It is past midnight. Maybe 1:00 am, maybe 2:00. I cannot sleep. I close my eyes and hear that my breathing is too heavy, noisy. My body is tight with tension, like a clenched fist. Ironic because I am not strong. I cannot fight. And it feels like I have been crying non-stop for three days straight. Outside my window, dogs bark. They do this every night when the world has hushed, and decent and indecent people are inside dreading the morning. I have never known whether they bark at one another or with one another. They could be having friendly conversation. Or they could be calling each other names, spewing bile at each other because they are no better than us.
I want to sleep but even now as my eyes droop and my hand hesitates, I know that the minute I turn off the lights again and my head is on my pillow, every part of me will brace itself for an attack that never arrives and the nothing of the night will somehow become too noisy to let my dreams take shape.
Fear. Fear everywhere. The fist in my stomach. The heat flashes that leave me winded, struggling to breathe even though I’ve done nothing but sit still. The need to move, the urgency that strikes like lightning and leaves just as quickly. Move, now, any part of your body, because if you don’t you will never be able to move again, and be forever stuck here, captive to the tension in your innards, a slave to something you cannot see. It is fear. All of it fear.
I took a leadership programme at church the year after I left high school and came Out Here. Out Here was exciting, full of possibilities, so much ‘real’ learning to do. The pastor asked us whether humans were inherently good or inherently bad. I thought about all the restored-faith-in-humanity posts I had seen on Facebook. All the good people I knew. The fact that everybody has a story that made them what they are. Even those who rob others of their dignity have something that forced them to join the dark side. The TED talk that told me that there is a fine line between good and evil. I thought the pastor was wrong when he said that humans are inherently bad. I thought it meant something that everyone has the capacity for good.
I was wrong. Humans are garbage.
I suspect depression. I suspect anxiety. I suspect, though I am ashamed of it, PTSD. Ashamed because I am at home with the idea of depression in my system. I am at home with the idea of anxiety in my system. That’s all they say about millennials, isn’t it? We’re all just a bunch of softies who are not hardy enough to survive a world that kills and eats its own. The possibility of these two has been there my whole life, a diagnosis would not be news. But suspecting PTSD feels like fraud. A bit of a stretch. Like disrespect for all those who have seen actual tragedy, experienced real loss…those with valid trauma. I work in mental health—I should know better. I don’t.
Whenever I have a few moments inside my head, I see his face. A faceless face—no details. I couldn’t pick him out of a line-up. Yet his face is there, defiling my thoughts whenever the world goes quiet and I allow myself to think.
My sin was to leave the office early. My sin was to walk home in the 11:00 am daylight. My sin was to think it was okay for me to walk alone on a road that didn’t see too much traffic. My sin was to be a woman. I should have known better; this world was not made for my kind.
I see them too late. A group of about fifty. Young men dressed casually, talking, walking to town because of the right to protest a government that does them no good. I see them too late and by the time I do I have already become their new destination. All I can think about when they are a few metres away from me, on the opposite side of the road, is that Facebook post I saw about how many precautions girls take every day to avoid being raped; and how it is becoming increasingly clear that I, on this day, may have not taken enough.
My whole existence is an attempt to avoid getting raped and yet here I am, face to face with #menaretrash, shrinking myself because that voice in your head tells you that making yourself as small as possible is your only shot at salvation. Don’t provoke the beast. I pretend that I am unfazed, that I am not fighting the urge to run for my life, that I am terrified beyond all comprehension. My step quickens just a bit. Maybe they will catcall but do no more. Maybe they are too focused on No Reforms No Elections to pay attention to an inconsequential girl just trying to get home on a warm Friday morning. Maybe. Maybe.
It is not enough to hope.
I see him break away from the crowd and walk towards my side of the road. I see his red t-shirt and his complexion like mine. I see him passing on my left, on the narrow path, and feel his hand grabbing mine. I am screaming. The only words: Ah-ah, please. Ah-ah, please. Wachana na mimi. Please. Leave me alone. Please. Begging, begging, begging.
I see the rest of the crowd surging towards me. Men. Faceless men. Shouting, shouting, grabbing, touching. For a moment I think how cliché it is that we are struggling right next to a ditch: they can beat me and rape me and leave me there, in a ditch, and turn me into another statistic. And if they did all I would get is a generic headline: Girl assaulted and left for dead by group of rioters; investigations are underway. I would have nothing left and they would walk away, singing praises for their leader, champion of democracy, lives unchanged.
Every time I close my eyes I hear my screams. Ah-ah, please. Ah-ah, please. They try to grab my phone, insult me, use their strength against my lack of it, threaten my whole world. Grabbing, touching, mocking. I don’t let go, somehow. Some of them stand by cheering, there is no rush–it is one against fifty.
Ah-ah, please. Ah-ah, please. Over and over again. Like a scratched CD. Over and over again. Forever.
Now I am heaving, just I was then. Unsure whether there are any tears in my eyes, just as I was then, that day, in the car, after the Uber driver whom my mother says was sent by God to save me had caused the men to disperse before they took everything I had–my phone, my heart, my will to live–and given me a ride home, the sound of his radio drowned out by my sobs. Now the thoughts are jumbled up. Everything starts with What If. Now is mixed with then. I cannot tell what day it is. It is all the same. One long day in the same moment when my life meant nothing.
I am safe, presumably. In my bed. There are no men here, trying to do whatever they would with me. But I close my eyes and all I see is his face, his red t-shirt, the man who would have had the first go at me, and all I hear is the sound of my screams. The tears come slowly.
It is hard to not want peace. A man said on television the other day that revolutions are made from blood and though we are supposed to be willing to lay it all on the line for the Better that we deserve, it is hard to accept that that blood be yours. It is hard to believe in the cause when the people who are supposedly championing the cause are the same ones who will wring the life out of you with a smile on their faces, feeling nothing, caring nothing.
So the middle class are the problem, choosing convenience over revolution. We’ve seen the stories. We’ve seen the dead. We’ve seen the rage that history awakens. But is it so bad to choose yourself, to be a coward, to run, to hide, to lock yourself away, because you’d rather be a sheep for a hundred days than a lion for one?
I have friends who understand Courage. Friends who do not fear death. I have friends who would have disappeared under mysterious circumstances had we been alive when Moi reigned supreme because they would not have shut up. Friends who are ready to give up everything in the name of change, progress, revolution. But I also have friends who cannot answer when the question comes: Are you willing to die for this country?
Humans are garbage. The man in the TED talk was right: there is nobody who is too good to be bad. All of us, under the right circumstances turn, too easily, into the vilest versions of ourselves possible. The psychology of evil. Everybody is a potential thief, murderer, rapist…Those men who attacked me could be the best men their families know. They could be hard workers just looking out for a better day. They could be men of faith. They could be the most cheerful givers and the most honest neighbours and the most loyal friends. But I don’t care. I don’t care. For them or for their cause. I am one of the sheep who just wants all this to be over.
I want to be brave but all I can think about is how my parents would have received phone calls a week ago letting them know that their daughter was found lying in a ditch, another statistic.
My eyes slowly shut and open and my hand pauses too frequently. Yet I cannot sleep. Not willingly. It is 3:00 am. The dogs are quiet and the darkness outside is thick. Morning will come and I will regret it: not being able to sleep, not being able to forget, not being able to be suck it up and be brave. But I will fill the day with things and things until the night is in my chest once again and the fist in my stomach takes my breath away.