For the countless women and little girls who were sexually violated by and lost their lives to people who they had trusted, in places they had deemed their sanctuary.
Their voices began to slip away, their forms began to drift into shadow and I was glad to see them go, just glad. Seun’s face broke through the shadows for a moment, brought close to mine. He placed two fingers on my neck, checking for a pulse. Then his face retreated into the darkness. I saw the knife falling towards my stomachs again, slicing skin. The red of the handle in Seun’s hand had become one with the red of my blood. Seun’s hand, which I had held many times in prayer. Seun, whose hands held out assorted candy for the little children at church, Seun’s whose hearty laughter lifted spirits and whose sentences were heavy with the praise of God’s name.
I heard one of the men, the one who always stood by the broken lamppost at the junction and whose name I did not know, telling Seun, between groans, to wait for him to finish first. “The one who makes love to a dead woman brings a curse upon himself,” he said. But what does he get, the one who rapes a dying woman in the Tabernacle while kneeling in a pool of her blood? What does he get? What does God give him? God who watches a devout woman get raped in a pool of her own blood. I waited for the lightning to strike, for the earth to tear, for the sculpture of Mother Mary to fall and crush them, all of them, even the one who only stood and watched — especially the one who only stood and watched. None came.
One, Two, Three, Four, Five, I counted over and over as I waited for it to end. One, two, three, four, five — I prayed each breath would be my last. Another always came after it, prolonging my suffering. I remember the time I quarreled with Jumoke in the unfinished building near the gas station on the way home. When she pushed me and I missed my footing and fell 10 feet. I screamed all the way home leaning on her shoulder, with my foot twisted in a strange angle. I remembered that pain, and how I thought nothing could be more painful. I was wrong. I was wrong a hundred fold.
Three evenings a week, when everyone had gone home, when the floor had been mopped and the pews dusted, I walked the two kilometers from my house, seeking serenity and peace, to pore over thick textbooks and squint at my old, mammoth Dell laptop. A part of me also hoped that studying in the house of the lord would please him and he would bless my studies. Ma had mentioned to the priest that studying at home is difficult for me because of the noise made by the co-tenants’ activities. He said I could study at church when everyone has gone home. I was grateful.
I looked forward to the smell of old dust and the creak of the boards when I walked through the doors. I looked forward to opening the sacristy and stopping for a moment to explore the many trinkets on the shelves, before taking my folded chair and the little table the priest kept there for me. Sometimes, I tried on the robes and walked to the pulpit, preaching animatedly to a colorful imaginary congregation. I liked how the parts of the church which I never paid attention to during mass, suddenly demanded attention. There was an air of mystery in the emptiness of the church. I would declare in the deepest voice I could, “I am the guardian of this enigma, stay thou if thy seek in peace, leave thou if thy come with the devil’s bidding.” The walls, the pillars and the stained windows would respond, repeating my words to me. It made me feel powerful. For those few hours, the church was my dominion, the many objects that dwell within its walls, my subjects.
I laid there, by the feet of the credence table where I had hit my head when one of Seun’s men struck me across the face with the brass candlestick. Not that it mattered, not that it would change anything or undo what had been done, not that I had the strength to do so, but I wondered why Seun would do this. Seun who had eaten at my mother’s table and who was so interested in my education. I remember the one time Ma had asked me, out of nowhere, if I had done something wrong to Seun. I was puzzled. We had always been on very good terms, he and I. Ma said it was the way he looked at me from across the hall that afternoon. We agreed that she must have misconstrued the look or that his mind was somewhere else. We were wrong.
I knew, as the life trickled out of me, that even if Ma had been convinced that Seun had evil intentions against me, there was nothing she could do to stop him from getting me. It might’ve happened somewhere else at a different time, but he would’ve gotten me eventually. For some reason, this made me feel better. Not the pain, just the feeling of regret which had grasped me. The pain… I was screaming for death, but death was taking his time. Death is a man. The one who wielded, the one who bludgeoned, the ones who raped, the ones who restrained, the one who stood by, watching and saying nothing. Death took his time.
Earlier that evening, I sat by the western window of the church, shrouded by melancholia for many minutes. I watched the sunset pass through the stained glass and fall to the floor. It was pretty. I watched until the sun set all the way, then I got up and shook off the melancholic feeling. I sat, as always, facing the altar with my back to the door. And for the first time ever, I wondered if it was safe to leave the church doors unbolted. But of course it was safe, it is the house of God. I switched on my laptop and leaned back on the chair.
Sometime later, an hour perhaps, Fenda was still sitting in her chair, absorbed in a calculus problem she was solving. She thought she heard a noise, a shuffling sound beneath the rustle of the turning pages. She looked up from her book, unnerved, but dismissed it. It was probably a rodent, or a wall gecko.
Human beings downplay their ability to perceive the things unknown; impending danger… or the occurrence of an unfortunate event that hasn’t been told to them yet. They are quick to dismiss the sudden uneasiness, the risen hairs, the immediate distrust of a total stranger, a feeling of foreboding, knowing something without knowing how you know it. Perhaps, if we weren’t so quick to dismiss these, many unfortunate events could’ve been prevented from occurring.
Many yet, would have happened anyway, because the victim is helpless, vulnerable and disadvantaged. Because the victim is outnumbered, one to five. Because the victim thought they were in the safest place they could possibly be. Because the victim was startled when the Church doors creaked open, she got up to face the door, but relaxed when she saw a familiar face pass through the opening.
But the relief drained away fast as other faces followed the familiar face. Smirking faces, menacing faces, leering faces, a face devoid of the warmth it is known for, replaced by a hollow, cold gaze. Almost numbed by dread, her feet made heavy by fear, Fenda knew. But she gathered hope from the depths of her being and she weaved it into words. “Is everything okay Seun?” Seun was looking directly at her but he didn’t respond. She tried again, “I didn’t know you came to church at this time. Who are your friends?” One of the men chuckled in response. Fenda began to retreat but they kept coming closer. She swung around and ran to the front end of the church, they ran after her. One of the men went back to bolt the church doors.
She grabbed a brass candlestick and broke off the candles. She quickly slid under the row of pews to her left. She slid the rest of her right foot in just as one of the men made to grab it. It wasn’t much of a hiding place, neither was it going to keep them from getting her but it was going to make it harder, even if only a little. She was not going down without a fight. She rolled around this way and that on the floor under the pews avoiding their grasps, until she was trapped underneath one of the pews. They only had to pull at her legs or arms to drag her out.
Fenda clutched the heavy candle stand tightly, hooked her free arm around the wide leg of the pew and prayed. Soon enough, she felt rough hands grabbing her feet. The person yanked hard. Penda gritted her teeth and held hard. One of the men moved to the end where her arm clasped the leg of the pew and tried to prise it off. Fenda fought until she couldn’t hold on any longer. They dragged her from underneath the pew. Once out, she lashed out with the candle stand as hard as she could and caught the man closest to her on the arm. He doubled over, clutching his arm to his chest. It bought her a couple of seconds to move away. She only ran a few steps when a hand grabbed at her shirt from the back. She turned around and swung the candle stick again but it was caught and yanked from her hand. The person who caught it swinged it and struck her on the side of her head. She fell, hitting her head against the edge of the credence table before slumping on the ground.
In the last few moments of her life, Fenda wondered if her body would ever be found. If Seun and his men will ever be punished. If he would do to her sister, as he did to her. Would he sit at her mother’s table after this, compliment her food and offer to wash the dishes, even as her body was rotting under the earth? She was puzzled, even as she took her dying breath, at why the world for which she had nothing but goodwill, had repaid her with a slow and painful death. She thought of the graduation gown she wouldn’t wear, the home she had promised to build her mother and all the other things left undone. The thoughts seared through her like Seun’s dagger. So that when the fog finally came, she welcomed it. The fog took away the thoughts. The fog took all the pain. The fog brought peace.
Fenda left, and Fenda has found peace where she is. But Fenda’s blood taints the earth upon which we walk. Each time we ask “what was she wearing”, each time we say “she was asking for it”, each time we ask “what was she doing there”, each time we say “I know Seun, he wouldn’t do that”, Fenda’s blood taints our hands too.
If you spend your days being a rape apologist, your hands are dripping with Fenda’s blood. When you eat you lap it up, when you pray you lay your forehead upon it. It is smeared on your clothing and it trails your steps.
It will come back to bite you.