“I hope you don't mind me asking, but have you ever been sexually abused?”

“We don’t have pedophiles in Africa… do we?” 

“Why do you care so much about childhood sexual abuse?”

 

A few years ago I started an non-governmental organization with the mission of opening the conversation on the delicate, and unfortunately tabooed topic, of childhood sexual abuse within the African contexts.  Its name was Le Projet Ecoute, and over three years of growth, its mission expanded from raising influential awareness about child sexual abuse to providing empowerment through education for children, caregivers, and parents in the Guinean community.  Our growth saw us develop skills and tools to provide psychological support to identified child survivors.

Still, every now and then I am asked questions like the ones above.  To answer them, I usually tell stories - some personal, others that have been told to me - from both before and after I started Le Projet Ecoute.  I tell stories because I believe they have great impact; to quote the author, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie: "Many stories matter.  Stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize.  Stories can break the dignity of a people.  But stories can also repair that broken dignity."

I share this story today in the hope of providing some insight to the issue, as it helped me acknowledge the nuance of sexual predators and sexual abuse. 

pe·do·phil·i·a

ˌpēdəˈfilēə,ˌpedəˈfilēə/

noun

noun: paedophilia; noun: pedophilia

sexual feelings directed toward children  


As an 8th grader, I don't recall if I knew exactly what a pedophile was. I don’t recall ever being told for sure.  So, when I met Mister James*, the tall man with a mustache who would be our new English teacher, he simply seemed like any other adult to me - there were absolutely no particular red flags about him.

I was your average 11-year-old girl, skinny and physically underdeveloped for my age.  Very early on, I could tell that Mister James liked me; but at first I didn’t sense anything suspicious about the very good grades I’d received in his class – after all, I was above-average in English proficiency for my age.  But this liking I attributed to my above average proficiency of English. But Mister James’s fondness for me was so apparent that even the other girls in my class tried to rationalize why, and often. 

I soon learned that Mister James moved in the same housing complex as my family's driver.  For some reason or the other, my journeys home always rerouted via Mister James’s house after I was collected from school - the driver had the habit of rushing into his home, and I’d in the car for him to return.  I’d never wait for much longer than five minutes, but during this time, Mister James would usually appear.  At first, I'd simply wave at him to say hi, and he would just wave back to me.  After a few weeks of waving back and forth, he started coming up to me to talk.  He would lean over the window - always shirtless - and chitchat as if we were old friends.  Despite my youth, I found this odd as I literally had nothing to say to this adult outside of my classroom.  So, I thought of something we could discuss: American music.  At that point of my life, I pretty much lived for MTV, and I loved trying to figure out the translations of the lyrics.  I’d recite lyrics and he would translate; soon I was printing out pages of lyrics for him to explain to me. 

Mister-James liked translating explicit lyrics to me.   He would lean through the window, a bit closer to me every day, and explain them to me.  Sometimes, he would stroke my cheek.  Whatever he saw, the driver would never say anything. 

I quickly became uncomfortable with this newfound attention from my teacher, so I stopped printing lyrics.  But instead, my teacher began placing requests.  He would give me names of the songs to print out.  Usually, they were love songs. 

On one occasion, Mister James gave me some new lyrics in an envelope, written in English on one side of the page, and translated to French on the other.   And then, at the bottom, a note: 

“This is how I feel about you,” it began. 

He went on to write that he was in love with me, and maybe we could make plans to meet outside of school.  I remember exactly how I felt at that very moment: stuck right between dumbfounded and horrified, with chills down my spine.  My childish mind, unable to make sense of my thoughts, betrayed me.  I questioned my grades, my innocence, the lyrics. Did I start this?, I wondered, Can adults really be in love with children? Did he think I was in love with him? 

I was afraid someone would find out, so I burned the letter.  I received many more, even after I told him that I would tell my parents.  Then, the summer break came and I found solace in an unlikely hero -  my driver.  Mister James, without opportunity to give me his disturbing love letters at school, decided to give one to my driver to pass on.  I don’t know why, but on this day, my driver decided that he had gone too far.  He did not pass on the letter, and when Mister James asked him for an update some days later, he replied: “I don’t know what you wrote in there, but since Kadija is away, I gave it to her father who will soon travel to see her.” 

Then, he added: “I have never seen her father so mad.  When I left, he was talking to the police and his good friend, who is an army commander.” 

In retelling this story, my driver laughed, a bit nervously, before adding that Mister James had moved out that same night.

In the end, I don’t know how much our driver knew about the letters, and I will never be entirely sure why he helped me the way he did.  I do suspect why he never told my parents, why he never confronted the man, or told the police: he chose to make light of a very serious and potentially dangerous situation, one that could have escalated to a physical and sexual infraction on a minor.  We are essentially the product of our societies, our communities; and in many countries - mainly in the global south, including my home country of Guinea - sexual assault on women and children often goes unreported. The crime is stripped of its seriousness, banalized.

It is common for a child victim to end up married to the aggressor to preserve the family honor; as if the child’s life wasn’t to be honored, as if marriage wasn’t in this case a sentence to the victim.  These stories rarely make the news, whereas stories of unpunished rapists more popular.  Nobody likes to think that a system is biased against the victim, or that otherwise good people can look the other way when a child is harmed because it is “too difficult” to help.  For all these reasons, and more, I didn’t know how to react to the advance of a pedophile, the driver didn’t know how to react to an adult unabashedly courting a child, and Mister James - although he never spoke to me again - came back to teach after the break.  

I believe we must make more meaningful progress in the fight against gender-based violence that sees children victimized, through acknowledging the violence of silence and highlighting the kinds of environments that foster it.

Not long ago, I went to an elementary school to teach a workshop for children on sexual abuse prevention.  Mister James teaches there now.


 

*Names have been changed.

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