The past three years have been one hell of a ride. I’ve been to hell and back. I wish I had read this WSJ article three years ago but I just came across it last week. It says it can take up to two years to recover from a divorce or loss of job and I didn’t only lose my job, I was sexually assaulted on the job. If I’d known it would take this long to recover I would have worked through my pain and distress more mindfully, felt less like a freak, worried less about what was wrong with me and not blamed myself so much for what happened.
I’m only just recovering from what happened to me at Oxfam GB. I didn’t take time to tend to the scared me, the frightened me, the traumatized me, because I’ve had a lifetime of experience with abuse and I know you can’t let it take over your life. So I pushed away the pain and disappointment, buried it in daily routines, silenced my anger in constructive action, all the while thinking to myself – I shouldn’t have gone to his hotel room with him, I shouldn’t have sat down to have a drink with him, I shouldn’t have even smiled at him.
When I gave away my dog and asked my best friends sister to take in my cat I tried not to think of the wrong that had been done to me because if I didn’t want to start crying over spilled milk, the milk would still be on the floor and I would never stop crying. When I packed up all my prized and favorite possessions and put them in storage because I couldn’t pay the rent anymore I tried not to curse the man who made this happen. I was strong, I took responsibility, it’s what I’ve been taught to do since I could make sense of the world; pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again.
Still I couldn’t help thinking; I should have gone straight to the police, I should have filed a formal complaint immediately, I should have put my wellbeing before my concerns for Oxfam’s reputation, I shouldn’t have called him and demanded an apology because really what else would he do after that except get rid of me. Let me hang over HIS career at Oxfam like an isosceles sword?
When I watched my sons move out of our house all I could think of was that I should have done more to protect my job because my job gave them protection and they depended on me. Sometimes I would hate the man that did this to me with so much passion but what’s that – hate? He’s there with his family in his house, at his job and I’m out in the cold and my world is falling apart around me and I don’t know how to stop it. My hate can’t touch him. It was but small comfort that he resigned abruptly a year later when the police started and investigation and questioned Oxfam.
I could have used the severance pay they gave me to bring a court action against him and Oxfam and everybody else that made me feel so powerless and helpless and out of control but my father died just when I was about to start something. He was a dependent under the health insurance policy they made me take in place of the private one I had before so when I lost the job I lost my health insurance. He died of complications from diabetes because I couldn’t afford his drugs any longer and what was left of my severance went towards that expensive burial for him. The village people would have it no other way.
Besides, every lawyer I spoke to claimed jurisdiction was a problem. At the time of the incident you worked in Abuja, he worked in Dakar, the assault happened in Oxford, England. I didn’t qualify to go before the employment tribunal in the UK, the Nigerian Labor law offered little remedy and whether I filed legal action in Nigeria, Senegal or UK it would be expensive, serving everyone involved would be a logistics nightmare and a financial investment I just couldn’t afford.
I still remember a conversation I had with a Nigerian lady who had taken a German BINGO to court for sexual discrimination and unlawful termination of contract in Nigeria. She had been in court for 5 years. When she came to me she was struggling to take care of her children and could no longer afford the legal fees. She came looking for legal assistance. Little did I know at the time that I would find myself in a similar quandary a few months down the line.
For a very long time I was angry at Oxfam and all the people I worked with there that couldn’t end the conversation fast enough the minute I mentioned the sexual assault. I wonder why they were so ready to listen to him when he said I deserved summary dismissal for a minor oversight that I wasn’t even aware of but wouldn’t give me the time of day when I told them my more serious allegations even when I had your witnesses, the in house shrink and the HR lady I reported to after the incident who corroborated my story.
The shrink didn’t offer me any post traumatic counselling, He just said ‘honor your anger’ but I wasn’t feeling angry then. I was hurt, confused, scared and ashamed but not angry, not yet. The anger would come later and most of it was self-directed at first. I was also afraid of losing my job, now I find it ironic how my greatest fear came true and became my reality. I found my anger when I realized that I had lost my job because I wouldn’t let this man have sex with me and insisted he apologize for even trying. I found my anger when I realized that Oxfam was more concerned with covering up the matter than protecting me despite the evidence.
Oxfam has stone walled me for the past three years, all my attempts to get them to reconsider the evidence have been rejected. Even the shrink I first reported to has ignored my calls for help, the robotic lawyers can’t get creative and see beyond the jurisdiction issues and the statute of limitations on sexual assaults in England expires today. I have done my best – I’ve spoken to lawyers at home and abroad. I’ve swallowed my pride and my embarrassment, told complete strangers about the most intimate assault a woman can experience again and again, I have sought support from ngo’s and from individuals. Some turn away in embarrassment, some wish me good luck. some said they would help me if they could but…
Meanwhile I continue to hear horrific stories of sexual abuse, harassment and rape from other local hire women in international development. I considered a broader campaign to bring the matter into the open but no one wants to talk about it publicly. They have husbands and boyfriends and children and careers and lives and they just want to move on as best they can. Why can’t I just let it go it and move on like they seem to have done? Why does the injustice of it gnaw at the pit of my stomach till I want to puke and shake my fist at Man, God and the Universe?
Its taken me a long time to talk about what happened to me, at first I thought it was okay and expected people to react with outrage and support but when I noticed the embarrassment on people’s faces when I mentioned why or how I was fired I stopped talking about it. I’m grateful to all the people who have in one way or the other sympathized with me or spoken out in the past few months because the silence was killing me. It reinforced my shame and my isolation and my loneliness. I felt like I was shouting wolf, like I was the only one this ever happened to and therefore surely it was my fault or I was imagining things. Or I was just crazy.
I must thank Chika Oduah for her powerful and informative write up. She says my post about my assault gave her the courage to speak about her experience; her post has given me the courage to feel and share my feelings. I notice is how arid my words were when I wrote them as if the events happened to someone else, as if it were just a matter of fact. It’s how I deal with scary emotions and experiences, I either trivialize them or I sanitize them. Being a lawyer helps – cut to the objective facts please.
I don’t miss the job, I hated working for Oxfam from the get go, they do more good for their egos and their pockets than they do for the poor third world people they claim to help with all those tax free dollars and pounds they collect from the unsuspecting masses in the west. I don’t even miss the colleagues I worked with, not one of them reached out to support or even sympathize when I told them what happened, they shut me off like a poisoned water spout, acted like they were afraid I would taint them and put their own jobs at risk and I don’t blame them or even hold it against them.
What I miss, no, what I missed was more personal; my sense of self-worth, my confidence, my health, my love of life, my faith in people, my integrity. But it’s not what they take away, it’s what they leave behind like one TV ad in England says; the anxiety, the mistrust, the self-doubts, the anger, the pessimism, the disillusionment; it’s been a long time coming but I can finally honestly say – they never took anything away from me. I’m still who I was before this happened, who I always been – I’m a feisty survivor.
Its three years later and I have survived; without a job, without a home, without my children around me, without my dog, without my cat and without the comfort and safety of familiar surroundings. I have survived! Nietzsche was right – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. No one can take that from me. Writing has been my solace these past three years and I have rediscovered my talent and my passion for it; words have power, my words have power and I will continue to speak out against sexual harassment in the work place, Oxfam and the man that did this to me, not out of anger or self-pity or even regret but from a place of power, from a place of certainty that injustice is wrong, from a place where I can say with pride – I survived!