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Author: Sindi Mbandlwa
Title: The Voice of a Survivor
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
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June 2005
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Source: The Voice of a Survivor

no. ns 2, June 2005
URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.4761530.0010.003

THE VOICE OF A SURVIVOR. . .

Sindi Mbandlwa, independent writer and AIDS activist [1]

Coping with being raped

I am 22 years old. I have one baby boy, who is 6 years old. Some people don't understand what life really is, but I understand it clearly. Life is about what you know and what you want and what you want to do to get the things you want. In life you experience many things, including painful things. And if you experience painful things you mostly gain and learn a lot. I feel so sorry for people who haven't experienced any pain, because they get hurt easily and by small things.

In my life I've experienced too much pain and in the past, I used to fail to overcome it, but now I know how to cope with it. I was able to cope when I understood who I am and who I want to be. If I could share with you what I've experienced, maybe you won't believe me, because of my age and how I look. Before I used to say that life is unfair but since I've learnt more about life I've started to say that life is fair enough for people who clearly understand what life is really about. I have accepted that for me to grow I need painful things to strengthen my backbone. I feel very sorry for people who have a banana bone instead of a strong backbone.

I can compare those people to a child who wasn't breastfed by its mother but drank formula milk. A baby that sucks her mother's breast needs her mother's attention. But sometimes it very painful for the baby to find out that her mother is sick or her breast is hurting when she wants the breast. My life was really miserable when I was younger. When I used to think about my life I used to say "I am cursed" because of the things I'd tasted and experienced in my life. I was born just like other kids and as I grew up things seemed to be okay. My problems started when I was three years old. Things started to change when my mom fell pregnant with my younger brother. She started to become sick so she went to the hospital and she was admitted for a long time and she left me where she was staying with a big family. In that family no one cared about me, so I was alone and when someone sexually abused me continuously and there was no one to help me. I had no one to tell so I kept it to myself. When my mother came back from the hospital she was still too weak to look after me and my baby brother. But I grew up in spite of that situation.

In 1986, I started school when I was 4 years old but I failed grade one and they said that it was because I was too young. I cried because I failed my first year at school. I repeated grade one in 1987 and luckily I passed and I was happy that I was going up a grade. At school other children used to take my lunch box and my pen, which was hurtful. I grew up being an unhappy child and I thought that I would have to feel pain for the rest of my life but I continued with my schooling. In 1990, when I was 8 and in grade four, a war started in the place where I lived and was born, so my brothers and I left school. My mother took us to my granny's house in Pietermaritzburg. My granny was at work and so she left us with grandpa during the day. My grandpa used to send my brothers very far away, but when I asked to go with them my grandpa said that because I was a girl I had to stay at home with him.

When we were alone my grandpa used to sexually abuse me and after that he would say I had to go and have bath. And then he used to say if I told anyone he would kill me and that no one would believe me. After he sexually abused me, he used to make food for me but I couldn't eat it because I would think about what he had done and said to me and his voice whispered in my ears. When my granny came back from work she'd cook supper and dish up for us. She forced me to eat every night and I used to mix my food with tears because I would think about what had happened to me during the day.

My granny used to call me a stupid, lazy and stubborn girl, and she would say she hated that type of person. She would wake me up very early in the morning, at 5 o'clock even though it was cold, as it was winter when we first moved to stay with her. At 5am she would say that I must clean and polish the verandah. After that I had to do the washing and ironing for my brothers and I. I was 8 years old then and I felt useless and worthless. In 1991, we went back home and things got a little bit better. My mom looked for a place for us to rent, where we could stay while she was at work. At that place, the landlady employed many boys to look after her livestock.

All of them used to sexually abuse me, because we shared the same bed. When I woke up in the morning I was tired, and after the disaster of the night before I had to go to school. At school I used to bunk classes because I felt upset because what was happening to me during the night. Because I grew up in that abusive situation, during break I used to look for boys who I could have sexual intercourse with, because I could not live without sex. So I slept with so many boys, not just for money but for also for my satisfaction. When I was doing grade 8, I started sleeping around and with older men. At this time, my vagina got damaged during casual rough sex with an older man. In 1997, I fell pregnant at the age of 15.

That same year, on the 9 of June on my way to school I was abducted by a man who took me to a hostel and showed me a sjambok and a gun. He said I must take off my panties and he sexually abused me and he said if I screamed he would kill me and that no one would find my body. He held me against my will from the morning to the afternoon and then he kicked me out of his hostel and I walked a long distance home. On my way home I thought about what had happened to me and kept hearing his voice in my ears, and I cried all the way. My mom shouted at me and she asked me why I had come home so late but I explained to her what had happened. She took me to the nearest police station and the police officers there took me to Montclair police station, where I wrote a statement and then they took me back to the place of incident. After that they took me to Mshiyeni Hospital, where they checked me and they referred me to King Edward so that I could get the morning after pill to clean my womb (and prevent a pregnancy).

In August 2002, when I found out that I was HIV positive, I tried to avoid stress but in my mind I was busy fighting with every bad memory, because everything came back to me and I felt that that I was a bad person and that God was punishing me. And so I had to learn to live with being HIV positive. After that I joined the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). In TAC, there was a guy called Thabo Cele he took me to the Sinikithemba Support Group for people living with HIV, where I met with different people, who had the same disease as me. He also helped me to understand about HIV/AIDS and how to live positively and how to be open about my HIV status. When I joined Sinikithemba there was a choir that was preparing to go to Boston and I hoped to join them, but couldn't because I joined the group too late.

Anyway, there was a lady at Sinikithemba called Kerry Brezina, who was from Canada. She came to South Africa for practicals at Sinikithemba. One day she helped us with public speaking, after that I asked to talk to her because she was a social worker and she was so nice to me. It was still very painful to me to talk about my life to a stranger but the reason why I chose to talk to her is that I knew that I wouldn't have to face her in the future because she would leave. Anyway she was a good listener so we made another appointment to speak again and she was friendly and cool. But unfortunately she was only staying at Sinikithemba for a short time, so she left and because she was the only one I trusted there it was very hard for me to speak to anyone else.

I also attended a workshop that was conducted by another organization, called Sinani (we are with you), which was facilitated by a lady called Berenice who was a counselor, so after the session I tried to speak to her, but I felt afraid to approach her. Then the following day after the morning session I got the chance to speak to her right before she left but we made an appointment to meet properly where we could sit and talk again. I spoke to her about my rapes and all the troubles I'd been through. We kept meeting until I got to a stage where I felt like I had enough sessions then I stopped the sessions and told her that I didn't need counseling anymore. What surprises me is that even after receiving rape counseling, when I meet people or see them on TV talking about rape and other stuff relating to it I still cry.

At that time, I also had a close female friend and I used to tell her everything that worried me and even cried in front of her, and she used to sing a song for me and hold me and because of that, I felt a bit better because she was so nice to me. But after a while I started feeling troubled by questions that were on my mind, like "why is she so nice and understanding?" and I started thinking that "she wants to hurt you, so you have to hurt her first before she does". So I decided to hurt her badly and I knew that she hated being romantically approached by other women so I approached her saying to her I wanted her to be my woman but that freaked her out so she said to me that we had to stop communicating because she couldn't take it and she said to me she couldn't even look me in eyes so our friendship stopped, but I didn't really mean what I said to her. Later on, I went back to my counselor and I told her about my feelings and everything that had happened. She advised me to go to the hospital to get anti-depressants. Afterwards I found out that my counselor was a professional psychologist and now when I look back, I think that she really helped me a lot.

I am much happier now because after everything that happened between my friend and I, we kissed and made up and I apologized for what I did to her and she also apologized for reacting the she did, so now we are even better friends than before. I've learnt that we haven't all experienced the same pain and problems in life. There are some problems which seem small and others which seem big, but all of them are painful, and hurt terribly. Although earlier in this article about the story of my life, I said we need pain to grow I also don't believe that anyone deserves any pain. But let me say this: I know it's very hard to do, but if you are a survivor of sexual abuse you ought to talk to someone about your life. I think you must cough it out and get help immediately. I'm a survivor too, so I understand clearly that if you are in pain you don't trust anyone. But cough it out and don't kill yourself as it is not worth it: it's like you saying to God that you were wrong in creating me. Remember that there are people out there who need you much more than you think. There is no one who can stand on your platform in life and no one who can play your role, so if you don't keep living for yourself, then do it for others who need you.

The consequences of being sexually abused and raped

If you are raped as a child you face many demons and consequences. You face the problem of isolation and feeling unhappy. You fail to understand who you are and how to be a child, and you just start to feel like an adult because you have been forced to have sex, which is meant to be an adult thing. Sometimes when you are a rape survivor and you go to a psychologist it helps, but you can end up depending on her and feeling like you can't make decisions without her telling you if they are right or wrong. Also, you get scared that if you make decisions on your own it might backfire and it's hard to live like that.

When I talk about the consequences of being sexually abused and raped, I'm speaking from my own experience as I am a survivor of child abuse and rape. I felt a lot older than children my own age and was drawn to older children. When I was in grade one I started to have friends who were in grade four. I did try to have friends my own age but what amazes me now looking back is that when I was in grade seven I used to play with children from grade one, so my class mates used to laugh at me because I was acting like a four year old. Having said that, what was good about me is that I was clever in class and I was not aware of what I was doing in terms of whether it was good or bad, because to me it was all the same.

When I started my high school life became hard, because I had to move from my home in Magabheni and start another life with new people in Lamontville, where everything was fast. Anyway, my cousin and another girl I knew from church were studying at Lamontville High. They were there both doing grade 10 and I was in grade 8, but they were only people I hung out with in my first days at Lamontville High. Since they were in grade 10, it was hectic for them, so during breaks we began to be regularly separated because they were busy studying in the library.

Then high school started getting tough for me. The pupils in my class were nice and some of them were my friends, but I didn't felt comfortable around them and I got very bored because I always saw myself as being much older than them. When I was thirteen, when I was in class and when I stood up when our class teacher asked those pupils in the class who were thirteen to do so, but it felt strange because I didn't feel like I was thirteen. The other kids from my class were always saying that I was a liar when I said I was thirteen, because they thought I was older but hiding my real age. Anyway, I didn't have any idea of how a normal thirteen year old acts; something else very weird is that sometimes I thought maybe my mom forgot about how old I was and what year I was born. When I was seventeen there was another woman I used to know who asked my age and before I even answered she said that I was twenty six and I was shocked that she thought I was that old and when I told her my real age she didn't believe me.

When you have been raped you do not know your identity, by this I mean you don't know who you really are, what you like and dislike, what your style is, or even your character. And some people think you're stupid, which is very painful because if you don't get help, you can't understand what is going on in your life. I am saying this because I've been there and many people make jokes about rape that really hurts us rape victims, because we are sensitive towards many things. For instance, when people say that it's a rape survivor's fault that she was attacked, it hurts her. So I suggest that we should all get help and inform those people around us if we are rape survivors, so that they can support us. And to those people who don't know about rape, be careful of what you say because there are there are rape survivors who lose hope and commit suicide everyday because of what you carelessly said or joked about. Take care of those who have been raped because it is a long journey to healing and it not an easy one.

The turning point

There were times in my life where I saw my life going in a different direction. To be honest, it went on an upturn but mostly in a negative way. So my life was going really badly and I felt more and more bitter everyday. To me, it was like I was born to feel the pain for the rest of my life or I was born to suffer until I died. When I was still young and powerless some heartless people did something traumatic and it was torture to me because I didn't have the strength to stop that terror.

To keep quiet for long is bad, but it is what victims of rape do because they think people won't believe them. Some of us try to show people the signs of rape but some people just ignore us. I was 20 when I started talking about how I was raped from the age of 3. I was at the workshop that was conducted by Sinani at Anerly in Port Shepstone. On the first day it was very hard for me to be surrounded by strangers and everyone else knew someone from the group but I didn't know anyone. People at the workshop were very grateful to be in a place that they didn't know.

At the workshop there was a white lady called Berenice, who is called by the nickname "Bear" by those who know her well. Many of the group members shared their difficult and painful stories and I felt bad and said to myself that there was no way I could share my bitterness and pain with them and I said to myself "Oh! It good for them to share but not for me" After the session I wanted to talk to the lady running the workshop, but I didn't because I just feel scared of her, but the following day after the morning session I went and spoke to her, but unfortunately she was leaving for a meeting, so we made an appointment to meet and talk. When we started sessions at first it freaked me out that she used to say nothing much. She used to say "I am so sorry for what you've been through Sindi" and she also said that "It was not your fault" while I was though it was my fault.

We kept meeting and talking now and again, but looking back I can now I see that she did a good job of listening and to watching me try to open up. It was very hard for me at first to show my feelings in front of her. She saw me trying to hide my feelings and she said "Sindi, you don't have to hide your feelings, if feel like crying just cry". After she said that, I felt flooded with tears that I couldn't stop. Anyway, for me to speak about the torture was very hard.

But now my life is very different because everyday I am open to positive changes. Counseling was the turning point in my life, because having gone through it I am no longer the young girl I used to be anymore. I am now a grown woman who is working hard and looking towards the future and a healthy and successful life. In years to come, I dream of owning a double story mansion and staying with my son and other children that I wish to adopt, because I hate to see people suffer, especially children, I was once a child that suffered. I have soft spot for children and I love them .These are the reasons why I am saying I have passed a turning point because before I used to feel self-pity and I felt I had nothing to look forward to but now I'm changed.

Something to live for

There are things in life which make us ask "why have I been burdened with this"? Sometime we see those things as obstacles, not gifts. Maybe sometimes we think that something is too big for us to deal with as individuals and sometimes we even look down upon ourselves. But what I've learnt is that if ever I receive something in life even if it looks bad or good to me, I must learn to appreciate it, because it all works out for good in the end.

When you're busy beating yourself trying to find an answer for your big why and end up losing the gifts life has given you, you have regrets. When I was still young and naïve I fell pregnant when I was 15. At that time, I asked myself why God had let me fall pregnant? The reason I asked myself that question is because I've seen so many married women with difficulties having children, so why had I fallen pregnant so young and without being married? I felt really bad about it that I got seriously ill because I beat myself up about it so much and I went to the hospital. I stayed in hospital for a long time and I thought I would die and go to hell. At that time I said to myself it would be better for God take the baby and keep me alive. When I was 7 months pregnant they induced me into labor because I was very sick and the baby's heart was beating too slowly. My son was born at 11:45 pm on Christmas Eve and I named him Philangenkosi, because God had let him live.

The day after giving birth, I was in terrible pain, but the doctor came to me and said the hospital was short of beds. This meant that I had to leave the hospital early, in terrible pain, so I phoned my mother to come and fetch us from hospital. In spite of that situation I was damn happy that there was nothing in my stomach. I felt like I had found a part of myself that I'd lost: I felt free and it was good. But as time passed, I didn't feel that happiness, because the next year I was supposed to go to back school to finish my studies. All I could think about was who would take care of my baby when I was a school. The first few months, my mother helped me to feed and bathe my baby and she even helped out at night when the baby was crying. When he was three months old, my mom couldn't help me because the baby was crying a lot and where we was staying the owners said they didn't want to hear the baby's crying. So I had to take him to stay with someone I'd never met before. Anyway I had to trust her with my baby because I didn't have choice.

To take my baby son to a stranger made me to feel like a bad and irresponsible mother. So I use to travel to visit him every month in Port Shepstone and brought him food and see him so that I could feel like a part of his life as he grew up. He stayed there for about three months, but one day when I came to find him he was so ill that he couldn't even breathe properly and he was very dirty. The lady who was supposed to be looking after him was not there and she'd left him with her 10-year-old daughter. So I took him and held him and I was upset about my son's ill-health, so I bathed him and I dressed him in clean clothes and I took him back home with me. When we arrived at home my mom was shocked to see him with me and she didn't even care about what the people we were staying with might say, because of his ill-health. I was so scared that he might die and I would not be able to forgive myself because I would think that it was all my fault and see myself as a bad person. After I took him back, I found a crèche for him, near to my school. I took him with me to school, which was hard because he was like a piece of heavy luggage on my shoulder. But when he started to walk I felt happier because when he was very young and I carried him to school I felt like I hated him but as he grew up I began to see him as a very beautiful, cute little boy and as my baby. I said to myself what a good thing I have a child in my life that makes me so happy. I just say it's good that I didn't abort him and that God didn't answer my silly teenage prayers.

My son now is 6 and doing grade one and he loves school so much, even more than I did. To me he is a good friend, a brother, because we love each other and he doesn't like to see me in pain. He is very brave and intelligent and he's something for me to live for.

Me and my sexuality

I started having sex when I was very young because I was sexually abused from the age of three and because I was a baby and I didn't choose or wish to. If an older person has sex with a child that person kills that child's inner being, her future and her self-confidence.

I remember one time, it was after I slept with one guy, I caught a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and I had to stop having sex and I went for an HIV test, at that time I was HIV negative, but a few months later when I got an infection that didn't clear up, I went to the hospital the doctor told me to go for another test than my result came and I am HIV positive. I was shocked after that I told myself I wouldn't ever have sex again because the nurse told me to abstain and I thought she was right. I wish I'd had access to better post-test counseling to make the better choices.

I wanted to have a boyfriend, but I felt scared. Anyway, later that year, I had a boyfriend and I loved him but what surprising is that we got together because I approached him and found out that he also loved me but was too scared to tell me. After I told him about my feelings for him we kissed. It was cool and that I found someone special to have sex with. So everything went on I was excited in our first night out and I thought it felt like times I'd had sex before but I was wrong, I don't whether he had too big a penis or whether it was because of how I'd been injured in the past when I used to sleep around, by a man who had had rough sex with me, but it was too painful and after having sex once I was bleeding so I went to the bathroom to wash myself. In the shower, I had flashbacks of past abuse. I felt so angry and I didn't know what to do but I cried a lot and I suddenly remembered the nurse's voice telling me never to have sex again after being diagnosed HIV positive and I said to myself "she was right so no more sex for you".

After the trauma of sex I told myself that "we must break up" and the following morning when we woke up and he asked for "morning glory" I told him I couldn't do it and he accepted it but I knew deep down I didn't want our relationship to go further. So I called him a week later, and I said to him that I wasn't ready for any relationship, but when he asked me why I couldn't give him an answer, so he said to me if it's what I wanted he accepted my choice and we broke up. After that I said to myself "boyfriends and me" are history.

After that relationship, I met with a lesbian lady and we became good friends: in her relationships she was the guy who approached the girls. She told me about the advantages of being lesbian so I thought maybe I should get a girlfriend. So one day she introduced her girlfriend to me and she was out with another female friend, after that I felt something for her friend so they gave us space and we talked and I saw that she felt something for me too but she was scared of me and because of that we didn't date. I think that making love to a woman is not just about sex and that at least with a woman there is no pain. But I think my sexuality, is a big thing to think about, but I know maybe one day I will meet the right person and have sex in the right way.

Is he the guy for me?

He was a Xhosa guy, dark in complexion with dreadlocks and glasses on his big eyes. When I met with him I felt great about him and I was on top of a mountain because he was the first guy I felt in love with and I thought I would spend the future with him after all the drama in my life. So I thought everything would go according to my wishes, because I usually thought that an HIV-positive person doesn't smoke or drink but I was wrong about that. When I met him I told myself that I would be happier than ever but I was wrong.

I hate alcohol because my father used to drink and it made him do some very horrible and unpleasant things and the next day he would make alcohol an excuse for his bad behavior, and he would say "I was drunk I didn't know what I was doing". So when I saw this guy drinking, I always thought that maybe he would act the same as my father did. Now I am not even sure if I love him and sometimes I even feel like breaking up with him but at the same time I am scared to hurt his feelings. But other times I think that I'm over-reacting, and actually there is nothing I fear about being hurt by the someone I love so that's why I hate to hurt my loved ones.

Sometimes I feel like he's bossy and when he asks me to do something for him I do it, but when I ask him to do things for me, he makes excuses and end up not doing them. If I don't do what he asks me to do, he gets angry with me. I remember one time he wanted me to meet his friend when I made excuses he just said I had to, so I did. When one of my friends wanted to meet with him he agreed and even called my friend, but on the day we'd planned the meeting, he didn't bother calling me and when I called him he just lied to me and I had to make an excuse to my friend and I felt disappointed. When we went out together with friends and one of them would ask me how I felt about something, or what my views were on an issue, he wouldn't give me a chance to speak and would answer for me. There was another time when he forced me to have sex with him without a condom although I wanted to use one. He didn't listen to me and he enjoyed himself having sex with me without a condom, so I caught an infection and he made me realize that he is not the one for me. I think I have problems when it comes to finding a man and it's really not my scene, so I've chosen to forget about guys.

But now I am bit confused, whether I should end the relationship, or continue and see what happens, because it could be just the beginning of a good thing, because most people usually say if a relationship starts well it ends badly, but sometimes if starts badly it ends well. I am not sure about which direction to take things with this guy of mine, and sometimes I feel like I don't want to do things and fear that I will regret every minute of it. It's hard to find a good guy in these days and I've come to the conclusion that he is not the guy for me and I guess many people might agree that he is not the guy for me.

Unloved

Since I was born I've experienced this feeling of being unloved by the people around me, my friends, my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and colleagues in different fields I've been in. Even by those who have been my lovers or called me their girlfriend. Although many different people have asked me to be their lover, I've only agreed once or twice, thinking that I would feel that love, but what I've experienced is just infatuation and lust because after having sex with them that love goes away

To me, what they like is my vagina, not all of me (including my mind and my personality) and them not appreciating me fully is very disturbing and it makes me feel like a hooker. And it also has a very negative effect in my life, as a whole, and it has makes me feel very confused. I don't know its something I've been born with as a woman and must accept, or because of any wrong doing by me. I even feel like other people who don't want to have sex with me just use me: that I am useless to them after they get what they want from me. If I don't do what they ask me to do I feel bad about it. I usually find it hard to say no to people because if I say no, I feel bad about it and I end up going to them apologizing for saying no.

So I end up doing things to please people so that they will love me. There are people who say they love me but it's very hard to believe them because of this "unloved" feeling I have within me. Anyway I've sometimes told myself that I don't deserve to be loved by people, so I've tried to love people first so that I will be loved. I've tried to give my love to people but I end up hurting myself because maybe they think I'm just after something from them. It is very painful to feel unloved, unwanted and unwelcome.

Sometimes I've called myself "nobody's friend" because when I tried to think about who my friends are I can't think of any and when I think about it I usually cry because of feeling bitter. In spite of that I try to give the best of my love to my son Philangenkosi and those who let me show my love to them like some women I met in my life, those women like Nonhlanhla "dinhlaks" Xulu, Liz Donnery, Karin Hoiland and Kerry Brezina those women who have make me realize that there are people who love me.

What I would like to say to people who are facing similar problems is that there are people who love and appreciate you just the way you are and for who you are. They might not be in your community, or your family and friends and they might be on the other side of the country, or in another province, or even in another country: who knows? Don't kill yourself. Take good care of yourself because I think you are such a wonderful person, even though we've never met.


Sindi Mbandlwa is an independent writer and AIDS activist. She is currently enrolled in a Women's Leadership Training Program run by the Gender AIDS Forum. She would like to thank Mandisa Mbali, Amanda Alexander, Mark Hunter and Richard Pithouse for help in publishing this account of her life. CCS is publishing Sindi's piece about her life on our list and website to mark the 16 Days of Activism against violence against women and children and World AIDS Day. Please address correspondence to: sindimbandlwa@yahoo.com.

NOTES

1. This article was originally published as Sindi Mbandlwa. "The Voice of a Survivor: World AIDS Day and 16 Days of Activism Special". Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal, 2005 http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs/default.asp?3,28,10,1851, and is published here by permission of the author.

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