A few weeks ago, shortly after Karabo Mokoena was allegedly killed by her boyfriend, Namibian-born Lisa Mbala says she felt an overwhelming need to free herself from the silence of her own pain. So she took to her Twitter account to share a thread that has been retweeted 896 times, liked 608 times and responded to 79 times since she posted it on May 18.
Hi, my name is Lisah. I’m a rape victim ,I also suffer from depression and anxiety. This is my story. Thread:
— Black Unicorn (@Lisakc22) May 18, 2017
“I decided to share my story on social media because it felt like that was the final part of my healing,” says Mbala over a Skype interview.
In 2012, Mbala was raped while waiting for a taxi outside a friend’s house in one of Windhoek’s informal settlements, Katutura. Born and raised in the northern parts of Namibia, in a town called Ondangwa, Mbala had travelled to the Windhoek to stay with her cousin to attend a school summer camp. This was her matric year and as a student who was serious about her academics, but having never spent time in the big city, she was apprehensive but determined to make the most of the opportunity to excel.
Fast-forward to a few days before summer classes were coming to an end and she found herself waiting outside her cousin’s friend’s house, where she had had her hair braided before returning home. Her cousin who had gone out with her boyfriend and had told her to call her to pick her up when she was done, was not answering texts or answering the phone. As the sun was sinking and shadows were getting longer, Mbala started to feel vulnerable and anxious.
Instead of being a sitting duck, she decided to start walking until she (she hoped) came across a taxi.
“I heard many footsteps approaching – and looked behind me to see three guys following me. I kept telling myself not to panic and to just keep walking. Then they started running and so did I.
“But I guess I wasn’t fast enough,” says Mbala. She says one of them pinned her down, while another started pulling down his pants and the other kept a lookout.
“I kept crying and praying and screaming. I just wanted them to let me get out alive.”
Mbala says she spent much of her life moving from one home to another. Her mother who had her when she was in her second year of university left her with her grandmother and aunt, who raised Mbala and her siblings while her she was studying and then working. She says she would only see her mother during the holidays. Her father passed away when she was in Grade 2. “I just remember coming home from school and being told my father had been rushed to hospital. I never saw him again.”
One of 12 siblings, Mbala says after her father died, his side of the family didn’t really stay in contact with them. She changed schools to complete her Grade 11 and 12 and opted to be a boarder because she knew that soon she would have to leave home and learn to look after herself. “Why not practice being away from home while I’m still in high school?” she thought.
Recounting that fateful early evening in Katutura, Mbala says she heard a man shouting in the distance and they all scattered.
“I just got up and ran. My first instinct was to run because I was free.”
She hurtled blindly towards the main road where a taxi picked her up and took her back to her cousin’s place. “The driver could see I was a mess but I just told him, nothing and to just take me home. “I couldn’t even tell my cousin who I was so angry with for leaving me in that situation. I took a two-hour-long shower and just kept to myself. I couldn’t even bring myself to be in the same room as her, let alone look at her.”
Mbala returned home and shortly thereafter back to the school boarding house, having not told her mom what had happened. “I didn’t even think about telling the police. Rape cases are not taken seriously here. Especially by male cops who outnumber the female cops. They always blame the victim instead of questioning the men’s behaviour.” During the course of the next few months, Mbala realised she was pregnant and isolated herself further. “I didn’t feel I had anyone to tell who wouldn’t judge me or talk too much so I thought I would just try to move – until I found out I was pregnant.” Mbala says she tried to take her and her baby’s life. “I tried some dumb hostel things,” she admits. Her attempt was unsuccessful and she continued to conceal the pregnancy convinced that her friends could smell it or see it.
After writing her final exams, she eventually told her mom about the rape and was surprised by how supportive she was. “I would only see my mother two or three times a year so we didn’t really have a relationship,” says Mbala.
“I didn’t really know who she was to be honest, and I didn’t know how she would react because I’d never been vulnerable with her. She was the one who encouraged me to keep the baby even though I wanted to get rid of it. But she told me that a child is a blessing and in a few years time, I would see her that way too.”
8 mnts later I was holding this little human person in my arms.She was beautiful,so innocent,witout no idea how bad the world was.I cried!!
— Black Unicorn (@Lisakc22) May 18, 2017
“It was love at first sight,” says Mbala about the moment she first held her baby, Sasha, in her arms.
Lisa Mbala and baby girl Sasha
“People ask me how come I’m so brave? How did I get through it? And I always say I draw strength from my mother and from God.
“Even my friends surprised me and were so supportive when I finally told them what had happened.”
The line crackles as the internet connection drops. From her res room at The People’s Friendship University of Russia in Moscow, where she is currently studying medicine thanks to a bursary she received from the Namibian government, I can hear her voice go fainter and dip in enthusiasm.
“I miss my family. I miss my home. And my depression and anxiety had been building up. I had reached a point where I wasn’t happy and I had to change my life or fix it.
“In recent weeks, whenever I logged onto Twitter I felt myself getting angrier and angrier. So many girls getting killed, or beaten or kidnapped. And the insensitive comments from men – laughing or posting inappropriate memes in response to some of the horrifying stories being shared.
“I wanted to delete Twitter but then I thought – why am I running away instead of facing it head on? I knew then it was my time to share my story. And I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders after I did.”
Mbala says she received so many direct messages after tweeting her experience, from women who had gone through similarly violent experiences but were too scared to share because a lot of them know their attackers. Many were also offering support and encouragement.
“Those messages were both terrifying and inspiring. I fear for my fellow women in South Africa. You can’t even leave your house without someone targeting you. You can’t even trust your own boyfriend.”
She says she has learnt to forgive – because forgiveness starts with forgiving yourself.
“It’s about accepting and acknowledging that something bad happened to you and then allowing yourself to move on.”
“And left go of the anger because every event in your life makes you stronger and you should never allow it to break you.”