Stolen Childhood: Outing the Menace of Sexual Abuse in Liberia

I watched my daughter’s twinkling eyes as she excitedly blew out the candles on her birthday cake. As she blew, I exhaled. This was her eighth birthday. A moment of excitement for her and me. But, as I watched the scene, I had a moment of deep refection. My memory of being eight is one of pain.

At eight, I was sexually abused.

At the time, I had no idea what it was, or what it meant. I did not even think much about it. In fact, it seemed “normal”. I guess my eight-year old mind could not fathom people that I knew – that I would run to when afraid; that I would hold onto for support; that represented what was good; that my parents would leave me with to guide and to protect me – would not do abnormal things to me. I was abused by people in my home I trusted – people my parents trusted.

I knew them. They were not guests or strangers. They were relatives. Family.

Like many Liberian homes, mine was often filled with relatives. An aunt from up country for a weekend would end up staying for months “visiting”. A nephew whose parents could not afford to send him to school would be sent to our home “to help out”. A cousin who finds herself down on her luck would “stop by for awhile”. They became a part of the household. Their children became brothers and sisters.

Then there were the other people in the home. The nurse (housekeeper) who manages the home, cooking, cleaning, shopping, and supervising daily chores. Then there is the “houseboy” who does yard work, runs errands, and other menial works. So my home was never empty, always filled with family.

Family. I do not seem to recall fear in their eyes, nor did they seem nervous. It was as if they were doing what was expected of them. The reality is that I did not know I was being sexually abused, but, I did come to recognize the signs much later.

Alas! Much too late.

My mom worked full time with a very affluent organization. She was gone most of the day and usually got home at night. We had very little time during the week for as much interaction as I would have liked. She had to work, and would often return tired. As such, my rearing was split between the various aunts, cousins and nurse who were always around. “We will tell your ma oh”, was the overused line to put me straight. I would be reported to her for misbehaving, and my mom would be called in when I was being difficult.

We will tell your ma oh” was more than an inconsequential threat. It represented the disciplined involvement of my mother. It was not a moment of judgment between me and anyone elderly. It would be punishment time. I soon learned to be obedient, kind, tolerant and trusting of my older relatives to avoid the punishment that would be handed down after “telling” my ma.

me and mama
My mom & I

I adored my mom. Most of everyone who knew her, even superficially, tell me I look just like my mother. It makes me feel really good in a way. She was this beautiful woman that I wanted to be like. Tall, always smiling, smelled good and dressed nicely. I would go sit and watch her dress for work, or for a social event. I would watch her put on her makeup, and try to do the same. She would afford me a disarming laugh and say “you’re not ready for that yet”, and gently proceed to take the colorful palette from me. Such was the picture of my household at the age of eight.

The overflowing memory came rushing back as I looked at my eight year old. And rather than the joyful and celebratory moment now presented, I slipped to my past. No less than thirty years later, the stinging image was as real as today. Shelved in an inner recess of my mind, the memory just seemed to burst to the fore. As I looked at my daughter, I saw me being molested and abused. I saw my innocence taken. I saw my trust broken. I saw my mind and body violated.

I had shelved it. But I have been unable to forget it.

It may seem difficult to understand but the truth is that I did not know at the time that it was bad. I did not know that I was being molested. I did not know that I was being abused. Of all my childhood memories, suddenly as I looked at my daughter, at eight, this one hit me unexpectedly hard. With such clarity that I could actually recall the color of my dress so long ago as the repressed memories rushing back.

The first time I was molested, John (alias) was the culprit. John was a relative who had come from Lofa to “go to school”. He asked me to sit with him atop the manhole which was under the bathroom window.

“Come sit on my lap” John said. I did.

Pointing to the blooming plum tree he said “bigger girl you really learning how to climb tree good good now oh, come go pic me plum to eat”. I was excited being praised and called a “bigger girl”.

Just as I got up, anxious to show off my climbing skills, he pulled up my dress, pulled down my panties a little, and put his fingers on my vagina.

I was frozen. I said nothing. I did not react.

My silence and lack of response may have embolden him.

He touched me again, lingering a bit more, then removed his hand, and quickly pulled up my panty. I just looked at him. Blanked. No thoughts. No sense of what had happened. No response. I cannot imagine what he saw or sensed in my reaction or lack thereof. But I recall him putting his fingers to his nose and smelling it. I just stood there. Waiting.

Then he smiled and said, “Go pick my plum now”.

So I did. I was off climbing as he watched from below. I climbed the tree, shook the branches and watched the ripe plums drop to the ground while he picked them up. Eventually, I climbed down. I sat next to him while we ate the plums.

I thought nothing of what John had done to me. I did not mention it to anyone.

In fact, I felt happy that my “big brother” had told me to go climb the plum tree and pick plums for him. You see, I was forbidden from climbing the plum tree, and was constantly punished whenever it was told that I did. So it felt like my “big brother” and I shared a secret that day – a secret of allowing me to climb the plum tree, something that I liked to do, and he would let me do without “telling” on me.

And so, the abuse started. It got progressively worse. John became bolder and bolder. He would place my hands on his genitals, asking me to rub it. His looks became furtive. I began to sense that something was “wrong”. I became uneasy. I reached for the available, and less troublesome help. The nurse was always around supervising throughout the day.WhatsApp Image 2017-12-20 at 4.12.32 PM

 I asked her: “What does it mean when a man puts his “thing” in you?”

She was ironing clothes. She stopped immediately. Abandoning the ironing, she looked at me quizzically. And she alarmed: “Someone put their thing in you?!”

I did not know how to respond. I didn’t want to get John into trouble. In retaliation, he would tell that I had been climbing the plum tree. And I would be punished. So I lied. I said, “No”. She was unconvinced. She changed tactics. She became more interested in my question, and encouraged a conversation rather than alarming about what I had asked. It then seemed alright to confide in her without getting me or John in trouble.

I do not know if or when the nurse ever told my mom. But not long thereafter, John left our home. Today I believe he may have been thrown out. Years later, news filtered into the house about his death as a rebel fighter in his native Lofa. I silently felt happy hearing the news.

As I watched my daughter blow out the candles that dressed up her birthday cake, it occurred to me that mine was blown out for me. I watched the blissful innocence that lit up her countenance, and I realized that my innocent childhood mist got lifted too early.

At eight, I see her smile light up the room, and it warms my heart. And I swear to protect her – to protect her innocence. I long to tell her that this world is filled with good people. And yes, there are bad people too. That the good and the bad can reside even in people we know – in people we are comfortable with; people we believe hold our best interests at heart. People we trust.ellouise cake

 

I have not forgotten me at eight. And although John is dead, it just does not seem right that I did not have a chance to confront him with this memory. So, I do the next best thing. I share it with you – with the world. I do so not to seek revenge on John, but to tell that I, too, was abused, beginning at the innocent age of eight.

Why am I telling this story now 30 odd years later? Many reasons.

For one thing, I hope that my story will inspire others to tell theirs. It is troublesome that victims are too accepting to throw a lid on sexual abuse out of the real fear of being stigmatized. I have felt this way for at least thirty years. That is, until I looked in the eyes of my daughter. If we do not tell our stories – if we do not talk about sexual abuse as happening to real people and affecting real lives – how do we hope to come to grips with it? How can I protect my beautiful daughter in a society that tolerates sexual abuse by covering it up, and or being too afraid to talk about it?

Another reason is that I find “un-shelving” this experience healing. It is no longer this silent hidden burden I have to carry.

Thirdly, I feel there needs to be a more “national” open conversation around sexual abuse in our society. For us to recognize the various cultural nuances that we either don’t realize happens or that we ignore.

Like the elderly male “compliments”: “Baby Brenda and all got rice grain on her little chest oh!” This is often followed by the humiliating pinch. And the outbursts of laughter.

Or the “You are a big girl now oh!” when they know you are really a baby but are planting seeds of sexual exploitation which “big girls” are supposed to be engaged in.

Or the comments about the “getting big butt like her ma” followed by a light (and sometimes not to light) pat.

Nothing is thought of the “uncle” who invites the “niece” to sit on his lap. No one seem to notice or care about his wiggling.

There are much more examples I could give. You live here, you know what I mean.

All of these being dropped on an innocently trusting mind with an air or nonchalance – as if it is right and expected. No, it not right! It is wrong.

I certainly wished it had never happened to me. But it did. And I know it continues to happen to many so much younger than eight. And it must stop! But sadly, it will not until we are willing to talk about it – to confront each other. And to hold each other accountable for it.

Lest I be mistaken, sexual abuse is not limited to girls. Boys are also being molested and abused. We have to stop this – and stop it now. This is not a “western concept”, it is a shocking reality, and in some places may even be viewed as expected and acceptable.

We have to talk about it. And we have to stop it.

It has ruined lives. It is ruining lives. And it hurts.

I, too, was sexually molested and abused. And I was only eight years old.

 

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35 thoughts on “Stolen Childhood: Outing the Menace of Sexual Abuse in Liberia

  1. Thanks for sharing your story Brenda. It is inspiring and I believe someone will read this story and speak out about sexual abuse. As you rightly stated, sexual abuse should be discussed and people need to be educated about it.

  2. My friend and sister! Thank You! For your courage, for your strength and your willingness to be the light! I am proud of you as a sister and a friend. Love you always BBM – Lakshmi ❤️❤️❤️

  3. Thanks Brenda for sharing your story with us. Can it be shared for young children at my school to read. This could help get some of them talking.

  4. Dearest Brenda, I so respect you telling your own story of abuse. As painful as it is, there is healing in the words going out and having broken the years of silence. You are so right, women need to speak out, it has to be stopped! hugs, Adrienne

  5. Brenda, thank you so much. There are many untold stories out there. It is my hope and prayer that yours will bring courage to many to share their stories of sexual abuse and exploitation. Hugs

  6. Thanks for sharing. It must have taken a whole lot of courage. Sexual abuse is wrong. Hope we can get to a point where we will be able to talk about it openly and not be seen as “looking for attention”. Our daughters and sons need to be protected from such. It breaks my heart that you had to go through this. Sending much hugs and love your way ❤❤❤❤❤❤

  7. Thanks Bren for Sharing your story, I read every line with full concentration and your story has motivated me to go out and discourage sexual abuse, no matter who is involved!!

  8. Wow Brenda, you are one brave soul and once again you have left me amazed. Thank you for being bold and for speaking out as you did. This issue of sexual molestation happens in homes that are open to relatives regardless of space. I hope that this boldness can come alive in each and everyone that has been molested. Thank you again.

  9. Brenda, thank you for this. You’ve lighted the way and given courage and strength to many others to share their stories. It’s time we confront the elephant in the room. Way to go.

  10. Thank you. Key for children of any age is someone they trust explaining in a way they can understand and in the cultural context, that certain touching and bebavior is wrong. This coupled with assurance that no matter who is doing it, no matter who they tell what you did wrong and no matter how big the secret they will not be in trouble for telling you. Thank you Brenda. This took courage. There are many mothers with hidden stories that could benefit the larger conversation or if they prefer not to share they can join the conversations about how to protect the children. Vicki

  11. Your story brings so much emotions welling up in me, some of them not too pleasant. But most importantly is the sense of freedom that must accompany such release. You are such an inspiration and a shining example in our society. I am convinced this story shall help expose and make accountable actors in our society who hurt innocent kids. May God bless you.

  12. Brenda, you are a brave, strong, and splendid woman whom I admire very much! This piece deserves to be spread widely in Liberia. May I suggest Janice Cooper at the Carter Center for Mental Health? The “barefoot mental health providers” who travel to rural areas may be a good way to spread the word across the country. Childhood sexual abuse ruins lives; the only way to prevent it is for those who love children to protect them. Those who are not predators do not realize or suspect that it happens; those who are predators will never tell, and those in the predator’s power don’t understand or are too afraid to tell. #MeToo turned up a lot of sexual harassment in the USA. Maybe the same will happen in Liberia. So proud of you!!! 🙂 ❤

  13. Two feelings I am have right now: 1) disgusted about the unfortunate situation you were subjected to and 2) happy that you mustered the courage to tell your story, which until now, has been one of the many hidden dreadful stories of victims of sexual and gender-based violence.

  14. Thanks Brenda for telling your story. You are a brave lady as only a woman with a brave soul would tell such story. You got my eyes tearing and thinking of my daughter who is 9.
    Thanks once more for sharing such story. It happens and everyday it does.

  15. Bren, thanks for sharing and bringing to light what is prevalent in our society. Hope we can openly discuss this as a means of saving our younger generation from this “onslaught” that tear into their innocence.

  16. Thanks Brenda for the courage to share your story. There are many untold stories due to fear, stigmatization etc. With your persistence a lot of us will one day tell ours. Sharing your story has given me more reason to protect my 6 years old and do whatever possible to help others.
    Wish you all the best and that of your 8 years old.

  17. My Dear BBM, you are a strong woman. Your courage to share your story shows how much strength you have from within. You are an inspiration. Thanks for letting the world know.

  18. Thanks for your courage. Thanks for bringing up the taboo topic of rape abd incest. Strength. Proud of you. Love you always

  19. Thanks for sharing your story Brenda. Tooong in our Liberia has this gone without the proper national discussion that I pray this will bring about. Children need to be protected and shown equipped with signs and tactics of abuser. Liberia show your children you love them and protect them.

  20. Every time I have an opportunity to talk sexual abuse, one side that’s constantly overlooked is the fact that the sexual predator always hold something over your head to keep you silent. That which is held over you is so meaningless.
    “Will tell on you for climbing plum tree”
    This is so inspiring for us who work with abuse victims yet still haven’t muster the courage of personalizing the story.
    Thank you Brenda!

  21. Bravo Brenda for your courage. This is so prevalent ìn our society and most of us have similar stories. Thank God for your nurse who told your mother about the situation instead of concluding that you were lying. May God give more of us the courage to tell our stories. Sexual abuse only stops when we TALK about it. Bravo!

  22. What a story, and so eloquently told. Thanks for being that leading voice that others will follow. Indeed, we MUST start the conversation, construct the protective mechanism necessary to safe many young people. I am so proud of you for telling your story and releasing the weight of keeping it so long. I hope others will follow. Much love, much respect to you.

  23. I applaud your action by ‘telling’ and using this platform… ‘a mountain’ to do so. This hsssh…hush-hush evil that continues to prevail in Liberia. The sexual molestation of our baby girls by evil folks who call them ‘big girls’ to justify inhumane and criminal actions. In the latter years, they have and continue to molest our boys because evil stays the same, but seeks a new prey. Thanks for being our priceless town crier and shouting from the mountains – rape of women and girls should stop…but MOLESTATION and ABUSE of our baby girls and boys is bigger,vibrant, more prominent and secret crime in Liberia. You have brought light to a shadow….your baby girl will never experience it darkness.

  24. I applaud your action by ‘telling’ and using this platform… ‘a mountain’ to do so. This hsssh…hush-hush evil that continues to prevail in Liberia. The sexual molestation of our baby girls by evil folks who call them ‘big girls’ to justify their inhumane and criminal actions. In the latter years, they have and continue to molest our boys because evil stays the same, but seeks a new prey. Thanks for being our priceless town crier and shouting from the mountain top- rape of women and girls should stop…but, MOLESTATION and ABUSE of our baby girls and boys is a bigger,vibrant, more prominent and secret crime in Liberia. You have brought light to a shadow….your baby girl will never experience its darkness.

  25. So sadden but a much reality…
    That’s what being practiced in our society nowadays… Many using their status to exploit the innocent and poor but we must stand up against them and their act with all of our resources.

  26. My dear Brenda. My heart cried with you and I very much rejoice with you as you are able to lift this heavy burden of telling your story. It takes courage and strength. I salute you and I take my hat off to you. I too had a cousin who was sexually assaulted by her half brother (father) and even though she had the courage to tell her father, it was swept under the rug. She lived with this in her heart for many years but never had the strength to tell another soul. I guessed she was told not to tell because it might bring shame to the family. She passed two years ago( peace be to her ashes ) and surprisingly she left a letter that she told her husband not to open but to read at her funeral. That was her last wished. In it was written her entire story and this time it was read out to the entire family members and friends that was in attendance. Even though I wasn’t in country at the time, my heart bled for her. I pray that her soul finds peace. This is a very ugly act of selfishness and it has to stop. Why put another human being through the hate and pains for the rest of their lives because of your own selfish gain? I’m so sorry to hear your story but rejoice my Dear Brenda because you just save a little girl or boy life some where because of your story. God doesn’t like ugly and so all of these selfless beings will get their reward.

  27. My, my, my.. What a story. Brenda, thank you thank you so very much for your open and Ernest story. There are many, many, many of us little 8years old little Brenda’s out there. Trust me it never goes away it will keep surfacing , over and over.
    Most often people forget that Boys get ABUSED just as much as little Girls. Thank you.

  28. Thank you so much for sharing this sad story Brenda. The good thing is, I read the entire story with my 9 years old daughter to re-emphasis my everyday conversion with her on sexual abuse. While going through the story , something caught the attention of my little girl you mentioned on the issue of Boys are also being molested and abused. Then she asked me a question why boys are abused ? I told her as she grows up she will learn more about it. I really appreciate your strength for coming up. God bless you!

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