Monday, 15 July 2013
And We Think We Have a Rape Culture...
I don't even know where to start.
So, I'll start with Fortunate.
Fortunate has the biggest smile I've ever seen. First thing she says when we meet her is "With me, you have to have energy. You have to keep up."
And she is right. Fortunate is a going concern. A big laugh, a big bosom, and a huge heart, Fortunate is a community support worker with Hands at Work. It's her job to advocate for the children in several small, poor (poorest of poor) villages. She coordinates volunteer care workers within these communities to act as surrogate moms for kids who are orphans or who need some extra support. She is a "Mama" to everyone, and a force to be reckoned with.
And it's a good thing she has a lot of energy, because she has a big job to do. In the community we visited today, she and the community volunteers (about ten other women) are responsible for around 80 kids, which means feeding them, giving them a safe place to play, talking to them and tending to their physical needs and caring for them emotionally and spiritually. And that's just a snippet of her job.
Fortunate and I are exactly the same age, but our lives couldn't be more different. Fortunate's mom was a teacher (well, ok, that part's the same), but when her parents got married, her father forced her mother to quit her job "because he was the man, it was his job to take care of the family." He went to Joburg to work in the mines, and Fortunate's mom stayed home with the four kids.
When Fortunate was eight, her second brother died and her father left the family. Suddenly, they had no financial support, and her mother couldn't get a teaching job after so much time. So the best she could do was find a job that took her out of the house every evening, and since Fortunate, at eight, was too young to stay home alone with her siblings, they were sent to stay with a neighbour every night.
And every night, Fortunate was raped by the neighbour's husband.
When Fortunate told her mother what was happening, her mother grew angry with her. She now understands that her mother was simply at a loss - she didn't have anyone else who would take the children in, and it was easier to ignore the horrible situation than make waves. But Fortunate was raped nearly every night for three years.
When Fortunate was twelve, she and her brothers were sent to live with an uncle, where again she was repeatedly raped by her slightly older cousin. The boy threatened to kill her if she told anyone, and he also threatened to withhold food to her younger brothers if she didn't comply. She came to think of the rape as her way of taking care of her siblings, of ensuring they had food to eat.
Fortunate seems ill-named. And yet, somehow, miraculously, today, she is one of the most joyful people I've ever met. She has a phenomenal singing voice, and an inner power I can't even fathom.
She confessed that she has had very dark days. Contemplated suicide frequently, was always angry. Could never trust men.
Her work with Hands and the community volunteers has been healing for her, and she gets a lot of empowerment from helping the people in her community.
But sometimes her work hits too close. She told us how one day, a child confessed to her that she too had been raped in similar circumstances. "I just slammed the door," she said. "Right in her face. It was too much."
Unfortunately, rape is a common occurrence in the children's lives here. In these kinds of communities, one in four men admit to raping - and that's just the men who cop to it. Everyone is vulnerable - women, girls, boys and babies. It is still a folk belief here that raping a baby will cure AIDS. And to rape is a passage of manhood here - the comparison was drawn between the boys here urging each other to rape the way teens push limits with alcohol and cigarettes at home.
We visited a Care Point today, which is a safe place for the kids to gather and play, and where they're fed at least once a day. In many instances, it may be the only meal the kids eat. I met a lovely fourteen-year-old girl named Vania, who almost immediately took my hand and said, "I want to be your friend." So we chatted about school and books and what she wants to be when she grows up (a teacher). She was quiet, but enthralled by my phone, and she wanted to know about every picture I had taken. I showed her the pictures of London and San Francisco, and when I told her about Canada, she was very curious about what it would be like to be in the snow. A few other teen girls joined us, all of them quiet, reticent, yet so wanting to talk, so needing of attention. We smiled a lot, awkwardly talked about the weather, our favourite colours, stories we like, boys, and nail polish.
Vania gave me a big hug when it was time to go, and said she was looking forward to us coming back - on Wednesday. She followed our van for a little while, waving with a big smile.
It wasn't until we got half way home that I let myself think about what she and her friends might be going home to.
Hopefully they are more fortunate than Fortunate was.