We were planning to go the village from the city for a long weekend, I cannot remember whether it was for some event, but my parents in the 1980s were active members of a group of people who sought different aspects of development for the village, the people and the community at large.
Within our nuclear family then, even though my uncle and his family lived downstairs, we had a house help or to use the colloquial expression, a house girl, let’s call her Rukayah. My family being a senior corporation man, had two official cars and a driver, let’s call him Billiamin, who lived close by, but by terms was essentially a member of the family.
This defines the typical household, the parents, the children, the relations both close and distant, the helps; domestic in the home, in the garden, the security personnel and the driver, an ill-defined hierarchy where everyone appears to know their place with the parents at the top.
That morning, my mother went to have her hair done whilst my father went to work, just before noon, the driver came over and I cannot say why my siblings were not at home apart from the youngest in the care of our house girl. As it transpired, my cousin and I who were both at home had to take a message to my mother at the hairdressers and leaving Rukayah, Billiamin, and my youngest sister at home, we went for my mother.
Her hair was only half done, however, we were made so welcome that we stayed at the hairdressing salon until her hair was finished, before we all walked back home. On getting home, I was probably the only one who noticed that Rukayah’s hair was messed up and she looked dishevelled. At the back of my mind, I suspected something had happened whilst we were away, but I kept it at the back of my mind.
A few months after that day, I was called into my mother’s bedroom with Rukayah in a state of distress. As women of a certain age in Nigeria do notice, apparently, the whites of the eyes of Rukayah were prominent, she was getting lethargic, spitting constantly and probably showing signs of morning sickness. She was pregnant.
As our motherly folk are wont to do, the interrogation of the subject is the equivalent of the Spanish inquisition, question following question without pausing for an answer, genuflection, and histrionics at full tilt and in the process, my good name was inadvertently besmirched when my mother asked Rukayah whether I was responsible for her nascent baby bump. There was an ‘how dare you?’ look on my face and my mother listed every male resident and visitor except the dog.
I do not think we got to the truth in that session, but it turned out that Billiamin was responsible and it very well could have been that day when my mother went to the hairdressers. At least, that is what clicked in my mind as the state of Rukayah when we return from the hairdresser.
There is no doubt in my mind that Rukayah was sexually assaulted and raped by Billiamin, however, how my parents dealt with the matter cannot singularly be unique in a Nigerian household.
Billiamin was summarily sacked and that became his punishment for rape. It goes without saying that an undercurrent of shame and embarrassment dictates the way such issues never end up in a police docket and that extends to child sexual abuse and other related forms of abuse.
Within a week, an abortion was procured for Rukayah and she was sent back home probably with the report that she had been a bad girl. Then again, difficult as this story is to write because it involves close family and making it fictional storytelling takes away from the palpability of the situation, this was not the first time a house boy or house girl had been returned after offence or victimisation by my parents for events under our roof.
This rapid clean-up of a mess and deft extrication from culpability and responsibility typifies the illusion of perfect households we attempt to portray. Putting these people out of sight and they having no recourse for any justice than the fate delivered to them by their paymasters is the end of the matter for the paymaster but possibly the beginning of a new hell for Billiamin and Rukayah.
Billiamin should have been handed to the law with the allegation of rape beyond the betrayal of trust as a member of our wider family to have committed a heinous act in our home. He got away scot free and maybe for a short period was out of work before he found other opportunities. The possibility that we might have been vulnerable to vindictive reprisals probably never occurred to my parents, Billiamin lived hardly a kilometre away.
On the part of Rukayah, we never saw or heard from her again. A poor girl under the guardianship of my parents and possibly a breadwinner for her family in some distant hamlet where part of the promise of the job would have been to give her opportunity she would never have had in her village. I say this because we have had other house helps that my parents sponsored through secondary school and mentored thereafter.
Rukayah in the harsh reality of the times had become a victim twice of first rape and then the punishment for what she had no control over. It is also instructive that maybe under threat or fear when she was raped, she was unable to tell anyone of her ordeal. She lived with that dilemma until it was impossible to conceal the consequence.
The case of Billiamin and Rukayah because it happened to servants rarely just sits in that spectrum, the same happens to wards and children with them being taken advantage of by trusted people who are brought into the suppose safety of the household and have the opportunity to exploit that trust to deleterious effect.
The perpetrator gets a bye by exclusion from the family unit when discovered, the victim, however, receives no help beyond physical examination for a possible violation whilst the victim is given the impression that they are responsible for their shameful plight. I have not seen any household where professional help has been sought in terms of psychiatric intervention or therapy to begin a healing process from the abuse.
Time exacerbates it
The assumption is time heals everything or the child will eventually forget, what is closer to reality is the scars run deeper and the damage is more lasting. If eventually in adulthood the victim finds any help, that old episode in their lives is already defining of their outlook and a consummate moderator of any relationships they go on to form.
Sadly, apart from the physical, no much is noticed of emotional and psychological change in people after abuse and with no one to share these rotten experiences with either out of fear or being castigated as liars this cycle of abuse continues with little knowledge gained as how to tackle these matters until survivors of child sexual abuse and sexual assault in a trusted environment begin to talk about it.
Telling the story
I can only wonder what became of Billiamin and Rukayah who are representative of a wider injustice that has thrived through generations of silence, shame, exculpation, dereliction of responsibility and the pretence of the ideal in a messy and embarrassing household infraction.
That story and many others I have observed remain ones that have to be told eventually. How we tackle abuse in terms of the abuser and the victim still utilises the primitive and uncivilised in spite of enlightenment and knowledge, just to avoid shame and embarrassment. With it, we lay the foundation for more abusers to prey on vulnerable victims.
With hindsight, I cannot pass judgement on my parents, but there is no doubt that if such issues occur today, they must be much better handled than they were them. The abuser must face justice and the victim must have all the support they require to get beyond their ordeal. Too many damaged lives exist because nothing productive was done for the victim.