My name is Anthonia Ojenagbon. My horror story began in 1992 when I was 12 years old. I was sent to stay at my uncle’s (my father’s brother) in Lagos by my parents because they could not afford to train us all. Of course, I was very happy that I was coming to Lagos, but that joy was to turn sour and remain so all my adolescent years.
The first night (shortly after I arrived) it could have passed for a dream, except that I felt strongly it was real. I felt a hand grope my body; touch my nipples and then my vagina. I was scared because it was dark and couldn’t fathom who could be doing such to me. And because I came from a strong Deeper Life Christian family where sex was never mentioned, speaking of someone touching my genital was something I could not fathom. In fact, the first feeling was shock, that anyone could actually touch my genital.
That night passed and the hand kept coming every night until after about a week, when he finally penetrated me. Still, I thought it was a monster, until one day, when my uncle came to threaten me that ‘If you ever tell anyone what is going on in this house, I will kill you.’
Never in my wildest dream did I think it could have been him, because he was my favourite uncle and I loved him dearly. Apparently, he thought I knew. He also told me my mother, being a strong Christian, would never believe me. And I believed him. Really, it was a story hardly believable.
Of course I bled that first time, but his wife thought it was my period and gave me a sanitary pad. Even now, I cannot explain how his wife never knew, even though we all slept in a one-room apartment and both of them slept on the same bed. If she knew or suspected but didn’t say anything, I honestly cannot tell. So many things happened then that I still cannot explain – like never getting pregnant all through.
Anyway, he started having sex with me, regularly after deflowering me and I really cannot count how many times he raped me. I became like his alternative sex option, and it continued for six whole years – off and on, until I was 18. Whenever he travelled, I was fine, but once he was around, I was not fine.
Following that first penetration, I felt I had done something wrong and blamed myself. As a Christian girl, my mother had told me that keeping myself as a virgin was like the best gift I could give my future husband; so I felt a treasure had been taken from me. I felt very useless and worthless.
He definitely played on my naivety because telling anybody didn’t even occur to me. I didn’t know anything about sexual abuse or that I could take action against him. My Deeper Life church background kept me deep in innocence. Our lives revolved around church and we hardly talked to people who were not our church members. My father, though a military man, was zonal coordinator before he died and as I speak, my mom is a national women leader in Rivers State. In fact, I thought such was happening to me because God hated me.
Asked if she was the only young girl in the house to have been so targeted, she replied:
“I was the oldest and developed breasts very early. That aside, I cannot tell why he picked on me. I felt disappointed because this was somebody I called ‘daddy’. That thought alone almost killed me. Yet, I didn’t forgive myself. I thought he chose me because I had an evil mark on me. I felt God didn’t like me. Why was I the one my parents chose to go live away from them. Why did they give birth to me when they knew they couldn’t take care of me? I bore that guilt and shame for a long time. I thought if I’d been wearing trousers instead of long dresses, it would have been difficult for him. So now I wear trousers and my daughters don’t have any skirts. My daughter was to go to a school where they only wear skirts. For that singular reason, I didn’t allow her go.
That incident destroyed my life. I had been admitted in a psychiatrist hospital because I had mental issues. I suffered depression for years; I’m on anti-depressants as I speak. My daughter is 15 and I’ve been hypertensive for that long. I take blood pressure medication daily.
I wish my husband would agree to speak with you, so you can understand the effects on me. You need to begin to speak to men who are married to women who have been sexually abused or raped. It comes in between you and your husband. By the way, I married because I wanted to leave my uncle’s house – not necessarily because I was in love. Yes, the rape continued and there was nowhere to go to. He never allowed me talk to boys. My mother at 37 already had nine children, so going to live with her was not an option. To make matters worse, my father died. Things continued that way… until I encountered a pastor.
My friend had invited me to a Redeemed church (Redeemed Christian Church of God) branch that just opened on our street. When the pastor said, ‘If you want to give your life to Christ, please come forward,’ I stepped out, because I felt what my uncle was doing to me was a sin and because I felt that God hated me. I thought if I gave my life to Christ, things would change. Service over, the pastor asked to speak with the new converts; afterwards, he requested to speak with me privately. Meanwhile, I didn’t know him and had never met him, but to my surprise, he said I had something to say to him. I said, ‘No’; then to my surprise, he said, ‘You want to tell me that your uncle is sexually molesting you and you don’t know what to do.’
Immediately, I just knelt down and started crying. He allowed me cry for a while and then gave me a handkerchief to wipe my tears. He said my uncle was going to come again that night and then asked: ‘Do you want this to stop?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ I was 18. I could not tell his wife because I didn’t know I could tell anyone. This may be difficult to believe but that’s the way a child’s mind works. That early threat stuck throughout my childhood and youth. Even when I wrote letters to my mum, he was the one that took them to the post office and would always tell me, ‘Make sure you don’t write what’s going on in this house in that letter.’ He also made sure I came home straight from school. And I dared not ignore those threats. My uncle was big, a 6-footer.
Besides, as a Christian girl, you don’t want anybody to know that such damage had been done to you.
Many would say you kept quiet for that long because you started enjoying it.
It’s very easy to say that, but in truth, I never did. I’ve been married for 17 years and I still don’t enjoy sex. Coronavirus has been in Nigeria for like 14 weeks? That’s how long ago I’ve had sex with my husband, yet we sleep on the same bed. Sexual abuse affects you either of two ways: You get addicted to sex or you’re not interested at all. So anybody who says I kept quiet because I was enjoying it does not know what he is saying. Enjoying what! Sex that was introduced to you in a violent way! As a child! By your own uncle! I beg, there’s nothing to enjoy there. I’m not interested in sex. The luck I have is that I’m married to a man who loves and cherishes me; who has taken me to a psychiatrist hospital and has never used it against me. The day I got married, I begged my husband not to have sex with me because I was having triggers. I also told him not to sleep naked beside me and not to tell me ‘I love you’, call me ‘Darling, Dear’ or any of those words of endearment, because those were the words my uncle was using on me. So, today, my husband just calls me Tonia.
So, when people say things like ‘She is enjoying it’, I just tell them it’s because I’m not their daughter – because if I am, they’d be empathetic. For crying out loud, I was 12! I knew nothing about sex!”
“Until 12 years into my marriage, I could not sleep naked beside my husband. It’s so bad that my husband has to stay with me throughout labour – because I cannot stay in a room with another man alone or I would have panic attacks. If I had to see a male doctor during antenatal, he would have to be there. I developed phobia for men. On several occasions, I’ve told him I was leaving. But he’s a good person and I’m still in the marriage entirely because of his efforts. He understands that I’ve been through a lot. He’s there for me when I’m throwing tantrums and go into severe depression. I checked myself into a mental health home after three children without telling my family, because I was becoming schizophrenic and hearing voices that were telling me to go ahead and kill myself. The experience made me feel worthless. On many occasions, I had bought drugs to kill myself. I would tell my husband, ‘I’m not good enough for you. Don’t worry, when I die, the church would get you a better wife.’
Uncle from hell
I don’t see him anymore. He has however called me to apologise. He called me on the first Monday of 2019 to apologise. That was his first time. I think he came to apologise because I had started talking openly and indicting him. He said he was very sorry, that I should please forgive him. The whole family came; my mother, my siblings; they’ve all been begging me to let go. My mum said I should stop talking publicly about it; but now it has gone beyond me, because I run a support group, Tonia Bruised But Not Broken.
Bruised but not broken
“I started Tonia Bruised But Not Broken in 2015 after I came back from the mental health home. That was where it was discovered that I was suffering from psychological effects of childhood sexual abuse. I am well now and I can talk to you without breaking down. Also, I’m not talking from a place of pain, it has become a chapter in my life and it doesn’t matter any longer. But I found out there were lots of people who went through my kind of experience and were yet to heal, and it was affecting them. That’s why you’d see people behaving irrationally and having anger issues. That’s why you’d see some say, ‘I’ll never forgive you.’ It’s because they’re still bitter and have not healed. And if you don’t heal from your pain, your pain can destroy you. I talked about how I became suicidal.
So I said to myself; why not start a support group for people who have been raped and who have not been able to heal? Bring in counsellors and therapists to talk to them, so that they know that they can heal from their pain. When you heal properly, you may even begin to feel sorry for your abuser – because you realise that he did not know better. Probably he was abused and never got help. An abused person who has not healed would abuse another person. So I went for different training and now I’m a rape recovery specialist. We meet at Radisson Blue and it is a judgement-free forum.
We have a lot of women of my generation and older women who are yet to speak up about their abuse, so it’s an avenue for them to come unburden, get therapy and one-on-one counselling. You may have noticed that we have a lot of mental health issues flying around. Even fibroid has been linked to trauma like childhood sexual abuse. We attend to those mental and emotional needs. The bad part is, when you don’t get help as a victim, the cycle of abuse continues.
I used to fund it wholly – I’m an event caterer; but I have friends who believe in what I’m doing and now support me. But I still fund it 80%. As I speak, we have been able to reach 4,600 women who are past victims. In May 2019, we started a series: Live purposefully beyond sexual violence’ and Mrs Ibukun Awosika was a keynote speaker. On that day, we had 83 women rape survivors and she was totally blown. In fact, that day, we had a girl whom her father had raped the day before.
Family, friends, most guilty
“Rape is perpetrated mostly by family members: uncles, aunties, father, nephews, teacher, domestic servants. Most abused men were by aunties and madams – people you can trust. According to statistics, only 7 per cent of abusers are strangers. 63 percent are family members while 30% are close friends. And their biggest weapon is threat.
Now, I don’t mention my uncle’s name anymore – because I’m not out to destroy him. I share my story, not because I’m hurting but because I want to encourage other victims to unburden and heal.
And the first step to healing is to talk about it. Sharing your story with someone who has been through the same experience is kind of relieving because they tend to understand. They are not like: ‘what were you wearing? What were you doing there? Why didn’t you speak out before? Is it because he is now a celebrity?’ Ours is an environment where you say it the way it is doing you and immediately start therapy – because the psychological effect can stagnate you while the years pass you by. So, we believe you can heal and begin to do great things. Oprah Winfrey is our number one example, together with Joyce Meyer. Oprah was raped by her uncle and she got pregnant though the baby died. Today, she’s the richest black woman on earth. Meyer was raped serially as a child by her father but today, she’s one of the greatest preachers in the world. So, our goal is to heal because most women who are broken mentally cannot raise good children.
The experience also had massive negative impact on my education. I was doing part-time but stopped in Year 2 because I was so traumatised. Worse was the fact that I didn’t know I could seek professional help or therapy. By the time I realised, it was a bit too late and I had to make do with doing courses to train myself. Sexual abuse steals from you and makes your life meaningless. At a point, my children were scared every time I wanted to go out and would be like, ‘Mummy, hope you’re not trying to run away again?’ because I once ran away. I told you I once checked into a mental hospital; I did not tell them, did not tell my husband and refused to give his phone number to the hospital. Even the hospital – it’s run by Dr Maimuna Kadiri – was worried it could be sued. Deliberately, I left my phones at home and deleted the last calls, so they wouldn’t be able to trace me.”