It’s a hot, sweaty afternoon in the bustling commercial city of Blantyre, Malawi. The Tuesday after the declaration of the State of Disaster and the ensuing closure of schools and universities as a preventative measure against the virus. I’m in Limbe – even more hot and sweaty. I’m looking for a bus to get back home – my aunt’s actually, I’ll go back home-home (Lilongwe) tomorrow. I wanted to go back to school to get a few things: my makeup bag and shades. If I was going to spend my days inside during the State of Disaster, I could at least do it in style. My plan of course, is a bust, I left home too late and the buses heading to Nguludi are taking too long to fill, so I decide to head back home to finish up packing, after a quick drop by to my cousin’s to say goodbye.
I find an available bus, and I take a seat. The bus is empty except for us. There are three men: driver, conductor and a passenger in the front. Only one of me.
But it is still very light out, we are parked in a very public area, I have a window seat. I think I’ll be okay, so I don’t leave.
The conductor is on the same row as me compliments my appearance, I thank him curtly and turn to the window. I’m naturally shy, so I am non-confrontational, I am also afraid so I try to avoid escalation and hope that being polite but to the point will make things go away. They don’t. He offers me a sip of his water in a baggie. I kindly decline. He insists. I say no. ‘I might have the virus’, I say smile politely and turn away, while he’s holding it out near my face. The driver makes chit-chat about the virus, we all laugh, and the conductor retreats his hand.
We’re off and we pick up more passengers on the way, a sigh of relief. There’s a girl sat behind me, she’s going to a photo studio and not sure of the way. She’s from Lilongwe and isn’t familiar with the city. She asks me if I do, I tell her ‘no’ that I am from Lilongwe too, and a stranger to the city, just like her, I am also going to drop off at the SPAR, which is a stop before where she’s headed, so I can’t help her figure it out. The conductor assures her that he knows where she is going.
At some point, all the passengers exit except me, her and the passenger I found in the front when I first entered the bus. Along the way, fuel runs out of the bus, and the next filling station is beyond my destination, so they can’t stop for me, but tell the other girl that she can drop-off, and her destination is right across, well then, I’ll just drop-off at the station too and walk back to SPAR, it’s not far.
The bus stops at the filling station and the girl gets out. I might as well just drop here as well, I say and get up after her. The conductor blocks my exit and shuts the door. No, it’s fine, we’ll drop you off, you don’t need to walk all the way there by yourself. The driver pipes in and says yeah, you’ll be fine with us, we’ll just fuel up and drop you. I am stunned and panic freezes me, I nod my head like an idiot and sit back down, because I don’t know what to do at that point.
They fuel up the bus and pull out of the station. I am shaking, and I don’t realise until my teeth almost bite my tongue off because they are chattering. From the station to the SPAR I am interrogated with personal questions: where am I going? What am I going to do? Where am I from? Where do I stay? What do I do?
My cousin’s. To say goodbye. Lilongwe. Area 23 (lie). A student.
A student where? I tell him my university. The driver laughs and says I know girls from that university, you like to have fun. I feel sick. We reach my stop and I can finally get out.
Not yet. The conductor blocks my exit, again. They want my number. I now learn that the third man in the passenger seat was not a customer at all, but a friend of theirs. And don’t even think of lying to us that you don’t have a phone, you have, I saw it.
I want to cry.
So many thoughts are flying through my head right now, I can’t keep up. I am trying to weigh my options and figure out an escape plan. I could firmly say no, that I have rights and push past him. No, he [the conductor] looks too strong, and it looks like the door only opens from outside, I wouldn’t know how to work it. I could scream for help, but would people really come? They could also just speed off. They could speed off. The engine is still running and I realise than I could be kidnapped. My window is open: I could jump out if they dare. I would jump out if they dare,
But, I am non-confrontational. And the phone I have is dual sim, one of the numbers, I only have because I wanted the mobile money wallet and for emergency purposes, so not many people call it, or even know it. I’ll give that one. And I do. He calls to make sure it isn’t a fake number. While he dials they ask me my name, Pili I lie. The call goes through, and then they let me go.
I rush across the street immediately and enter my cousin’s neighbourhood. When I know that I am out of sight, I pull out my phone, block the number they flashed me with, and delete it from my call logs. But other things cross my mind: like how they could take the steps to send my number money, and stop at the stage where it reveals my name. They could find out who I am. Track me down, harass me again. I brush it aside, it’s unlikely that they have those kind of resources. But fear doesn’t easily go away with sound rationalism, and neither does trauma.
I’m at home about two weeks later, and I have almost forgotten about the incidence. I’m okay, I reassure myself. I’m home, I’m safe, I’m okay. I’m in the kitchen making a sandwich and my phone rings. My old phone died a long time ago, and I haven’t bothered to update the one that I use now with my contacts, I never know who’s ringing, so I have to answer every call that comes through, in case it’s someone important.
The call is coming to my emergency number. The number that not many have nor call me with. I panic.
I won’t talk. I’ll pretend the network is poor. They’ll think the network is poor, they’ll shout my name, my real name into the receiver if it’s someone I know. I’ll just stand there, and I won’t talk.
I breathe. I answer. I don’t talk. I’m staring out the kitchen window, I hear a voice. A man’s voice. I don’t know the man. And I don’t hear what he says. My heart beats from my chest to throat, then ears, blocking out all sounds. Thump thump, thump thump. I don’t talk. They cut the line. I breathe out. I wasn’t breathing. I didn’t realise I froze. I also didn’t realise I was crying, I notice because tears are falling onto my phone’s screen which is vibrating as I hold it in my shaking hands. I proceed to block the number.
Safety goes beyond being “protected” or being out of harm’s way. Safety goes beyond physical security – it’s about emotional, psychological security as well. When something happens, it doesn’t leave as quickly and obediently as an unwanted guest who is acutely aware of even the most subtle of social cues. You can’t tell it to shoo, and it’ll fly away instantly. There is a psychological element to abuse, no matter the kind. Leaving you fearful and anxious, always thinking: what if it happens again, or worse.
And this isn’t an isolated incident. I am not alone. I will always be somehow, someway, be one of many thousands, millions, billions of women living afraid. Every. Single. Day. ��Aذx