…strong in the broken places

I had no idea what to expect when the opportunity to travel to Ghana and undergo a women’s leadership and development programme presented itself.

What I know is that I did not expect to be in a room filled with 24 strangers, from 21 African countries and all of us shedding tears like hapless babies.

...broken but strong....

It started off as a seminar on child sexual abuse, gender violence and all the inherent complexities of these social ills and turned into a cathartic experience when one of the fellows shared a personal horror story.

Herlyn Uiras was diagnosed with HIV after she was raped by a truck driver who had offered her lift smuggled her into South Africa at the age of 16 and dumped her in Johannesburg miles from her country of origin – Namibia.

Herlyn’s story is heartrending, spine-chilling and life-transforming, proving the remarkable resilience of the human spirit and the triumph that comes with choosing to be a survivor and not victim of life’s endless tragedies.

“My friend and I wanted to see what Joburg was like and that truck driver said he could get use into SA. We were excited, we were 16, we were on an adventure. The moment he got us across the border he demanded sex, I refused but he went ahead anyway and when I saw that he would do it anyway, I begged him to use a condom. He wore one but it broke while he was at it. He didn’t stop. And I couldn’t stop him.”

The way Herlyn tells her story is striking in two ways; first she owns the consequences of her choices, specifically the choice to trust a stranger with her life.

She stayed 5 months in South Africa, surrendered herself to the police and was given passage back to her country.

Herlyn ... as always about to burst into peals of laughter!

Today Herlyn is 26, working with AIDS organisations to sensitize young children about the disease and is engaged in projects to discourage human smuggling and warn people about the dangers of human trafficking.

Prior to the earth-shattering revelations she made about what she went through, I had already created a profile of her in my mind, as I did with every other young woman I had met there.

I had profiled her as one of the fun-loving, side-splittingly hilarious women I have ever come across.

One would never guess at the sound of her infectious laughter that her life had been touched by such trauma and tragedy – though it wasn’t easy, Herlyn says she got to the point where she made peace with what had transpired – forgiven herself and even managed to somehow forgive the man who had raped and infected her.

As she told her story, she was so composed and we all listened disbelieving because although she spared us the details, most of us could still feel our skins crawl and imagine how she must have felt.

Then somewhere along the narration something just broke in her – she cried and we cried. Cried for that 16 year old girl who didn’t know any better and cried for the woman standing before us, who ten years later re-lives the nightmare to help others and to warn others by sharing her life story across the continent.

I have no way of knowing who’s life may be helped or saved by sharing Herlyn’s story with readers who follow this column, but there is no doubt in my mind that her story will help someone, somewhere to either avoid what befell her or choose to overcome whatever pain was inflicted on them.

For when we tell stories of our heartbreaks of our pain and of our suffering – we do realize that heartbreak is as universal as falling in love and we are strengthened by the courage of others.

I salute every survivor and urge every victim to walk away from the paralysis and helplessness of allowing hurtful events and cruel people to rob them of the chance to live life.

..finding light even in life's darkness

Parting shot: Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are.
— Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha

…a heart of gold & an iron will

On one of my many road trips, I boarded a car with a stranger. She asked me for time and I obliged. Then she volunteered the information that she was a teacher and I volunteered nothing.

It was one of those stilted one-sided conversations where some stranger imposes dialogue when you’d rather have the company of your own thoughts.

But she was persistent and asked what I do; and my upbringing more than anything else compelled me to respond where I would have preferred to rudely ignore her and hope she takes the hint – I’m not interested in conversation.

A writer, I said. Knowing as soon as the words left my lips that it was the wrong thing to say because it seemed like the opening she needed to snow me under with a flurry of follow-up questions.

I really should have known better, considering my profession. Anyway, there I was sucked in by this eager, inquisitive and well meaning stranger.

I write stories, I said. Hoping the brevity of the answer would give her the hint – I wasn’t in the mood.
“Oh so do I,” she gushed. Managing with those four words to make it seem like we shared a unique bond and were as good as sorority sisters – much to my irritation.

There was no stopping her thereafter.

What kind of stories do you write? Then with resignation, I just told her – figuring if I tell her what she wants to know, she’ll probably get off my case, right? Wrong!

I write for the Sunday News, I am a journalist, I reluctantly shared. And piqued by curiosity she asked who my name was and barely able to suppress my rising irritation.

I muttered my name, Delta – I said. Pause. Blinding phone torch rudely shoved in my face and then a shrill scream drowning out the rest of my sentence….

“…Law Milayo Ndou!!! oh! It’s you! It’s you! I love your writing. Your column is my favorite…I read your columns every week and they are like my lifeline! Oh, I can’t believe it’s you!” she finished off my two names before supplying me with my surname as if to convince me and the other passengers that she was indeed affiliated to me.


Now, not only do I have to entertain her because she’s a huge fan of my writing – I actually have to enjoy it and paste that indulgent smile on my face while I think, ‘oh no. And Plumtree is a whole hour away.’

That is how I met, came to like and later on, genuinely admire Ethel Ncube – a woman I would describe as possessing a heart of gold and nerves of steel.

She is passionate, driven, articulate, resolute, radical and courageous – I see traces of myself here and there.

I recognize a kindred spirit and the fierceness of a character that refuses to bow to circumstance, tragedy or the tyranny of a status quo.

She laments corruption, passionately denouncing it and informing me that she is ready to name names, to give me dates and places and if need be to testify against people in high places abusing power and terrorizing the natives of Plumtree.

Then she decries the lack of ART (Anti-retroviral therapy) in Plumtree, she was a youth facilitator once and met with doctors at various workshops where they all queried why the only CD4 count machine was broken, why it could not be fixed, because the only personnel who could fix it belonged to the company that had been awarded the tender and how, that company happened to be in Harare – a good 540km away.

“See how they abuse and marginalize us!” She complained bitterly. “That’s why I advocate for federalism – our resources must remain here benefitting the locals, instead we have all the money being centralized and people suffering and dying.
Everyone who wants can write a project proposal basing it on the people of Bulilima and Mangwe knowing full well that we are worse off than any other region of this country.”

“Look at this Global Fund”, she rages, “they spent the money and then a few weeks before the evaluators were due to come they hastily hired us as youth facilitators and erected youth centers to impress the donors. They didn’t pay us on time and 6 months would go by without receiving our salaries or any explanation but the worst part was not being able to help these desperate young people suffering STIs and who were HIV positive. It’s really terrible I tell you. Why don’t you people write about this,” she fumed.

She charged that there was no room for silence in an atmosphere of rampant abuse of power and corruption.
“Take last week’s auction, the police looted everything and hid some of the tennis shoes in the nearby toilets – in broad daylight! I challenged them, how could I not? I hate corruption with every fiber of my being – so I asked them, how could you enforcers of the law be the ones to engage in such corrupt activities before our very eyes? Have you no shame I asked them before one of them foolishly threatened to have me arrested for “disturbing the peace” – what rubbish. I am married to a policeman; I know I was well within my rights to confront them.”

I listened to her…overwhelmed, angered and saddened that these people would probably never be brought to book palms would be greased along the way – possibly all the way to the courts.

Then somewhere along the way she asked me, “Can you read Shona?” I said I could and in response, she handed me her mobile phone and bade me to read an sms.

It read, “why did you never tell me that ….. is such a stud in bed? I really enjoyed myself the time when he came to Harare and I hope he comes soon because if he doesn’t nothing in this world will stop me from coming there myself since you’re failing to satisfy him you nagging bitch! +?*#@%^+?:/”

My shock and disgust must have been evident for she immediately told me, “There are many others, many like those, many worse than that. My husband’s newest girlfriend, more venomous than the last,” she adds calmly.

Then she shares, a tale of violence, of pain and of betrayal. Of waking up one day and learning that she had HIV; that she had in her own words “fallen in love with a lie”.

She said she wanted to do research in HIV…. She had pursued a degree in Psychology and had dropped out because her man had told her to – they were moving, relocating. She started a course in counseling and didn’t complete it – there were problems in the marriage.

Then she taught language at a local school and he followed her there one day, to kick her ribs in and leave her for dead.

This woman, how much more can she take and how much more can she survive?

“You know it is like, I am only 29 with two children but when you are raised in the cultural way; it is not acceptable to keep changing men. You have to stick to that one. You have no choice. But your writing, your column – it tells me there are options. That there is a choice, an alternative and another way; I read what other women say…I draw strength from them and slowly I believe that I too can break free,”.

I was humbled, embarassed and honored all at once that this woman – seemingly indestructible could choose me to be the rock she leans on.

I thought of her all night … thinking that she had a heart of gold and such an iron will…how resilient the human spirit.