Long Read: By Maynard Manyowa
As she walked down a gravel dirt road, surrounded completely by bushes, Mmathabo Mooa, 15 at the time, instinctively turned backwards, and saw what appeared a male figure walking briskly towards her.
Unlike most 15-year-old girls, Mmathabo was a woman already. Circumstances and experiences, had forced her to grow up. Although she was afraid, she took a deep breath and walked on, hoping to appear strong and hoping for the best.
About 10 paces later, she felt a cold strong hand bearing down her shoulder.
“If you dare scream I will stab you and throw your body in the river, no one will find it!” the figure behind her warned, brandishing a large butcher’s knife in her face.
“I was genuinely afraid” she says. “Several women had been raped, thrown in the river and never found.”
It highlights the difficulty women face every day in South Africa. A man brandishing a knife to a woman carrying a plastic bag of groceries is in all other places in the world assumed to be a robber, hoping to snatch a cellular phone and some gadgets.
But, this was not the world, this was the rainbow nation, and Mmathabo knew at that instant what the man wanted and would do.
It was not the first time anyway. Its twisted reality, but in a country where women’s groups estimate that a woman is raped every 26 seconds, and a country ranked first for sexual offences per capita from 1998 – 2000, most women find themselves repeat victims. Mmathabo is one.
The man force marched her into the bushes, behind the tall grass.
“He asked me to use the things in my plastic bag as a makeshift bed / sheet. It was horrific. He was violent and brutal. I tried to imagine it as a consensual act with my eyes closed. But it was difficult.” She explains, as her eyes fill up with tears, and her voice stammers.
“When he was finished, I got up to dress, then he said I looked nice standing up and forced me to the ground and raped me again. Before he got up and disappeared into the bush and the night”
Mmathabo does not know who raped her. It was too dark to see his face. It had been partially obstructed too.
She did not report the incident. No one would have believed her anyway. Not by her own fault. Her own family, the local community, the police, viewed her as a problem child. She had run away from home, three times, and they did not know why.
But for Mmathabo, and anyone who cares to listen, the reasons were stark. She was not an over active teen. She was a vulnerable child suffering from the horrors of child sexual abuse.
Mmathabo knows who raped her the first time and the second time. It was her own paternal uncles; cousins to her father.
The first time, she was much too young to even remember her own age, or much of what transpired in her life at the time. But the rape had, and has stayed with her. She knows in detail what happened, or even the panties she had worn that fateful day.
She estimates she was about 7-8. It left her feeling deeply confused and frustrated.
The second time, she was 9 years old, and had went to another Uncle’s house for a weekend with family.
“I was asleep and felt him touching me. The next moment he was raping me. I just froze. My other uncle was sleeping next to me.”
She blames herself for the second incident.
“It was a big family, maybe 16 of them in one house, and people shared rooms. I wish I had screamed. Maybe someone could have helped. But I froze. I didn’t understand, this man was my uncle I don’t know why he was hurting me”
Mmathabo told no one. Confused, hurt, disappointed and disjointed, she isolated herself, became known as the quiet child in the family.
Mmathabo’s silence did not heal her though. She grew angry, hated her father immensely for what his relatives had done to her. It is how she became the ‘problem child.’
“When I was 15 my father fell sick. It was life threatening. I wished he would die” she says with a soft voice.
It was not just a wish though. She devised a plan, forging school letters demanding huge amounts of money to bankrupt the family so that the father fails to afford his medical treatment.
It backfired when the father picked up the anomaly and demanded that her mother escort her to school.
The next morning, before anyone was awake, Mmathabo was gone!
She had packed a small bag, and ran away. This was 2008, she was in Grade 8, and only 15. For weeks, several of them, she moved daily from one man’s house to another. She frequented parties, clubs, bars, often just to get picked up by a guy who could give her a roof for the night, and leave by morning.
She was just 15, and all those encounters, are rapes, statutory rapes. South Africa’s age for sexual consent is 16. Most of the males she slept with were much older independent men. She does not know how many times she had sex at the time, or how many men she slept with. She says maybe around 400. In essence of fact, she was raped by 403 men.
She lived, and eventually, she ended up a few miles from home, at a mine. There, a lady called Susan, whom Mmathabo describes as a sex worker and an alcoholic, took her in. It was there she toned down a bit, only sleeping with men she liked, or would have met at the local tavern, but returning home the next day.
“Susan’s place was a tough environment. So I would at times love going out so I don’t sleep there”, she explains.
Mmathabo did run out of luck though. Detectives from the South African Police Service who had been investigating her ‘disappearance’ found her. They bundled her into a van and took her to her mother.
The next morning, when her mother went to work, she tried to run away again. But a neighbour noticed it and phoned her mum who intercepted her.
Weeks later, she ran away again, this time going to a further town, where she hoped, finding her would not be easy.
It was there, while walking down the dirt road, she had been raped again. By an unknown assailant who still roams free till today.
After the assault, a good Samaritan had helped her, given her shelter and a place to sleep for the night.
“It was the first night I really felt peace. I slept. He did not ask me for sex or anything” she said to me.
After this rare moment of kindness in a brutal world, she returned home, but not for long. Her relationship with her father had deteriorated. He called her a prostitute routinely, and accused her of running from home to sleep with men. She in-turn became more rebellious.
Her family intervened. Her maternal aunt, took her to Gauteng, and she returned to school.
“She was a good woman but very religious. I did not believe in God and didn’t know him. She thought church would fix me” Mmathabo tells me as she reclines on her couch.
She did not stay long with the aunt.
“She always reminded me of my past and would tell the whole community about me”
When their relationship broke down, Mmathabo tried to move back with her father. But he refused, saying there was no space for her. So, she moved in with her mother’s youngest sister.
“She was the best. She never judged me. She tried to understand me. I loved her and still do. But she was always away. I yearned for her presence”
But that relationship broke down as well. Mmathabo slept with that aunt’s boyfriend. When she found out she sent her packing.
By 2010, after a turbulent 2 years, her father and she tried to fix the relationship. But it did not work out, and when her grandfather died in 2011, the dad tried to have stay with the grandmother, in the rural areas.
It was then she made the decision to move to Johannesburg and go to school. Armed with just R600, she landed in Gauteng. Her friend managed to get her a shack of her own. They left her with a blanket and one old sheet for a curtain.
“It was enough for me. I had my Blackberry, my books, a roof and a blanket. It was all I needed” she says to me.
“I was determined to attain my education, even without anyone’s support. I had acquired skills to get men and get money from my previous years”, she adds.
That afternoon, Mmathabo, posted online, using the Blackberry Messenger service, that she was a ‘young girl looking for fun’ and that ‘prices were negotiable’.
“My phone exploded!” she says.
So Mmathabo became a full-fledged sex worker.
“All I had to do was be available, spread my legs open and fund my education. I was determined to do this alone.”
At first, she coped very well. Fully furnishing her room within weeks. Excelling at school in the process.
But it took its toll on her. Weary, tired, and still broken from the sexual assaults. Many months later, she fell into deep depression. Staying in bed for weeks, drinking till she passed out, and missing classes altogether.
In the meanwhile, she developed and interest and admiration for the religion of satanism, hoping to get peace, but ended up caught up in self harm.
“Look!” she says to me, as she bravely shows me the scars on her arms, and points to the ones on her knees and part of her breast.
She says she wanted to die, but did not have the courage.
In 2012 she returned home again. She tried to find love, but found herself pregnant. The man was barely responsible. Ignoring her for months on end. She kept the pregnancy secret but lost the baby.
She partly blames herself and not the guy.
“I don’t even know if the child was his. I would love to think it was his child, but deep down I know it might not have been.”
Mmathabo had been out drinking one day with friends. They ended up in one of the friend’s rooms. There were 4 of them, and they all had sex with each other.
“We were drinking and we ended up rotating the sex between us. So it could have been that guy, or any of the two guys from the orgy”
But it does not take away the pain. And she bravely puts up a successful fight to prevent tears storming down her cheeks like rain.
“I was hurt when I lost my son. I still remember his face in the little white coffin. I lost weight.”
Mmathabo changed a great deal after that. Appreciating that she could not go on, she called her aunt, who took her back to church. A few weeks later, she went to a camp in Vaal. It was there that the bishop broke through to her, and she opened-up about her sexual abuse experiences, and how much they had damaged her.
It was there she decided to tell her story.
As we speak, she has written a book, detailing her life experiences. From being an innocent 6 or 7-year-old, and then spiraling into a reckless teen, and how she saved herself.
“I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through.” She says.
Of course, no one would wish anyone to go through what this young brave woman went through. Raped as a child, violated as a teen prostitute, neglected by a family whom did not understand what she went through. Losing a child at birth, and surviving an occult experience. The list is longer.
“I found God after this. Even now I feel lucky. I slept with a million people, she metaphorically says, went through so much, I don’t have any disease” she tells me as she looks down with a semblance of personal guilt.
“But I appreciate that, God protected me.”
“I used to sleep with 3 men a day. Go there get paid, go to the next get paid, go to the next get paid. Then wake up next day and go to school”
But she lives in a different reality altogether now. The future looks bright for Mmathabo. She is studying, transport and logistics. She lives in a cozy neat apartment North of Pretoria, closer to Johannesburg. She even has a serious partner.
But her past, which drove her down such a dangerous and reckless road, still travels with her. Always.
“My partner makes me wonder. I am damaged. I am crazy. I wonder why he stays with me. I am fucked up. I lose it sometimes.” She says.
It is not hard to understand how a woman who has been through this much can lose it. But her strength deserves mention. At no point in the interview has broken down yet, although she has towed the line. It is the same strength she calls upon to protect her sanity, by choosing to forgive, she says, when I query about the rapists.
“I forgive them. The stranger. My uncles. I have learnt to live with it.” She says with conviction.
Her father though, still does not know exactly what happened, and she does not plan on telling him, or confronting her two uncles who nearly destroyed her life.
“Its hard when I meet them. I can’t look them in the face. I am ashamed and I don’t know why” she tells me.
Her family, other aunts and uncles are now aware of what happened. But they have chosen to let ‘sleeping dogs lie’.
“They say we must focus on the future, that was the past now”
It is something she wants to do.
Her book, “What other choice did I have” is due for release very soon, but she owes the publishers.
She is working on raising the money though. She is doing a lot of freelance writing. She has formed a support group with women who picked her story up on Facebook. They are organizing a tea party to raise funds. Some are victims too. Some are sympathizers. Her story will be told soon, without the aid of a story teller like myself. She will get a chance to be her own journalist, and she has plenty reasons to do so.
“I was not the first. Sadly, I will not be the last. But I can do something, to change, from speaking”
“I don’t want millions. No. I don’t even want money. I just want an audience. Secrets kill.”, She narrates to me, as she gets up to stretch her legs.
“I am very proud of myself” she adds as she goes back to her seat.
She has every reason to be proud. Mmathabo’s story is remarkable. She has survived three sexual assaults. Survived child prostitution. Survived fending for herself.
She is a child let down by people who ought to have protected her. Left vulnerable and exploited by a knife wielding stranger, in a society where such incidents occur way too often.
Somehow, she survived.
We do not know how she did. She promises me she will say it all in the book.
“I don’t want to pre-empt. But my book touches on just how I changed my life and saved myself.” she says.
Despite all my attempts to remain neutral, as ethics demand, I cannot help but tell her that I am proud of her as well, and that I will get her book on release day.
I must. Two hours after we first sat down to speak, I realize, the cost of rape, on her life, is beyond description or numeration. And it’s not just about the cost of the sexual assault, it’s about the pieces, of her life, which she was forced to return and pick up. The pieces she has left, from a life which used to be whole.
Her dream to save the world may appear ambitious. But, for a woman who has defeated every odd, just to get here. She just might make it.
- Maynard Manyowa is a journalist, and the co-editor of Khuluma Afrika, a center for political analysis and investigative journalism. Article appears on Khuluma Afrika.
Picture: Mmathabo Mooa at her Johannesburg apartment. (Maynard Manyowa, Khuluma Afrika, 2017)
(Editorial Note: The interview was conducted off hand and narrated casually. Certain exact dates or months stated in this account may not be consistent with dates written in Mmathabo’s book.)