She can’t open her mouth to recount the horrible experience of being defiled by her own father, but her silence captures the agony of this Mwanza girl even better. While she continues to hurt and agonise over the crime visited upon her by the very man she thought would protect her, her mother is mourning her own loss: the jailed husband. It is this story of the parallel worlds mother and daughter inhabit that perplexes me.
Apart from the dangling cross on her rosary, you are unlikely to notice anything else on Rachel’s chest, not even the sprouting pair of breasts. When asked to explain what happened between her and her father, she only stares at her lap.
Now and again, she tries to move her lips, as if she will utter a word, but that is where it ends. When she stares at you, there is a distant look in her tiny eyes. A series of questions do not fish out a single answer nor a gesture from the Standard Three pupil who was defiled by her biological father months ago.
But if you expect her mother, Maggie, to be mad at her 41-year-old husband for incestuously initiating their daughter to sex at the age of 12, you are mistaken. She at no time shed a tear for her daughter’s abused innocence, although she worries and, sometimes, weeps for her incarcerated husband who last month earned himself a 10-year jail term for indecently assaulting Rachel.
Maggie does not remember the exact date or month, but she intensely recollects the events of a night, last year, that shook her violently and, in the months that followed, turned her life upside down.
The night was still very young and most people in this village, Traditional Authority Nthache in Mwanza, were going about their evening business while children sang and played in the dark.
Maggie, a mother of six, went to bed early to protect the family’s newest addition, a baby girl, from mosquito bites. Her husband of 14 years, Gester Right, would follow later as he was preparing mangoes to be used for distilling kachasu, a local gin.
Somewhere in the night she woke up, checked her husband’s side of the sleeping mat; he wasn’t there. Worried, she went in search of him, only to bump into the husband walking out of Rachel’s room.
“He said he had gone into the room to store the mangoes, but something about the way he acted and talked did not sit right with me; something was just wrong,” she explained.
Upon being pressed, Right confessed that he had just had sex with Rachel, a product of his union with Maggie in 2000.
“We hadn’t had sex for several months because I had been pregnant and thereafter breastfeeding. He said he failed to hold himself that night; hence, he opted to find relief in our daughter,” said Maggie, in reference to the fading tradition that requires expecting couples to put sex on hold seven months into the pregnancy up to six months after birth.
Distraught with her husband’s actions, Maggie shared the shocking news with her sister and together, they warned Right to never touch the girl again. He made the promise amid apologies, and, so, sleeping dogs were left to lie.
But old habits, they say, die hard
On June 2 this year, a drunken Right returned home to find his daughter preparing dinner in the kitchen. He sneaked behind the girl and started fondling her, but she fought him and ran to her mother, who, after consulting her sister, reluctantly reported the incident to a child protection officer living in the same village.
Soon, Right was arrested and charged with indecent assault as explained by the district’s police spokesperson Victoria Chirwa.
“Police focused on the fresh accusations related to assault because the first incident of defilement was not reported. But the court said it meted out the stiff punishment because cases related to sexual offences are on the increase, and to allow the girl to recover from the psychological trauma she was exposed to.”
However, Maggie is not pleased that her husband will not be home for the next decade. She believes his version of the incident which says the scuffle between him and the daughter erupted when he snatched maize flour from her in trying to help her prepare dinner.
“He wronged me and my daughter, but he apologised. I am sure the second incident was just a misunderstanding. He loved his daughter and always advised her against messing around with boys. He wanted the best for her,” said Maggie, who also has to deal with her angry in-laws who accuse her of sending their son to jail for a matter that “could have been dealt with within the family.”
But Maggie’s attitude towards the matter can have an intensely negative impact on how Rachel copes with the appalling experience, according to College of Medicine psychologist professor Chiwoza Bandawe, who explains that her approach could aggravate in Rachel a feeling of unworthiness which is common among victims of defilement.
“The victims look at themselves as ‘the bad ones’ or dirty and they view the defilement as a punishment they deserve. Their ability to trust is greatly compromised, especially if the violation is committed by someone they trust while some become depressed, resulting into withdrawals such as absenteeism from school or change of behaviour.
“In the long term, this experience may impact on their ability to form lasting relationships while some may become promiscuous later on in life,” said Bandawe.
He warns of further regression in the form of bedwetting, among others, if such children do not get adequate sociological and psychological support.
“The community needs to support her and give her space to talk about what happened and how she is feeling. She also needs professional help to reconstruct her identity because she is likely to be confused,” said Bandawe.
Struggling to win the war
Defilement is one of the vices eating away at the fibre of a nation weary of rising crime. Police, who concede that they are struggling to win the war on sex crimes, say in 2012 there were 83 reported cases of defilement, down from 93 in 2011. These, of course, are only reported cases.
In a society where sex remains a taboo, many victims of rape and defilement are suffering in silence—just like innocent Rachel.
Mariam Kapalamula, a child protection officer who handled Rachel’s case, said she counsels the victim to help her overcome psychological effects of the violation. She, however, worries that Rachel’s experience may not be an isolated case in the area.
“Many women would rather protect their marriages than expose their husbands in such cases, but we are trying to sensitise communities so that people can appreciate the gravity of rape or defilement cases,” she said.
But while Rachel is nursing her psychological wounds, her mother looks forward to her husband’s homecoming in 2023.
“I know most people are happy he has been jailed, but you have to know that he is not the only one suffering. I and his children are more or less doing time in our own prison; the only difference being that his prison has walls while ours doesn’t.
“He was our breadwinner such that currently, we don’t know where our next meal or tablet of soap will come from,” said Maggie between sobs as she breastfed her youngest daughter.
Financial problems are not the only reason she looks forward to Right’s return. He might have done the unthinkable, but she still loves him.
“I know him very well and I know he did not mean any harm. No matter how long it takes, I will wait for him,” she said as her Rachel listened.
Rachel’s blank look does not give a clue as to whether she shares her mother’s sentiments.
In 2023, she will be 23, and a lot will have changed when her father returns home. What will happen when they meet? Will they have a normal father-daughter relationship? Will she forgive him like her mother has done?
Only time will tell because for now silence is all Rachel can offer.
Note: To protect the identity of the victim, as required by the law and media ethics, names of the girl, her mother and father as well as their village have been withheld.