Can you remember the first time an “uncle” or a “brother” did or said something inappropriate to you? I have those two descriptors in quotes because I don’t necessarily mean biological uncle or brother but any male associate in your family whether by blood, village or friendship. You all know how we do in Africa.
How old were you? What did you do?
I remember. I was 13 and it was some guy in my neighborhood. A respected man with a wife and daughters much older than me. It was the second term holidays (Easter Break, for my American visitors) and I was home from boarding school. I’d taken a cab to go to a cyber cafe and it happened on my way home. Back in those days, we who lived in G.R.A had to go to Bongo Square or Molyko for reliable internet service.Internet service at home is not the norm for wide swaths of Cameroonians and we were barely entering the cell phone revolution at the time. Cyber cafes were where you went to sit at rickety, old computers which creaked and buzzed as the dial up internet, under pressure from scores of other users, tried its best to open your yahoo mail accounts.
But I digress. It was dusk and the taxi cab had dropped me off where the paved road ends so I could make the rest of the walk home. I noticed another person on the road and when I walked closer I realized it was “Uncle.” Dutiful African child that I was, I greeted him full of respect.
“Oooh! How are you?” He asked obviously pleased to see me.
“I’m fine, thank you Uncle.”
“You’re back from school?”
“Aaah, OK, ok I see. Did you do well this term? What is the name of that your school, again?”
“I go to Saker, Uncle. And I tried my best.” I said with a bashful laugh.
“That’s good! That’s good! You know education is very important. You can’t do anything without it. Your parents pay all that money for you to go to a good school you have to make them proud.”
“How are your parents?”
“They are fine.”
“OK, ok greet them for me eh!”
” I will, Uncle.”
By this time we had reached his gate. It was a line of houses and mine was the last on the block. We’d been walking companionably side to side so I turned to face him to say my good byes.
“So,” he said to me ” when can we meet?”
I vividly remember the first time my mother talked to me about sex. She is very much a woman of her time so the topic did not come easily to her. I was seven years old and she was supervising my pre-dinner bath after a long afternoon spent playing outside. She emphasized the areas I needed to wash: under arms, behind ears, scrub feet with brush, lady parts. As I squatted there assiduously doing as she instructed, she asked what I thought at the time was the strangest question.
“Has anybody ever tried to touch your, ti-toh?” (Ti-toh is anglophone Cameroonian pidgin/vernacular for vagina.)
I scrunched up my face at her wondering why she would ask me that. Had she seen us neighborhood kids playing show and tell? You know that childhood rite of passage which occurs when kids figure out that boys have different parts than girls and curiosity abounds, usually resulting in hidden viewing sessions where us little girls laughed ourselves silly when we saw the ugly little thing little boys had and they in angry confusion mocked us for not having them.
“No, mami.” I said. She gave me a long look then her face relaxed.
“Good.” she said. “If anybody ever tries, don’t let them. Run and shout. If they hold you, fight and scratch and bite, you hear? And make sure you tell me.”
“Yes, mami.” At this point my eyes were wide with fright. But she smiled, reassuring me.
“Ok, finish quick, quick” she said.
That laid the foundation for the talks I would have with my mother on the topic. Well, let’s not call them talks. More like I besieged her with questions which she answered grudgingly. You see, I was an early reader. I finished my first Sidney Sheldon novel (Master of the Game) when I was about 8 years old. Fairy tales bored me, besides I’d read most of them by the time I was 6. I went through books of all kinds, like a leaf-eating caterpillar. My appetite for knowledge was voracious. I read books beyond my years and when my mom hid books in a desperate attempt to prevent me from being exposed to material ahead of my age, I simply figured out a way to steal them and read them in hiding. By the time was 10, she gave up.
All this reading meant I got exposed to a lot pretty early and I had A LOT of questions that my mother, bless her gentle heart, had to answer. She tried. There were times I would ask certain questions and her eyes would widen in shock.
“Wusai you hear that kind thing?” (Where did you hear something like that?)
There were questions she refused to answer and only said “That is a very bad thing. I don’t know why I let you continue reading those books.” or “I’ll answer when you’re older.”
After my class seven teacher completely botched what passed for sex ed class at that time, I brought home my questions that I had written down and gave them to her. She was the one who explained to me that sex could lead to pregnancy and it was best to wait until marriage and when I wanted to have children. She also emphasized that it could lead to diseases like AIDS. She added that after my menses started I would be really vulnerable.
I remember the day I asked her about rape. It was from a Danielle Steele novel in which some girl’s brother-in-law raped her violently and because he was an Italian prince, it got covered up by his and her family.
“That is when a man forces a woman to do things with him that she doesn’t want to do. It is very, very bad.” She said with a serious look on her face. “It can happen to anybody and that is why as a woman you have to be very, very careful. When you see Papa angry at you for staying out after it is dark or talking to boys, these are the kinds of things he worries about. Even people you know can rape you, like the girl in the book. Make sure you are never alone with any boy or man.”
She then repeated what she had told me years earlier. “And if any body tries to touch you or anything like that, run, shout for help, fight and bite.”
Of course, she didn’t talk about how fun and pleasurable sex could be or how it was a beautiful way to share yourself with someone you cared about. (Hahaha… For you wondering how I know that…let’s just say, I would not be writing this blog post if I was some virginal ingenue.) I didn’t need her to tell me that. The thousands of fiction and non fiction books I have read so far have made it clear to me that there were different dimensions to the thing.
So what’s the point I am trying to make here? Obviously not all kids are as curious or as interested in reading as I was. The point is that we do our children a big disservice when we stay silent, when we don’t give them even the least knowledge they need to to protect themselves, when we shroud the topic with taboo so much, they are afraid to talk about it even when they should. I follow a blog where African women talk about their sex lives. A contributor wrote a blog post about the sexual abuse she suffered as a child and another one here about the effects It was amazing how many people, girls mostly, came forward saying similar things had happened to them (WARNING: These are honest discussions about sex so if you’re squeamish or that kind of religious person, DO NOT CLICK THOSE LINKS)
What is sad was that in some cases their abusers were able to convince these children that their parents would think of them as bad if they spoke up. Even sadder is that some who did speak up, had family and spiritual leadership turn on them when they publicly accused respected family members or relatives of family friends. A young girl recounted the story of her feeling guilty because she had climaxed while being raped. She told her pastor’s wife, who then told her that she needed to examine herself, since she had enjoyed it. (For those who are wondering, female climaxes like male ejaculations can happen with the right stimulation, regardless of surrounding circumstances) This is the environment in which we live. We think we are protecting children by not talking or making the subject so taboo, it can barely be mentioned ,but the truth is we’re leaving the door wide open for abuse. We all know of the toddlers who get raped or the 13 year olds who ended up pregnant. These monsters are present in our communities too, let’s not act like they aren’t
I don’t think I even have to comment on the psychological scars these things leave.
We need to talk about sex to our children. We need to figure out ways to give the right amount of information they need to be aware and careful. Yes, sexual exhibitionism is not the African way (although even that claim is questionable right now) but we can find ways to have these conversations, so children know that it is not OK for “Uncles” (or Aunties for that matter) to ask to see their things. It is not OK for Uncles to touch their butts or breasts. It is not OK for Uncles to show them things or ask them to touch or do anything else.
That is is not OK for Uncles to ask them, no matter how jovially, no matter how benign the Uncle seems, it is definitely NOT OK for Uncles to ask them when they can “meet.”
When he asked me that question, my mother’s voice sounded loud and clear in my mind.
“Make sure you are never alone with any boy or man.”
I backed away from him slowly, moving towards our house.
“I don’t understand what you mean, Uncle” I said, carefully. He smiled one of those small smiles adults give to children, the smile that says “It’s cute that you’re so young, you don’t understand these things.” But he asked me the question again, taking a step closer.
“Where can we, you know, meet?” This time he let his eyes run down my body, his meaning unmistakable. I faked confusion.
“I really don’t know what you mean, Uncle. I’m sorry”
He gave me a long, considering look and my muscles tensed up. I was ready to make a run for it if he tried anything. Then he chuckled.
” Ok, go home. Remember to greet your parents.”
I turned around and walked away.
I never talked to him again.
A week later, his wife gave me a lift home in her car from Soppo market. In the car, were three of his daughters.
Palava people, any thoughts on this matter?
Part 2: For The Adolescents We All Were, coming up when I tie up loose ends for school. I also have recaps and Part 2’s of short stories. I know, I know!