ISBN 9-781556-4-35478. North Atlantic Books
TRIGGER WARNING: EXTREME SEXUAL VIOLENCE
On the 2nd of December 2001 a five-month-old baby girl born to a poor, alcohol addicted 24-year-old woman was cut open with a bottle and brutally gang-raped in a dilapidated building in downtown Johannesburg. She was left bleeding on a dirty mattress, and would barely survive the ordeal. The doctors who attended to her immediately after this unimaginable ordeal would later confess that they did not know what they were doing to her – that they were stitching not knowing what they were stitching, but just hoping to stop the bleeding. They performed the surgery in tears – disbelieving the horrific sight that confronted them. The little girl would go on to have more surgeries, and at that tender age of 5 months would need to take liquid antiretroviral medication and have a colostomy bag attached to her waist. The gang-rape had been so vicious that it raptured her internally and left her unable to make use of her anus. The perpetrators were arrested, but they would not be imprisoned. The case against them had to be dropped after the DNA evidence of their semen couldn’t be used due to contamination. The chemicals in the little girl’s soiled diaper had altered the DNA, and even after Johannesburg police tried desperately to get help from international agencies and laboratories to salvage the DNA, nothing could be done. The men walked free.
Why Do I Scream at God for the Rape of Babies? is part diary, part memoir and part poetry anthology by Claudia Ford, an African-American development specialist who would ultimately adopt this little girl. Ten days after her harrowing ordeal, the child was placed by the State into the care of Claudia, who had arrived in South Africa at the dawn of democracy, like many others, with hopes of helping to build a new South Africa. Her journey of mothering is captured in its rawness, revealing the anguish that parents of abused children confront as they try to heal children who have endured unimaginable horrors. Her frustration with the criminal justice system in South Africa, which put obstacles in her way throughout the adoption process and subsequently failed her daughter, rises from the pages and lodges itself in the reader’s mind. So too does her anger towards the public health system whose infrastructural deficiencies only adds to the dehumanisation that defines Black working-class existence. In that sense, this book is a mirror into the soul of our country; into its ugliness, neglect and violence that transcends the physical.
This was a difficult book for me to read not only because of the subject it tackled, but because it demanded compassion and understanding for Ford who at times is herself deeply problematic. The book is so titled because Ford contends that “God slaughters the innocent so that we will take notice. I used to scream at God for allowing babies to be raped, until I realised that in allowing babies to be raped God was screaming at me” (to take action).
I don’t know what kind of God would be so heartless that His call to action should be preceded by this depth of brutality. This kind of reasoning is devoid of understanding that rape is a product of the violence embedded in heteronormative patriarchy, and is thus a crime of power. Ford’s framing of this violence is itself violent and unimaginably cruel.
Additionally, she argues many times that the child’s young mother “allowed” the crime to happen, positing: “I would have killed to protect the vulnerability and innocence of my children. What kind of mother would allow her five-month-old daughter to be brutally raped by her drinking buddies?” The sentiment she expresses is held by many who believe that substance-addicted mothers are responsible for the rape and violence that happens to their children. What is lost in this conversation is that these mothers too are victims. At no point is the question asked: “Where was the father of this child?”, because the abandonment of children by their fathers is never factored into the equation. Furthermore, in centering the mother’s substance addiction, she is criminalised.
Addiction is a health crisis, but is only viewed as such when the addicts are wealthy and, often, White. Poor Black people with addiction problems are not seen as people in need of medical and psychiatric intervention, but as criminals. Criminalising them turns them from victims to perpetrators, and denies them both the help and redemption they deserve. Ford does not demonstrate any understanding of how poverty was the foundation on which a crime this brutal happened – that the mother of her little girl was too poor to access avenues that would have allowed her to make better decisions about her baby’s life, including providing a safe home and a life of dignity, and perhaps even the decision to have not brought the child into the world, which, even when termination is legalised, is still a choice not easily accessible to poor women.
This is why illegal or backdoor abortions are still prevalent in South Africa even as termination of pregnancy is legalised and the service offered in public clinics and hospitals. But one has to understand, in reading this book, that the raw emotions that often drown out reason, are from a desperate mother trying, under difficult circumstances, to remain sane as she negotiates an experience that invites pain which few will be able to comprehend.
Why Do I Scream at God for the Rape of Babies? is a difficult book in content and style. The merging of a diary, poetry, academic papers and memoir make for a sometimes uninterpretable reading experience that demands too much from the reader. It also denies the depth the book could have had, had it been written in a style that centers greater exploration of the story. 118 pages also do an injustice to what could have been unpacked in greater depth. Nonetheless, these limitations do not take away from its profundity, nor smear the mirror that the book holds up to ourselves as a society battling with the pandemic of gender-based violence.
Ultimately, this is about a child who like so many others in our country, endured violence to which no-one must be condemned. And whatever differences one might hold with Claudia Ford’s politics, the child must not be forgotten, for she is ultimately the centre of this story.