A few years back I started an NGO with the very basic mission to open the conversation on the very delicate, and unfortunately tabooed topic, of childhood sexual abuse within the African contexts. Of course, the mission of Le Projet Ecoute expended as the NGO did in the past three years but every now and then I get asked about why child sexual abuse and what is the African context. To answer these questions, I usually tell stories, some personal others that were told to me both before and after I started Le Projet Ecoute. I tell stories because I believe they matter; to use the famous words of author Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie " many stories matter. Stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity."
So, in honor of the 16 Days of activism against GBV I'll share a personal story on how my 8th grade English teacher “fell in love” with me. It's a serious story with a hint of humor and a bittersweet ending. It's a story that helped me acknowledge the nuance in sexual predators and the African context of sexual abuse. As a disclaimer, I must add that there isn’t a conclusion to this story, I am just hoping to give some perspective to the issue.
noun: paedophilia; noun: pedophilia
sexual feelings directed toward children
I don't recall if I knew as an 8th grader exactly what a pedophile was. I don’t recall ever being never told for sure. So, when I met Mister-Bob the tall man with a mustache that was supposed to teach us English he simply seemed fine to me. There were absolutely no particular red flags about him. Me, I was your average 11 years old girl, skinny and more on the underdeveloped side. Very early on though I could tell Mister Bob liked me; but this liking I attributed my above average (in comparison to my classmates) proficiency of English. At that point of my life I pretty much lived for MTV. But Mister-Bob liked me ALOT and even the 11 years’ girl I was tried to rationalize why, often.
I felt very comfortable around this teacher and he gave me very good grades that I felt deserving of at the time. Soon I found out he lived in the same housing complex as my family's driver Abdoulaye. For one reason or the other the driver always liked to stop by his house after picking me up from school, Abdoulaye would rush into his home and I’ll usually wait for him in the car for about 5 minutes. I used to see Mister-Bob there and in the beginning, I'll simply wave at him to say hi. He would just wave back to me. After a few weeks of waving back and forth he started coming to me, he would lean over the window, he was always shirtless and he would chitchat as if we were friends. I thought this was odd because I literally had nothing to say to this adult outside of the classroom. So, I figured something we could discuss: American music and lyrics. I’ll tell him lyrics and he would translate; soon I was printing lyrics out and he would translate the entire page. Mister-Bod liked translating explicit lyrics to me, he would lean over the widow a bit closer to me every day and tell them to me. Sometimes he would stroke my cheek. Abdoulaye, the driver, would never say anything. I was now uncomfortable about this newfound closeness to my teacher, it felt weird so I stopped printing lyrics. But after a week my teacher was now placing requests, he would give me names of the songs to print out, usually they were love songs.
One time Mister-Bob gave me the lyrics in an envelope, he wrote them out on one side on a notebook paper, translated them to French on the other. And then, at the bottom said that’s how he felt about me. He wrote that he was in love with me and maybe we could make plans on how we could see each other outside of school. I remember exactly how I felt at that very moment, chills down my spine. I was stuck right between dumbfounded and horrified. My childish mind was betraying me as I couldn't make sense of my thoughts. I was questioning my grades, my innocence, the lyrics. Did I start this? Can adults really be in love with children? Did he think I was in love with him?
I was afraid someone would find out. So, I burned the letter. I received many more even after I told him I would tell my parents.
And then the summer break came and I found solace in an unlikely hero, Abdoulaye, the driver. Mister-Bob was no longer seeing me at school to give me his disturbing love letters so he decided to give one to my driver for me. Abdoulaye told me he had misplaced the letter and had forgotten to tell me about it. But in the same conversation he also told me the most relieving story. He said the day after he had lost the letter Mister-Bob asked him about it and he had replied “I don’t know what you wrote in there but since Kadija travelled to Conakry I gave it to her father who is also travelling to go see her.” He then added “I have never seen her dad so mad, when I left he was talking to the police and his good friend was also there, he is an army commandant.” Abdoulaye was laughing, a bit nervously, before adding that Mister-Bob moved out the same night.
In the end, I don’t know how much our driver knew about the letters, and I will never be entirely sure why he helped me the way he did. I do suspect why he never told my parents, why he never confronted the man or told the police. He chose to make light of a very serious and potentially dangerous situation that could have escalated to a physical and sexual infraction on a minor. We are essentially the product of our societies, our communities; and in many countries of the world, mainly in the global south, including my home country of Guinea sexual assault on women and children goes unreported. The crime is oftentimes stripped of its seriousness, banalized. It is common for a child victim to end up married to the aggressor to preserve the family honor as if the child’s life wasn’t to be honored, as if marriage wasn’t in this case a sentence to the victim. This rarely makes the news, stories of unpunished rapists are more popular. Because of this I didn’t know how to react to the advance of a pedophile and the driver didn’t know how to react to an adult unabashedly courting a child and Mister-Bob although he never spoke to me again came back to teach after the break. Not long ago I went to an elementary school to teach a workshop for children on sexual abuse prevention: Mister-Bob teaches there now.
For the 16 Days of activism I chose this specific story although I know of many more, I believe we must, to make progress in the fight against GBV, acknowledge the violence of silence and the environment that fosters it.
Khadija Toure is the founder of Le Projet Ecoute