Rapist stole my dignity, but I won’t let him crush my spirit

Saturday November 10 2012

Adelle Onyango



I should have screamed,” says Adelle soberly. “But it happened too fast. I was too shocked, even, that it was happening.”

Adelaide Onyango was raped in 2008 on a lit street in Westlands, commonly referred to as “Electric Avenue” because of the many clubs there.

“I was walking by myself, which even I know is stupid, but…that’s what it was. I made the mistake that everyone knows not to make, but everyone makes anyway. It’s just that fewer have dire consequences.”

A man grabbed her, pulled her into a corner, and had his way with her. “I went back to my friends and they took me to hospital. That is when the cycle began.”

Adelle could not tell anyone, and could not talk to anyone. “I had rage. I would take it out on other people. I burnt a lot of bridges.” Even when Adelle finally decided to tell her mother, she wrote a note to her and left it on the bed.

“I could not face her. I waited until she was in the shower and left it on her bed, and this was years after it actually happened.”

“I told myself I would give myself a time period in which I would get over it. The time period was two years. But after those two years had passed and I still was not over it, I started beating myself up about it. It was wrong of me to think that I could schedule my healing to fit conveniently into what I thought was acceptable.” Three years later, she still could not talk about what happened that night in that alley.
What was the value of having values?

Adelle was angry, confused, and traumatised. “I am not a religious person, but there are some things I believe in, certain morals I ascribe to. This whole thing made me wonder, what was the point of having ideals if someone could just come and take them away from you? I had held on to my virginity till that point. What was the point of holding on to it if a man could take it away just because he felt like it?”

Twenty-nine-year-old Diana* was attacked as she walked home from school. “Three men approached me and, for some reason, I did not want to budge. I walked into them, and they grabbed me. I had no money… so they dragged me into a bush. I did not scream because I was trying to cooperate so they would leave me alone.

“The irony is that there was a police station about 200 metres away. The place we were in was not well-lit; we heard women walking by talking and laughing. The leader thought I was going to scream, so he put a knife to my throat. Later, they debated whether or not to rape me, and then decided to do it because it was like they had gotten nothing out of their night. When they were done, they told me to walk away and not look back.

“I walked to a pub nearby and borrowed a phone. There was a cop in the bar who gave me a ride home. I went to hospital and got on ARVs, and that was that.”

So how did Diana get over it? “I never went to a psychologist or anything. Though they do have support groups at the Nairobi Women’s Hospital, but I did not bother. I rationalised it. It is possible to move on, to have healthy relationships, and a healthy life afterwards. I am over it. It does not define your life, unless you choose to allow it to.”

Ruined relationships

Adelle’s was a different story. “It ruined the relationship I was in at the time. I could not tell him…I could not explain what happened, and I could not make him understand.” The explanation, Adelle states, is the hardest part.

“How do you explain to someone that you are touchy about talking about your past because you were raped? And after you tell him, you inevitably wonder if he is staying out of pity or if he actually wants to be there…and if he can handle the complicated sexual relationship you are bound to have because of your past — or rather, because of something someone else did to you.”

The victimisation of girls often starts at a young age. Michelle*, a 26-year-old writer, remembers an incident from her childhood.

“Our next door neighbour would come to the house when my siblings were away and whisk me to the back of the house to molest me. He would say we were going to play a game or pick fruits from the trees in the estate. That’s when he would do it.”

No means no

Michelle was too young to understand what was going on. “I didn’t know that what he was doing was wrong. It never occurred to my young mind. In fact, I was so innocently unaware that I am the one who told my mother that the neighbour was touching me.”

The very next week, the neighbours moved. “I feel sorry for the little girl who did not even know that she was being violated. What if there are other small girls like that who will never speak out? What happens to their lives?”

Although Adelle was older when it happened, she still could not talk about it. “I didn’t want to talk about it.” She started a campaign on rape awareness called “No Means No”, although few people at the time knew that she had been raped; all they knew was that it was a cause close to her heart, but not why.

“I would look at my scars and get depressed. One time I was crying and one of my aunties told me I should make it the last cry; that I should forget about it. How could I possibly forget about it? People really do say the most insensitive things sometimes.”

This is something that this ever-smiling radio presenter has learned, especially now that she is in the public eye. “I did a photo shoot a few months ago with my boyfriend at the time. The pictures were well done, as well as provocative, and meaningful – but people got the wrong message completely! Ghafla!, a popular entertainment site, heralded the photos as ‘nude photos’ — which they were not. They were more semi-nude, but very tastefully done. We were trying to show that I am beautiful — and people can still be beautiful after something like that happens to them.”

To Adelle, it is important for people in the limelight to speak up about issues that affect them, and to use it to do good. They are, after all, real people with real problems that, more often than not, they choose to hide.

“After I started No Means No, after my relationship ended, after all the crying and the hurt, I had an epiphany. This guy was running around the streets of Nairobi, guilt-free and footloose, and I was there being miserable and depressed. It wasn’t right. I asked myself, why was I hiding as if I was ashamed, as if I was the monster? Hiding means shame.” Adelle had taken the first step to healing: acceptance.

“I cannot say I am fully healed. I am at the stage where I do not even know if that is possible. But I want to heal. I want to help others heal. So now I talk about it. So much is going on and no one is talking about it. People in the media, and my industry, can be very fake.

They hide deep scars behind the glitter and glam. “When you are out with your friends, remember the things that everyone supposedly already knows. Don’t go out alone. Don’t leave your drink unattended. Watch the bartender.

Take self-defence classes, by all means. Though nothing, and I mean nothing, can prepare you for this. If it does happen to you, do not go at it alone. You need people to be strong with you and for you.”

Adelle’s internal scars are still in the process of healing, but she had laser treatment for her physical ones. “One day, when I’m healed, I think I want to meet this man, if I could. I want to understand why someone would do that to another human being.”

Treat the source not the symptom

Diana thinks men use rape as a weapon. “Rape happens for several different reasons. I think it is primarily a show of power between the sexes, and as a tool for that display. But you have to remember that these are normal-looking people who do these things to other ordinary people. Sometimes, we look for a reason, such as their childhood or their socialisation, but sometimes, it’s just ordinary people who choose to do what they choose to do.”

According to Adelle, men have a problem that runs deeper than the surface and she feels that society is paying attention to the wrong thing. “A lot of focus is on the women; how to defend them or help them recover, and as such we have forgotten to ask the important questions about why men rape.

“We need to stop this somehow. Women talk about rape all the time, but maybe it’s time we started talking to the men. If you don’t fix the other side, the ‘stronger’ sex, the perpetrators of these crimes, how will it ever stop? You can’t treat the disease by treating the victims instead of the source.”

Adelle smiles as she concludes, “You cannot forget. You can never forget, but you can choose to accept. Choose how to react. Choose to move on. It took me four years, but I chose.” She shows me her tattoos. “This one says Truth, and this one says Hope. That’s what is important. That’s what I aim to remember, to be positive about, every day.”

*Some names have been changed to protect privacy


seven ways to stay safe

1There is safety in numbers. Always move from one location to another as part of a group, especially at night.

2 If you are meeting a strange man, try to have your own means of getting home instead of relying on him to drop you. Make sure you have enough cab fare to get home. Also, do not go into places alone with a stranger, such as his car or a dark corner of the club.

3Make sure someone always knows where you are, whether it means texting/tweeting/facebooking the number plate of your taxi and destination, or calling a friend as you get into the taxi so that the cab driver is aware that people know where you are, who you are with, and where you are going. Ensure you have adequate credit on your phone.

4Try not to get home too late, and if you must, use a cab. Share the cab with a friend or use a regular taxi person, preferably one referred to you as opposed to one you find on the street.

5Never leave your drink unguarded in a public place. Do not shake hands with strangers (as date rape drugs are sometimes passed on in this way), and always keep an eye out for strange behaviour.

6If confronted by an attacker, SCREAM and fight. Studies and police testimonies have shown that attackers do not expect a woman to fight back and the one who does is often left alone as she is “too much trouble”. Some women, however, in the face of weapons (e.g. guns) find it is more beneficial to cooperate, or negotiate their way out of the situation.

7If possible, legally arm yourself, whether it is with homemade pepper spray, an umbrella, or a Swiss Army knife in your bag. Even a handful of soil aimed at his eyes can give you enough time to get away.

If weapons are not available use your body parts: Jab your nails in his eyes or drive your knee into his groin area, then run. Other sensitive spots include right below the rib cage and right in the middle of the shin. One can also take self-defence classes to aid in this respect.