Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

*WARNING: This blog entry is disturbing and graphic in nature.

Continuing the nautical theme from last week's entry, today's post will be framed by this well-known nursery rhyme that I've been told is an allegory for life's difficult choices. 


I guess some scholarly types say the boat refers to oneself or to a group with which one identifies.  The act of rowing is a tedious practice that yet requires skill and directs the vessel. 


The idea that human beings travel along a certain stream suggests the path we all take in life and the rules we are bound by. 


The challenges we meet along the way should be taken in stride and greeted with optimism. 


Some have questioned the song's implied necessity to row one's boat downstream but this may be a commentary on the paradox of the passage of time with man's free will in a world of causality.  Especially if you take into account this last line.

Okay.  So much for deep thoughts.

I am troubled, my friends.

I am about one week away from returning to New York for a three-month respite during which my plan has always been to finish up the website and identity kit as well as to start fundraising fo' realz.  I feel very ready for this break; I am tired and in need of some Western comforts.  But....  It is hard to leave....  Especially given the events of the past week.

Last Tuesday, Vumi and I discovered that one of our students, an intellectually impaired six-year-old girl, was raped.  It was obviously an extremely disturbing discovery, but what makes it even more heartbreaking is that it seems to be a habitual occurrence rather than a one-time thing.

We extracted the details of her case very slowly and carefully as it is hard to know if she is telling the truth; she sometimes changes her story or forgets things she has already said.  What we have established is that she has been sexually molested more than once by an older man, maybe around 50 years of age, a fundi or handyman who does work near the school.  He lures her into a dilapidated house with the promise of some sort of gift, a few coins or chips, soda, candy.  And it is clear that this behavior has been going on for some time now as the child is so accustomed to it that she has no fear nor pain, neither emotional nor physical.  In fact, in explaining it to us, she was giggling and seemed thrilled to share her sexual adventures with us.

It has not gone unnoticed by me that not only is this rape and pedophilia, but also, *technically,* it is a form of prostitution since it has become transactional at this point.  Of course, the onus is on the man, not the child, particularly as she is quite developmentally delayed.

In further questioning, we found that this child has engaged in sexual activity with others beside this older man.  We uncovered a whole network of children with whom she has been having sex, it seems, for quite some time: her agemates in Standard One, older boys in higher levels of primary school, neighbors at home, youths in the street.  She does it in these old abandoned houses, school toilets, neighbors' beds, shambas or fields.  She is not discriminating and at this point I am not clear why she does it with all these others.  From the older man, she gets gifts, but from the little boys only, "kidude chake" ("his little thing," in her words).  She lives fairly unsupervised with her grandparents and her baba who does not work and is known to be a drunk, so her activities are unbeknownst to her family.

My worry about saving her before this conduct had taken hold is obviously a moot point now.  She has become, unknowingly, (and really, how could she know any better??) a tiny prostitute who does not have the ability to decide for herself or protect herself.  I had planned to take her to the Gabriella Center and enroll her there so she could grow up learning basic literacy and numeracy in order that she become a self-sufficient adolescent and adult, but I don't know if they will take her now.  Her behavior is so entrenched that I worry she might act out there and I don't want to bring problems to others.  The issue here is that previously she was being called by others to do these things, but now she is the solicitor: she has learned that when she feels hungry or lonely, she can seek out a patron and her needs are fulfilled.  She even propositioned Vumi right in front of me which shows either that she is extraordinarily indiscriminate or that she does not know the difference between men and women.

I guess my point in writing about this issue on the blog and bringing it to light is to address openly and without rose-colored glasses the social dangers that mentally challenged children face, anywhere in the world, but particularly in developing countries where support systems are limited and education and awareness is lacking.  This thing that has happened to this child was my fear for her from the very beginning, even upon first meeting her, and I went to great lengths to prevent it not knowing that the whole time, she was already deeply ensconced in it.  Vumi thinks I'm psychic for saying so, but the truth is that culturally I was prepared to see the big picture while many Tanzanians (particularly in the smaller villages) generally take things one day at a time, not able to anticipate the consequences of certain actions.  I was hoping that we would catch this child early enough and put in place a safety net for her, and perhaps it is not too late to try to force a behavior change, but I would like in the future for Toa Nafasi to address the issue of sex abuse and other communal threats to which intellectually impaired children are highly susceptible (dropping out of school, running away, drug abuse, pregnancy, and disease).  This will certainly entail a gathering-together of the community to take collective responsibility for these concerns and to find constructive solutions.  The only alternative is the subsequent impossibility of these children performing well in school and growing up to be self-sufficient members of society.

I think I'll stop here because it's probably a lot for most of my readers to digest and I apologize for the disturbing and graphic nature of this post.  It is the last thing I would have wanted to deal with in my final week in Tanzania and, while it scares me to leave with this situation looming, it also scares me to stay and discover more.  Better that I lay down my oars now and let my boat drift a little, so that I can get some distance and some insight into this ugly side of life that I really never could have guessed existed.  Hopefully, by the time I return in December, Vumi and the teachers and the Ofisi ya Kata in Msaranga (local authorities) will have come to some resolution about how to deal with this problem, hopefully a resolution more active than just sweeping it all under the proverbial rug.

At any rate, this is certainly not the first challenge I have faced in this work nor will it be the last, but it is a bitter pill to swallow: the abuse of any kind of any child anywhere in the world, but particularly of the most vulnerable - young, intellectually impaired, living without proper parental support and in abject poverty.  It is a challenge that will take me some time to take it in stride or meet it with any kind of optimism.  As for life being "but a dream," it feels more like a nightmare right now.  It's time to go home, rest my head, hold my heart, and save my soul.  I'm not a super-religious gal, but I believe in God and I pray for this child and for the people of Msaranga.

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