‘He told me that my body belonged to him – and I believed him’

Maisha Sumah
When I was growing up there was violence in my home. Not at first when I was very young, but when I started school it was there - and that was just the beginning.
My family moved to the UK when I was 11 after escaping Sierra Leone during the civil war in the 1990s and living in Holland for a number of years. But there shouldn't be any security for me wherever we lived.
It started when I was five or six years old and a friend of my father's started visiting regularly. He was more like an uncle and when he came by he would give me candy or presents. Little did I know I was actually being cared for.
When caregiving led to abuse - behind closed doors in our home, when my parents weren't around or in a different part of the house - I knew it wasn't right. But I was too young to understand what was happening to me.
In addition, I was bullied in elementary school in our Dutch village. Children insulted me with racial abuse and spat at me. I had no friends and a lot of insecurities. I couldn't sleep at night, hated being alive, and suffered from panic attacks.
When my parents separated, I moved to London with my mother and three siblings. I was hoping that it would be a fresh start and that I could leave the trauma behind. But it wasn't that easy. Trauma has a habit of following us and I've taken it mentally and emotionally from one country to another.
In secondary school, I suffered from anger problems that led to my quarrel, and anger with my teachers and the police. I tried desperately to adjust by following the crowd, but I was hanging out with the wrong people. Inside, I was a mess.
I developed eating disorders, suffered from anxiety and depression. I smoked and drank to escape my reality. I injured myself and tried eight times to kill myself.
But instead of being identified as a deeply harmed child, I was labeled an angry young black girl by teachers and other students and had no one to talk to about what I had been through. I really wanted to let go of my anger, take off the protective mask I had adopted, and finally be myself.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I got into an abusive and controlling relationship in my late teens. I was so used to being treated now that it felt almost normal. The boy in question told me that my body was his and I believed him. He raped me several times and physically abused me.
When he became violent, our neighbors heard my screams and called the police. They charged him with wrongful imprisonment, assault, assault and domestic violence. But in the end I dropped the case because he manipulated me to believe that he would change. Hoping he would, I told the police that I didn't want to go to court or stand as a witness. I just wanted to keep going.
At some point I found a way to do this after applying for a psychology degree at the University of Roehampton through my sixth grade and being offered a place to study and a student loan. I wanted to rebuild my life. Here was my chance at last.
It took me about three months to heal and admit to myself that although I was molested first as a young child and then as a teenager, for the rest of my life I didn't have to define who I was. It was not easy to face what had happened. I had become numb in the process and found it less painful to ignore and forget.
But part of moving on involves opening up. This was a process that started with my supervisor in high school and continued with my mentor in the Victory Youth Group, of which I was a member. Everyone I spoke to went out of their way to help me, and I realized that I didn't have to suffer alone. My mother was also very supportive and loving, which helped me not to give up.
I realized that healing is possible. Confronting my childhood experiences was chaotic and traumatic, but with that I was able to grow.
Now, at 23, I was able to use my experience to help others by fighting against domestic violence and all forms of gender-based violence. I developed my She Walks In Value brand and was invited to Parliament to speak about abuse. I also had the opportunity to share my story with HRH Duchess of Cornwall.
Today I am happy and made peace with my past. I have decided that my future lies in going out into the world and making a difference; using my voice to help others find their own.
As Rosa Silverman says
Maisha Sumah speaks at Shameless! Festival on November 27th at Battersea Arts Center. The festival is produced by WOW - Women of the World and Birkbeck's SHaME Project

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