Africa is the home of deafening hushes.
It is heartbreaking, these events that people experience but never talk about because they are taboo. We hush up about them, almost as if we will the event into the vortex of nonexistence through our silence. Sadly though, no amount of silence will stop the madness. Just as no amount of hush will heal the pain and free its victims from its depressing shackles. If quotes of the wise are anything to go by, the contrary is the case. For instance, the good book tells us that it is the truth that makes one free. In my opinion, a secret is like a small balloon tucked in a person’s heart. The longer it stays there, the bigger it swells until the person feels like they are about to burst. Recently I visited a young friend of mine. Looking back now I’m glad I overcame my extreme reluctance and went to see her that day. I believe she was at that place where almost everyone has been, where the balloon within must be deflated and weights unburdened, and I was fortunate to be there.
We are seated in the living room at her parents’. I’m at an adjacent angle from her, my legs tucked beneath my thighs, but I’ve turned a ninety degrees in my seat to watch her carefully. My ex nicknamed me “Hawk” for the way I watch people at parties. On our way to a party, he would say, “Turn on your lens o, madam Hawk. So you can tell me everything that happened at the party that I didn’t see.” Or he would say, “Hope your lens are in your purse o, madam Hawk,” to which I would smile in delighted affirmation. My lens are always with me, and it is with these in-built lens that I watch her.
She speaks to me in very low tones, even though we are alone in the huge bungalow. It is as though even the walls of the house must not hear our conversation. The television also speaks in hushed tones, even though none of us are paying attention. She fidgets. She cannot stop wringing her hands. Her eyes move from her hands to first one side of the room then another. Sometimes a noise from outside makes her walk to the door to make sure nobody is coming. The air of unease about her is unmistakable, but unshakable is her resolve to tell me this story she has never before told anyone.
I have suffered o. she tells me. She says this more than twice, so I know there’s more. I am silent, but my body language lets her know she can continue.
You know I didn’t grow up in this house. It was too far from school so Daddy sent me to live with his friend. He lived close to my primary school with his family, so it was easy to go to school from his house. Later, when I became an adult, mummy explained that daddy had experienced financial issues at that time. I want to ask her how long she lived with her father’s friend, and if she came home for holidays, but I remain silent.
I left their house when I was nine. I was there all through primary school, and it was in those years that I was introduced to sex. My heart gives a little lurch at her words, but my face gives nothing away. I simply nod, letting her know she can continue. I cannot imagine being introduced to sex between the ages of 4 and 9, and I am at a loss as to how exactly to convey the empathy I feel. My questions have multiplied, but I do not dare open my mouth. Someone has said, and I agree, that it is almost impossible to understand how a person feels if you haven’t shared their experience. The girl is still now, staring quite unseeingly in my direction. I know she is reliving those years.
I would wake up in the morning and find my panties around my knees, a sticky substance all around my vagina. I had no idea what it was, but it made me cry. I always cried in the mornings. I couldn’t tell my daddy’s friend’s wife because she was mean to me. She shakes her head thoughtfully, still staring at nothing. No, she wasn’t mean, she was just strict. This one time, I had a sore on my left heel. It was very painful, and it oozed pus. I told her about it thrice and she ignored me. All three times. One Sunday, at church, the pain became unbearable. I went to sit outside the church crying, all the while cleaning the pus with a leaf. The pastor’s wife found me and took me to my guardian. She denied prior knowledge of my sore. When we got home, she beat the living daylights out of me for letting the pastor’s wife see the sore. At this point I break my silence. I cannot help pointing out to her that this is plain wickedness, and not the strictness she calls it. Her eyes meet mine for a second and she shrugs, her lips curling wryly. I tell myself I see why she couldn’t mention the panties situation to the woman.
I ask how old she was the first time it happened. I’m not sure, I must have been about five or six. I want to sob, exclaim, anything, but no. I don’t want this to be any more emotional than it already is. Instead I calmly ask who she thinks was doing that to her. Daddy’s friend was in his late sixties, and this woman was his third wife, so he had grown boys living in the house as well. I’m telling you I really suffered. I say hmmm. Twice. It’s a very useful expression because it communicates the incredulity I feel at the things I’m hearing, while also conveying my empathy. It also helps me say “I’m with you”, just not in as many words.
When I was eight, they got me a lesson teacher. He used to finger me from under the table. Sometimes he would play with my tiny nipples. I really think all these things make one begin to develop an early appetite for sex. I think this is her way of telling me that at some point she began to feel things and like these feelings. But I will never be sure. I ask if she used to come home during holidays, but she shakes her head. I am wondering why the parents cannot even have their own children come home on holiday. I start to blame them, then I remember not to ever judge anyone if I haven’t walked at least half a kilometer in their shoes. But no, I do blame them.
When I was eight, we had a house boy. His name was Bullet. He was short and thick and extremely muscular. Like a bullet. He never smiled. I used to be home alone with him, when I got back from school. My mum didn’t get home from work until night. Bullet was a thief. He was content to pick the lock to my mummy’s room and steal jewelry and money. But he never touched me. I don’t think it ever occurred to him. When he wasn’t stealing, he was out playing with fellow house boys.
I look at the television for a while. It’s hard to keep looking at all that pain etched on her face. Embattled former Governor Amaechi is in the news. It says he will be made a minister in the new administration. Tomorrow the Senate will reveal the ministerial nominees, and then we will be sure. I don’t particularly care for the former governor, but right now I could care less about him and his purported nomination. His daughter wasn’t sexually abused at five years old. My friend was.
She goes to the door again, and returns to her seat, convinced no one is coming. She doesn’t fidget anymore. She is a little more relaxed and I am relieved, thinking her story is over. But no, there’s more. As you see me, I’m also a victim of rape o. I was raped when I went to write my Post UME Exams at Ado Ekiti. She bows her head and leans forward, her hands resting on her thighs. She doesn’t say more, and I don’t press her. I see that this one still hurts, and it breaks my heart. I have one last question. Why has she never told her mother about any of this?
Are you even joking? Do you want her to die? It will kill her, I know my mum. She is very emotional. She is recovering from a partial stroke, and daddy treats her like crap. I could never tell her. I look at her in awe. This is a young woman who has dealt with abuse all alone. She is neither bitter nor resentful towards her parents for not being there at a time when she most needs them. Instead, she is looking out for them. I go to her and pull her in a wordless hug. I hope the hug tells her that I’m sorry she went through all that horror, that I’m proud of her for wearing her scars with pride, and that I admire the woman she is becoming.
As I lie in bed that night, listening to Jennifer Hudson’s I Believe, I think about her, my twenty-something year old friend and her story. I think about the fact that lately these stories have appeared more frequently in the news. I think about the thousands of young women who have endured rape as children, and will never tell anyone. I think the woman was built with more strength than the man, never mind the theory that because she is made from-the-man’s-rib she is therefore the weaker-sex. I also think the African woman is indestructible, quite like German cars in the seventies. I think the world knows this, or suspects it at least, so they try to see just how strong she is. So she is tested, stretched and tried. She is pulled in every direction, in search of her elusive breaking point. Yet, she is silent in the face of it all. She must be silent or face stigma.
I wonder if science has begun researching the type of creature that pulls the panties off a five year old and violates her while she is asleep. The kind of creature who would get any type of gratification from such deviant behaviour. I wonder what other part of my friend’s life is suffering as a result of her scarred childhood. I know she told me that she was very dull in school all through primary and secondary school. I wonder what other ripples there might be. Because I know that the hush is useless. It becomes a deafening ruckus in the end.