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Autobiography Book Excerpt: Defy Your Destiny | Fiori Giovanni | Inspirational Speaker - 12 February 2019

Autobiography Book Excerpt: Defy Your Destiny | Fiori Giovanni | Inspirational Speaker

From a child soldier to a successful businesswoman, Fiori Giovanni’s story is one of facing impossible odds and overcoming them. Faced with an arranged marriage at 12, she defied her parents. Recruited into the Eritrean army at 14, she defied authority, sending her on a harrowing journey that crossed 5 continents and 20 countries in search of knowledge, personal growth and wisdom; eventually settling in Australia. Fiori is now a highly sought after keynote speaker and a respected Business and Executive Coach.

Inspirational Speaker Fiori has recently released her autobiography and has shared the first chapter with us.

Chapter One

MY AFRICAN CHILDHOOD:

SUNSHINE AND RAIN

Our destiny isn’t one big destination at some specified point of life. It’s the choices we make at the many stops on our life path.

Senait, a beautiful girl in our town, was twelve years old on her wedding day. She stood still and quietly as her friends and family chatted and fussed around her, dressing her in white Christian wedding clothes and draping her in blankets. I caught a glimpse of her beautiful eyes before her head was completely covered. They were brown like coffee. Curved like almonds. Sparkling like diamonds. But once the blankets were cast over her head, the sparkle extinguished. 

Senait was gone.

In her place was a faceless white flag, surrendering. The young man she was about to marry was Aron. It was her destiny to marry him because her father made the arrangements long before Senait could even walk and talk. For many Eritrean parents, the ultimate life goal is for their children to marry early, and to have babies quickly, even if they are practically babies themselves. Some girls in the villages marry as young as eight years old when their tiny bodies are barely buds on a tree. Senait met her husband for the first time during the ceremony, though the term ‘meet’ is a bit of a stretch. It was impossible for Senait to actually see Aron because the blankets covered her face, and she permanently bowed her head.

During the ceremony though, Senait did hold Aron’s hand while being blessed by Eritrean elders, friends, family, and church leaders. I wondered what the touch of his skin told her. A nice man with soft hands? A rough man who did manual work? Hard to say, but the first time Senait actually laid eyes on Aron was when he lay on her that night, at his parents’ home. I imagined what he saw when he looked at her face. Eyes brown like coffee. Curved like almonds. Completely filled with terror.

Years later I found out that Senait’s wedding night was a confusing, frightening night. A night that flowed into an endless stream of similar nights, until sex became an uncomfortable kind of normal. Sex didn’t involve any kind of protection, so Senait was pregnant immediately at the age of twelve, and had several children before she reached the age of twenty. If the agony of having babies while so young wasn’t enough, Aron beat her regularly, which was lawful. And cheated on her often, which was common. Not surprisingly, Senait escaped back to our village sometimes.

She’d walk for two hours in the blazing heat with one child on her back, one in her arms, and the weight of the world on her shoulders. Her parents denied her desperate pleas to allow her to stay. They’d give her a meal and send her on her way. She’d stand up, on raw, tired feet, to make the long hobble back to hell. Her parents weren’t cruel people; they simply didn’t know any differently. Senait belonged to her husband. She was less, he was more. He was superior, she was his servant. She submitted, he enslaved. 

That was her destiny. 

That’s the destiny for many Eritrean girls, and sadly, the inequality is evident from the moment a baby is born. In my town of Maidamu, babies were birthed at home. The births were brutal, often with either the baby or mother dying, and tragically, sometimes both. In my own family, three of my siblings were stillborn.Deaths were such a high probability during childbirth that when a healthy newborn baby greeted the world with a wail, it was cause for laughter and excitement. The family and relatives made a joyous, celebratory chanting sound, which also served to announce the gender. For a boy, there were seven chants. For a girl, three. And so it was, from the time a girl took her first breath, she was deemed less than half as important as her brothers. That’s the sad reality for females in Eritrea. It was no different for my own cousin, Almaz, who I loved and admired. She was always like a princess to me, so tall and graceful, with flowing brown hair like a sea of endless, desert dunes. When her Christian marriage to Dani was arranged, I was horrified. 

I never expected to see this happen to someone in my own family. 

It was a surprise, and yet later in life, I would realise it wasn’t surprising at all. It was 1989, when the war between Eritrea and neighbouring Ethiopia was heating up, as Eritrea fought for independence—a brutal and bloody war that lasted thirty long years from 1961 to 1991, resulting in thousands of casualties and displaced people. My cousin Almaz was stunningly beautiful. Her body was developing rapidly, and she looked much older than her twelve years. If unmarried, she risked becoming an Eritrean soldier, or worse, being used as a sex slave by the enemy, the Ethiopian soldiers. Although I was only four when Almaz was married, I remember how sad and passive she looked on her wedding day. Rather than fighting her destiny, she simultaneously accepted and mourned it. The families didn’t mourn though. The wedding was a loud, joyous occasion. There was dancing, music, food, and many jugs of siwa, which is the strong home-brewed Eritrean alcohol. At celebrations like weddings, some people were able to momentarily forget their everyday worries. Not most parents though. Most parents worried about the safety of their children constantly. They saw how war brought out the worst in people, especially the soldiers. 

One of my earliest traumatic memories was watching an Eritrean female literally being sliced in half and then raped by an Ethiopian soldier. The vision of this gruesome atrocity haunts me to this day. On another occasion, I saw two Ethiopian soldiers cut off the penis of our older neighbour and play with it like a ball. Again, a memory I simply can’t forget. These are just two examples of dozens of horrendous acts I witnessed. All these hideous acts were done under the banner of war, but carried out for personal pleasure. The barbaric treatment was widespread. Many Eritreans were so sick of the inhumanity and unfairness that some parents encouraged their children to fight in the war against the Ethiopians, despite the risks. 

Death was not a deterrent. If their children died during battle, the parents felt equal measures of grief and pride—grief because their children had perished, pride because their children died defending beautiful Eritrea.  Some of my family members and friends thought differently, though, especially my Uncle Debesay. (He wasn’t my uncle by blood, but he was such a close family friend that we treated him like one.) We all spent much time together, which meant I got to know his family well, particularly his two fun-loving sons, Tesfay and Flimon. I was much younger than them, but they loved having a ‘little sister’ around. They’d play lots of games with me, and always kept me entertained and safe. To Uncle Debesay, war was never a path to greatness or peace, just a road lined with rotting corpses and decaying dreams. His goal was to keep his family alive, which is why he did something quite extraordinary and dangerous. To protect his boys, he sent Tesfay and Flimon to hide with family members in another city. (If the authorities found out, Uncle Debesay could be imprisoned or killed.) Their departure happened under a veil of secrecy; in fact, even the boys didn’t know they were leaving. I remember wondering where they’d disappeared to. They were always here and there, but never nowhere. 

I was so puzzled. 

I asked their mum, Aunty Lemlem, but she always changed the subject. The village seemed empty without them. Yet, full of secrets. These secrets rolled from place to place like clouds before a storm. I witnessed that storm crack and thunder before my very eyes during the dark, early hours of one Sunday morning. There was a knock on Uncle Debesay’s door. (I was sleeping at their house, as I sometimes did, to keep Aunty Lemlem company.) My uncle answered the door to see two soldiers standing outside. ‘Sir, please accompany us,’ they said. By the look on Uncle Debesay’s face, he didn’t want to, but had to comply. To resist would mean death or injury. He dressed in front of them while Aunty Lemlem looked on in shock. As he left with the soldiers, Aunty Lemlem sobbed quietly on her bed. 

I lay there, not knowing what to do, what to say.

The whole village found out about the events through a neighbour the next morning. Bad news spreads like a disease in villages. My parents rushed over, worried senseless about me. When they saw I was fine, their relief turned to sadness for Aunty Lemlem. There were many people in the home. In fact, a stream of nearly forty were passing through, sharing their condolences. The number of people reflected the gravity of the situation. When someone had been taken by soldiers, it was rare for them ever to return. No one knew whether Uncle Debesay would be tortured, killed, or put in prison for years; all scenarios were possible. 

The thought of him gone, and possibly being hurt or killed, made me feel sick inside. 

Aunty Lemlem shook with worry for days, and yet, she still needed to care for her three-year-old son, Henock. I could see her going through the motions, even though her forehead crinkled more and more with each passing moment. A few days after everything happened, as Henock walked alongside his mother, he said, ‘Can Aunty Helen walk into the house with us, Mumma?’ Aunty Helen was my mum, and he wanted her to walk into the house with them because the void left by his father’s and brothers’ absence was so vast. His mum cried and hugged him. ‘Yes my son. Yes, we can do that.’ They came to our home and made the request. 

My mum agreed enthusiastically and also hugged Henock tightly. Mum happily went to their house that night, and five more nights after that until Henock was emotionally ready to walk through the door without her. It was a beautiful example of how it takes a village to raise a child. In this case, it wasn’t just a village raising a child—it was a village supporting the child’s mother as well. Aunty Lemlem drew on the strength of this village, visiting family and friends often, including my mum. In fact, Aunty Lemlem frequently stopped by the grocery store we owned. When I’d peek inside, I’d see my mum and Aunty Lemlem crying. I didn’t realise it then, but my mum wasn’t just crying because of Uncle Debesay; she was crying for the loss of justice in our country—that a man must make the most painful decision to tear his family apart in order to keep his sons safe. Then, be punished for it. When Aunty Lemlem left the store, I’d ask my mum why they were crying. ‘We’ve been cutting onions,’ she’d say. Yum, invisible curry, my favourite! 

Seeing my mum so miserable, I had no interest in playing outside anymore. I stayed near her because staying close stopped her from crying. When Mum realised I was staying inside all the time, she started giving me tasks to do. Small ones at first, then bigger ones. Mum liked that I picked up instructions quickly, and used my common sense. She liked that I’d try to solve problems, and stay calm even when things weren’t going right. I helped for many weeks. As time went on, I noticed Aunty Lemlem didn’t stop by as often. She had learned to live again, although always under a cloud of sadness. 

My few weeks of helping at the grocery store turned into months. Within a year, at a very young age, I was running it on my own without Mum even being there. I stocked shelves, helped customers, took money, and basically did everything I was taught to do, and additional things I wasn’t. It wasn’t a big deal to me, but Mum bragged and boasted about my work ethic and character to neighbours. She’d say, ‘Fiori is an old soul in a child’s body. She says the wisest things!’ But actually, I think Henock, Aunty Lemlem’s son, was far wiser. He had a calm, sensible way about him. Sometimes when I’d see him deep in contemplation, I wished that Uncle Debesay would return home just for him. I wanted Henock’s happiness more than I wanted my own. My one, ongoing dream for Henock was to feel peace and protection in his father’s presence again. 

And in two years’ time, my dream came true.

By some miracle, Uncle Debesay was alive. He’d been in prison and returned home in one, thinner piece. Aunty Lemlem’s happiness burst forth in chants that even the heavens could hear. I remember the first time I saw Uncle Debesay after his return. It did seem like a dream. Everything moved in slow motion. It was him, really him. I hugged him so tightly I thought I’d break his body as much as my heart had broken in his absence. He was handsome still, but his body seemed weary. He said very little to me about his time in prison, and I asked few questions. The lines on his face scrawled sentences I dared not even try to read. He was home, and that’s what mattered.

I was just grateful. 

A place where I did ask questions, a lot of questions, was school. My formal education began in 1991 at the age of six, and school was a place where my eternal hunger for knowledge could be satisfied. I listened carefully and applied myself studiously. The results reflected in my marks where I often topped the class, or even the entire school. My brother Amanuel started with me at this elementary school, and we completed grades one to five there. When it was time for grade six, Amanuel and I moved to Araza to attend a good junior school. My parents arranged a place for us to stay from Monday to Friday, and on Friday afternoons we’d return to our home in Maidamu. During that time, I naturally spent a lot of time with Amanuel, and I began seeing him as more than just my little brother. 

He was almost like an angel. 

His aura was drenched in calmness. His smile sparkled with serenity. His wisdom flowed deeply. His devoutness shone brightly. Had I not been so busy in the past, I would have paid more attention to him. Now, I regretted losing time around Amanuel’s positivity and insight. I felt so fortunate having him as my brother. And yet, I wondered how we were even related? He was still and accepting. I was outspoken and fearless. He was a leaf in the breeze. I was a buffalo in a stampede, charging in the opposite direction, away from common thought and my looming destinies. But although so different in many ways, we sometimes were like one person, thinking the same thoughts and finishing each other’s sentences. And I could talk to him about anything. I would often share my dream of moving away from Eritrea one day, of fleeing the never-ending war and violence. But war didn’t affect Amanuel in the same way. He accepted the world for what it was, and tried to make it better in his own peaceful way. He made no plans. He was in no hurry. He was happy to just live in the moment. And right now, that meant being a student. Being told what to do.

I was a student too, but I did not like being told what to do, how to think, what to believe. 

Mostly, I was endlessly curious and asked so many questions. The students saw this as a positive attribute and often voted me for leadership positions, which I relished. But the teachers saw my questions in a different way. They thought I was being rude and disrespectful. Rather than embracing my enquiring mind and using my questions as a launch pad for discussion and debate, they silenced me. To do this, they’d resort to physical punishment. There were three main punishments at my school, and I had the great honour of winning this trifecta many times. The ‘light’ punishment involved kneeling on the hard floor for the duration of the class, which was around an hour. (This punishment might seem light, but when you must kneel still without shifting or swaying, your knees eventually become like two hotplates, burning with pain.) For the harsher punishment, I’d kneel for the duration of the class again, but this time outside in the sun while holding a large, heavy rock. This was a triple whammy because my knees would burn, my hands and shoulders would ache, and my body would bake in the blazing sun. After an hour I’d be a sweating, throbbing mess of quivering flesh. But, it was better than the third, and worst, punishment. The third punishment involved kneeling outside holding a heavy rock, but this time it was all day, and at the end of that day, I’d be beaten with a stick. 

Here’s what made it worse.

I was beaten often, so in many cases the scratches and bruises from the previous day were still fresh and raw. This meant the stick felt like barbed wire. Barbed wire that lashed and thrashed at open wounds and unanswered questions. Despite the pain, I was never broken or silenced. I continued asking the same questions.

Why must girls get married to a stranger at such a young age?

Why must girls become mothers and wives, and nothing else?

Why must girls support their husband’s dreams rather than pursuing their own dreams?

Why must there be so much violence and cruelty?

Why is peace so hard for our country to enjoy?

Why can’t countries work together?

Why can’t there be give and take?

Why must we aim to win at all costs, despite the casualties?

I asked these questions not to be rude or disrespectful, but because I desperately wanted to know the answers. From where I was standing (or kneeling), none of it made sense. I was totally confused. I also was not interested in being silenced, no matter how sharp the stick or raw my wounds. I took my punishment with pride. My stripes and welts were like ribbons after a race, medals after a marathon. (Many years later, I would watch Forrest Gump and feel a solid kinship with his character. He ran and ran through life toward a destiny of his choosing, never giving up, no matter what life threw at him.) The school punishment, as it turns out, would be a metaphor for my life: challenging the world, kneeling alone, carrying problems like heavy stones, grimacing with pain, but always rising stronger than before. Amanuel hated seeing me bruised and beaten. ‘Fiori, stop asking so many questions!’ he’d beg. But he didn’t realise the impossibility of his request. It was like asking me to stop breathing. He couldn’t understand, because he looked at the world with a sense of acceptance, contentment, and compassion. Whenever I complained about cruelty and injustices, he’d say, ‘Fiori, you need to put your faith in God. With God, whatever is meant to be, will be.’ He loved God devoutly, as did I, but his love flowed through him like a humming stream. Calmness made him the perfect counsellor, and as such, he always held up a mirror to my anger. He grounded me, and was a voice of reason in a noisy, chaotic country. He was loving and affectionate to a fault, though. His gentleness, innocence, and sense of charity made him a target for bullies and scammers … unless I knew about it. I was a lioness around him, fighting on his behalf regularly, either with total strangers or even with our parents. I tried my best to protect Amanuel from everyone and everything, always, and at all costs. It’s what anyone would do for their soulmate, their best friend. But I knew I had to protect myself too, and work toward a different future. In building a better future for myself, I knew I’d be building a better future for Amanuel. That’s why my life needed to take a detour. Away from Amanuel. Away from school. Away from my destiny. 

This is how it happened.

During my first year of junior school, at eleven years old, one of my teachers was a Catholic nun. She was the only teacher who didn’t fear my questions, so I liked her instantly. One day I asked, ‘Don’t you hate wearing the same uniform every single day?’ ‘Women change their hairstyles and clothes every day to please their men,’ she replied. ‘God doesn’t expect this of me. I please no one but God.’ Her answer danced in the air. I could barely speak as it spun around me. It was like the heavens opened up and drizzled glorious sunshine upon me. It was as if a giant lightbulb flashed brightly above my head. To me, she’d said the most Godly, earth-shattering statement in the history of the world. Her belief aligned with my own thinking. Women did not have to live their lives pleasing men. I decided, there and then—I wanted to be a nun. The idea of living my life to please my God, and no man, was beyond exhilarating.

I couldn’t wait to tell my parents!

But when I shared the exciting news with them, they were far from happy. ‘No daughter of mine is going to be a nun!’ Dad yelled. ‘We are Christian Orthodox, not Catholic!’ I dug my heels in. I wasn’t backing down. My beautiful dad was reaping what he’d sown. All my life he’d constantly built up my self-esteem and confidence. He had always told me how intelligent I was, how I was destined for great things. He had told me I was worthy, and that my worth could move mountains. Now, I was at the top of that mountain, standing my ground. We argued back and forth for hours. For every question, I had an answer. For every problem, I had a solution. For every threat, I had a shrug. Finally, he relented. ‘Fine, if you insist on being a nun, change your surname first, because you won’t be my daughter anymore.’ ‘If you’re so embarrassed,’ I snapped, ‘change your own name. I’m keeping mine.’ 

And I did.

I immediately proceeded to the bus stop, where I boarded a bus to the Catholic nuns’ camp in Keren. The bus ride to Keren was nine hours away. I could feel every inch of the journey because the pothole-filled roads meant the trip was a series of bumps, jumps, and thumps. We were thrown this way and that, but the prospect of broken bones was a small price to pay. I would have endured another nine uncomfortable hours if it meant heading toward a destiny of my choosing. Thankfully, though, I eventually arrived that evening, and in one piece. At the camp I was greeted by a nun. She was wearing a light blue robe typical of the order of Saint Anna. Her welcome was brief, and she immediately led me through several doors. I saw two big bedrooms, each housing around sixteen beds. I also saw an adjacent room that had two big dining tables. My heart fluttered. In this building I would be eating, sleeping, praying, learning. 

Living.

She pointed to the bedroom and said, ‘It’s an early start tomorrow; get some sleep.’ I crept in. The other girls were busy dreaming. After the uncomfortable bus ride, that’s exactly what I wanted to do too. I fell asleep fast, and it seemed was woken up just as quickly. When I looked at the time, it was 4:30 a.m. Okay, that’s early. That’s very early. With bleary eyes, I followed what the other girls were doing. They got out of bed and knelt down to pray. I stumbled to my knees and shared a Bible with the girl next to me, who gave me a fleeting smile. I read the prayers everyone else was reading. We did this for around fifteen minutes. From there, the day moved quickly, and looked something like this. At 4:45 a.m. I took a quick shower and got dressed. At 5:00 a.m. I was told to do some cleaning tasks by a nun. My tasks were a mix of sweeping, mopping and gardening. At 6:00 a.m. we went to church for more prayers. At 7:00 a.m. we ate breakfast and changed into our school uniforms. At 7:30 a.m. we attended lessons at a nearby school. At 1:00 p.m. school finished, and we returned to the camp to have free time until 3:00 p.m. At 3:00 p.m. we started the afternoon routine, which involved chores, reading the Bible, learning religious songs, praying, and eventually eating. At night we fell into bed. Like everyone else, my brain was mush and my body was exhausted. I assumed the next day would be slightly different, but every single day was a carbon copy of the day before. Prior to coming to the camp, I knew there’d be a routine, even a strict routine. I knew there’d be rules. Within the routine and rules though, I was expecting moments of discussion and enlightenment. But no, everything was robotic and rehearsed. The same prayers. The same lessons. The same spoon-feeding of information that was only for absorption, not discussion. The mechanical nature of the day seemed to leech me of all enthusiasm. I ended up doing everything without care or conviction, which I realised didn’t matter to anyone. The camp turned out to be a mindless existence that neither fed my mind nor satisfied my soul. I had more meaningful conversations with God quietly, before I joined the camp, than I did surrounded by nuns. Furthermore, the nuns were ‘servants of God’ in name only. They scrutinised and criticised our every move, dragging us down rather than building us up, forcing passiveness rather than inciting passion. When I tried to generate a discussion about something, I was silenced. I’d jumped from the pot into the fire! I kept hoping things would change. I really wanted them to change. But after thirteen months, I realised this would be my life. Finally, I thought to myself, ‘This is bullshit!’ 

I couldn’t take it any longer. 

Much to my father’s delight, I headed back to high school, living with Amanuel in Mendefera. I loved seeing Amanuel again. When I described to him life at the camp, he thought it sounded amazing. It was his type of life! He would have loved being a sponge, soaking up every piece of information without question or quandary. I had been restless at the camp, and truth be told, I was restless in Mendefera too. As much as I loved being with Amanuel, within a year I yearned to move on. My teenage hormones kicked in, and I wanted to get as far away from my parents as possible. I wanted to be my own person, fully. I was sick of swimming upstream along with all the other salmon. So I made the decision to head back to Keren. Even though I didn’t like the nuns’ camp, I liked the city. It was bustling and exciting. And most of all, it was far away. My parents weren’t pleased, and of course, neither was Amanuel. But they all knew that once I set my mind on something, I had to do it. They wouldn’t stop me.

They couldn’t stop me.

In Keren, I continued going to high school during the day, and worked outside of school hours. Without work, I felt empty and unfulfilled. I also liked earning money, and I loved being independent. My parents were proud of my desire to support myself, but they were not happy about the type of work I did. In fact, they were furious. I worked as a servant for a family, so I was like a maid. My father was unhappy because servants are considered the lowest class in Eritrea—unimportant and insignificant. In his eyes, my decision to become a servant, particularly when our own family had servants of our own, brought incredible shame on the family. It wasn’t my intention to bring shame; I just wanted to work. I didn’t feel I was better or above anyone else, so why wouldn’t I work as a maid? And besides, if I was outraged that females were treated as less than men, how could I dare treat servants as less than me? I ignored the outcry from my parents. I cleaned everything from toys to toilets, and I did it with pride. This was a defining point in my life because I was defying a particular part of my destiny. I was defying the class code that dictates who is less and who is more, and the types of choices I should make as a result. I was defying how I should earn money. I was defying the type of work I should do. I no longer floundered in crowded waters along with everyone else. I swam in a different stream where the waves felt warm and revitalising. It was there, in those clear, refreshing waters, that I started thinking deeply about life, about freedom, about my hopes and dreams. About what was right. What was wrong. What I stood for. About my destiny.

I thought a lot about my destiny.

I started answering the questions that teachers punished me for asking. I started solving puzzles that had confused and mystified me for so long. I started seeing everything with a dazzling clarity. With time and space, I worked it out for myself. I found the answers within me. I realised my destiny wasn’t one big destination at some specified point in my life—it was the choices I made at the many stops on my life path. Each time I defied my destiny, I was getting a taste of mouth-watering, addictive freedom. I was being awakened by freedom.

Exploring freedom. 

Understanding freedom. 

Freedom, to me, meant not being chained to people, places, purposes, positions—either the chains I was born with, or the ones I voluntarily placed around my own neck. Freedom was a voyage that took twists and turns over velvet pastures and jagged rocks, through curtains of rainbows and sheets of hail. It was the eternal, bottomless well of my life. A well filled with goals of great love, great wealth, great fortune, and great energy. With freedom, I was the highest form of whoever I was meant to be, on any given day, at any given moment. Free from anger and filled with self-love. No better or worse than anyone else. I realised that understanding freedom would help me continually defy my destiny. I also realised I would need every ounce of that understanding possible, because my most feared and hated destiny was just around the corner.  

My wedding day.

Discover more about Fiori here.


 

 

Purchase Defy Your Destiny here.

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