By Dianne Dalida
Perhaps the toughest thing we learn as we grow up is the harsh reality that ‘life is not fair’. Childhood stories, such as those created by Disneyland cartoons, feed us with expectations that Prince Charming will save us. That the just and kind will always emerge triumphant, and that good will always conquer evil. However, life is no fairytale and for some of us, this is a lesson we learn from very early on.
Alexia G. Amesbury, neé Jumeau and more commonly known as Mrs. Antao through a previous marriage, is one such person. Growing up in an orphanage with her beloved grandmother; leaving Seychelles upon her death for Kenya to a childhood of physical abuse; being unable to pursue her law career early; a failed marriage and eventually, getting tangled in a socially ‘forbidden’ love affair… Alexia’s life story is not what little girls’ fantasies are made of.
What then, could have possibly happened that upon this interview, Alexia would call herself ‘lucky’ in life? What magic was spun that turned a frightened little girl into one the Seychelles’ toughest and most respected lawyers, and the protector of the weak? Who waved their wand and made a most loving and patient mother from a victim of physical abuse, insisting that the cycle of violence ended with her?
The answers, as we will learn, lies not in a fairy Godmother or several shakes of golden pixie dust. No, they were made of stuff that is so fantastically ‘real’, that they can perhaps inspire the lost little girls in all of us to put pull the sword out the stone with our own two hands… just like Alexia did.
Orphan with a mother
“I was born in the Seychelles… a long time ago,” is how Alexia starts her tale. She grew up in the St. Elizabeth’s Convent; an orphanage ran by nuns, with her grandmother. She was, however, no orphan for she had a mother who lived in Kenya. Upon the death of her grandmother, she and her siblings had to leave the country to be with their mother in Africa. This was around 1961, when she was merely 10 years old.
“The years with my grandmother were good years. We were poor – very, very poor – but I didn’t feel that I was a victim of abuse.”
An abusive childhood in Kenya
Alexia spent practically her entire adult life in Kenya. She married an Englishman, one of her professors, and had five of her six children there, whereas her last was born in the UK.
What was life in Kenya like? She heaves a deep sigh and speaks with difficulty at first.
“I can’t really… It’s a part of my life - at least the part of my life until I was married, between arrival to Kenya in 1961 until I got married in 1972 – those years that I was supposed to have been with my mother are years that I consciously choose to forget. So I cannot really remember a lot about those things because for me, they were very bad years of my life.”
How traumatizing must her life have been that it induced her to willingly block years of childhood from memory? She saw her marriage as an escape, but her experience left a lasting mark that set her on a life course into becoming the defender of those she deems to be victims, as she once was.
“It was during that time that I formulated the idea that I would like to become a lawyer, because I felt that I was a victim of abuse and I felt that I needed… my calling was to defend people who are abused – to be a voice for the voiceless, is the way I put it. And I single mindedly pursued that objective in school, in everything… I never forgot the side that I wanted to be a lawyer. I felt very strongly that I needed to defend victims of abuse that I do now – human rights abuse or whatever the abuses are – that is why I fight so hard to uphold the constitution. That is why I always seem to be on the ‘other side’ because I have been a victim of abuse so I know what it’s like to be abused by a system or whatever. And I decided to fight for those who see themselves in that position I saw myself in.”
A late career in law
Alexia studied her O and A levels in Kenya, but was unable to attend university there. At the time, one had to either be a Kenyan citizen to do so, or be able to finance their own studies. “I wasn’t in the position to finance myself in university; therefore I decided to go to UK because I was a British national through marriage with a British national who lived in Kenya.”
They went to live in the UK in 1984, when her fifth child was two years old. “I had to wait another two years until she started formal school in order for me to go to University. I was 37.” Commenting on how that was a late age to start a degree in law, she replies: “That’s how focused I was in what I wanted to
“My fifth child started school in April 1987 and in September 1987, I went to university. I was there for 3 years doing the undergraduate law and as luck would have it – because I am such a lucky person – in my 3rd year in 1990, I became pregnant with my 6th child during my 3rd year of law school. So I took time out. I had the baby. I left the baby home and went to do my final exams in 1991, and not in 1990. And then with the same purpose of mind – the same strong mindedness – I decided at my age it would be better if I became a lecturer of law as opposed to a practitioner of law. So I took a masters degree, and again I had to leave the little one at home in 1992 or ’93, when I went to the London School of Economics and Political Science and I did my master’s in International Law.”
The school was the most prestigious in London, and Alexia attended it under a scholarship funded by the UK government. She used money she had saved from the scholarship to pay for her master’s degree, and was thankful that she benefited from additional funding by the school that helped with childcare.
Mother of six
“I’ve been Mrs. Amesbury since 2008 although I divorced way back in 1998. I didn’t see the need to change the name because every certificate that I have and qualifications, were under that name. It was just laziness on my part really, because I had to go through a long procedure involving the court in order to make the necessary changes. After I got [re]married, I of course didn’t want to be known as Mrs. Antao. Everybody used to remember me as Mrs. Antao, but now, fortunately, they remember me as Mrs. Amesbury, which is good.”
She had six children in her first marriage, five girls and one boy. All of them are qualified professionals, living both in the Seychelles and the UK, some with families of their own.
“Whatever else I might be or might not be, to me my greatest achievement was raising my 6 children and it will never be surpassed by anything that I do. I invested so much time – maybe not so much money because I didn’t have – but a lot of time because I do not believe in giving my children fish, because they will eat for one day. But if I teach them how to fish, they will have food for the rest of their lives. So I’ve made sure that I taught each one of them how to fish.”
“I’m a very patient person. I don’t believe in violence. I don’t believe in abusing the children. I don’t beat, I don’t shout, I don’t punish. I talk. I can talk for days! I talk and I make them understand. I’m very great on stories. I never talk to a child unless I have an actual example from the child’s life that the child can relate to.”
“For example,” Alexia said, “If I say “If you take out something from the fridge, when you’re done with it, put it back in the fridge”. In order for that to go home to the child that that is what is has to be done, I say, “Imagine you take the keys to open the door and you don’t put the keys back to where it’s supposed to be. Then there’s a fire and you have to start looking for the keys. If the keys were back in its place and everybody knows that’s the place for the keys, then we can just take the keys and we can all be saved”. I always use practical examples to bring home my message. I have loads of these little stories.”
I confess to asking some child rearing advice for myself, being a mother to an extremely hyper child who can be, at times, very difficult to handle. “In my experience,” she says thoughtfully, “a child that is hyper is a super intelligent child. And they need to be challenged because their concentration span is quite small. They need to have lots of different things to be doing in order to keep them occupied at all times because their minds are always racing ahead.”
Handling growing-up pains
When asked on how she disciplined her own children, she replied that she “never had a problem of discipline as I can remember.” She tells me another story of how she handled tricky situations with her children.
“My son was around 13 when I got up one night and he was watching a movie rated 18 which was ‘Sex and Violence’, at 2 am, by himself in the living room.” Instead of throwing a fit, Alexia simply told him to turn off the TV, go to bed and that they will talk about it in the morning. The following day, she brought up the topic by asking him to give her an explanation of why he had done what he did.
“Mum, it’s simple,” was her son’s reply. “Everybody in my class was talking about this particular film and since I’d not seen it, I couldn’t be part of the conversation when they were discussing it.” This was her reply: “That’s an answer I can accept. The only thing is next time they are talking about a film and you know that it is not in your age, and you would like to be able to contribute, tell me about it. I will watch the film and I will tell you the story and you will be able to be part of the conversation.”Since then, Alexia has never had to repeat that advice as it never happened again.
Her calm and reasonable approach led to a close relationship between her and her children. As they grew up, they would often bring their friends home, and some of them would turn to Alexia - or ‘Mum’ as they also called her – with their problems.
One of these was an 18 year old young man who was confused about his sexuality and couldn’t figure out if he was “one way or the other”. He couldn’t bring himself to talk to his own mom about his issue and chose to approach Alexia about it instead. So she invited over a female friend of her daughter’s and asked the young man to hold the woman, to hug her and see if it ‘triggered’ something. The two hugged, and Alexia remembers laughing when the girl pulled faces over the guy’s shoulder. When that didn’t help, she encouraged the young man to go to both gay and heterosexual clubs to experience the scene and still nothing happened for him. Then one night, the young man called her from his university and exclaimed excitedly, “Mum, it happened! I know! It’s girls!”
“So I had this kind of relationship with the children,” she says, laughing again with the memory.“We talk about anything and everything. Communication is the key in everything, even marriage.”
After her divorce, Alexia was in the Seychelles and had a career in law. One of her clients was a young man whose case she had handled pro bono. Upon the completion of his case, he thanked her and was on his way out, but stopped when he reached the door of her office. He returned to her and asked if he could give her a hug, which she obliged. He left, but years later, he said that that was the first time in his life that a woman did not ask him for anything in return.
Being the professional that she is, Alexia was highly against developing a romantic relationship with a client. However, when the case was over and they were simply man and woman, their relationship did turn romantic and they ended up living together for a while.
“But then he was extremely young. There he is up there. ” She point to several photos she had on a wall of happy photos of herself with him. “A very young man,” she repeats with a sigh. He was in fact, twenty years her junior, and their unusual relationship borders on taboo in the Seychelles society, as with most societies in the world.
The age difference affected Alexia very much as she feared that he may one day turn on her and blame her for not having accomplished things in his life due to their relationship. This grew into a real fear and eventually, she had to make a difficult decision.
“I told him to live his life. I’ve lived mine. You need to live yours. So as much as we cared for each other, we split up.”
He went to South Africa for six weeks and would call everyday. And each time, he would play one song over the phone, “All I need is the air that I breathe” by Simply Red. He asked her to be at the Seychelles International Airport upon his return, assumingly to rekindle their relationship. Wanting to stick to her decision and at the same time, not trusting herself at the same time to resist the temptation of returning to the man she loved and yet forbidden herself to be with, she asked a friend to lock her up in a room and to not open it, no matter what. When she didn’t turn up at the airport, the split became final.
If you love someone, set them free…
She left for the UK in 1999 for three years, in order to put space between them. She even left her law career she had started in the Seychelles, even though she had attained a license to open her own law firm. “I’m a big believer in a clean break… When I said [to him to] “do your thing”, I was serious and that I’m not going to be calling him.” She thought that was enough time for him to forget her.
However, upon her return in 2002, he was in her office within a week. Still, she pushed him away, telling him to get a life, to find a younger woman, to get married and to have children.
For some reason, he obeyed her wishes. He came back to her office with a girlfriend one day, whom he introduced to her. Then she said to him that it wasn’t enough, and that now he had to know what it meant to be married, as she herself have been through marriage and divorce. Once again, he did as she asked. He married the young woman and informed Alexia two months later that he was leaving the country again. When she said that he didn’t have to go that far, his reply was, “How do you live in Seychelles married to one woman, in love with another woman, and everyday you have to see the woman that you love and you cannot have a life with her?”
Therefore he left. He stayed in the UK for five years with his wife. He and Alexia stayed in touch and when after a year he tells her that his marriage was not working, she insisted that he gave it a chance. He did, but in 2007, he returned to the Seychelles, and to cut a story short, he married the woman he loved, Alexia, in 2008.
“Yes, he is my husband now,” she says with a grin. “His name is Paul. Paul Amesbury. Like they say, if you love someone, set them free. If they come back…” And that is Alexia Amesbury’s epic love story that has led to her saying today that is “happily married.” When asked if she cops any grief from people regarding her relationship, she says no.
“Maybe it’s just because nobody dares because they’ll get too much if they do. I don’t get any remarks, everybody just seems to accept it, but it doesn’t mean that people do not…” Alexia tries to find the right way to explain her situation. “You know in Seychelles, no marriage is really safe. It’s always open for challenges. Not only marriages, no relationship is really safe because women will always speak freely to approach… so my marriage more than most because of the age gap. It’s had its fair – more than its fair share of challenges. Whatever they do, they try, they talk, but so far it hasn’t worked. I don’t think it will ever work, but then again, I can’t really say this.”
Alexia Amesbury – Attorney at Law
In the midst of her larger-than-life story, Alexia somehow also managed to be one of the country’s top lawyers. She opened her own law practice in 2002. Her office is Victoria on Mahé, and yet she actually lives on Praslin, meaning a daily inter-island commute for her. This she purposely did in order to be able to separate her private life from her demanding job that could be totally consuming should she not be careful.
The lawyer that she is today is a direct result of her life’s circumstances, the lessons she have learnt and the accomplishments she have achieved. Her professional career as criminal lawyer has been surrounded by controversies as she takes on sides that leave people wondering on her purpose and reasons.
“With me, it was never violence that won anything. That’s why I’m so opposed to all these very serious sentences -fifteen years sentence for this, 10 years for that and life sentence for this -you know, this punishment oriented society that I live in. To me, whatever I have been able to gain in my life hasn’t been because of violence or the fear of punishment. It’s been based on communication and understanding and love and humanity. So that is why I am one of those people that many people ask “Why does she fight so hard for the prisoners or whatever?”, because I do not think – at least in my life – if I’ve made any gains, it has not been because of punishment. Because humanity or human beings are more productive, in my view, when the reward is love or there is a positive reward, than to make someone not do something because of a negative, because of punishment. To me, that has never been the way I have done things and in my experience, it doesn’t work.”
She has certain principle that defines on how she handles a case. If her client says that he or she is innocent, then she will fight tooth and nail to defend them. If, however, they admit to be guilty, she will never try to prove otherwise, and will simply represent them in mitigating the best outcome for them. “My conscience and ethics will not permit me to defend a person who has admitted his guilt to me.”
She has handled several high profile cases, such as the case of Mr. Viral Dhanjee, a political hopeful who was prevented from participating in the country’s last Presidential election due to disqualification. He challenged this decision, and Alexia represented him as his lawyer. Although they lost the case, she believes up to this day that the court of appeal’s decision was wrong.
Alexia has a future case in mind that is sure to create waves of controversy and divide the country’s opinion once more. “I’m going to challenge the authorities,” she says, lifting a piece of official document to me. “This is the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act, and in this Act of 2008, it says that people who are convicted of any drug offences should be... that the imprisonment shall be one of rigorous imprisonment that is with forced or compulsory behavior.” She shows me the last line on the document.
“Now this particular Act,” she continuous as she pulls out a well worn book, “is a direct violation of Article 17:2 of the Constitution which says - and I will quote because I am strong on the Constitution – it says, 17:2 says, “every person has a right not to be compelled to perform forced or compulsory labor.”
“So,” Alexia says with a determined glint in her eyes as she put the documents away, “watch this space, my next case is going to be challenging this act. I can and I will.”
“I’m better because she was bad.”
There is so much to be learnt from Alexia’s life, and deserves a proper book written to do it any justice. Unfortunately, I am limited to several pages and must end this tale sooner than I wish to. As such, I would like to leave one final bit to her story, and let it impart another rousing life lesson and example from this inspiring woman. Not many of us can relate to the Alexia the lawyer, but many of us can as victims of abuse; in our strained relationships with our own parents; as mothers and mostly, as women struggling to figure out how to turn the negative parts of our lives into something positive, not for ourselves, but those around us.
Alexia accomplished all of these by simply having the courage to make decisions in her life to bring about the changes, and the determination to carry them through, no matter what. “As I said, having been a victim of abuse, I made a decision. Several times it has been said that a victim of abuse becomes an abuser. I decided that it was going to end with me. I made a conscious decision that I was not going to abuse my kids. Most people emulate their lives on their mother’s example. I wanted to be as totally different as I could from my mother. I did not want to be anything about my mother.”
Like many people, she did not know her father. “My father, I didn’t know him. I was an illegitimate child. I lived with my grandmother and I don’t remember happy years with my mother. I used to be beaten seriously, for nothing mostly. Even though I was a victim of abuse and decided to be as different from my mother as I could be, I’m a better mother because my mother was such a bad one. I did not use her example to be a bad mom and say, “Well, I’m bad because she was bad.” I’m better because she was bad.”
That’s something we all ought to learn: we ought to stop making excuses or using the past as an excuse for the wrong we do today. Instead, let us do like Alexia and use our pain to save others from theirs.
“I made several conscious decisions. I decided not to beat my children, to swear at them. To me this has been productive and I’m happy today to see my own children with their children and they too do not beat their children. They too do not swear at their children. To me it makes me feel proud. The violence ended with me and I was able to bring up another generation of people who grew up with no violence.”
SOURCE: 12th August 2012 POTPOURRI