sorting through garbage. I discovered a half-eaten piece of flat bread, with re-fried beans inside it. Suddenly, I heard a boy's voice.
"Give me my food," he demanded.
"It's mine. I found it," I retorted. He punched me in the face, and we fought really hard. Grappling on the ground, I heard a clinking sound next to me - a big piece of a glass bottle. I picked it up in my hand.
I was mad, sad and angry, but most of all, I felt like I was being treated very unfairly. As the boy scooped up the bread and started to walk away, I screamed and ran at him with all my might. He turned around, and without thinking, still moving, I jabbed that piece of glass at his belly as hard as I could.
At first I felt nothing. Then my hand got warm. Blood gushed from the wound. I took the bread from the boy as he screamed and doubled over in pain. After I'd run a fair way, I started eating. But then I started vomiting. The realisation of what I'd done hit me. I thought: 'Forgive me, Camile. Forgive me, God." Later, I heard the other kids in the neighbourhood talking about a boy who had been found dead in the alley.
People might judge me, but I've had to live with this my whole life - since I was 7. The only reason I've been able to forgive myself at all is that I know I never meant for that boy to die; I just wanted my food back. Every day on the streets was a battle for survival.
I don't know how many hours or days I stayed under a staircase where Camile and I used to sleep. Eventually, my mom found me. After I told her everything, she said: "Christiana, promise me something. Promise me that whatever happens in life, never stop walking." I didn't understand, and I asked: "Where shall I go?" She replied: "It doesn't matter, just never stop walking."
By now, Mamãe had a new baby, Patrique. I would take him everywhere in a cardboard box a little bigger than a shoebox, using rags for diapers and newspapers as blankets. I loved him with all my heart.
When I was 7 and Patrique was 10 months old, Mamãe placed us temporarily in an orphanage. God had told her to do this, and she said she would come for us once she had settled into a job. She visited every Sunday until, for some reason, the orphanage refused her.
One day, there was a commotion outside the gates. Mamãe was screaming: "You can't do this to me. Why can't I see my children?" It was a desperate yell, full of fear, rage and helplessness. The staff tried to stop me, but I ran to the gates and reached my hands out to touch hers.
"Mamãe!" I sobbed. An employee started pulling me away from the gate and prying my hands from my mom's. I yelled, "No!" over and over.
I was picked up and dragged inside. "I love you," Mamãe cried. Her yelling got quieter and quieter until I couldn't hear it anymore.
We were adopted in June 1991 when I was 8 and Patrique was nearly 2 years old.
Out of 200 kids at the orphanage, we were chosen by a middle-class, childless Swedish couple in their mid-40s. Although our life in the orphanage could be brutal because of the discipline and bullying by other kids, I still felt a panic as our new parents put us in a taxi. I thought about my Mamãe and was grief-stricken. We hadn't even been able to say goodbye.
Our new life in Vindeln, Sweden, was the exact opposite of São Paulo. There was barely a stray piece of paper on the streets, let alone a mountain of garbage. There was a midsummer festival, and people were dancing around a pole with flowers. I thought: "Where the heck have I ended up?" The culture shock was jarring.
Renamed Christina by my new parents, Lilian-ann and Sture Rickardsson, a teacher and timber merchant, I shrugged off Christiana. I learned Swedish and forgot Portuguese in a matter of months. I called them mum and dad almost from the get-go. After years of fighting for survival and against hunger and abuse, I had hope for a future.
It was in January 2015, when I was 31, that my past caught up with me during a particularly stressful period. I had been tucking my issues away for most of my life, but I looked in the mirror one day and felt like a non-person.
My adoptive mother, tragically, had died from cancer when I was 15. I loved my family, but I had long struggled with my two identities and needed to reconcile Swedish Christina with Brazilian Christiana.
Six months later, travelling back to Brazil for the first time after 24 years was nerve-racking. I didn't know what I would discover, even if Mamãe was alive. I visited the orphanage, and with the help of a researcher, tracked down my mother in the town of Belo Horizonte, 350 miles from São Paulo.
Mamãe was 67 years old and living with her two sisters. When the three women came to greet me at the gate, I recognised my mother instantly. I saw her smile and heard her voice and was transported back to my early childhood.
It was then that I learned that Mamãe had suffered from schizophrenia all her life. Now, she was on medication and back in the care of her family. She'd walked the streets of São Paulo for 15 years looking for me and Patrique after we moved. Nobody at the orphanage had told her we were alive and well in Sweden. A court had authorised our adoption in her absence.
Patrique, now 28 and a welder, immediately got on a plane to join the reunion. We have nothing but admiration for our mother's bravery. Since then, I have flown to Brazil six times to see Mamãe. We chat over the internet, and whenever I see her, we sit and hold hands. Feeling each other's touch is security.
Meanwhile, we visited the caves near Diamantina, a six-hour drive from Belo Horizonte. As I stood on the top of the ridge, I thought back on everything that's happened. Looking down, I waved to the mother who, in eight years, gave me enough love, courage and strength to keep me walking forward through my life.