Honor and Shame
By Mazi Guinness* (Nigeria)
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At fifteen Bianca Biranee has blossomed into a willowy beauty, a nubile teenager who can do more than keep a man’s bed warm at night. Her little full mouth and pouting lips look as though created with a careful brilliant smear of lipstick already on them; and her nose, almost aquiline, sits gracefully between two sparkling eyes, on a towering five feet eight inches height. At fifteen she has come under the roving radar of randy men but age did not bring with it any clues to discern the fine line between lust and love.
On this Saturday afternoon, the weather is clement, the gentle touch of sea breeze blowing across the entire sphere of Lagos, a metropolis which has managed to preserve its rural character essentials in spite of the waves of civilization that had passed through and over it. Her mother has gone to the market and Bianca is at home alone in this rough-and-tumble neighborhood. She quickly finished the domestic chores and decides to pay a surprise visit to Lasbery Lawani who doubles as history teacher and tennis coach at the community college.
After a quick shower, she settles into the more deliberate act of applying her make-up, titivating herself before a full-length mirror. The array of cosmetics will make an impressive shopping list: lipstick, lip-liner, eye-shadow, mascara, face powder, deodorant, and perfume. Name it. That ritual done, she wears a revealing blouse and a matching mini-skirt as if it will be inconsiderate to hide her slim lovely legs in a long skirt. Her mother has before counseled against wearing skimpy apparels. Whether she has forgotten or just decided to do the contrary is not clear and her motive is not entirely innocent.
In a way she sees the coach as a hero, most teenagers do, and in solitary moments beyond adolescent hours, she has fantasized about him. In his arms she will feel warm and the idea of sleeping with him does not seem unthinkable, rather the desire seem to grip her with uncommon lure. She remembers all his lewd jokes and the glossy pictures in one erotic magazine he had shown her before. Now her curiosity sufficiently aroused, she needs no further temptation to embark on any unholy adventure.
At home Lasbery is sitting absent-mindedly on a couch, tired after hand-washing his clothes. At thirty-five, single and happily unmarried, the inscription on his tee-shirt will not surprise anyone. He has three tee-shirts of different colors and on each is boldly inscribed this message: NOT ALL MEN ARE FOOLS SOME ARE STILL BACHELORS. There are many reasons for his lingering bachelorhood but none has sufficed in convincing his aged mother, haranguing him to get married and raise grandchildren before she joins the ancestors. Lasbery has a reputation as a lazy teacher and mediocre coach. He has a singular grace of appearance, the urbane swashbuckling movement of a lady's man. Add more apparent features like a protruding forehead, a gothic hairstyle with a parting on the left and a neck round as a cylinder, the picture becomes one in whom no man would see anything to like and in whom every woman would see something to admire.
He hears a knock on the door. He peeps through the window louvre and opens the door.
'Come in … good to see you,' he says with a winsome smile, his front teeth shining as if polished by angels.
‘Good to see you,’ he says again, stealing few glances at her bosom before concentrating his gaze on the V cleavage around her mature breast. ‘I can’t believe it … you, coming to my house. What a pleasant surprise!’
At his beckoning she sits on the edge of a loveseat which gives him a good vantage point to looking at her breast, full, firm, and attractive. He feels some electrifying warmth engulf his whole being; a sensation that runs from his toes to his head.
At that moment, a big black cat, walks in from the adjoining bedroom and makes a noise that is neither friendly nor hostile. Molly, that’s her name, is a cat blessed with gay spirit. She lives entirely on the lizards and mice she can catch, a situation animal rights enthusiasts would think cruel, but considering the large population of these creatures in the neighborhood, a hardworking cat will not lack food. And she has done exceptionally well in this regard. Before now, it wasn’t unusual to see a mouse scamper across the floor, and sensing the presence of humans run back, terrified, to its hole. On such occasions Lasbery would draw out an old tennis racquet from under the table and chase the creature to no avail. Those embarrassing episodes ceased the moment Molly established her intimidating presence. The rats vanished. And that was the case during the last fasting period when, as a practicing catholic, Lasbery he forced his cat to observe the Lenten Fast. Molly lost a couple of pounds but that did not diminish its agility and hunting skills. All in all, there is no doubt Lasbery loves his cat. Some neighbors wonder what will happen if the cat dies before him, or if he dies before the cat. Whichever be the case, it will require divine grace to grant enough fortitude for the survivor to bear the loss.
Lasbery is a man of modest means. He furnished his one bedroom apartment with basic necessities of life befitting the status of a teacher, except the living room he decorated with exotic paintings left behind by his late father. The bedroom, painted light green is spacious enough for scanty personal effects, including a reading table adorned with books and a 4-band radio whose double antenna formed a V-shaped confluence.
What to do with his visitor? He decides not to rush things. He waits for enough time for her to indicate any particular purpose of coming and hearing nothing in that regard, he concludes that she can be persuaded towards any direction. A jovial giant with huge appetite for wine and women, he has long mastered the art of playing good host, in spite of the austere peculiarities of his house, which would take a decent lady more than one visit to get accustomed to. Now he mixes a smooth blend of gin and lime in two glasses, sipping from one and offering the other to Bianca.
‘I don’t take alcohol,’ she protests.
‘It tastes good,’ he assures her. ‘It won’t hurt to take a little.’
She takes the half-filled glass and hesitates for a moment before sipping a little. She seems to like the taste and sips again, smiling at her incredulity in failing to realize the exotic taste earlier than now. The elders have a peculiar habit of prohibiting exotic delicacies from young people and that may well be the case of gin and lime, she thinks now.
Sensing the rapid effect of alcohol Lasbery joins her on the loveseat. It has always been his modus operandi with women: some wine, some sweet endearments, then sex in that order. He begins to touch her body tenderly, admiring her feminine features.
'You're God’s gift to man,' he confesses.
He has long schooled himself out of natural shyness and can openly lust after women as a matter of habit. 'You’re the only star in my universe. And if you allow me I will open your eyes and you'll begin to see life differently.'
‘Really?’ she asks, without intending a question and expecting no answer.
The sweet endearments coupled with tender touch seem to be having the desired effects.
Bianca, relaxed, continues to sip from the half-filled glass. At intervals Lasbery will add just a little to her glass, being careful not to add too much as to arouse her fear of getting drunk, yet enough to achieve that result. Indeed deceptive, the perfect blend of gin and lime hides its intoxicating power beneath smoothness and exotic taste. At her age and being the first time, she shows remarkable appetite for alcohol. A little while, she is not drunk, not yet, but the drink has definitely loosened the restraint that normally holds a woman's two legs together. Now the lazy opening of her lips as she smiles, a shy invitation lurking in her graceful eyes, all indicate her vulnerability for freelance romance.
Lasberry locks the door, spreading the window curtains across to both ends to ensure no person will be able to see them from outside. Even if anyone sees them so what? Lagos society suffers most forms of moral attrition, a city notorious so to speak, for debauchery such as the world afforded not elsewhere. In Lagos there are more wanton women than faithful wives and more beer than drinking water. Absent other forms of pleasure, the common folks indulge in a variety of dubious encounters between male and female in the name of romance.
The next moment, she lands in his embracing arms; her teenage body strained against his own and he begins to kiss her succulent lips. Then he guides his prey into the bedroom with the uncanny skills of a snake charmer. The two of them alone, the window curtains drawn, in such circumstance that lowers the barrier of human resistance, all elements of nature seem in perfect agreement to fornicate.
Already in his full embrace, her mind whispers warnings her mother had sounded about men, but her body welcomes every tender touch of his fingers. As he grips her firmly and closer she feels like one tucked under a warm blanket in the heart of winter. No man has ever made her feel this way before, and surprisingly her body yearns for it, ready to give everything that is feminine about her. Again, her mother's admonitions about men rush through her mind and Sunday school teachings forbidding premarital sex echoes in her mind. She has heard it many times that marriage is the only justification for sex; otherwise, sex is a demonstrable way of profanation.
Now she hears it again and suddenly, like one awakened from sleep, she struggles to free herself. ‘Leave me… leave me,’ she protests. ‘It’s not allowed.’
‘Not allowed by whom?’ he asks. ‘It’s for the two of us to decide what we do. We know the love we share. No person can stop us. We should be free to express our feelings,’ he argues in a soft convincing voice that can make one renounce a sacred vow.
‘But sex is a sin, isn’t it?’
She is no longer sure what sin is and he offers his ready counsel.
‘Forget it … sex is a bundle of joy, he tries to think. Well …, you can go to confession, if you feel bad about it. But you shouldn’t feel bad for enjoying yourself.’
‘Okay, use condom,’ she makes one last effort.
‘Con – what? That killjoy… the Bishop says condoms don’t work.’
Surely, he must have done something to that pretty girl to send her into instant thrills of silly giggles, and if she is still protesting, she doesn’t do a good job of it. She surrenders without further hesitation and, in that vortex of pleasure, loses something precious even though virgin has become the most ridiculed word in English language.
On her way home, she couldn't walk with normal gait due to pain. At home she puts up a brave face pretending like nothing has happened. Indeed everything appears normal or her mother too busy with her own affairs does not realize such a major transformation. The camouflage is not difficult to achieve. A practicing catholic Bianca concentrates her efforts on the appearance of piety rather than being pious, dressing in solemn fashion, decently covered and looking demure in the church. That duty done, her interest will switch from the religious to the secular and, in a world drowning in hypocrisy, her lifestyle fools her mother and impresses neighbors. But the elders say, the true color of a forest is better revealed by reptiles hidden in the weeds than by the foliage of freestanding trees.
Five weeks passed. One Sunday morning Bianca wakes up feeling sick. It is during harmattan and the sphere appears unusually misty, the visibility a little more than one hundred meters, and trees made a blurred outline against the horizon. Bianca can't get out of bed and, for the first in a long time will miss church. She sits up on the bed thinking about the probable cause of her morning sickness and the far reaching implications. She fears the unexpected has happened. She shudders, shocked and terrified. The encounter has been unplanned and so the outcome. She remains virtually inside until noon, when her mother comes back from church.
The noon sun is peering at the whole idyllic countryside from behind a botch of drifting cumulus clouds, the temperature hovering in the region of thirty degrees on the centigrade scale. Her mother, Kerzia, returns from church looking worried and unsettled. In terms of appearance, it will be difficult to describe her with precision at anytime. There never probably lives a person who presents such difficulty in attempts to appraise a woman by items of face and figure. In simple corporeal presentment she is slim in built but elastic in movement. Her look expresses a tendency to wait for others’ thoughts before uttering her own, possibly to wait for others’ deeds before her own doings. It can be said that the routine duties of a fulltime housewife has imposed on her the habit to first satisfy the wishes of other persons before attending to her own.
The second of nine children Kerzia had to marry early. With many mouths to feed, her father, a lowborn tiller of the earth and herder of animal manure, could not give her the enabling benefits of education beyond elementary three. And she has been thriving within the limits of a life seriously hampered by lack of education and vocational skills. As a competent housewife she can make a delicious meal from any recipe. She is also good in handcraft, creativity being her forte, and busy with her hand she will narrate reels of intricate stories. She has a limitless fountain from which she churned out anecdotes and chronicles of family history dating back to distant generations. As a child Bianca always wondered how her mother could easily do storytelling and handcraft; a simple task she made to appear mysterious to a child, handcraft being an occupation which the secondary intelligence of the hands can carry on without the sovereign attention of the head, allows the mind of the laborer to wander considerably from the object before her. As a child Bianca would tease her mother to tell a story again and again, hoping she would contradict herself, but she always tell the story exactly as before.
After removing her church dress and changing into casual attire, Kerzia called her daughter into the parlor. The tone of her voice, if anything, indicates the call is not for storytelling. She wants to know why her daughter didn't go to church today, the anniversary of St. Stephen, an important patron saint.
'Have you been feeling fine?' she asks her gently.
'Tell me, what happened today?'
'Are you sure?'
'Yes, mom, nothing happened!' she insists, her heart beating faster than normal.
'Then, why didn't you go to church?'
'I didn't feel like going, that's all,' she says, looking at the floor, avoiding eye contact.
'That's not all … something happened!'
A mask of guilt appears on her face. Bianca tells her mother about the sudden feeling of nausea and dizziness, the repeated vomiting, and concludes with some vigorous nods.
'I am fine now!'
'You're not fine!' her mother declares as a matter of fact.
'Mom, I am fine!' she insists.
'When last did you see your period?'
Bianca gasps and her heart skips one beat. A look of fright flashes through her face but she quickly regains control and begins to mentally put words together to form a sentence.
'I can’t remember,' she says, for want of something better to say.
'Have you had one this month?’ her mother presses further, a statement than a question.
'E-ehm …no … yes.'
'Now, tell me the truth,' her mother demands in a querulous voice that doesn't sound healthy. 'When last did you see it?'
'I'm not sure. It's never regular.'
Bianca fixes her gaze on the ceiling, a broad expansive canopy of asbestos boards and wooden battens, fastened with two pairs of fluorescent tubes as well as an overhead electric fan. She desperately wants to say something but the words are not coming easily. Her mother sighs, a tragic sigh like a shudder. They continue at this game for another two minutes, and then her mother asks that dreadful question mothers don't like asking their teenage daughters.
'Did you sleep with any man?'
'How do you mean?'
'I don't want cross-questions! Did any man touch you?'
An expression such as never seen before flashes across her face and Bianca starts trembling, sweating in her palms and now her mother doesn’t know what to do.
Some moments pass, still her mother doesn’t know what to do. Take her little daughter into her arms and comfort her or cast her away like an outcast. At that moment her spirit sinks, just like any other mother would feel, but she steels herself against emotion and repeats the question.
‘Did you sleep with any man?’ sounding more emphatic this time.
Bianca starts pleading softly, 'I'm sorry… I’m so sorry.'
'Sorry?’ her mother frowned. ‘You ought to be more than sorry.'
'Please, mom… please, don’t …,' she starts pleading.
Her heartbeat quickens and the pounding sounds like the tolling bell of a cathedral. The flood of tears come and she beats them back by blinking her eyelids in quick succession, but then one teardrop falls, another follows, and yet another, until she can no longer control them. And then the stream of tears burst forth from her eyes like a broken geyser.
Instantly, something in her mother dies. All her efforts to bring the daughter up a worthy bride for a worthy man have come to naught. She becomes distraught, like one who has just been told by a doctor that she has only two months to live. She looks up and heaven is too far. She looks down and the earth is too near. She looks blankly around the room, and this time she doesn’t even see the row of cushioned chairs, evenly spaced out and interspersed with side-stools. She doesn’t even see the central table midway between the two rows of seats, over which is placed a large vase filled with an assortment of beautiful flowers. She has become literarily blind. At last drawing her daughter into close embrace, she murmurs in a voice raw with grief. ‘Baby, why…why…?’
The next day her mother takes her to a doctor for pregnancy and other necessary tests. The consulting room like most doctors’ offices reeks with nauseating stench of drugs and disinfectants. It is a small office and from all indications the doctor specializes in sexually transmitted diseases or birth control or both. The medicine cabinet is filled with varieties of spermicidal jelly, condoms, contraceptive sponges, and so on; enough birth control devices to force a sharp drop in the surplus population of Africa.
While waiting for the test result, the doctor offers mother and child free breast examination. They decline and thank him. A short while the test result is out. The doctor calls the two into his consulting room, and appearing to be reading from a piece of paper.
‘When you get home…,’ the doctor starts. ‘Tell your husband …’
‘She is my baby girl,’ her mother interrupts the doctor. ‘She is not married, not yet.’
‘Then tell your boy friend …’
‘I don’t have a boy friend,’ Bianca speaks for herself this time.
The doctor looks at her for a moment, bemused.
‘Did someone rape you?’ he asks, showing empathy for the first time. ‘I mean did someone…’
‘No…no, doctor,’ Bianca answers before he even finished the next question.
‘Well, young girl,’ he starts turning towards the mother. ‘Expect the second coming of Christ.’
It is not until another two weeks before Bianca finally reveals the identity of the man behind her misfortune, which in any case offers no consolation as the baby in her begins to make its existence a reality each passing day. As she mentions the name Lasbery, her eyes runs with water and she weeps as much from shame as from regret.
'Lasbery?' her mother tries to say the name, her breath freezes in her chest.
'Yes mom … I'm sorry … I'm …'
'O my God!' her mother exclaims, starring at the ceiling, both hands cupped behind her head, tormented by the panting of heart and fretting of mind that visit mothers when their girls commit acts of irreversible harm. At last finding the right words to express her angst she curses aloud.
'It will never be well with him. I thought he’s a gentleman. We did … everyone in the church.'
As days pass what happened in private becomes a matter of public knowledge. The school authority has refused to launch any inquiry into what transpired in a teacher’s private domain, and curiously dismissing the matter as another episode of consensual sex. Lasbery is not alone in an era when most male teachers indulge in intimate affairs with female students. From city to city, and even in rural areas, the grim statistics look the same nationwide. Later the school expels Bianca because her presence will distract attention from normal school activities, besides, teacher are not trained to take on the duties of nurses and midwives. In less than no time she realizes that the expulsion is a terminal blow to her academic aspirations.
As so often happens, Lasbery is second cousin to the Director of Education, who runs the department like his private estate. A few weeks thereafter the department promotes Lasbery to the position of school head coach. That’s not to be wondered at. When the department hired him, they knew that while studying in the teacher training college, he was twice reprimanded for preying on female fellow students. His tendency to sexual misconduct was never in doubt; if anything, it was as obvious as his mediocre intellect.
'It's not my fault that she finds me attractive,' he says without remorse. 'What should I have done? Say, go in peace for thy beauty has set you free?'
For a long time gossips about the pregnancy will dominate kitchen table discussions in the neighborhood. At a point the family could no longer go freely to church on account of the contemptuous looks, whispers, and even rude remarks about them. All their acquaintances avoid them and no one wants to be seen openly conversing with a member of the family. There is always a permanent hesitation in everybody's manner, a few portions of a minute lost before a greeting. The attitude of church members is the most painful. This is the same church where Kerzia was married sixteen years ago. This is the same church where Bianca was christened in the same baptismal font where, many years ago, her mother received the sacrament of baptism.
Bianca's disciplinarian step-father, a man of austere disposition, almost kicked her out of his house were it not for her mother’s intervention. From the moment he heard about the pregnancy, the look of contempt never leaves his face. If Bianca is devastated, her mother's despondency is such that no words can adequately describe. Poor woman! She is saddened by the huge disappointment her daughter has become, more so, the impression that she has failed as a mother. The shadow of sadness wrinkles her face giving it a melancholy cast. And being that kind of woman always wanting to look younger than her own daughter, the indelible marks distress becomes more visible. A coin long in circulation her face no longer shines like one fresh from the mint, although it retains some testimony as to the origin of her daughter's ravishing beauty, evidence of the cold ash that gave birth to the blazing flame. All the same the agony of her daughter's condition leaves a mask of bitterness on her face.
A feeling of dejection envelopes the household throughout the period of her pregnancy until delivery, and the stigma of the scandal seems to particularly attach to the baby, that the family is not sure how best to respond to his arrival. From what is discernable on their faces; it is neither joy nor sadness, rather something in-between, something the English language has left without a name. And it becomes a realty that Bianca delivers a bouncing baby boy whom she calls Camillus because he is born on July 18th, a day dedicated to the patron saint Camillus de Lellis Her mother calls the boy Onyemaechi meaning - who knows tomorrow. In choosing that name she must have reflected on the unpredictability of human nature. Bianca’s step-father does not call the boy by any name and will not behave in any way that implies his existence. One day the boy crawls towards him and, in spite of himself, and not to offend his visitors, he reaches out his hands, scoops the boy, calling him Fine Face.
After two years, Bianca appears to have recovered from the past. Ironically, her thirst for knowledge is still alive. She still has some dreams which past mistakes, not even labor pains, could erase from her fertile mind. When time permits she reads prescribed school textbooks, newspapers, and magazines. Impressed with her comeback attitude her mother gives her some money to register for part-time evening lessons. Grateful for that modicum support, she sets up a rigorous study schedule. Home study isn't easy for a teenage mother, yet, she astonished everyone with five A’s in the matriculation examination. Few regular students come close to such brilliant performance.
But funding her education remains a problem. Her step-father who never says much about anything but always finds a way to punish every wrongdoing, has vowed not to fund her education. In his eye nothing can be worse than the taint on his name. And he feels bitter that she exposed the family to what should be dreaded most in the world – ridicule.
‘The girl made a mistake,’ his wife says, admonishing his enduring grudge. ‘Forgive and forget.’
‘A mistake?’ he retorts, narrowing his eyes to emphasize his disgust. ‘No… she made a choice.’
‘So she must suffer forever because of one silly mistake?’
‘Who cares? The Ten Commandments are not multiple choice … there are consequences even when you break one.’
One day, by sheer instinct, Bianca decides to write the story of her life. It is not an easy task if the many discarded drafts are anything to go by. Finally, not able to improve on the last draft even when there’s need to, she submits it to a newsmagazine for publication. The essay, brimful with remorse, yet has a hint of blame for the authorities:
I dare anyone to contradict me. It is the right of every woman to live a life free of sexual abuse. It seems so natural a norm that man should not ruin that which it ought to nurture, or abuse that which it ought to protect. Instances of misconduct abound, yet, there have been few protests, feeble voices of uncertain words, and no single teacher has been severely disciplined as a result of such despicable acts. We cannot continue in the deluded hope that teachers entrusted with the care of pupils will on their own behave well, in the contrary the authorities should take preemptive measures to ensure that girls are safe in classrooms.
Beyond her expectation the essay receives a lot of positive reviews and the topic becomes a matter for public debate. The theme becomes the subject of many newspaper editorials and radio news analysis, all perceiving her as naïve, perhaps innocent girl, deserving both empathy and sympathy. Two weeks after the publication of her essay she receives a letter from Rotary Club Lagos, awarding her full scholarship tenable for four years at any university of her choice.
Reading the award letter aloud to herself, Bianca feels elated like one who has suddenly come under anointing, and in her eyes is nothing but what one will suppose hope looks like. In the evening, her mother returns from the market and she wastes no time before telling her the good news. Her mother takes the letter barely skimming through the first three paragraphs and then the last one saying: by this opportunity we hope to give you a second chance, a new beginning, the magic of life.
After reading the very last word of the letter her mother gives her a bear hug, beaming with infectious smiles.
'I'm so proud of you. Believe me, I really am. It’s time to face the future and let shadows of the past fall behind. I want you to think seriously about what to do with your life.'
'I've already decided what to do with my life,' she tells her mother, like one speaking from divine wisdom superior to all the rational thoughts of the carnal mind.
'What's the big idea, baby?' her mother inquires, alert and curious.
'I've decided what to study in university,' she declares matter of fact.
Looking concerned and a bit drawn her mother cannot help but voice a reminder.
'Your father settled that issue before he died. Just in case you’ve forgotten, he wanted you to be a lawyer.'
'No… I'm old enough to decide for myself,' she declares in a flat, take it or leave it tone.
'Why do you want to go against your father's wish?' she cries out, helplessly.
'Mom, you don't understand…,'
'Understand what?' she cut her short, agitated, struggling to protect her late husband's only deathbed wish from the onslaught of a rebellious child.
Kerzia is one of those widows in whose mind the African belief that you don't disobey the deathbed wish of a husband finds fanatical reverence. Her late husband, Bianca’s father, a husband whose memory she would cherish across the vale of years, was a lawyer of repute whose integrity was too high for praise. In those days the legal profession was the most viable route to power, fame, and preference. It held the key to many doors including politics and the corporate world, offering a singular assurance of comfortable life and the luxury of decent death. Lawyers were the only trusted guide through the labyrinth of intricate life and people rewarded them accordingly with due reverence. He had wished his daughter would share this calling and he expressed so before he died seven years ago when his daughter was less than twelve. Besides, the idea of a child following the parent’s professional footsteps has become popular and most families are beginning to have second generation lawyers, doctors, and even footballers. Alas, his daughter seems completely unaffected by the pageantry of wig and gown, and thoroughly unconvinced by the redeemer role lawyers ascribe to themselves.
'I've considered all that need be considered,' she starts, after a ponderous silence.
'Such as…?' her mother interrupts.
'Happiness, fulfillment, and service to humanity,' she lists them with rare self-confidence that she could only have acquired through labor pains.
'And you don't see service in law practice?'
'Not as much as in social works … helping people overcome their problems … making society better for all, rich and poor, man and woman, old and young … something like that.'
Hearing that and observing the vehemence in her voice, her mother exhales very softly like a spent balloon, and settling into the child's embrace, she grudgingly conceded this brazen departure from her late husband's wish.
Now sure of funds, Bianca enrolls for a four-year degree program at University of Lagos. As it were, she doesn't have to read and read in order to excel; she can scan a page once and all the information will remain indelible in her memory. It so happens year after year. In due course she graduates top of the class and becomes a certified social counselor in a record time. It is not uncommon to hear people narrate her story and pose a challenge to others in similar situation. Many see her as a heroine of a sort, one the conservative flank of the society is ashamed to embrace, yet one it frequently holds up as a good case for anti-abortion protestations. Initially, she felt uncomfortable appearing in public with her son, afraid his presence could diminish her esteem. But when she mustered the courage to do so, the presence of the boy, cute and adorable, endears her to the rest of society. In a way, the boy has almost redeemed whatever any damage caused by the circumstances of his birth.
In a country where six digit salaries exist only in the oil industry, everyone expects her to get a real job with real salary and real fringe benefits. Bianca has her own dreams. While her peers jockey for plum appointments in public service or lucrative careers in corporate world, she settles for the exacting task of offering succor to troubled teenagers, who cannot get necessary support from judgmental relatives. She forms a non-profit organization focusing on teenage sexual abuse, a task which more experienced colleagues shun due to the enormous emotional responsibility involved. As founder and director of Sisters’ House, her duties go beyond counseling crossing over to advocacy, lobbying, and in some cases direct humanitarian assistance. Familiar with the pains of others, her positive attitude gives succor to people. Instead of being made to feel worthless and hopeless, she encourages abused teenagers every step of the way to fully realize that they still have a future. Her public voice attracts attention to this otherwise neglected societal problem. And finding a purpose in life – assisting the weak and vulnerable – that is in tune with the order of nature, she takes on this task with cheerfulness and no victim mentality that often bedevil activists who themselves have been in the pit of indignity.
Working with a staff of two assistant counselors, two interns and a few volunteers, Bianca pursues her set objectives with the same childlike, spontaneous directness with which she embarked on that brief romantic tragedy. Several times she has petitioned the government to adopt an ethical code of conduct for the workplace arguing: A safe environment for women is the least any government can do for its citizens. Several times most politicians have responded to her petition with disdainful smiles, some furious that a young lady wants to set the agenda for change. Although she finds valuable support in the mass media, it has not been enough to cajole the authorities towards the right direction. Change is not easy to market in any society, not when many conservatives feel it is their duty to resist and thwart progressive ideas. Ironically, now is a time when governments all over the world, due to moral obligation or blatant blackmail, has joined the bandwagon, ready to dole millions of dollars to fund progressive courses. The setbacks do not deter her; rather she hopes that an opportunity will come to draw the battle line between the competing forces. At such moment no one will sit on the fence. And the moment now comes.
One hot afternoon during the dry season, the sun is smiling exceedingly and the leaves whistle in tone to the chorus of cheerful birds. Bianca has just returned to her office after taking lunch. She hardly missed lunching at Mama's Kitchen. If she has been asked why she lunches there every afternoon, she will find ample justification in excellent quality of the food and farm fresh fruits, as alive as if they have just been plucked off the plants. Besides lunch, she looks forward to trekking the five hundred meters between her office and the restaurant, which she considers enough exercise for trim figure and healthy lifestyle.
The building housing her office is medium size but designed like a sanctuary for the weak and oppressed, and Bianca carries herself in a way calculated to booster that impression. At the reception area a woman is waiting, the secretary is busy stabbing the keyboard with vengeance as if the typewriter must be blamed for her meager salary.
'Ah, you're here,' Bianca says to the woman, surprised that she has come early.
'Yes, madam,’ the woman nods and manages a weak smile. ‘I don’t want to be late.'
The woman hurries her drink, sucking the dregs of her coke through the straw, making a loud bubbling sound at the bottom of the glass. Short and slim with sparkling eyes, the woman is a kind of utterly unimportant-appearing person that you will not even notice if she is alone in an elevator when the door opens and you walk in. The daughter's case has been heard and dismissed by the criminal court seven months ago. A medical doctor by the name Zebulon Zeruwa has examined the private parts of her teenage daughter without wearing gloves. There are allegations that the doctor has done the same to other teenage girls. Most parents who bring their children to the public hospital are poor. And none of the victims has mustered enough courage and resources to confront him squarely until now. In taking the case Bianca is aware of the difficulties but she is ready to fight a good fight. From the beginning she mounts unrelenting pressure on the authorities to prosecute the errant doctor for rape. Dr. Zeruwa has solid connections in the corridors of power and finds ready support among conservative lobby groups who complain about frivolous law suits against doctors. The mass media weighs in and government buckles under pressure and finally files criminal charges against the doctor.
Before the court, the battle line is finally drawn. For well over four hours the prosecutor presents his case against the accused. At the end the defense makes a no case submission resting its case on the weakness of the prosecution. The trial judge delivers a short ruling.
‘I have considered the elements necessary to prove the crime of rape,’ the Judge starts, his voice has such projection and power that the need for a public address system does not arise. ‘The prosecutor has failed to prove all the elements. I, therefore, find the defendant not guilty.’
There is no doubt in a different jurisdiction a jury would have ruled otherwise.
The doctor smiles in the dock exposing the spread of a wonderful set of white teeth. A discreet but audible murmuring sweeps through the courtroom. Someone blows her nose and another sneezes. The Judge bangs his gavel on the table three times and silence returns instantly. Despite being an ass the law still extracts respect from the people. The prosecutor crumples a piece of paper and throws it on the floor, feeling here is a dummy up on the bench, who probably got a "C" in Evidence. The girl’s mother rolls her eyes, looks up to heaven for help, and breathing heavily mutters something nasty about the court of law not being the court of justice. She is not amused, rather she feels scandalized. What can she do to a Judge? a human being whose words carry the power of life and death. Even his sitting position is elevated some inches above the floor, which makes him feel superior to every person in the courtroom. It’s amusing: the recourse to theatrical devices, such as the physical elevation of the Bench above everyone else in the courtroom.
Bianca feels disappointed with the judgment but not discouraged even though the case has ended so unlike what she had been hoping for. By now she has acquired the right mental attitude to face disappointments. How many deaths will make a doctor blink? The court ruling, instead of exciting any feeling of depression increases her determination and, with that frame of mind in which everything seems possible and nothing beyond reach, she files a civil suit against the hospital in her capacity as guardian ad litem of the child. The civil case has been docketed for judgment this afternoon. And that’s why the woman has come to her office.
Now Bianca looks for the blue folder containing documents about the case. There are bookshelves on both long walls of the rectangular office. There are two wooden chairs for visitors facing her desk. File jackets line up on the floor and papers of all kinds litter the table. From the look of her office the obvious impression is a busy person. After more frantic search she finds the folder. She looks at her wristwatch; it says a quarter past two. She picks her handbag, brings out a small mirror and takes one long look at her face. Her hair is still in order and her make-up still intact. She rushes out to the reception area.
'Now, let's go!' she says to the woman.
In the hallway she walks briskly, saying a generic hello to two colleagues passing by. Soon the two emerge into the open street, walking across an endless row of buildings linked together in a tapestry. The courthouse is just a stone throw. They will get there in a couple of minutes.
At half past two the clerk of the court lets out the traditional cry: 'All rise!'
The audience holds its collective breath and watches the Judge. The lawyers on both sides announce their appearances. After reviewing the evidence before the court and expounding on the legal principles involved, the Judge delivers his ruling in favor of the plaintiff and awards a handsome amount in damages against the hospital and the doctor, jointly and severally. As soon as the judge has finished reading his short judgment, a hilarious uproar breaks out. People in the courtroom begin whispering, then talking, then high-fiving.
'Order in court!' by the police orderly has no effect on the rapturous crowd.
Outside the courtroom people begin, singing, dancing, and rejoicing in unrestrained manner.
The effect of this legal victory is instant as praises pour in from all corners of the earth. And days after Bianca received an award from abroad, a gesture that further embellishes her status with the touch of celebrity. She becomes the sole victim of a flood of goodwill. She becomes the toast of television and radio talk shows, and everyone scrambles to identify with her crusade. Because of the difference her services can make in the lives of so many young girls a couple bequeaths to her organization one of the largest private gifts ever made to charity. END.
*A graduate of St. Saviour’s College Umuakah, University of Benin, and Texas Southern University, Guinness has contributed many freelance articles in reputable newspapers advocating democracy, rule of law, and good governance in the wonderful but tragic continent of Africa. In 2004 his collection of poems “Explosion of Emotion” won the African Writers Endowment (Poetry) Award but he refused to accept the honor. Presently, he lives in Las Vegas area with his family and spends leisure time reading biographies and doing charity works.