This is a story about Ayesha (not her real name), a beautiful seven-year-old girl who lives with her mother and stepfather, and her little brother, Ghalib, in a reasonably comfortable home in a place called Greenhaven. Here in the Western Cape, or what is more commonly known as the Cape Flats, the neighbors are a mixed breed of working class people and business folk; everyone is mainly concerned about putting food on the table and making ends meet. But then there are those who maintain a better lifestyle, like Ayesha’s stepfather, Malik, who owns a reasonably profitable shoe store in the central part of Athlone, which is known as the hub of the Cape Flats and where the buyers are predominantly black.
Ayesha and her brother Ghalib attended our Madressa (religious and cultural institution) and a more lovable and dedicated pair no teacher could ask for. They were always punctual and never stayed away for anything; even on secular school holidays they would be there. We at the Madressa sometimes had our hands full just trying to get them to take the day off. Little did we know about the dastardly deeds that were taking place in their seemingly comfortable home, which were probably the driving force behind their coming to Madressa so ardently.
But let me not waste time with preliminaries, let me tell the story as it happened to Ayesha. And let me also add that I can only tell it like it is – that this is what happened, to the best of my knowledge.
Ayesha placed her doll next to her on the pillow and said, “You must be a good girlie now. You must go to sleep!” She pulled the blanket over it and added. “Tomorrow we can play again. Okay?” She kissed the plastic face tenderly and lay down herself. “Okay?” She looked at the doll seriously, as if expecting an answer.
She wanted to say something else, but then the door opened slowly and she froze. A dark shadow appeared in the doorway.
Her heart started to pound and she had trouble breathing. She could smell the sweat of the man as he came further into the room and hovered over her.
“Hello, Ayesha,” he said, placing his short, pudgy frame down next to her on the bed. “You haven’t been a good girl today. Have you?” It was Malik, her stepfather.
She didn’t answer. She was too terrified. Malik had a grin on his round face.
“Why did you lie to Mummy and say I had put my finger in here?” He placed his hand over her vagina. “Why?”
She cringed and stared at him with big round eyes. She wished someone would come and take him away from her. She started to make funny sounds through her nose.
“I had to put ointment on you. Didn’t I?” He looked at her, sweat glistening on his balding forehead. “Mummy said so. You know I wouldn’t hurt you!”
She wished her own Daddy could have been here now. She wished he hadn’t died in that horrible car crash. Why? Oh, why did ALLAH have to take her Daddy? He would not have allowed “The Man” to come into her room and to touch her!
She kept staring at him fearfully, making those whimpering sounds as his hand moved up and down over her vagina. She wanted to scream for help, she wanted to jump out of the bed and run to her mother Amina’s room, but she knew her Mummy wouldn’t listen, would only say that she had had a bad dream and that in the morning, when the sun came out, her nightmare would be gone and everything would be all right. Her Mother never listened to her or to her younger brother, Ghalib, nowadays. She said that if Malik hadn’t taken them in, and fed and clothed them, then what would have become of them? Ayesha’s own Daddy had left them with a lot of debt. He had also not paid the rent, and they had had to leave.
When Ghalib did something wrong “The Man” would take him into the bedroom and lock the door. She would hear him scream as “The Man” punished him. She would hammer on the door and shout at “The Man” to stop hitting her brother. She would not cease until “The Man” opened the door and let her brother go. She hated “The Man!”
“You shouldn’t tell lies, Ayesha,” Malik whispered, trying to allay her fears. “Remember, I’ve told you that if you are going to be a good girl I’m going to buy you that big doll that can talk, plus that big teddy you’ve always wanted. Remember?”
She stared at him, the child in her taking over. She stopped whimpering. “And Ghalib? What are you going to buy for Ghalib?
He smiled. “Why…of course! I’m going to buy him that big, radio-controlled car!” He kept on smiling. “You know I always keep my promises…”
She swallowed, thinking about the time she was five years old, when Daddy was still alive, and Malik had come to their house when they were still living in Cape Town. She had seen Malik go into her Mummy’s room the morning Daddy had left for work and she had listened by the door. She had heard her Mummy making funny noises and she was afraid “The Man” was hurting her Mummy. She had pushed open the door and had seen “The Man” lying on top of her Mummy. They were both naked. Her Mummy had told her not to tell anyone what she had seen, least of all her Daddy. Malik had bought her a lot of chocolates and many dollies. He had a lot of money.
“And one other thing…” Malik’s voice came through to her. “Please call me Daddy. I am your Daddy now. Am I not?” His hand was under the blanket, and the sweat started to roll down his face. He smiled at her, his hand moving between her legs. “I’ve told you I would never hurt you. Didn’t I?” His breath smelt funny.
She smiled back nervously, thinking of the big teddy she wanted so much. She would play the whole day with him, she thought, as Malik slowly pulled the blanket from her, revealing her naked thighs. She would let her other dollies sleep so long while she and her walking, talking doll, and, teddy, played till late. She would wash teddy and she would let him sleep next to her. She would…
Malik was on top of her and she felt a sudden sharp pain between her legs. Her lips parted to scream; Malik put his hand over her mouth. “It’s okay,” he whispered. “It’s only sore for now! Don’t worry. Think of your walking, talking doll and your teddy! And, I won’t buy it if you scream.” He was panting now.
Ayesha felt as if her whole body was on fire. She had trouble breathing because of Malik’s weight on her, and the pain between her legs was indescribable. She cried softly. Malik was making grunting sounds. He breathed heavily.
Finally, he rolled off her and pulled up his pants. There was an animal look on his face. “Don’t tell anyone. You hear?” He hissed at her. “If you do that, I shall not only cancel our deal of the teddy and the doll, but I shall also punish Ghalib! And you wouldn’t like that, would you?”
She was staring up at the ceiling sobbing pathetically as Malik left the room. She wasn’t thinking of the teddy or the dolly now. She was again thinking of why ALLAH had taken her Daddy away and why her Mummy had taken this man into their lives. She thought of the many times he had come to her room and touched her private parts when he thought she was sleeping. She thought of the many times she had told her Mummy about it, and how, in the beginning, Mummy had confronted him, and how the two of them had argued and screamed at each other. How “The Man” had sometimes slapped her mother till her nose bled and she and Ghalib had lain on top of her to protect her from “The Man’s” brutality.
But that seemed a long time ago now. Malik had a way of twisting things around. He knew how to subdue her mother by threatening to put them all out and confiscate everything he had bought for them. Even when Ghalib used to wet his bed “The Man” would lock him up in the bedroom and he had to stay there, without food, until he learned to behave himself. Her mother would say nothing. She thought of the advert she had seen on the television about the dollies carrying the little boy away from the “Bad Man” and to a place where he was safe. She stopped crying and got off the bed. There was a full moon outside.
She knelt by her bed, her body feeling stiff and very sore. She nearly toppled over. “Please, ALLAH…” she began and put her hands together. “Please help me and Ghalib. Please!” The moon was shining on her face now. Tears rolled down her cheeks. “I promise, ALLAH, I’ll be a good girl. I will never be naughty again!” She closed her eyes and thought of what her Daddy had always told her. He had said that no matter what happened to you you must never loose hope in the mercy of ALLAH.
“Please, ALLAH…” She opened her eyes and she saw that the moon was moving away from the window. “Please, let Mummy love me and Ghalib again. Please!” The room was growing dark, but she wasn’t afraid as she stared at the curtains. “I know you have a lot of things to do ALLAH. I know there are a lot of children asking you for plenty of stuff. But Daddy has said that YOU always answer prayers, ALLAH. ALWAYS!” She sobbed. “You must please stop “The Man” from hurting me and Ghalib. And, you must also help all the other children in the whole wide, wide world and everywhere that you see” (her Daddy had told her that ALLAH can see everywhere and everything) “who are being hurt by their step-daddies and they have nowhere to go to.” She began to yawn and she fell asleep on the floor, her face relaxing into a peaceful smile as she dreamt of her Daddy.
It was a week after that incident that Ayesha and Ghalib heard her mother screaming and swearing vilely in the kitchen. She was sitting on top of Malik when they got there, and she was stabbing him repeatedly with a kitchen knife in the chest. There was blood all over the floor, and Malik was completely motionless. But their mother kept on stabbing and stabbing.
Ayesha had run over to the neighbors, and Aunty Fareeda and Uncle Maimun had come over to see what was going on. The Police had been called because Malik was dead, and their mother was taken to hospital. She had also been stabbed and she kept on screaming and swearing as they took her away.
Apparently, the two of them had, as usual, been arguing over money and Malik had slapped Amina. She, in turn, had grabbed the knife and threatened him with it. Malik had somehow managed to take the knife from her and in the struggle Amina had been stabbed in the arm. Further than that, nobody knew – whether Malik slipped and fell on the floor or whether Amina overpowered him, was anybody’s guess. Amina never spoke a coherent word after that, because she suffered a severe nervous breakdown and was admitted to a mental institution. Ayesha and Ghalib went to stay with Aunty Fareeda and Uncle Maimun, who had no children of their own.
In the words of Fareeda, the neighbor, “I’ve always wondered about the irony of life, that those who have children sometimes don’t know how to look after them. But then ALLAH has strange ways of working. And, I can only be thankful that HE has granted me these beautiful children to look after, even if it is just for a while. I shall not stop asking ALLAH to make this a permanent solution.”