When I was a child, I would play with my neighbours every day after school. We were all girls. I was about six at the time and my neighbours six, eight and ten. Two of them were sisters.
Children. All of us were children. I remember I had just moved into the neighbourhood and these were the first friends to welcome me. Our parents had become friends. When they were busy working nine-to-fives, they were comforted by the fact that we had each other to play with in their absence. It’s a memory laced only with innocence.
It was just over a decade ago so the details come back to me in snapshots. In one of the early days, we assembled at the sisters’ house, as had become the norm. Their parents were at work. They set up their VCR and played a video they had found (I assume) in their parents’ room. For what must have been a few minutes, I watched two pale-white bodies on the screen, having sex. Blame the desensitization but I don’t remember it being particularly explicit. To be honest, I barely remember my reaction.
I’m guessing, however, that I was fascinated. I was thrust into a world of activity that my parents had never mentioned. These two people on the television were doing what grown-ups do to make babies. That’s what my neighbours told me. Previously, I had believed that children came from the hospital but this new version of the story fit better with the stories I heard in the playground. I had no doubt about it. Instinctively, I knew not to tell anyone else what I had seen. There was something in the way the other girls acted that told me that this was a secret.
My neighbours and I played all the games that children in the townships play. We’d host mini-beauty pageants and play ball games. I had settled seamlessly into the neighbourhood. After we had all viewed the video, we started to play ‘House’. Kids naturally tend to imitate adults. However, after watching the video, our version of the game became far too realistic. To this day, I don’t know why we did it and I don’t remember how it started. All I know is that it was part of a thrilling routine.
After school, I would go over to their house and we’d play our version of house. There were many versions of our game and many were perfectly innocent. Sometimes we would get packets of NikNaks and have little ‘family’ lunches. We would build pretend-rooms outside using scrap wood or bricks from the yard. More often, though, we played inside the house.
The two youngest girls (including myself) would always be appointed to play the mother and father. Before the game began, we’d all walk around the street to find condoms which for some reason, was an incredibly easy task. We never had to walk very far to find new or old ones in bushes or along passages. We would return to the house with our finds and then we filled them with water or blew them up to use them as props. We’d go into one of the rooms in the house and proceed to play our game. It was a well-structured process where the ‘couple’ would come home to the children and then later ‘have sex’. The severity of what we were actually doing never dawned on any of us.
I do not know exactly how long we played the game but it must have gone on regularly for at least two or three years. Although we were never stopped, we were eventually caught. I remember the way adrenaline raced through my body when the door opened. I was lying on top of my friend, with our two counterparts beside us pretending to be the children. We shrugged our actions off convincingly. We were just children playing a game and no parent would assume that their child is playing that sort of game. They wouldn’t understand where their child learned such things and for that, I would never blame them.
I reckon it stopped when we started becoming conscious of what we were doing. We gradually grew older, sprouting in separate directions. We spent less time together and when we did meet, all we did was watch soapies. Eventually, as we ventured in to high school we lost all contact and our only communication was the occasional wave through a car window or from behind a fence. We never discussed it. Our sexual interactions were archived alongside the other mundane parts of my childhood, next to recollections of losing teeth and buying new school shoes.
I rarely think about what happened now and even when I do, the memories are quickly overpowered by disbelief. Now that I live far away from home, I hardly ever have to think about it and if I do, it is to ask myself, “Did that really happen?” I know it was not just a dream. I still catch glimpses of the agony of the depressions I went through after I realized what we had been doing. The memories of the hypochondria that followed when I learned how STI’s were transmitted will never leave me.
It took many years for me to understand that what happened when I was a child does not have any bearings for my future. The difficulty was that there is no label for what happened and I had no framework to help me unpack what it meant. For many years, I was scared to tell anyone because I felt abnormal and ashamed. And one of the times when I told a close friend, her shock told me that it was wrong for me to traumatize others with my experience.
Eventually, I came to understood that there is no profound ‘reason’ that I spent my childhood this way. I learned not to blame myself or anyone else for it. I only choose not to tell my parents because of the risk that they will blame themselves. There was no way for them to stop what was happening and with the wonderful life and love they have given me, I would never want them to feel a shred of guilt.
I struggle to find the ‘meaning’ behind this but at the same time. I know that it has left a footprint on my character. The only thing I can do with my story is share it and accept that it mine. It is the most human part of my experience, the permanent question mark in my life story. Even if I do not ever tell my story to another soul, I will continue to wrestle through layers of my shame to claim it.