Now I Am Known: How a Street Kid Turned Foster Dad Found Acceptance and True Worth
As a foster parent, social worker, and researcher, one concept that has been invaluable to me in understanding the role of trauma among the many children I’ve met is that of the ‘Invisible Suitcase.’ We all have ‘suitcases’ packed in the course of our experiences-good, bad, and traumatic-and carried with us throughout our lives. The contents of our suitcases aren’t readily apparent, but nevertheless inform our perceptions, emotions, motivations, and actions. Our suitcases hold our beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world around us (Grillo et al., 2010). Social scientists would refer to this as our Internal Working Model, but I am partial to the mental picture of a suitcase: heavier for some, lighter for others, carried by all of us on life’s journey. In the many years since I encountered this concept, I can’t remember hearing a story that better illustrates the packing (and repacking!) of one’s invisible suitcase more effectively than Peter Mutabazi’s in Now I Am Known: How a Street Kid Turned Foster Dad Found Acceptance and True Worth.
In the first few chapters, Mutabazi describes his first ten years of life, spent in the small village of Nyabikoni, Uganda with his mother, father, and several siblings. His family was poor. Mutabazi recounts regularly missing meals, owning no shoes, and selling handfuls of peanuts at a local bus station for money. But the poverty his family experienced was nowhere near as traumatic as the abuse they endured at the hands of his father. He recounted his father’s heavy drinking, daily verbal abuse, regular beatings for the slightest offenses, and witnessing violence toward his mother. Mutabazi’s suitcase was packed with beliefs that reflected his lived experiences: “I believed I was useless. I believed I was garbage. I believed I had no reason for being alive” (p. 15). After ten years of trauma, Mutabazi left home. From the outside, this may seem like an incredibly dangerous, even foolish, decision. But for him, it was a rational choice towards survival and power over his own life.
At ten years old, Mutabazi began living as a “street kid” at a bus station in the capital city of Kampala. He befriended a group of boys, and together they survived by stealing and hustling for food and spare change from the travelers who frequented the station and its market. While he experienced comradery and independence in this new life, the mentality and skills needed to survive there further packed his invisible suitcase. The transactional nature of surviving on the streets impacted his beliefs about others: “I lost more than the ability to trust. I lost faith in humanity. No one ever did anything without wanting something in return” (p. 39). He prioritized self-preservation, because relationships only led to loss. His singular focus was daily survival: “I had no dreams for the future. None of us did. None of us ever thought beyond the present day” (p. 40). By age 15, Mutabazi’s suitcase was packed with beliefs borne of more trauma than most of us see in a lifetime: I am garbage. I am useless. Trust no one. Everyone wants something. Do whatever it takes to survive. Then, he had a brief encounter that eventually set his life on an entirely different path-one that led to repacking his suitcase with healing, forgiveness, and love.
Mutabazi recalls meeting James for the first time-as an easy target at the market: “”Since he was well-dressed, this was a guy who was going to give me all I needed whether he realized it or not” (p. 56). He plotted out precisely how he’d take advantage of James, but it was James who surprised him that day- by asking his name. This seemingly small kindness was shocking to Mutabazi. No one on the streets ever asked his name, ever saw him as someone whose name was worth knowing. Not only did James ask, but he remembered. Week after week, the two built a relationship. What started as an unexpected gesture of kindness evolved into an offer of school and a place to live. Mutabazi’s life course turned toward possibility and hope for perhaps the first time.
Repacking a suitcase, especially one so heavy with loss and dehumanization, is no easy or quick task. Most beliefs formed by complex trauma are deeply ingrained, and giving them up requires a vulnerability that seems to cost more than might be gained. In Mutabazi’s words, “One of the greatest myths I run into today is that if we change someone’s circumstances, we will automatically change their life” (p. 78). His life was indeed changed, but the change was incremental, intentional, and the result of the persistence of those who believed in him.
What I appreciated most about Mutabazi’s story is that he points to those around him as the catalyst for his change. We are designed for relationships. We need one another. We love to hear about personal transformation- ‘rags to riches’ tales in which the individual seems to triumph through sheer grit. And while Mutabazi certainly has personal traits that contributed to his success-intelligence, adaptability, and social skills-he also had people who invested in him when his suitcase told him he was worthless, people who showed him love when he believed he was unlovable. Love provided the transformation. And what was Mutabazi’s ultimate response to this love? To share it. He is now a licensed foster and adoptive parent, caring for children whose own suitcases are packed with trauma, loss, and uncertainty.
Mutabazi closes with what he describes as his “entire life’s work,” and what I would call the Gospel: “To help others realize they are loved, they are chosen, they are heard, and they are known” (p. 215). May his story inspire us to go and do likewise.
Grillo, C. A., Lott, D. A., Foster Care Subcommittee of the Child Welfare Committee, National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (2010). Caring for children who have experienced trauma: A workshop for resource parents. Los Angeles, CA & Durham, NC: National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.