On tragedy and a city in mourning…

The city I live in here in Tanzania is in mourning.

Last weekend, 33 children, two teachers and a driver were killed in an horrific bus accident. The final year primary school pupils were on their way to sit their exams. All of those killed were from the same small village on the outskirts of Arusha, and there is not a person in Arusha who has not been affected in some way by this meaningless loss of precious young lives.

Two days after the accident, the city held a public memorial service for the victims at the stadium. The stadium was packed to capacity with people, with many lining the streets outside the stadium, unable to get in but wanting to pay their respects to the victims and their families. It seemed like the entire city had come to a standstill as it collectively mourned the young people who were so cruelly taken away.

Death never pierces the heart so much as when it takes someone we love; cleaving the heart they held with their passing.

—Brandon M. Herbert

636080429114440123-1212882946_635898753504476015-1619945331_grief-angelGrief manifests itself in many ways. Every culture mourns and memorialises in different ways. In some cultures grief is expressed emphatically and publicly. In others it is expressed in private and quietly. In the chaos and confusion that accompanies death, it can be difficult and challenging to even begin to process and work your way through the grief.

And yet, it is said that grief only lives where love lived first.

In the English language there are words for a child who loses their parents, and for a husband or wife who loses a spouse. Yet, in this world of orphans and widows, there is no word for a parent who loses a child. Perhaps it is because there are no words for that kind of loss. No words for the pain.

No parent is prepared for a child’s death. Parents are simply not supposed to outlive their children. No matter how long your child lived,  the loss of a child is profound at every age. Parents grieve for the hopes and dreams they had for their child, the potential that will never be realized, and the experiences that will never be shared. The pain of these losses will always be a part of them. Yet with time, most parents find a way forward and begin to experience happiness and meaning in life once again.

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”
― William Shakespeare, Macbeth

A parent will never really “get over” the death of a child. But they learn to live with the loss, making it a part of who they are. It may seem impossible, but happiness and purpose in life can be found again.

The children who died in this accident will not be forgotten and their legacy remains. The community who are grieving may choose to honour the children through fundraising, tree planting, or even campaigning for better road safety standards for school transport.

For parents, each of your children changes your life. They show you new ways to love, new things to find joy in, and new ways to look at the world. A part of each child’s legacy is that the changes he or she brings to your family continue after death. The memories of joyful moments you spent with your child and the love you shared will live on and always be part of you.

In loving memory of the children, teachers and staff of Lucky Vincent Nursery and Primary School, Arusha, who passed away on 6th May 2017.

“There is a surrendering to your story and then a knowing that you don’t have to stay in your story.” – Colette Baron Reid

I’ve held off on publishing this post for a long time. It has sat in my drafts folder, waiting to be put out there in the world, waiting for the day I feel brave enough for my story to be told.

You see, the thing is, I applaud and admire other women who tell their story yet keep my own held back and share it only with those who get close enough to uncover that deeply held part of me.

Then this video appeared on my Facebook feed and resonated so loudly within my heart that I knew that it was time.

“I didn’t think I was important enough to draw boundaries around what people could or couldn’t do with my body.”

When I heard those words, it was like someone had switched on a light and given me the words that I could never find before. The words to explain why, 11 years after it happened, I still struggle and blame myself. The words to explain why, 11 years ago, I refused to go to the police. I refused to report what had happened to me. I told my flatmate and my best friend that I just wanted to erase what had happened from my head, my heart and my broken soul.

I didn’t believe that I was important enough to draw boundaries around what people could or couldn’t do with my body. I believed that somehow people would say that I had brought this on myself because I flirted and drank and danced with the stranger. Because I accepted the offer of a drink from him in a dark, smoky nightclub. Because I asked him to walk me home when I started to feel dizzy and unwell.

He walked me home and then, within what should have been the safety of my own bedroom, he took advantage of the effects of the drug he had spiked my drink with, the drug that was now flooding my system.

I didn’t fight back as I couldn’t lift my arms. I asked him to stop in the midst of my drugged and confused state and he ignored me and carried on. It hurt and I cried in pain, feeling frustrated that I had no control. I couldn’t get any control of the situation as I blacked out and came to then blacked out over and over again.

When I woke in the morning to him still in my house, sitting on the edge of my bed, tying his shoes as if it was the most normal morning in the world, I felt such doubt and fear and confusion. Was what had taken place the night before okay? Why is he still here? Did I allow that to happen? Was what he did something I should just accept and let be?

He left and I pulled my aching body out of the blood-soaked sheets of the bed and curled up in the corner of the bathroom. I could smell him on my skin and I could feel the bruises and aching between my legs. I turned on the shower to the highest heat I could cope with and sat on the floor of the shower for what must have been an hour, allowing the scalding water to burn my skin and allow me to feel a different kind of pain. Any other kind of pain.

I called my best friend and cried down the phone the moment I heard her voice. She immediately got on a train and was at my door within a few hours. No matter what was said, I refused to report it. I couldn’t even consider it. I believed, and still do at times, that it was somehow my fault. That what happened could be explained away. That I was not important enough to draw boundaries around what could happen with my body.

11 years later and after 2 years of face-to-face counselling, learning how to cope with my PTSD and learning what my triggers are, I still struggle at times. It still affects everything. My relationships, my social life, my coping mechanisms – every aspect of my life has been impacted by this one night in September 2005.

But I never once wish that I had reported it. Reliving the experience is hard enough when it happens in flashbacks and nightmares – I can’t imagine reliving it under interrogation from a judge and jury with his face looking back at me. I don’t know that I made the right choice. Sometimes I wonder if he went on to do the same to other women and if reporting him to the police would have prevented it. Unfortunately we do not live in a world where a rape victim is treated with the same amount of empathy as a mugging victim. In these past 11 years I have discovered inner strength that I would never have imagined. But that inner strength would be destroyed by a legal system that victim-blames and sympathises with the perpetrator.

Instead, I did what many sexual assault survivors choose to do – I tried to move on with my life. There’s no single thing all assault survivors should do after their attack — we all respond differently, and we all heal differently. And, as the survivors in the video make clear, we need to be trusted to choose the response that is right for us

As for me, I fight in my own way. I found an inner strength and purpose that kept me focused and motivated. I involve myself heavily in the V-Day movement. I talk to people about victim blaming and rape culture. I almost never tell my own story but I findways to influence and talk. I get proudly labelled a feminist and call people out on their hypocrisies. I educate myself and I listen and support and care when another woman tells her story – it has taken me so long to tell my own, they are my heroes .

I used my pain and brokenness as a catalyst for making change and a difference in my own tiny corner of the world because my story is one of millions. One of millions.

Most importantly, I now know just how I important I am and how completely in control I am of what happens with my body.

Live In The Question…

“You can’t write a script in your mind and then force yourself to follow it. You have to let yourself be.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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I’ve never been the kind of person to have a life plan. At least, not since life threw enough curve balls for me to give up on the idea of a plan. Plans are different from dreams and goals and bucket lists. Plans involve specific expectations and inevitable disappointment should the plan not come to fruition. They don’t allow for questions. They pretend to have all the answers and expect your heart to already know what to do next.

I often get asked by friends and family what my ‘plan’ is. To quote a friend: “How long are you going to be away? You can’t do what you’re doing forever. You need to make a plan.”

The problem is, I can’t identify one person in my life who has followed their plan. I don’t know anyone who’s life has worked out exactly how they wanted. And, when it doesn’t work out, they panic and swiftly re-evaluate and create another alternative, adjusted plan, desperately finding temporary answers to the questions in their lives.

img_0104I’ve learned a lot about letting things be. I’ve learned that letting things be allows for spontaneous moments that I could never predict and people I could never have planned on.

I’m also learning to live in the questions. I’m not meant to have all the answers and sometimes the ‘not knowing’ leads to better places and people and experiences.  I never expected or planned to be in Tanzania. I do not know how long I will be here or where I will find myself next.

“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

 I’d rather live in the question and live out my curiosity than plan out what my life will be.