Wangu speaks out after the nightmare
By Maryanne Waweru
“What if I had skipped work that morning?” “What if it had not rained and there was no traffic snarl-up in the city?”
This fruitless attempt to re-arrange a traumatic past is a matter that 32-year-old Wangu Kanja is all too familiar with. For almost three years, these “What if?” questions dominated her mind. She spent these dreadful years in a depressed mood, involuntarily drowned in the sea of self-blame following a harrowing attack. These “What if?” questions, for which there were no easy answers, were slowly and insidiously crippling her psyche.
In 2002, Wangu lived through an experience that will be forever etched in her memory. A marketing consultant with a taxi firm in Nairobi, she was pursuing a potentially lucrative transport deal with an important client. Would her company win this tender? She was ready to pull out all the stops — even if it meant travelling late at night.
She remembers that on the evening when she went to meet her business contact, it was cold and rainy, and the evening traffic in Nairobi was heavy. Driving with the man, who was accompanied by his friend, Wangu recalls that the man decided to stop at his house to pick his pullover. Thereafter, the two would drive Wangu home. It was at the man’s gate in Kimathi Estate, Nairobi, that they were accosted by another vehicle.
Suddenly, the four or five men in the other vehicle stepped out and roughly forced their way into Wangu’s car. As they were driven away, the other gang member followed closely in their car. “Perhaps to ensure that they were not followed, the men drove in circles around Buru Buru and Outering area.”
After what appeared like a lifetime, the armed men stopped both vehicles at a dark alley. Shoving and ordering them about, they forced Wangu’s partners into their vehicle and abandoned them. All gang members now drove off with Wangu as their lone captive.
Recalls Wangu: “It was about 10.30pm. As I sat in the company of the four or five strangers, I knew my life was over.” As she explains, staring into open space, it is clear that Wangu is crying. “I made a silent prayer, hoping against hope that some sort of miracle would happen.”
Her fears were somewhat assuaged when one of the men assured her that no harm would befall her because, he said, she was like a sister to them. “There was some sincerity in his eyes,” Wangu recalls. “His tone of voice offered me some comfort.”
Not long after, they reached an isolated enclosure along Jogoo Road, Nairobi, where the gang split up, with some of them leaving for another mission. Wangu was now left under the charge of two men. Inside the enclosure, one man was left manning the entrance as the other walked deep inside with her. She reveals that at that late hour, in the pounding rain, and with a gun to her head, she became a victim of rape.
The following day, a confused and emotional Wangu reported the matter to the police and then headed to hospital for medical care. But while her immediate medical concerns were taken care of, the trauma of the ordeal was too much for her to bear.
Years of intolerable pain
Against her conscience, Wangu recalls, she changed into a person she could hardly recognise. For two-and-a-half years, she drank heavily. “I was what you would call the ‘walking dead’,” she says. “I was so angry, so hateful, so ashamed and so depressed that I didn’t know whether I would ever regain control of my emotions.”
It was during this period that she closed her mind to the whole world. In her solitude, she tried in vain to undo her pain. “What if I had not met that client that day?” she wondered. “What if I had postponed the meeting?” “What if I had skipped work that day?” “What if we had used a different route?” “What if it had not rained?” “What if I fought back…?”
She replayed the events of that evening over in her mind. “I recalled in vivid detail everything that happened,” she says. “I had recurring nightmares and flashbacks.” Was there something she might have done differently to ensure that the man did not force himself on her?
It was after hitting emotional rock bottom and finally accepting that there was nothing she could do to reverse the ordeal that she finally snapped out of her depression. “I was tired of feeling sorry for myself,” she stresses. “After the rape, I didn’t want to live. I was overwhelmed by feelings of shame and regret.” One day in 2005, she recalls, “I woke up and decided that I had had enough of sitting around and wallowing in self-blame.” It was then she sought professional help. That, she says, was when healing began.
Since then, Wangu has been talking openly about her nightmare. Mainly, she speaks in public forums: schools, churches, places of work and conferences. Fearlessly, Wangu shares her story with the aim of creating awareness about the trauma of sexual assault. She also teaches how one can avoid risk situations, and how to survive such an experience and continue to live a normal life.
“Speaking out has been therapeutic for me,” she says. “Not only is it a healing process, but the feedback I get from people nourishes my spirit. When people say that I have made a difference in their lives, it feels rewarding. Many women who have been raped tell me they are too afraid to speak for themselves and are glad that I speak for them.”
A hostile response
In a society that is socialised to shy away from openly discussing sexual matters, and more so to share an individual’s intimate personal experiences, it has not been easy for Wangu. Going public, she says, carries many challenges.
“People have threatened me, telling me that in the African community sexual matters cannot be talked about publicly.” Men and women, she says, have ridiculed her, telling her to stop publicising what they describe as her “shameful experiences”.
Wangu says we live in a society where rape is a subject that many people would rather spurn. The belief is that if one never talks about it, then it will disappear.
Some people have even told her that the alleged sexual assault is a figment of her imagination. “They say that sex is sex, and there is nothing like rape,” she reports. “They tell me that I should instead concentrate on being grateful that I am alive, because many others have been murdered in the process.”
Wangu, who recently set up the Wangu Kanja Foundation, says she is already experiencing opposition from unlikely quarters — women, especially mothers whose daughters have been raped. She explains: “Most perpetrators of sexual violence are people well known to their victims. I have on occasion been warned by mothers against poking my nose into domestic affairs.” Women, she says, are more interested in protecting their family name.
She has encountered mothers who dismiss their daughters’ sexual assault claims as baseless, insisting that the girls are merely seeking attention. “One mother even sent her 17-year-old daughter, who had been repeatedly raped by her father, to a psychiatrist because the mother believed the young woman was a pathological liar and therefore a mental case,” says Wangu.
Wangu, whose foundation works in collaboration with advocacy groups, children’s organisations, hospitals, counselling institutions and legal firms, says that whenever she is reaching out in primary and secondary schools, pupils and students confide in her about formerly undisclosed incidents of sexual assault.
“There is a lot of stigma around rape, fuelled by myths and misconceptions,” she observes. “Society also tends to blame the victim, saying the victim should not have dressed in a certain way, or should not have taken a certain (dangerous) route, or should not have been out past a certain hour, or should not have been drinking.”
Role of family in recovery
Wangu underscores the role of family in the victim’s recovery. Saying the process of recuperating from sexual assault takes time, she stresses that survivors require a great deal of support from those closest to them. “Many times, family and friends also fall into the trap of believing some of the rape myths, especially those that have to do with the victim somehow being responsible for the assault. But they should listen and not be judgmental.”
This, she says, is because the victim is already dealing with shame and guilt, and should not be burdened with condemnation from those closest to them.” She, however, says it is normal for family and friends to have strong subjective feelings following the rape of a close relative, but cautions that they should strive to deal with their emotions appropriately.
“As with the survivor, family and friends of the victims of assault may have strong feelings of anger and even self-blame, but they should guard against venting these emotions on the survivor,” advises Wangu. A survivor, she says, can be twice the victim, first of the rape and secondly of censure and condemnation.
In spite of her trials, Wangu has been lucky to have the support of her family. Immediately after the rape, she says, her sister accompanied her to the hospital. Besides, her parents have been supportive. Hardest hit has been her father, whom she says has had a difficult time accepting that his daughter was indeed raped.
Of her attacker, she says, “I have forgiven him. If I were to meet him today, I would tell him that I forgave him. It is pointless to hold a grudge.”
Wangu, who is still single, says she hopes to get married and settle down in a family someday. You may visit her website here
This article was originally published in The Standard newspaper.