One day in April 1997, a demon that had been chasing me finally caught up. It wasn’t shadowed and cloaked. Instead, it was open, smiling, and full of life.
I found myself looking my rapist in the eye. And it was terrifying.
He was once a family friend. Someone we trusted as family. Someone we welcomed into our lives. Someone who was as at home in ours as he was in his own. Someone who laughed when we laughed, cried when we cried, and fought for the freedom of our country in its darkest days. Someone who would have still been in my life today had I stayed silent.
At first, I thought it was I who was the demon.
I was four years old when he first thrust his hands into my panties, and when he stuck his tongue down my throat. Five when he first showed me his penis. Six when he first raped me. And it continued for two years further. Surely I was the one who had done something wrong to deserve this, right?
I mean, that’s what they teach at Sunday school and every other organisation we buy into, right? When we do something wrong, God – or some sort of authority – punishes us. So it goes that we bury our heads in the sand and continue with life, not questioning where the demons come from, but rather focusing our energies on sweeping things under the carpet and putting on fake smiles.
Yes, I got depressed. But could I articulate it at that age? Of course not. There was something wrong with me. I couldn’t explain the feelings of rage welling up inside me like an insidious creature waiting to be unleashed. I couldn’t really explain what had been done to my body because he told me that if I told anyone, he’d kill my sister. I had to protect her.
Besides, you learn from a young age that depression isn’t really a thing in brown culture. White people got depressed. Brown folk got stronger. White people broke down. Brown folk got up and carried on. If you’re brown, you’re not afforded the luxury of bad days and the inexact science of mental health. Hard work is what got you where you needed to be, and if you didn’t just get up and move on, you’re not worthy of the skin you’re in and the sacrifices made by generations before you.
I was in a country on the brink of civil war and there were so many more important things to worry about. Like whether my dad would come home after long days and even longer nights of campaigning in opposition party strongholds. Or whether the previous administration would keep its promise of a free and fair election. And I was a mere eight years old when it all stopped. I was just grateful that it had stopped.
Back to 1997, and there I was, in my school uniform and just-polished school shoes in hand. I used to walk on my toes – or dance around as if on a cloud, my mother would say – until I saw him. I stopped twirling and it all came back. I felt like a log collapsing into ash.
Suddenly I was six years old again, him taking off my panties and shoving them into my mouth to silence me. He pinned me down with all his might and grinned with a sinister glint in his eyes when he penetrated. It was excruciating. He licked the tears from my cheeks and moaned in pleasure as I writhed in pain. He twisted my nipples so hard that one of them started bleeding. He revelled in my anguish.
And he did it over and over again. For years. A few times with other friends taking turns. Once with a beer bottle. Once with a hairbrush. Once with a hot curling iron. Once until I passed out. It continued for five years. In those years, I experienced things at the hands of a sadistic and cruel man that would probably not be believed should people hear my whole story. They spoke about trafficking, as I came to understand years later. The most shame I feel to date is being in the room while they abused other girls, whom I still feel like I should have protected.
Standing in the living room of the house he’d never been in before, I froze as he got up to kiss me on the cheek. “You’ve grown,” he said. His wife sitting on the couch next to my father. He might as well have stripped me naked right there with his lecherous tone. To this day, I don’t know how my family didn’t see it but I knew I had to tell them. I told them that night.
At least they believed and supported me. It’s a sad state of affairs when you can consider yourself lucky that your family believes you when you say you were raped, and luckier if they support you. Fortunately, I never had to endure his physical presence again. But the demon still followed me wherever I went.
For a long time, I was empty. I recoiled into my own world of loathing, sorrow, and emptiness. As if someone had taken a bowl and scooped out the centre of my being and tossed it onto the street to be trodden upon by passers-by.
Then I became angry. I spat venom at the thought of his face. The hate seeped from my veins out onto my skin until it made me scream out in nightmares, waking in a cold sweat. I wished pain upon him. I wished I could make him hurt until he begged for death.
I allowed myself to slip away from the people who cared the most and kind of refused to acknowledge that they did care. I thought myself unworthy of friendship and love. I started to let go of all my passion and dreams because those were for other people – the ones who went to bed without nightmares and woke up feeling refreshed like in breakfast cereal adverts. I stopped doing the things I wanted to do – I didn’t see the point in wasting time, effort, and energy on a life that I considered not worth living.
The entire system of patriarchy ensures that women do not question their “place”. The legal system – regardless of the intention behind the law – strips away dignity, identity, and any semblance of self-worth a woman has to sexual history, what she was wearing, what she had to drink, how her body betrayed her by self-lubricating, and all those peripheral facts that have nothing to do with men’s inability to control their own actions. Going to court is hell. But the system also makes women feel less than if they didn’t.
How can we fight against abuse when we don’t take it to court, and how can we continue after being told by the courts that our experience was invalid?
Not talking about it kills you inside – very slowly but surely. But being public about rape puts your humanity and lived experience on display, into question, under scrutiny, and up for debate. You are reduced to a hashtag. People try to prove you wrong. You perform your pain on a public stage. You dilute your emotions to mere words and intellectualise your experience into an argument to be debated. Regardless of your meticulous execution, your truth may still be rejected, with people (mostly men) negating your anger and violence as unsound (or worse – grammatically incorrect, as if the use of English is a measure of intelligence and validity of lived experience). You run the risk of further abuse at every corner.
Gaps in memory are considered loopholes. And when you do remember details, people ask; “Why didn’t you mention that before?” (BECAUSE IT WAS FUCKING TRAUMATIC, DAVID! THAT’S WHY!) You want to shout and scream but hide behind shrugs and half-smiles as you watch people walk away from you, knowing they’re just short of calling you a liar when they say things like; “You’ll get over it soon enough”.
And you get tired.
I tried committing suicide eight times. One of them – the most recent – was the closest I have been to death. Truth is, I felt I was dead a long time before. Just a breathing corpse that nobody could ever see as anything but a burden.
Most of all, I felt completely alone. Yes, I have my family and friends. But nobody truly understands. I guess that’s why I started this website. So that people realise that they’re not alone. Now I’m caught between wishing I was alone in this and feeling comfort in knowing that I’m not. It’s complicated.
There was no day of reckoning for my rapist. He lives a pretty carefree life, according to some people from my hometown who sometimes mention him in passing. They don’t notice the panic when I hear his name – or the fact that I change the topic almost immediately.
And there was no dawn of realisation for me. I am slowly learning that each day – as much as it’s a battle – is a step toward getting better, and I survived, and all that stuff that sounds all peachy. The fact is, I’m merely okay, and the demons are still there. They’re everywhere. And they always will be. Sometimes I’m not okay.
Some days I wish I’d never been born. On other days I feel content sitting with my cats on the bed, binge-watching TV shows. Some days I feel completely normal. Some days I throw stuff out the window and smash mirrors just to feel something other than the pain that constantly wraps itself around my chest. There is no way out of this. I am caught in an eternal dance with the demons day in and day out. I want to feel like a survivor but I know that the proverbial rising above it is a choice that can be seen as negating the experience. It’s fucking complex.
I wish I could tell you that everything will be okay. I wish I could say that my world is better now and that if you have endured what I had to, you will get there too. Perhaps it will happen one day. Perhaps it won’t. All I know is that I am still here. And if you’re still reading, I am glad you are here too.