Sunday, August 29, 2004

sounds of silence

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Strength of a woman
By Wayua Muli

By raping her, Njeeri’s attacker robbed her of everything. But she lived to tell of her ordeal, and In the time that Njeeri wa Ngugi has narrated her rape ordeal to me, she has not broken down. Not even when she describes how her attacker forced himself into her mouth and then her anal opening.

But when she starts to talk about their second meeting – at a police identification parade where she had gone to pick him out earlier in the day — the cracks in her armour of strength start to show.heal

"I don’t know how they do things here, but they put you in a room and they line up the suspects," she says. "You are in this little room with all of these men, and you have to reach out and touch the person that you … you have to touch them.

"When I entered the room, the first person I identified was the man I had begged (to save my life). I had given him all I had — money, jewellery, everything (her voice breaks). I gave him everything, from the bottom of my heart, and he could have stopped what happened next. And if you know Ngugi, you know that we don’t carry a lot of money… but we gave him everything…"

Then she turned, and saw her attacker.

"Um, then I saw the man who …," she sighs. "I had a lot of anger when I saw him. A lot of anger (pause). I have never known anger like that. It was almost … forgive the use of this word, but it was … hate." Her eyes narrow as she resolutely decides that yes, there is a member of the human race that she hates. "I gave them everything and it could have ended there. And he was standing there, in front of me. And I had to touch him." "If you could have told him what you wanted to say at that time, what would you have said?" I prompt.

"I don’t know," she whispers. "I guess — I’d ask … ‘Who raised you?’" Her voice is nearly gone now, and she is speaking to herself. "Who raised you?"

Robbed of everything

She reverts to her narrative, at the point when their attackers struck. "My first thought was to cooperate with them," Njeeri says of the fateful night when she and her husband were attacked at their Norfolk Towers apartment. Four men, one of them armed with a gun, had just forced their way into the apartment as they were seeing their relative Chege Kiragu off.
"If you give them what they want, they will leave you alone, and you will survive," she thought. It seemed that all they wanted was money. And so she gave all they had – including their jewellery, laptop and mobile phone.

"When they didn’t go, that scared me," she says. Suddenly, Njeeri was forced into the kitchen, and Ngugi into the living room. "I didn’t know what they were doing to him in there. All I knew is what was happening to me." The armed man, who had pushed her into the kitchen didn’t even bother to unzip his trousers. "He just lifted himself out of the top of his belt."
Then he did the abominable, forcing himself into her mouth, and eventually sodomising her. "It was not negotiable," she says. At that terrible moment, she wondered where African society was going. "I kept wondering if (sodomy) is something that people do here. Have we come to this level?"

She screamed, and that was when Ngugi was catapulted into action. "I always thought I was the stronger one, but he ended up being the one who saved us, because he knew that salvation lay beyond the front door, and he was willing to risk his life to find it."

Barrel of a gun

By her account, Ngugi rushed towards the kitchen, dragging all three of his attackers with him. Njeeri’s attacker then turned and pointed his gun at Ngugi, to silence him.
Njeeri’s first impulse was to stop him killing her husband, so she held on to the barrel of the gun, pointing it away from her husband.
"I started pleading with them, saying ‘Please, he won’t speak again, he won’t be loud, just let us go back inside and we can talk."

The robbers let Njeeri walk back into the kitchen, and then Ngugi. They then turned around and forced the door shut, locking the robbers out. "Ngugi and I were pushing the door, and the barrel of the gun was half in and half out of the room. I suddenly remembered that Kiragu was on the other side, so I started shouting, ‘Kiragu! Take the gun!"
It struck them that the force with which the door was being pushed felt like it was just one person rather than four men pushing back. And there were no footfalls indicating that the others had left.

It is not clear what happened after that, but as it turns out, they escaped, and left Njeeri and Ngugi to seek help.

Sounds of silence

Njeeri screamed out loud that they had been attacked, but all she got was silence. She went round the back, because she remembered seeing a guard walking a dog in the grounds there, but she still didn’t get any help. Then she remembered that she could use Ngugi’s name to get quicker help. "I shouted that Professor Thiong’o had been attacked, and finally a young lady called Mwende answered."

It was Mwende who called the police, and Mwende whom Njeeri turned to for comfort. "She was the only woman around and she went with us to the hospital, but I haven’t seen her since. She just told me her name, and she gave me her slippers. I was hanging on to her, and she seemed like the one who saved me and I didn’t want to let her go."

One of the questions Njeeri has had to deal with since then is why she made the decision to go public. She has said that speaking about it is good therapy.
But that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t go through internal pain. For example, there is the question of HIV infection. "I have to take — I call it Aids medicine," she says, referring to the post-exposure prophylactic that was prescribed for her. "I resent that. I have lived a fairly good life. I have protected myself against HIV. I didn’t have to worry about it. And now I do. Now, I have to keep getting tested, and I will not stop until I am sure that I (am not infected). Those men may have spared my life (by not killing me) only to take it all over again."

And she worries about other Kenyan women who do not have access to anti-retroviral care after rape. "I was lucky because I was taken to a good hospital. But what about the others who are not so lucky?" she poses.
She also worries about post-rape care in the country. "I kept asking the nurse if they had a rape kit, and she didn’t seem to know what I meant," she says. "In this country, you can get a pap smear done. It is important that women who have gone through this preserve the evidence until it has been examined. You never know, it may be what vindicates you later on."

A room full of men

And she worries about the way the police handle the situation. "I would have preferred that a woman interview me immediately after the rape. But there were so many policemen and there was no privacy. Yes, there was one woman, but the police were more immediately concerned with the robbery rather than the rape."
For now, Njeeri’s greatest concern is that her attacker is brought to justice. "I don’t care what the bigger picture is. I don’t care what their motive was. I just want the man who attacked me to pay for this," she says.

Her advice to other women who have gone through a similar ordeal is: "Talk about it."

"Find a support network and talk about it. You need mental health support. Don’t think that it is a sign of madness that you are going to see a psychiatrist. Talk to one. Talk to your friends. If they won’t support you, find a community, like your church. Wherever you can find someone to listen to you, please talk it out. It is the only way you can start healing — because if you hold it all in, you might just explode."

And so, for Njeeri, who is leading the way by example, it seems the healing may have already started.


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