I met Ola when we were in Nigeria and then we came to the United States for university at the same time. She went off to an elite university in Massachusetts, while I went to the bible belt in Alabama. She was full of verve, zippy and kind. Being the first born she already shouldered a lot of responsibility; you could see it in the way she carried herself like an adult. She was tiny and skinny, but already dressed in the tasteful elegance of a cosmopolitan lady. Ola had to set an example for her younger siblings, although she was only 16 and more or less left to her own devices in an unfamiliar terrain in a foreign land.
Thus, when Ola was raped, and she reasoned that any publicity from the ordeal could cause her father to prematurely end her education in America and ask her to return to Nigeria, she did what many women do after a tragic sexual assault—she did not report it, but kept on living like it never happened.
Ola spent her holidays living under the guardianship of her father’s old friend, with his family in Chicago. His wife was a nurse who worked the graveyard shift. Ola had just turned 17 and was spending spring break with her guardian in Chicago. She enjoyed the company of their little children whom she occasionally nannied when out of school. Ola had been upstairs in her bedroom when she heard her father’s friend, whom she called ‘uncle’ request her presence downstairs. She answered his call to get him his dinner from the kitchen. It was about 11 pm, his wife had left for work, and the kids were tucked in bed.
Although she thought it was a strange request since she’d never been asked to get him his dinner—and besides she’d wondered why he didn’t just walk into the kitchen himself to get it—she complied as Nigerian girls were expected to be domesticated and respectful. However, he told her to hang around in the living room while he ate. He said he wanted her nearby in case he needed something else. She noticed he’d been drinking heavily, and then he asked her to get him another beer when he was done eating. As she served him the beer, he started. She was already a bit conscious of him, because she’d caught him watching her. So, she pleaded with him when he held her by the waist suddenly as she stooped over to pour his drink.
“Uncle please, stop”, Ola tried to be as assertive as she could muster without showing fear.
It was a constant plea that fell on deaf ears throughout the night, as she resisted her guardian’s advances. However, because Ola had a slight stature being five feet, three inches tall, he overpowered her and shrugged off her defenses. Eventually tying her hands to the legs of a sofa, he tore off her clothes and raped her. That was how my girlfriend who had been my first true love as an adult lost her virginity. Her drunk guardian fell asleep on top of her when he was done. Ola released herself from under his weight in tears. She quietly showered, packed her things and went back to campus that morning, never to return. She went to the school clinic and checked to make sure she had not contracted a venereal disease. And now she had to wait to make sure she was not pregnant. Then she called me and told me what had happened to her. She was remarkably strong, and despite being distraught, her reasoning was pellucidly sharp.
I asked her to tell her father, but she argued that it would cause a big fight and she did not want the fallout or publicity that would ensue. She argued that her assailant’s wife would come to his defense and because he was a friend of her dad’s, some may end up blaming her for the rift and even for being raped. She did not want her dad to make her quit school and return to Nigeria without her degree. The experience would adversely affect her sisters’ chances of studying abroad too, since her father would become overprotective, she reasoned.
Ola refused to give me his name or reveal his identity. All I knew was he was her father’s friend. She even appeared to sympathize with the man who had violated and traumatized her, blaming his wife who worked nightshifts almost every day for leaving him with a teenage girl in the house. But any man’s lack of self-control is inexcusable. What was even more sickening was his attempt to buy her silence when he sent her an expensive gift. She rejected it and changed her contact information, requesting that it be hidden in the school directory.
The semester before Ola told me of her ordeal, a college friend from China had called me one night, crying. Ming told me her guardian’s son had tried to rape her. He stopped when a visitor knocked on the door, and then he begged her to forgive him. Like Ola, Ming did not tell her parents back in China, because she did not want them to get worried. She decided she would focus on her studies but changed schools, so she would not have to face her host family’s son who had sexually assaulted her. I learnt from these two women in my life that not only were female international students highly vulnerable to rape in America, but they also had to make complex choices often prioritizing the “pristine interests” of their families over their own security.
Retribution and justice never seemed to be options for them to explore. I learnt one of the reasons many women do not come forward after a traumatic rape or sexual assault, is to avoid re-victimization by society’s censure and questioning, and in a heroic way, to spare their families from experiencing the psychological pain they had. Sometimes they did not come forward because they felt a sense of guilt, although they were the hapless victims.
Rape is a universal phenomenon that remains a scourge on women’s dignity, their autonomy, and identity that casts an odious pall on society at large. We cannot simply remain complacent for women to be silently valorous because society stigmatizes victims of rape in so many ways. It was painful for me to watch Ola suffer in silence and be unable to report it. Because of her, I learned in so many ways, not to judge women as I knew firsthand how strong and heroic they often really were, despite the unfair expectations and burdens societies have historically placed on them.