Missing Memories illustrates the mental magic worked by a well-told story. We are taken into an experience completely unknown to ourselves, and come out of it saying, “Wow! I have really learned something new about being human, about life. About how to respond, should anything like this ever happen in my life.”
We read about it often – the horror of a child gone missing; of child and human trafficking. But who of us knows anyone this has happened to? Who of us has ever thought deeply about what a trafficked child, and their family, go through? It is still rare in our country, but it does happen, and may be increasing.* And Missing Memories takes us there.
Bebenya was snatched from close to her home at age eight. When we meet her, she is probably about 14, and her new normal life is living with other young girls, managed and hired out by a man they call The Daddy. He ‘loves’ and ‘cares for’ them.
It takes a while after her rescue for Bebenya to see it this way, but we learn that The Daddy is in fact a child abuser, and part of an evil trade. In plain speaking, this man is a pimp. His special ‘product’ is kidnapped pre-pubescent and young teens hired out for sex. He also takes the girls to a ‘studio’, no doubt to be photographed for child pornography. And when they get too old, he kicks them out. Then they probably become regular sex workers.
Why don’t the girls rebel? Run away? Because they are very young, in a new city, cut off from the world, totally dependent on The Daddy. To survive emotionally they ‘forget’ or rather suppress (stop themselves thinking of) happy memories of ‘Before’ – of their homes and families. It’s too painful. They are given drugs and alcohol and soon become addicts. The story shows us how easy it is for a ‘Daddy’ to groom girls into accepting this life.
The girls soon believe they love him and that he cares for them: “But you see, The Daddy was always somewhere around in the background if we were out on the streets or in his friend’s studio. In case of trouble, you know?” Of course we understand that he is just looking after his money-spinning goods, making sure they do not get damaged. Bebenya has even come to believe The Daddy when he says she is ‘special’ and he will look after her always.
As the social worker warns, “There are challenges with these children who’ve been trafficked. Reintegration is difficult for everyone. Some of them form an emotional attachment to their handlers.”
As the story goes on, we learn more and more of what has been stolen from Bebenya: her family, her community, control over her own body, her virginity and sexual life. Her childhood, being able to go outside without fear, happy childhood memories, an education, trust in any men (except the warped trust in The Daddy). Real friends and relationships, being seen as ‘normal’, any hope of a good future.
But she is rescued. Is it in time? How can she get back some of this lost life? Imagine this: she will forever have to live with being ‘the one who was a child prostitute’, even though she is the main victim. We call this a ‘stigma’ or a mark of disgrace. That is a very, very heavy burden, for her and her loved ones. One of the key points of the story is this fear expressed by Bebenya:
“It’s like a hand is clenched around her heart, squeezing painfully, because it’s true. How can anyone else, anyone normal, love her after what she has been?”
The story suggests that people can get over this abnormal relationship burden. It does this through the actions and words of characters like empathetic, emotionally wise Gosiame. Through the unconditional love of her mother, and non-judgemental brother. Even her father, by being willing to get counselling, can get over the burden. By the end of the story we know they can all take her ‘child prostitute’ years as just one part of her identity. They won’t let it define her.
The story is mostly about Bebenya, but uses a third person point of view. This means we can see how everyone has been affected by this difficult situation.
The father knows right away and is honest that he has a problem. He says, “But these things are shameful when it’s a man’s daughter.” And that she is, “No longer the eight-year-old who went missing that day. We must accept that. She will be changed. A teenager who has seen and done … things. And missed years of schooling.” He finds it hard to talk to the strange, hostile teenager his daughter is now. Soon he realises he needs expert help:
“I talked to that social worker again–”
“What for?” Estere cuts in. “We don’t need–”
“I needed. I told her how awkward I feel, how I can’t connect with Bebenya. … I can’t bear it, Estere.”
A main message of the story is that anyone needs help to get though such a traumatic experience. One should not be proud, or be in denial like Estere. Look what she says above, and here: “But when she is here, in her home – then she will be alright.”
Estere believes that as soon as her daughter is home, her loving family will make everything alright. They will all pick up where they left off. This is far from reality. Her motherly love does not simply heal Bebenya, and soon Estere herself is nervous of her daughter, and unsure how to handle her. Her longed-for child is rude, resentful, demands to go back to The Daddy, and just wants drugs and alcohol.
Look what Bebenya says. Her words seem cruel, but are true, in her eyes.
“You say, they all say, you’re my family and I’m lucky to be rescued. But you’re like strangers to me. And you don’t love me. You can’t.”
“Of course we love you.”
“How can you? You don’t know me. And I’ve seen how you all look, you and that man, and the boy you call my brother – I’ve seen you when something makes you think of how I’ve been living, what I’ve been doing. Like I’ve shamed you. The Daddy loved us.”
As the plot develops, there is another painful revelation. Bebenya shouts that she blames her mother for what happened. “Why did I get ‘chosen’, as you call it?” she demands. “Because you lost me, or let me go, whatever it was. Right?”
She says her mother deserves to get punished for sending her to the shops as it was getting dark. It is Gosiame who finally makes Bebenya acknowledge the guilt and pain that must have ravaged her mother all these years. That it was for innocently doing what every local mother did. She sent a child on an errand to a nearby shop.
We also find out how Bebenya’s disappearance affected her little brother, Tsietsi. He tells her: “Afterwards, I remember some stuff. Ma and Pa being upset, shouting and crying, with no time for me. Then later, the opposite: she wouldn’t let me out of her sight. I had to sleep in the same room with her and Pa, like a baby, and Pa needed to do a lot of talking to get her to let me go to school when it I was old enough.”
“She didn’t want to lose another child.”
“I guess. Like she never sent me to the shop, until I was much older and Pa said I had to have a normal life.”
It takes a while for the whole family to believe, take into their hearts, the truth: they are all victims, as the social worker told them:
“No.” Selma Khumalo is firm. “Make no mistake, your daughter, and you, all of you, are victims. Evil people abducted your little girl, and she has grown up being exploited by them.”
How hard it is to be normal, when the situation has been so very abnormal. We get a glimmer of hope, with this small breakthrough after Bebenya has shouted at her mother again:
“And at last you sound like a normal teenage daughter: ‘Ma doesn’t understand me.’ And you’re right, I can’t hope to understand it all. But maybe, just maybe, Miss Bebenya, I understand more than you think.”
We also glimpse how Bebenya will have to be brave about the curiosity of her community. In her disastrous first meeting with her old friends she offends them. Zeni snaps: “Jeez, we’re trying to be friendly and welcome you back. But maybe you don’t want to be back. Maybe you liked what you were doing. Come Dibs, we’ve got better things to do than waste time on a professional slut.”
Once again, it is Gosiame who points out that its normal to be curious: “That’s how people are. But they’re not talking in a bad way, mostly.”
Bebenya likes Gosiame, a lot. But she’s suspicious that ‘even a nice boy’ like him is only interested in her as a sexually-experienced freak. When he flirts and tells her she’s pretty she attacks him: “And what else?” She hears how aggressive she sounds. “Pretty, and what else?”
But the story suggests that she will be able to have a normal romantic relationship. However, it will take a special, emotionally mature boy like Gosiame to first accompany her on her healing. As he says, “There’s no rush, you know. This is a journey you have to make at your own pace.”
The plot climax comes after a conversation with her brother. It triggers a frightening ‘missing memory’, of herself losing Tsietsi when he was tiny. She now really comprehends her mother’s pain and guilt at losing her. She feels her anger drain away, and rushes to her parents:
“Mama, Papa … oh, we’ve all had such a terrible time. We need to help each other, somehow – somehow! Mama!”
Tell us what you think: Should Bebenya try to complete her schooling, or should she learn a trade that doesn’t need Matric? If school, how could she leapfrog over or catch up all those years? What will she need to overcome all the trauma she has been through, and succeed, either way?