Finding My Voice: Overcoming Trauma and Depression

One of the beautiful things about African culture is how closely-knit families can be. “The village” – a term widely adopted and referred to by society as a whole – accurately depicts the importance of extended family members in the upbringing of a child. With uncles and aunts often referred to as “Mom” and “Dad” and respected as such. While the village is often nurturing and affirming, sometimes it can be dysfunctional and emotionally detrimental.

For a period in her life, Roselyne Wandaki lived with two family members whom we will call Aunt Tina and Uncle Adam for the purposes of this story. The couple had grown children who were out of the home.

“My uncle and aunt mostly lived apart,” Roselyne told The Weight She Carries. “He worked along the coast and would come home on Fridays. Then on Sunday evening or Monday very early in the morning, he would leave for the week. There was no violence then. My aunt taught at a nearby school. But then after retirement, that is when my aunt learned my father’s character.”

While living with them, Roselyne witnessed just how ugly domestic violence can get. She was trapped in a vicious cycle of violence that revolved around these two family members whom she loved dearly – an aunt whom she adored and an uncle whose fury was uncontrollable when it erupted.

As the only child in the home, Roselyne felt powerless to stop the violence. The other children were grown and out of the home, forcing her to referee a rage that couldn’t be tamed. The blows, her aunt’s pleas for help – it was all too much for a young teenager to handle. The only remedy was to call her older cousins when the violence escalated.

There were no fond family memories shared at the dinner table. On the contrary, many times dinner was prepared but not eaten – the evening disrupted by violence.

Most nights, Roselyne didn’t sleep much. She was constantly on high alert, listening for her aunt’s cries for help. Anything could happen, and she needed to be prepared to respond. When she heard her, Roselyne would rush from her room, trying to rescue her aunt and de-escalate the situation as best she could. When she was unable to ward off her uncle, Roselyne would run to seek help from the young man nearby who cared for the animals.

One particular night, Uncle Adam attacked Aunt Tina, ripping her clothes in the process. Bruised and battered, she went to the police to no avail.

“Nothing happened,” Roselyne said. “We tried following up, but the police are not always ready to deal with issues around marriage.”

Her aunt returned to the home later that night. Wanting to avoid another confrontation with her husband she chose to stay outside. She sat under a tree in the cold night and waited for daybreak.

“My uncle woke up during the night and went outside with a bright flashlight in hand,” Roselyne said. “My aunt, who had dozed off, woke up to a bright light in her face. She was startled and unable to see who was holding the light. My uncle started punching her. I ran and tried to save her. But, of course, being a young person, there wasn’t much I could do. That was one of the worst fights I witnessed, but there were many others.”

The psychological torture took its toll and Roselyne desperately wanted to move away. But the couple’s children begged her to stay, fearing their father would become completely unhinged if no one else was in the home to run interference.  

One day, Aunt Tina confided in Roselyne and said she no longer felt life was worth living.

“She told me that one day I’ll wake up in the morning and find her in the borehole,” Roselyne said. It was that bad. It really disturbed me. I used to talk to her every day to try to encourage her. At one point, her sons begged her to divorce their father. But my aunt didn’t want to leave her home.”

“My aunt became depressed. I agreed to stay, but I was not happy. I think God wanted to use me.”

One day, Uncle Adam came home with an announcement for his wife: one of them would need to die for the other to survive, and she should know that she is dealing with a monster in the house.

“As a prayerful woman, my aunt took her Bible and told God that if her husband is a monster, then God should send this monster where it belongs. The following day, my uncle packed his clothes and moved to another part of the county.”

And just like that, he was gone. He visits occasionally, but Roselyne’s aunt now sleeps peacefully without the fear of being abused. Even though he was gone, he had left an indelible mark on Roselyne and fractured her relationship with him.

“I hated my uncle, and for years, we didn’t talk.”

Roselyne had watched her aunt suffer from depression for years. Little did she know she, too, would have her own battle with depression in the coming years.

When Roselyne got married, her husband expressed his desire for her to be a housewife and promised to provide for her. Things went well for some years, but after the birth of the couple’s third child, life became difficult financially and the structure of their family changed.

“Life was so unbearable,” she said.

Roselyne’s sister and mother brought food to support her and the kids. Each day was a struggle and Roselyne began to sink into depression.

“At some point, I wanted to do away with their lives and mine.”

Through a TV program on stress and depression, Roselyne was connected to a small church community that made house visits to pray for people. She felt compelled to talk about her own depression to help women like herself and Aunt Tina. And she did.

“I had a dream that I was talking to women who had sad faces. But after I finished speaking, their faces were happy. That dream stuck with me.”

What started out as talks to small groups of women became a full-fledged mission.

“As I talked to women, I could see my dream becoming a reality,” she said. “Sharing my aunt’s story and my own lifted a burden from me. I knew that if we went through it, somebody else out there may be facing the same situation.”

Today Roselyne is a social worker and women’s rights advocate who has been on numerous TV and radio shows creating awareness on gender-based violence and mental health.

“I’ve won an international award from COWAP for the work I am doing through my organization, FIDS (Fight Depression and Stress).”

Roselyne has faced her share of resistance from naysayers who do not believe she has sufficient qualifications to speak with such authority on mental health and stress.

“It has been a journey,” she said. “I’ve been attacked by so many people who fight very hard to discourage me.”

One person, in particular, is a psychologist who was teaching a counseling class Roselyne had signed up for. Prior to the class beginning, Roselyne had asked him to come with her to lend his expertise to a talk show she had been invited to, as was her custom. As a social worker, she felt she needed to pair with someone who had a greater depth of knowledge on mental health.

“When I invited him to come with me, he was so happy,” she said. “But I didn’t know this man was bitter.”

After the show, he berated Roselyne and questioned her fitness for discussing matters of mental health.

“He attacked me and went on to say a lot of things to make me feel useless. That night, I cried the whole night. This was a person I looked up to.”

Word got out, and by the next day, everyone in the class knew what the teacher had done. The damage had been done, so Roselyne withdrew from the class.

“My work is to create awareness and offer the bit of psychosocial support I can. I realized that he was not the vision bearer or the dreamer. And actually, he doesn’t know the reason why I do this work.”

Although Roselyne has faced ongoing opposition from some people, the support she receives and the awareness she continues to create is far-reaching. What keeps her going on tough days are the testimonies of those she has helped.

“When I go to talk to people, I tell them: ‘Always convert your challenges into something positive.’ Because if we don’t, this is what is sending us to early graves. Every time I face a challenge, I come to God.”

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