A while back, I was in Nairobi for the Storymoja Festival.
I got to meet one of the speakers my friends who had been to Story Moja before had spoken of highly. I could see why; this writer was funny. He made fun of himself for drinking too much and he spoke of his writing in a not-so serious manner. Like it was something he just woke up and did in that way that geniuses wake up and just do things.
It was until I got back to Kampala that I heard that he had allegedly sexually assaulted a woman at someone’s house where a group of poets had gathered. From different social media forums, people were confirming that they had witnessed the whole thing. The first people I shared this information with said, “But how could he rape a woman when all of them were watching, doing nothing?”
“He did not rape her. From what I have read, he groped her, touched her in a way that was uninvited,” I clarified. And it was in their ‘ooohs’ that I got my lesson.
We have become so used to this kind of behaviour that, in our books, this uninvited touching of our bodies is not considered sexual assault at all. We are so used to passing by a boda boda stage and men verbally undress or do things to us that we do not consider it wrong in any way.
I remember when I was 14 years old going shopping with my mother in Kikuubo, Kampala. She had taught me how to navigate the place, but not how to handle a man, a stranger, touching the front part of my pants and squeezing as if it was an extended part of his own body.
I remember feeling abused, dirtied and bewildered, and having no idea what to do.
A friend of mine told me of a time she went to a Pentecostal church in Kampala for a production. There were a lot of people, pushing and shoving to get into the church and before she knew it, a man grabbed her hand and ran it against his erect penis. She said she wanted to wash her hands over and over again.
What about those men who, while waiting in a queue at the bank, stand so close behind you that you can feel the bulge in their pants on your back?
If we can reach not so far back in our memories, we will remember who grabbed Ingrid Turinawe’s breast and squeezed and pinched it fully aware of the photographers recording this assault.
And the thing about these assaults is they happen so fast that sometimes it feels so ridiculous reporting them because it could even happen in the presence of people who will not take it seriously. I wondered whether human resource departments would take a report of such an incident seriously or dismiss it with, “Yiii yiii Nyana, it was just touching naawe. He was drunk.”
Honestly, I would never consider reporting such an instance to police because as you may all know, instead of telling the men not to behave like animals, we have been told to make our hems longer. Because it is always us who make a man grope us or squeeze our breasts.
I don’t know whether the accused writer did what they said he did (he has come out to say he did not) but reading about how fiercely the Kenyans wanted this man reprimanded made me ashamed of how accepting I have become of this kind of assault.
I hope there is something in this for us to learn. To re-learn that a woman’s body is her own and should not be used as and when a man feels like. That we should take back our bodies and not accept the assault we have settled for. That we (and the justice system) will know that a man does not have to rape you for him to sexually assault you. For us to know that we have the right to feel safe in our bodies and in our homes and in our friends’ homes without worrying about a man’s entitlement to our bodies. I hope that parents, while telling their daughters to dress decently, will tell their sons that a woman’s body is her own.
Nyana Kakoma is a Ugandan writer, editor and blogger. She is the founder of Sooo many stories, a publishing house that promotes Ugandan literature.