A Personal Narrative

By Shabnam Palesa Mohamed

For the longest time, I hated pink. I blamed it all on my pretty pink dress. The beautiful dress Grandmother had lovingly made for me.

I remember the day clearly, even now. A movie featuring a trusting child. It was the middle of summer in Durban. The sun was shining, birds were singing, flowers were already perspiring. Excitedly, I got ready to go meet my best friend in the upstairs unit of a municipal block in Chatsworth, Durban. I rubbed Snow White cream on my little face, the cream that people of colour used to make themselves look lighter because Apartheid made us believe white is beautiful. And then, the new dress. I wore the new baby pink dress my grandmother made for me. I felt like a princess! Zora Bibi Samud Hoosen was the ultimate self-taught seamstress. Cigarette hanging out of her mouth, every day brought a new customer. She could not write or read much, but everyone left satisfied and preening. “Thank you, Nani, I love it!”, I shouted and twirled around until I was dizzy. She beamed and said, “You are my heart Shabbu”. I skipped upstairs merrily, singing my favourite cartoon song. I think it was Gummy Bears. What a beautiful day.

When I got upstairs, I hugged my friend like I hadn’t just seen her yesterday! She had just applied coconut oil on her thick black plaits. Duskier than me, I thought she was beautiful. We decided to go downstairs to play, like we always did, under Grandma’s watchful eye. The boys in the neighbourhood were known to ogle young girls, sometimes luring them to sit in broken down car shells. We didn’t have fancy toys and technology. All we had was nature and each other. It was enough. Her father sent her to buy bread in the unit across from us. I wanted to go with, I had so much to tell her, about the flowing stream we were not allowed to go to alone, about the delicious eclair sweets Grandpa had got for us, about new cartoons we could watch together. But her deep-voiced father said, “Wait, she will come back just now”. I was sad. But I dared not question him. He had a violent temper, especially when he was drunk over the weekend. I wondered about that. Drunk men who see double, but land the slap, punch or kick. The whole neighbourhood knew about him. Her mother was there, somewhere, in the quiet house. The smell of buttered roti and hot tea wafted in the air. I was hungry, hoping to have some.

We talked for a bit. He asked where Grandma was. And then, he walked towards me. It felt strange. Something was wrong in the way he was looking at me. He seemed hypnotized, like a zombie, but calculated, like an expert. I instinctively pulled my dress down, even though the hem was way past my knees. Inching backwards until I fell over the wooden part at the foot end of the bed in his room, I scraped my arm. I was trapped like a vulnerable fawn in a greedy hunter’s sight. My heart was pounding so hard I thought I would vomit it up. It felt unreal, surreal, or maybe I wished it was. He leaned over and kissed me in my mouth, saying “Shhhh, it’s ok. Nobody has to know. What a pretty pink dress. Is your arm ok?” All I remember was tasting the alcohol. It was revolting. Somehow, I summoned the courage to kick him, between the legs, get up, and bolt. To this day I don’t know how I did this. Maybe he was too damn drunk. Out the door, past his wife, who said nothing, and looked at me like a woman haunted by daily nightmares. I ran and ran and ran, down the stairs, tripping with my dress and cutting my knee, until I got home, collapsing in Grandma’s soft embrace. She knew something was wrong, so she asked what happened. Even at that age, I was too ashamed. How does a 5-year-old know what sexual assault is? “Nothing’s wrong Nani, I’m fine”, I said quietly, trembling like a tulip in a winter breeze. I don’t know if I was convincing her, or myself. I refused to say anything else. I got under the sweltering duvet, and wept like a part of me had died.

It was overcast. The birds stopped singing. I didn’t want to play anymore. And then it rained. My friend didn’t come downstairs to look for me. I didn’t go outside, until a few hours later. I looked upstairs as if I was compelled. I had to. He was standing at the window, I don’t know for how long. Threatening, he wagged a finger at me, a 5-year-old child. I knew what that meant, even though nobody had done that to me before. ‘Don’t tell anyone, or else!’ I was afraid for my family. A couple of days later, I plucked up the courage to tell my best friend everything. She did not, she could not believe me. “He has never done that to me. How can you even say that? You’re not my best friend anymore!” she cried, horrified. Our innocent friendship was never the same. But I always wondered if he molested her too, or her other siblings, or other naive neighbourhood children.

A few years later, I told my family. “Why didn’t you tell us sooner?”, they asked, shocked, hurt, and supportive. It was hard to explain. A few more years later, I came out, publicly, in a newspaper. No more hiding, no more solitude. My grandmother was so proud. It gave her the courage to stand up to him one day, the bully of the neighbourhood, and tell him loudly “I know what you did to my granddaughter, you should be in jail, you bastard!” I hugged her proudly when she told me, tears in our eyes. I never wanted her to blame her beloved self. Who knew if she had experienced abuse too. Generations do. And the cycle continues until someone steps up to break it.

When I was younger, every time I went to Grandma’s, I would feel sick hearing his voice. Swaggering around. He with daughters, and a son. As for his wife, I could not even look at her. What kind of human allows children to be abused? Eventually, I was fortunate enough to learn about children’s rights, and what abuse is. At school, and in the media. I spoke out. I got involved. I defend children. And therein is my healing. Then, when I heard his voice, I was not sickened, but furiously brave. I have not been to my Grandmother’s home much since she passed to the other side. And not at all recently. It’s not the same without her. And she’s with me in my dreams. But one day, I will go there. And I will confront him. Not just for me, but for all survivors of abuse. Survivors who suffer in solitude until they speak up until they stand up to the sickening monsters who haunt our living dreams. Real monsters, in real life, who should be jailed. I tried the police route, but that too was a humiliating nightmare. They asked me to remember the exact date or they would not be able to investigate. They said no court would convict him, or the others. This is why most child and adult survivors don’t speak out.

So many people walk around with stories of all kinds of abuse. Emotional, verbal, harassment, stalking, physical and sexual. Often multiple incidents, often by someone they know and trust. Many confide in me. Sometimes I can see it, even when they don’t say a thing. Often it destroys them because their self-esteem is shattered because they don’t know it’s wrong, because they blame themselves because they have no support. Please, for the love of everything sacred, talk to children, about their rights, about abuse, what they can do to defend themselves, and how to get help. And if you’re an adult who was abused, tell someone, and seek support so you can heal. It is not your fault. It is never your fault. You are loved, and you are brave. I believe you, and you are not alone, in lonely solitude. We are millions saying #MeToo #MeToo #MeToo.

Today, I can wear pink again. I wear it with dignity, compassion, courage and pride. I am the hero I needed growing up. Thank you, Grandma, for everything, I love you forever.

Shabnam Palesa Mohamed is an activist, attorney, author, poet, radio show host and public speaker. She is also the recipient of the Women of Wonder Award 2018.