I was operating on adrenaline. Nighttime came; I covered my red dress entirely with a long white garment and wrapped my head in a white cloth. I covered my head and face like I was wearing a chador (the way women in the Muslim community dress).
SEE PART 1 BELOW ⤵︎
Then I picked up my six-month-old half-brother from the floor where he was sleeping and carried him on my back to blend in with other young mothers since there were many of those. I thought this could keep me safe. The good thing was that they never approached married women. I then joined my two friends. The three of us spent time together walking and chatting – I walked in the middle the whole time.
I was petrified. Every time a pair of those men approached us, I took off my glasses and remained silent.
That night, men came out in droves, walking in pairs carrying long whips and torches looking for me. They were determined to find me as they asked everyone if they had seen me. They gave a detailed description of the dress I was wearing and that I wore glasses. I felt like an animal being hunted down. I was petrified. Every time a pair of those men approached us, I took off my glasses and remained silent. My friends did all the talking. I was terrified – my mouth was bone dry, my hands were sweaty, and I could hear my heartbeat and felt my blood pumping through my veins. I thought to myself, “This must be what they call high blood pressure.” I needed to hold it together and stay calm even though the rest of my body was screaming…Help! It was about to give in.
I had seen these men beat up women who had lost their children in the crowd as there were thousands of people at these conferences. Had I been caught I was going to face many “charges” that night; disobedience was the main charge.
I had disobeyed the head of our church; stubbornness – for refusing to say YES to marriage and generally challenging the male-dominated power structure where everything worked in their favour.
Once kidnapped, a girl was not ever allowed to go back home as they were considered spoilt or damaged goods. Whether the man had touched her or not – that was just it – it did not matter. The fact that she would have disappeared for a few hours or a day would have been good enough for her family to insist that she be returned to where she had disappeared to, practically leaving her with no refuge. I had nowhere to go and no one to report to as they would have gladly handed me over to the church leader, which would have sealed my fate. I could not trust any of the adults I was surrounded by.
Earlier on, I tried to slip into blankets and go to bed early, but an elderly female relative ordered me to go and mingle with other young people. I had no doubt what this meant; for a moment, I wondered if this could be a setup, but again it might have been the one thing that saved me because they would have known where to find me. The odds were clearly stacked against me – that is when I decided to take the baby to use as my cover.
Had those men found me, they would have given not only me but my two accomplices a harsh beating. Everyone feared them because they were the leader’s bodyguards. My ordeal happened from 7:30 pm till 12 midnight; It was the longest four and a half hours of my entire life. Finally, it was time to go to our tent. I was emotionally exhausted and physically numb. As I gently put the baby down, I said to him with tears in my eye, “Do you even know that you just saved my life today?” I curled up in a foetal position next to him and cried quietly until I fell asleep.
The following day the conference ended. I was happy to see daylight. I saw some of the men as we were driving off. I could not help but wink as I waved at them. They just looked in disbelief and frustration.
When my ordeal was over, I vowed never to set foot in the kidnapping zone again! In Shona, we have a saying that says “tsuro haiponi murutsva kaviri” (a hare does not escape wildfires twice). I was not about to step back into the fire again. So, when my father mentioned attending another conference, I did not want to take any chances. I knew that those men and many others, especially those who used to turn up at my school gate, would be looking for me, probably more prepared than before. I had watched so many young girls around me die in childbirth or consumed by their marriages. I was not going to be a statistic.
My father and I had such a close relationship. It was such a tough decision to leave. So, I did not tell anyone about my plans.
During the early hours of Thursday morning, my father accompanied me to the bus stop because he wanted me to run an errand in another village. It was dark and cold. As we walked, I wiped away my tears as I was about to betray my hero and mentor. I hid my emotions and managed to chat, disguising the anguish I was going through. I worked hard to control the tone of my voice so that he would not detect that I was crying. Sitting on the B & C bus, I waved goodbye until he was out of sight, knowing that this would be the last time that I would see my father in a very long time.
I had chosen to defy my father and the community values that he held so true. I felt a deep sense of loss before leaving. I was hurt and angry at the same time.
My father was the parent I had lived with since he and my mum divorced when I was only three. This choice I was forced to make meant that the ground on which I stood would be shaken. I felt alone and devastated.
I could not stop the tears from streaming down my face for the 3-hour journey. Something inside me was broken. My errand was to give some money to my stepmother, then go with her to the conference. I had decided that I was not going. So, I told her that I was not feeling well. At that point, I was emotionally drained and facing uncertainty; this was uncharted territory! To make her believe that I would follow her to the conference, I shaved my hair entirely as it is a church requirement and packed my bag with church garments.
On Friday, when she was leaving for the conference, I told her that I would follow a day later because I needed to rest as the rain had caught me on the long walk from the bus stop. It felt like I was coming down with a cold. To be honest, I do not know whether I was coming down with something for real or not – I was just drained from the emotional roller coaster, and all I knew was that my whole body was not feeling right.
When I left the Gandanzara village in Rusape the next day, I went the opposite direction of the conference and made my way to the capital city of Harare to reunite with my maternal side of the family. I had never travelled on my own before, but I had to risk my life by hitch-hiking. Besides, there were no mobile phones in those days.
Upon my arrival, I lost my balance – I could not focus, but I was also ALIVE and free – there was no turning back. My uncles went to the conference to talk to my father and beg him to allow me to pursue my path. He agreed but with certain conditions. He only wanted me to respect his wishes of staying as part of the church. I was tired of having every stage of my life put on a negotiating table, so I refused to return home.
I started to rebuild my young life at that time, living with my maternal grandmother in Harare. I pursued a university degree, and it was such a relief to be studying – it was absolutely empowering. It was liberating to know that I had made a profound decision to choose my own path and consciously create my own future. I did not want to give up on my dream, so I completed my degree in Sociology and moved to the United Kingdom to further pursue my dreams after graduating.
I made people realize that sending the girl-child to school was not such a bad idea after all. It was exhilarating to see the change in attitude.
By defying my father’s authority, I did what was unheard of, and I disgraced him. For a while, I was the talk of the religious group back home. I am sure it was difficult for my father to be taken seriously by this strong patriarchal community. I became the girl who rebelled by going to school. My actions ruined the relationship I had with him in a big way – for many years, it was difficult for us to communicate, which made me very miserable. However, I am thankful that the bond between us is now solid. Having him back in my life brought back the balance I had lost. When my parents divorced, I stayed with my father and stepmother during my early years. Naturally, I depended on him, and we had a strong connection. Most of my values were learned from him; he was my role model, so the decision to run away was not easy. After running away, our relationship suffered for twelve years, but I continued to work on rebuilding the relationship. Eventually, it was amended, and I was able to support my father. This did not go unnoticed. I made people realize that sending the girl-child to school was not such a bad idea after all. It was exhilarating to see the change in attitude.
Church members began to appreciate that there were many benefits to educating the girl-child. More girls from the church are now going to secondary school and some as far as the university. The irony was that my act of rebellion consequently liberated other girls and is now seen as an act of courage. Unfortunately to this day, there are a few girls who still need to find the courage to say no or leave but have got nowhere to go, that is where Sabina’s Sanctuary comes in.
More to come …