Amina (not her real name) had crept silently into the alcove at the back of my house and had sat there as still as a corpse.
It was five years ago. I had delayed going out early that day. I was getting ready to prepare breakfast for myself before commencing my journey to Abuja. I opened the back door and was shocked to see a young girl sitting with her head between her knees, rather unmoved by the sound of the opening of the back door. She looked unkempt in her school uniform. I could tell from her uniform that she was from a boarding school. Her bruised feet were masked with red dust and some blood. She hugged a small bag with some clothes in it close to her chest.
There were stories about young children who would play victim only to lure an unsuspecting helper into the hands of the ruthless gang to which they belonged. I wondered, could this be one of those bizarre cases? Or was she truly in need of help?
"Why aren't you in school? How did you get out of school? And what are you doing, hiding here?" I scolded.
She looked up slowly in my direction while avoiding my eyes, and I could see that she had bruises on her face too. She wore a confused, traumatized and distant look. But her voice was bold.
"Please, I don't want to go back to school." said the disheveled young girl. And my heart broke.
Upon further careful questioning, she shared some more heart-rending details. I realized she had escaped from school to find her mother. But she confessed she didn't know where she was at the moment, so she had sat down to rest a bit before continuing her journey. She was 13 years old.
She told me her father had divorced her mother after falsely accusing her of infidelity, and that her mother was forced to leave her behind with her father. This kind of departure is in line with a certain tradition in Africa which grants custody of the child/children to the father automatically after a separation between spouses unless the father disowns the child/children. Her father had done this because he wanted to bring in another woman, who was much younger, as his wife, and he didn't want the burden of being married to two women.
But there was another sinister intention behind her father's wickedness. He wanted to abuse his daughter, unrestrained. So he had put Amina in a boarding school (much to the delight of the new wife), and had made arrangements with the school Matron and the Security Gaurd. Whenever it was Visiting Day, Amina's father would come pick her up to an undisclosed location under the guise of taking her for medical check-ups, and he would have his way with her. Then he would return her to her school, pay his partners-in-crime the remaining half of the agreed sum of money, and leave until the next Visiting Day. Visiting Days at the boarding school were once a month.
I think about how foolish the new wife was. How could she ever even think for once that she and her children would be safe? How could she live with herself, knowing what she had allowed another woman's daughter to suffer? How could she?
Amina had escaped through a hole in the school fence on the night after one of such nightmarish days. She had walked miles and miles to get to the suburbs to find the home where her mother worked as a maid, but had lost her way and had ended up at the back of my house.
Embittered, I promised her she wouldn't have to go back to that school. I told her to wait there for me while I prepared her something to eat. I made her fried yam and eggs and some tea. She ate quickly. She hadn't eaten for days. When I came back a short while later to ask if she needed more, I found she had moved closer to the wall inside the alcove and had fallen asleep on the floor.
While I watched her sleep for a few seconds, I remembered how I had been in a similar situation, but the people I approached for help onlyloathed me and drove me away. They did that because they perceived that I was just an irresponsible junkie trying to get free food and money, but they had perceived wrongly. I was on my own back then. I didn't want to see little Amina in the same situation, especially since she had ended up at the back of my house. I noticed blood stains on the floor where she had sat earlier. It came from under her. I resolved to do all I could to help this beautiful little stranger.
I phoned a gynaecologist friend who was well known for her contributions to the empowerment of women at the National Council for Women's Development Societies and asked her to come down to my house urgently to help a lost and battered child I had chanced uponmeeting. She soon drove in, with another friend in hercar.
After we had talked, we went to speak to Amina at the back of the house to gently convince her to tell us how to find her mother and to follow us to my friend's clinic for tests and treatment. My friend had kits for rape victims which were government approved but were not available in the government-funded hospitals. Amina gave us the address of her mother's workplace. My friend called a soldier friend of hers, a senior officer who was one of the sponsors at the National Council for Women's Development Societies, and narrated the story to him. He sent in four heavily armed soldiers. Two of them escorted us to my friend's clinic, while the other two went to find the girl's mother.
I was relieved to find that Amina wasn't pregnant and that my friend could prove forced sexual entry due to the presence of severe lacerations in the upper vagina. Amina was given medication for bacterial infections and STDs (which were already gaining ground in her body) and pain relievers but was not cleaned up until her mother arrived, so she could see her daughter as we had found her.
It was a bitter-sweet reunion.
At the police station, the authorities wouldn't go after Amina's father to bring him to justice. They argued that we had probably made the story up to rid ourselves of the shame that Amina's conduct had brought upon us. There are no evidence collection kits for rape victims or forensic facilities for DNA testings in Nigeria to prove the identity of the assailant, and the authorities argued that since Amina wasn't pregnant and didn't have any medical records to prove she was healthy before the assault, it only made our claims more disputable. The mother was advised to "please, teach your daughter well."
Once again, the perpetrator got away.
This encounter with nonchalant medical staff and insensitive security officers only increased the trauma on the minds and hearts of mother and daughter. I focused on consoling them.
I got home late that day. After reflecting on the events of the day a bit, I went to the back of my house to wash off the blood stains on the floor left thereby Amina. I saw something that moved me to tears again and gave me an even firmer resolve to fight for women and children.
Amina had found a piece of charcoal and had scribbled some words on the floor for me. She wrote in Hausa, "You are so kind. You did not send me away. God bless you. Thank you so much."
We relocated Amina and her mother to a house close to her mother's workplace in the suburbs. I poured my time into helping Amina pick up the pieces of her life to create a beautiful mosaic again. I religiously kept follow-up visits with her two, sometimes three, times every week for a whole year. I shared my experience with her. It took a while, but Amina began to respond to me.
No one else would do it. PTSD is as yet an ailment of little to no significance in my country. People still think it's a myth. They still do not realize the impact that domestic or sexual violence can have on the mind. If you act like you are traumatized, you are considered a weakling or an opportunist. I had to pull myself together in my day, all by myself. I walked the path alone. It was a terrible experience, but what else could I do? This experience now helps me when I reach out to help the traumatized because I know where they've been and I know where they are and where they need to be, and I can show them how to get there if they let me.
When Amina was ready to re-enter society, my doctor friend and I put her in a day school. Amina tested negative for HIV months later. Amina now also takes part in skills acquisition activities organized by the National Council for Women's Development Societies and even helps encourage and teach other battered women and girls. Seeing Amina today gives me joy. I love the way she hugs me and calls me by my first name.
Don't let prejudice and insecurities and personal schedules, or even unforgiveness and bitterness from past wounds, keep you from listening to the cry of a needy person with whom you happen to cross paths. Somebody needs you today. You never know, you just might be their last hope.
Be bold. Be present. Get involved. Take the time to light up someone's world today.