Book Review: Rita Auma rises from the ashes [of sexual violence and depression] in ‘Dear Me’
February 11, 2020
100 pages in all, ‘Dear Me’ is a quick read. However, its brevity ensures that it is gripping. There is no dull moment as Rita dives into the depths of the darkest parts of her soul with courage and honesty; documenting a much needed literary contribution to the conversation surrounding mental health as well as sexual violence in Uganda.
Barely a teenager, in April 2006 she was raped. Then she was sexually assaulted by two people she knew. “It’s weird that I was sexually assaulted twice by the very people I called friends,” she writes. The book is her latest attempt to fully get rid of the pain that has haunted her since.
She takes us through the initial confusion she went through. She decided that she would stay quiet about the incidents and create a second personality, thus suppressing the pain she was living with. “Because I was convinced that I had lost my value that day, I fought and struggled with thoughts of death, anger and worthlessness. I was incapable of feeling the normal human emotions. I believed I was flawed and honestly did not care about myself. Meanwhile to those around me, I was the most caring person, selfless big sister and good friend. It’s like I had two personas.”
Furthermore, being a Christian from a Christian home, she was not short of reminders that she had “fallen short”. She writes, “even worse, I had to attend church camps where non- virgins were inferred as evil. The situation had no gray areas; you either were a virgin or not. The circumstances under which you lost it did not matter to these speakers at the camp.”
Her physical health suffered and her “immunity plummeted”. She got asthma, ulcers, bronchitis and malaria. She writes that she was convinced that her body was “mad at me too”. Relationships were her coping mechanism and she endured toxic ones because she felt more protected with a man in her life.
At the same time, she was coping in other ways. She slit her wrists, became disassociated and overdosed on malaria tablets and antibiotics.
At the end of each chapter, she writes a letter from the future telling her younger self what she wishes she could have known at the time. The content of the letters range from rebuke to encouragement depending on the need.
After seeking professional therapy, she “went back to zero”. It’s at this point that she began speaking with a friend who managed to see past her facade. He prodded on, even when she tried to feed him with the same surface level answers that she was now accustomed to responding with.
He was unflinching as he told her that she was being selfish by relying on her own mind to deal with what she was going through. He told her that she needed to trust God fully with her burdens and that “having a plan B is a sign of insecurity and cowardice.” At this point she quotes the book of Phillipians (3:12-14) in the Bible in which Paul talks about pressing on, during difficulty.
In the spirit of trudging on, Rita decided that she was ready to open up to her mum. When she did, her mum told her that she had noticed something was different about her that year (2006). Her mum also unloaded on her some “tough love”. She asked Rita, “How can you be a minister and yet you’re in bondage?” Rita had been involved in church ministry for years and had risen to become in charge of the university students’ sector. The words, she says, stung her deeply. She did not take the bashing well. She immediately regretted sharing with her. “In hindsight I see they [the words] could have broken me. I shut her out of my life at this point,” she writes. However they later had a conversation about that talk and Rita forgave her. “She did mean well,” she admits. “I love my mama and if I could be half the woman she is, I would be grateful to God.”
Rita highlights an incident at a church she visited, where a lady walked up to her and tugged at her short dress, telling her that it was inappropriate and that she was “stumbling her sons.” Rita was livid. “I told her to get her hands off me and never to touch me again,” she writes. “Besides, I did not care about what I wore because despite being so decent, I still got abused.”
She decided to return to her family church, Deliverance Church. Here she met Pastor Nob, who had a big influence on her. “He saw a depressed girl and decided to reach out. He was the first church member I felt I could talk to after that. I liked church a bit more and that’s how my genuine relationship with God started. Nob pointed me to the cross.”
Rita spoke to Pastor Nob about her decision to quit the Youth Ministry and she explained why. The pastor listened carefully and then he countered her decision with examples from the Bible. “You’re the one God has chosen for this role to talk to these kids because you know how it feels to be lost and have shortcomings. There’s no place in the Bible where He asks you to fix yourself first before He uses you.”
She proceeded to embark on a journey of forgiveness that culminated in her hearing God instruct her to write the book. She shares about how she struggled to accept that she was going to share her most vulnerable side to the entire world. “Whenever I sat down to write I always felt a strange peace. I knew it was time for me to share the parts of me that I had swept under the carpet for so long. With this journey, I have seen the power of confession.” She says, “God wants to make what he is doing in your life a public spectacle for His glory even as He is doing it. She goes on to quote Michael Todd, a preacher, “Many of us want God to deal with us in a private place in the dark room, and we want to act like we just came out beautiful. It is a journey of progression and not perfection.”
Not Yet Uhuru
After she wrote the first draft, she was plunged into the familiar world of “emotional and physical pain”. She had “suicide ideations for three straight days.” Memories of earlier suicide attempts came streaming back. She recalled the time she stood in front of Watoto Church and closed her eyes as a speeding vehicle approached her, only for the driver to slam the brakes abruptly a few meters from her. She ruminated on the time she failed to get into the Law Development Center and yet she had finally found a reason to live. She thought she would be a lawyer and “put all the bad men in jail.” She decided to overdose on malaria tablets and antibiotics in the hope that she would die, only to wake up to her “neat room, instead of hell.”
During this period, she got convicted to go away for a few days to a Christian campsite named Musana Camps, where she pledged to end her life if she did not feel better afterwards. She wrote suicide letters to people and stored them carefully. She also planned to leave a message at the end of the book encouraging people to “be better”, because by the time they read it, just like the title of a famous rapper’s album, it would be too late.
After a few days at the camp, she decided to go on with her mission. On the night that she planned to end her life, she paced up and down in the compound for three hours. She woke up late and the resident cook at the camp, brought breakfast to her. She told Rita that she had watched her the night before and she shared with Rita her own story of pain and forgiveness, and Rita was brought to tears.
The day after the camp ended, Rita went to a psychiatrist and a therapist. She was diagnosed with severe depression, severe anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
She concludes by writing, “at the darkest point of my life I met my [work] partner and together we produced something beautiful with the same weapon the devil had tried to use against us.”
The beautiful thing is Netya Spaces, “which are support groups that provide a safe haven for people on their journey to healing as they fight against mental illness.” She started the organisation with Karen Hasahya.