The first message I got from Rashida Fridah said “Are you on your way? I can’t seem to open the lock, even with the right code”. We had a shift together at Retro Nørrebro, a charity café around the corner from Assistens Cemetery in Northern Copenhagen. We’d never worked together before, and had only met at social events in passing. Both of us were new to the café but as it had so many international volunteers and members of staff it was impossible to know everyone. It was the start of a long and cold Danish winter, and the locks on the doors were frozen. This was Fridah’s first winter in Copenhagen, and she was bundled up with scarves and gloves, trying to force open a café door in an otherwise deserted street.
The second message I got from her was less than a month later. It said “Do you think it’s okay for someone you don’t really know to ask if I use contraception? Just a social question.”
Perhaps this contrast would, for anyone else, be quite stark, but not for Rashida. In that month – maybe even on that Retro shift – she overcame any apprehension she might have had about the new situation she was in and the new people she was with. To be honest, I don’t recall anything we talked about, or if I said or did anything particularly special that would have made an impact. I was used to friendships growing slowly and surely over a period of awkward months, but Fridah was different. Lots of people say this now, that she had this way of meeting people and seeing some light in them. As soon as she found that light, she opened up completely and your friendship with her would be as if you’d always known her, as if she’d always been there for you. We bonded over our love of adventure: she had been so excited to come to Denmark, she had lived in Thailand for 3 months, she had backpacked around Europe, and she had seen much of Africa. I didn’t know it when I turned on the coffee machine and she restocked the fridge, but I had just found the most loyal friend I might ever have. Fridah never fought with me, never argued. Even now with hindsight, looking at situations and disagreements where I was unequivocally in the wrong, Fridah was staunchly by my side, adamant that I could never, ever, even slightly, have been mistaken. She was often outrageous, controversial, and outspoken. Her opinions on “baffling” Danish society were well known. Yet no one was ever offended by anything she said, because when she spoke she had a wicked sense of humour and would smile and laugh so much you believed everything she said was told with the best of intentions. Ultimately, this positive attitude and light-hearted manner would be what made the end so heart breaking, because although we had been warned we didn’t see the full extent of things.
For the duration of our friendship, Fridah had always told me that her husband was cruel to her. She called him insensitive at best, and actively malicious the rest of the time. She told me how her family had begged her not to go to Denmark and how her leaving had caused an irreparable rift in their relationship, and how her husband had never acknowledged this. When I visited her home, I noticed there was nothing whatsoever to suggest an African might live there. Although I said this in jest (what evidence should there be? A hot bowl of joloff rice on the counter?) she admitted she was not allowed Kenyan things in the home and that her husband had control over the apartment’s décor, which was classically Danish. Later, when I showed her photos of my new flat in Glasgow she gushed about my little African details – A Moroccan mirror, Ghanaian textile-covered cushions, a copy of a book by a Zimbabwean author – and how “homely” my colourful flat looked in comparison to the typical all-white hyper-modern Danish apartment. She was clearly uncomfortable there. I never thought much of the fact that he never came to her social events or met her friends, and I only met him once at their apartment, where despite her extravagant efforts at a “special occasion” Kenyan lunch, he ate his own Danish food and left us to the buffet of African dishes.
We had some fantastic times in our friendship, but the memory of her sadness now pollutes them. There was a party at Retro Café on a Friday, and I was hosting a dinner party on the Saturday, and I remember with clarity her apologies that her husband would only allow her to go to one. She chose my dinner party and she stayed overnight, and went out to buy us lunch – southern-style chicken flatbread sandwiches with Philadelphia cheese and salad – the next day. She stood at my window and looked out at my garden, listening to the jazz coming from the Greenhouse Café in the grounds. She said she felt so at peace, and didn’t want to leave. I was 23 and selfish, and so I read no further into the comment than she enjoyed my company and my gorgeous Frederiksberg apartment. I hoped she might spend more time there with me. I didn’t see her as often as I’d like to, and I assumed she turned down most of my invitations out because she was busy searching for a job or trying to save money or was simply busy with her husband or other friends.
On the rare occasions she came out with me and the other Retro members, she was positive and cheerful and gave no indication of inner turmoil. She loved working in Retro with its international community, because she was able to meet people from all over the world and listen to their stories. She loved comparing Kenya and Denmark to other places, and she was always delighted with my stories when it appeared Kenya and Scotland were not as culturally different as she thought they would be. She would tell me I made her feel “more at home” in Denmark and with me she knew she wasn’t insane for believing things should be different in her relationship. I agreed with her that her husband’s behaviour was unacceptable. I was with her when she bought herself a wedding ring – he had never given her one – and she told me she was happier to look at it and think of me instead of him. Outside of her friendship with me, she was very popular with lots of people. She came with our mutual friends and me to SMK Friday, in which the main National Art Museum in Copenhagen opened on a Friday night with music, poetry, performance art, creative workshops, and food and drink stalls. She was a very private woman who rarely posted on Facebook, but I remember she uploaded a video of the 4 of us – me, her, Emil, and a Finnish girl called Maija – sitting on the steps in the modern part of the museum, watching a musical art piece involving a couple wearing suits singing while climbing a ladder. She captioned it “I’m loving this crazy art with my amazing friends!” We loved her enthusiasm, her vitality, her energy. Once, on my birthday, she skipped with me and two other friend down to a running sushi restaurant. After our meal, where she ate more than the 3 of us combined, we went back to Retro and sat in the sunshine of the gallery and drank cheap beers together. She was shoeless and in a red dress. She was vibrant.
She was encouraging too: once I told her I met a former NFL player turned philanthropist who ran a World Education Foundation that aimed to eradicate malaria. I sent her a picture of him and said “Isn’t he gorgeous?” and she said “He’s very good looking. And he seems educated, wealthy, interesting, ambitious, compassionate… I think he would be a good match for you, if he is willing to spoil you.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her I actually wanted him to offer me a job, that of course he had no interest in me, because she was absolutely serious. She thought a top-tier athlete millionaire with his own charity had to work hard for my affections, and that was that. Another instance of her encouragement was when we met at the Copenhagen Fashion Exchange, fundamentally a massive clothes swap, and we rooted through outfits for hours. She left with two big blue Ikea bags worth of clothes to fit her tiny body and I struggled to find anything that looked nice. I’d gained a lot of weight over the summer and felt sweaty and insecure. Yet I genuinely believe she didn’t notice, because everything I tried on she applauded and screamed “YES! YOU LOOK FABULOUS! I JUST LOVE THAT COLOUR ON YOU. WOW!” I left with a small bag of clothes I still cherish today, because she convinced me I looked good in them.
She was a great friend like that, and she made me feel like I too was a great friend. Looking around at her other friends, I began to believe she had fantastic taste. I could see the light from all of them. The last time I saw her was a year ago today, when I visited Copenhagen after the Oslo cruise. We had been speaking online more and more frequently and I was worried. She was telling me to go and explore the world and never get married, to enjoy my youth because she felt like her life was over, that she wished she could come and work for my family as an au pair, that she wanted to walk away and never return, that if she could do it all again she’d never leave Kenya, not for anything or anyone. There was nothing I could say. I didn’t know to what extent she was being controversial and outrageous with her extreme statements, and to what extent she truly felt trapped. I was almost reassured when I saw her due to her laughter and happiness lighting up the café. We went for a walk with her baby around the lake. She proudly introduced me to her neighbours and told them I was the first person she told about her pregnancy. I was surprised – I hadn’t known that. I started to wonder if I was one of her closest friends, and how that could be when I lived abroad in Scotland, because surely a young woman with so much positive energy would have a wide network? The next two times I visited Denmark, she was unable to leave the house due to looking after the baby alone. I couldn’t see her. She was furious at her husband for keeping her stuck at home when he went off to play golf or sit at the pub, at how she was always alone with the baby. “You know,” she said to me “when I get home from work he passes the baby to me as soon as I am in the door. Before I even take off my shoes and coat. Sometimes I am not fast enough and he drops him on the floor.” I was horrified. I told her to call the police and leave him, immediately. She said she had read stories of foreign women losing custody to their abusive Danish husbands and being deported. She began to believe, whether rightly or wrongly, that Denmark did not care for an African immigrant woman whatever might happen to her. Living with him was, she supposed, the price she had to pay to be in Denmark with her baby. “He threw his cutlery at me tonight at dinner” She told me, “I haven’t told anyone else. He got angry at me because I didn’t know the answer to something he asked me”.
All through these alarm bells, she brought happiness to the friends in her life. But it wasn’t enough. Sadly, Rashida and her infant son were found dead in their apartment on Saturday morning at 4am. The day before, she posted on Facebook that she couldn’t deal with her husband any longer – she had found out he was cheating. She posted details of his manipulation and gaslighting. She had the evidence to leave him and stay in Denmark with her baby, but she never got the opportunity. She wanted to see the world, yet she spent the last few years of her life locked inside an apartment, isolated and ignored. Danish police are investigating her death, and currently suspect foul play. While her husband has posted that it was suicide and he is not to blame, I don’t believe this. Even if it was, he is culpable. In fact, the entire system is culpable. Denmark, becoming increasingly closed to immigrants and more far-right in their policies, is complicit in her death. The idea that her life as an immigrant woman had less value and that she, as a non-Danish mother, had less rights to her child than the Danish parent, contributed to her belief that he was powerful and she was powerless. Whether he struck her himself or not, that’s what killed her. Despite this, he has not been arrested, and we her friends are compiling as much evidence as we can of her timeline and her conversations with us that might help shed light on how such a bright girl could meet such a dark end. While we reflect on our time with Fridah, we can learn from her so her death might not be in vain. We can remember her when people mistreat us, and recognise that we deserve better. We can notice the warning signs and know when to leave. We can take Fridah’s positive attitude and bring it to our own lives in times of struggle. We can listen to our friends and refuse to let them be isolated in this way – I will always regret that my leaving Denmark meant abandoning her to this. We can believe each other’s stories and not disregard them as exaggerated. We can be as loyal to each other as she was to us.
But it wouldn’t be justice. Justice would be his arrest, his confession, his remorse. Justice would be a challenge to the racist ideologies currently saturating Denmark, a country that I love, in hatred. Justice would be a change to the laws regarding immigration status, domestic violence, and national responsibility. Justice would be a national conversation about the treatment of foreigners, of women, of the young and the poor, all things that Fridah was. Justice would be the newspapers reporting the facts and not speculation: current articles in Denmark admit they do not know what happened but suggest “it’s not unusual for women to snap and kill their children in a rage” or that foreign women are known to feel depressed due to their “failure to integrate” or that she might have had “postnatal depression”. Fridah did not fail to integrate. She was fluent in Danish, she worked in a coffee shop, she had a Danish child and Danish friends. She did not suffer from postnatal depression, because from the moment she found out she was pregnant she was solely devoted to the bond between her and her son and the happiness that brought her.
What can we do to bring her justice? We can share her story. We can remember it. And I am going to do what Fridah herself would do, and I will tell everyone, even when it is controversial and offensive and opinionated. Especially then. I will honour her refusal to keep silent – her bravery in talking about her situation.
I will bear her image as a reminder of all of the beautiful and bright things we must fight for.