Children’s voices matter - By: Chika Unigwe | Dailytrust

Children’s voices matter

Sometime in June, Mrs Vihimga Akpagher whose 14-year-old daughter Keren-Happuch Akpagher, was a boarder at Premiere Academy, Lugbe, Abuja reportedly got a call from her teenager asking to be picked up from school because she was unwell. Her daughter did not reveal the nature of her illness.

A few days later, Mrs. Akpagher went to pick up her child but was dissuaded by the principal from doing so and told her that Keren would have to spend five days in isolation on her return if she left school. She got another call from Keren asking where she was. When Keren heard that her mother was returning home, she burst into tears.  “So, I got angry and asked her why she was stressing me since she would be returning home soon for the holiday. So, she asked to speak to her uncle. She said, ‘You people don’t know why I am asking you to come and pick me and you are leaving.’” (Punch, July 1, 2021). It’d take the housemother (house mistress?)  informing Mrs. Akpagher that Keren could hardly walk and had been crying the entire day and needed to be seen by a doctor, for the mother to return to the school and fetch Keren. This is not the time to say that when your child calls and asks to be removed from school, unless they are used to playing truancy, it is probably a good idea to do so. This is not the time because the story gets more tragic.

Keren returned home, was withdrawn per the mother in Punch. “…wasn’t her usual happy self. She switched off all the lights. She could not even look at us in the face. She slept throughout that day and ate some food.” By the 21st,  the day of her death, Keren had deteriorated (enough?) for the mother to take her to see a doctor. At the hospital, a condom was allegedly discovered inside her.

Keren had been raped by a lowlife pervert who deposited a condom inside her which infected her and led to sepsis. The mother is unaware of who assaulted her because  “I picked her up on June 19 and she died on June 21. She slipped into a coma and died. She was traumatised.”

I have been unable to think of anything else since I read about Keren. I am so angry for so many reasons and at everyone who failed this little girl. I am most angry at the culture of silence that our society encourages. I did not want to have to write two back to back articles on sexual assault in Nigeria, I wish I didn’t have to  but here we are.

Keren could not tell her mother that she was raped. Apparently, she could not tell any of the adults at her school. Not the principal who in the aftermath of her death “promised to look into the matter”  even though the school is denying that she could have been assaulted, and the principal has suggested that, “the allegations could be a smear campaign targeting the school following the high academic performance of its students year-in-year-out.” (Daily Post, July 8).  And not her housemother who was concerned enough to ask Mrs. Akpagher to fetch her daughter and let her be seen by a doctor.

It is not only the silence around rape culture that needs to be dismantled but also the very, arguably  unique African culture of the silence we foist upon our children who are to be “seen and not heard.” Young African comedians, especially those in the diaspora, make skits about this. We watch and we laugh but it isn’t really funny. And in some cases, like in this case, is actively harmful.

Keren was distraught enough to call home but her discomfort with the school (whatever it was) did not merit enough attention for it to be taken seriously until another adult called. What if the housemistress had never called? The poor kid would have died at school, feeling completely let down by her mother.

We have to create an environment where our children feel free enough to talk to us and are confident that we will listen to them. Our African cultures are so big on respect but that respect is sometimes performative. It has no depth to it and sometimes, frankly no reason. Children are not any more respectful for being unable to have a meaningful relationship with their parents even though they greet them every day, go around saying “thank you” to every adult in the house after each meal and leave the sitting room as soon as their parents have a guest. We are not good parents for having successfully raised such kids but they are unable to count on us when they need us most. This is not about castigating Mrs. Akpagher who is a victim of our environment and who has lost a child and deserves our sympathies. This is about us learning to intentionally create an enabling environment for our children where their  voices are both encouraged and respected.

I keep imagining Keren calling and crying on the phone from disappointment and sadness because she could see the help she was relying on slipping away from her. How relieved she must have been when her housemistress managed to convince the mother to turn around. I am sad and I am angry. She could very easily have been my child. I hope that the rapist is found and castrated. And that’s just for starters.

May Keren, beautiful, dimpled, innocent one, who wanted to be a nurse, rest in peace.s