Trigger warning: Stories of sexual violence
The first time I heard someone recount her rape, I had just become a Christian and she had just stopped being one. She had been gang-raped by the youth pastor at her church and some other people. The second time, it was a family member. I doubt I responded adequately because I find it harder to show love and compassion and solidarity with those closest to me – I freeze while I try to process my emotions as if I am watching from outside. Perhaps this is because once I really watched from outside, but I wish I had been there, and know I must make an effort to be there for family.
The first time I realised I was being sexually abused, I was 19 and I was going to be in a house alone with the perpetrator who had been abusing me for several years. Now I was an adult but the difference in our height and physical strength made little difference. It’s not as if I ever forgot the abuse. It’s that I couldn’t cope with it so I would compartmentalise it – nice person vs abuser, every time I realised he was going to abuse me again. Three days before he arrived I went insane because I knew he would try to rape me. So I prayed, which was the only thing I could do. I didn’t tell anyone but God. I wonder about all these things girls and women tell no one but God. When this man was trying to tear my clothes off, he eventually got up and stopped. One minute later he picked a fight with me and strangled me and kicked me while I was on the floor but he didn’t rape me, and that’s all I cared about. Another of his victims got pregnant and aborted the baby.
The first time I heard of a child who was sexually abused was when I was a teenager and someone mentioned ‘this child who sleeps with big men’. There are a few things about my home country that make me sick. One is the current extremely high level of rape. Two is the myth that rapes didn’t exist before the armed conflict. Three is how children in general but specifically children in the streets and young prostitutes are seen as consenting to their abuse. Four relates to the expats who are often older men who sleep with much younger black women from poor economic backgrounds, and who proudly speak of how they benefit the country, whereas we don’t see the schools and the clinics that their businesses could be funding.
The first time I heard a child tell of her rape, she was my client. I was working with kids on the streets. She was 16. She was hanging out with a group of boys amongst whom only one girl was safe, the girlfriend of the group leader. She wasn’t the one. She got raped by the boy whom I had been trying to get to the hospital for his meds. He was never able to explain his mental health issues but he and the boys always said he wasn’t well. Every time he agreed to go with me, he would change his mind before we got to the hospital. He wasn’t well but he was well enough to tell me that he had raped her. She didn’t want to lay a charge. She wasn’t well. I didn’t like her trashing my office as she screamed out her pain – I am not materialistic but we had just been donated furniture and I must have had the nicest church office in the history of that congregation. I don’t remember which church member came to fetch us but she was admitted to Saartje Baartman hospital and she made soap and she smiled again and she told me about the heart and soul doctor, and I don’t know if this was a real person or imaginary friend. Three months later she went home. Three years later I saw her on the streets again.
The first time I met a child who had killed someone, it was also a client. She had set the shack alight when her mother and her rapist stepfather were sleeping. It happened when she was much younger. When I met her she had been freed, thanks to Mandela – well, that was the short version. The long version is that the first democratically elected government changed the childcare act and children could no longer be jailed. So she was freed, but eventually had to serve part of her sentence in a reform school. When she was angry, she broke all the windows. The church members who had done the drive with me to take her out for a picnic were so naughty, they giggled at the smashing of the windows and probably would have joined in. Eventually she was ‘adopted’ by many church members, but one really became her mother and later the foster mother of her baby. And that young woman died.
The first time I met someone who consciously spread HIV, it was another young client of mine. On her dying bed she wasn’t alone. She got a goodbye from all the women at the shelter where she had lived. Her death bed was in one of the Mother Theresa missions, a house in Khayelitsha. We organised the funeral at the church. The minister who took the service had once had my job, but in town. He had also worked as a street youth worker and he too knew her well. Children from the streets and from the shelter also came. It is from the staff of the shelter that I learnt that she had knowingly infected all the boys she could because she had been raped and that is how she was infected.
The first time I felt like leaving a dying person was when one of my friends would ridicule me for avoiding the shortcut to get back home. I was telling him of all my experiences of street harassment and I was also hearing of other women’s experiences. I had selected street harassment as my project for a course on mission – selecting a community with a conflict and resolving that conflict from a theological perspective. My head was full of the stories of how women get approached sexually in public spaces. It is non-consensual. Most of us are survivors of sexual violence. This is not good for the psyche. How SA women do not snap, I wonder. I snapped at my friend. Once when he was in town, three guys followed him and wanted to have sex with him. He made it to his car safely. That evening he told me of his terror. He never laughed about my ‘paranoia’ again.
The first time I heard a sermon about rape is when I preached it. I led the service as a funeral service. Perhaps it was really the end because I have never heard another sermon about rape. And I don’t mean just the word mentioned once even though that is also rare, but the story of Tamar or the concubine for example. Or even from the perspective of a man because Absalom killed his brother who raped their sister. Those texts go missing…
The first time I preached about the Holy Spirit, I told a Tuesday lunchtime congregation about my project on street harassment and I asked if we aren’t disciples. Because it seems that as girls and women, the moment we step out of our houses (if we are lucky to be safe at home), we are literally robbed of the fruits called peace, love, joy with that first insistent look, cat call, touching or we are followed on foot or by car. Sojourner Truth the abolitionist, asked “Ain’t I a woman?” And we may add, “Dear church, ain’t I a disciple?”
The first time I went to a support group for survivors of child sexual abuse, I felt so overwhelmed that I didn’t go again. My migraine lasted for days. But there I met a woman who had earlier been a patient in hospital with me. She was thrashing in her bed like the little one was trashing my office. I was very quiet, attached to my drip, fighting off my fever and kidney infection. I watched her but didn’t remember her face. She recognised me in the group. She was calm, she was breathing, I think she knew she could live. Later I met one of the nurses also, but at a workshop of the Institute for the Healing of Memories. I went to all sorts of workshops and groups – not all related to sexual violence.
The first time I was rescued by a social worker was during another hospital stay. I was sent to the emergency ward in a public hospital. My balance was gone and the doctor insisted on a scan in case it wasn’t an ear infection. I was on a chair and eventually on a bed and the ward was full and a man was in the women’s ward having an episode. It was my second time losing my mind. My friend arrived around midnight and explained to the nurse that I wasn’t going to survive this – a strange man undressing near me. I don’t know how she managed to get into the hospital but she did reach me and she reached inside of me too. I eventually fell asleep, had my scan the next day and went home. I had felt so threatened, so little… And I had just become the mother of an 8- and 11-year old. I prayed that I would live until the youngest one turned 18. In December, on her 18th birthday, I said prayers of thanks. I want to live.
The first time I repented of the number of times I wanted to commit suicide is the year I started to write Grace posts. I love the phrase that says we can only confess our sins, not our brokenness. For what is broken in us, we need healing. But often we feel so much pain and shame and guilt that this is all so blurry. So I repented. Around that time I went through a stage where every passage I read in my Bible contained the word grace. So I changed Bibles and then I kept reading of steadfast love and then I read that steadfast love is a translation for grace. I keep this word close to my heart. I have triggers but I have Grace.
The first time I became a friend to a child was when I was asked to visit a 12-year-old who refused to go back to school. I was wearing my Total Shutdown t-shirt. We introduced ourselves and she read aloud the words on my t-shirt, we spoke about them and she then told me everything. She is my little friend but I tell her and her mom that it is an exception. I have no other friend under 18. Kids and adults are not friends. But she is not my client. She is a child who shares her feelings about the bullying at her school after reporting a teacher’s abuse. All the processes are in place. My only role is to listen to her since she’s seen on my t-shirt that I know some of her words. I am also her mother’s friend.
The first time I put all these stories together is now. I speak or write of them individually. I am exhausted. I might dump them just like that in my memoir and light a candle for my editor. If you need, I will say a prayer for you. I do not trust many things, I do not trust many people. I trust Grace. I think that as long as we live, there may be healing. But the wounds of so many are so deep. I trust my circle to hear, listen and love – to yourself, to others. To build. And to break down!
By Philomene Luyindula Lasoen