Author Ishtiyaq Shukri on being a survivor of sexual abuse in South Africa’s Church of England: ‘Why I find Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s statements regarding Oxfam painful and hypocritical’
Update, July 2021: Shukri has written a longer piece on this subject, recently published in Africa is a Country. “My first abuser arrived at St. Cyprian’s in 1978, the year I turned ten…” Read the complete article here.
Ishtiyaq Shukri has written an open letter in which he addresses Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s recent stepping down as an ambassador for Oxfam after the sex scandal that rocked the international charity.
Shukri is the author of the 2004 EU Literary Award-winning The Silent Minaret, and the 2015 novel I See You.
In the letter, Shukri states that he himself was a survivor of sexual abuse by priests from the Church of England, and asks why ‘the Archbishop has never fully addressed such systematic and institutionalised sexual abuse happening in his own organisation’.
Read Shukri’s open letter in full:
Why I find Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s statements regarding Oxfam painful and hypocritical
I used to have a photograph of the moment, but it got lost over the years, the moment in back in 1990 when my BA degree was conferred on me by the then Chancellor of the University of the Western Cape where I was a student during the late eighties. I attended my graduation ceremony under great duress, but it was a proud moment for my family, especially as that Chancellor was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In the end, I was glad I attended. After the ceremony, my professors in the English Department expressed their pride in my accomplishment to my family – the first time any teachers of mine had ever done that. After the trauma of school, the University of the Western Cape was where I found myself for the first time, discovering that I had a voice, with lecturers who were open to listening to and nurturing that voice. That they found it an intelligent voice was a blow to me, but I will always be grateful to them for the path they set me on, because the impulse that I wanted to be a writer started there, with them. My graduation ceremony itself turned out to be an important right of passage. I felt as though I had been anointed by one of the most famous figures of the anti-apartheid struggle, and sanctioned to go forth into the world and tell the truth to power, as he had done.
Then Archbishop Tutu announced that he was resigning as ambassador to the international aid agency, Oxfam, in the wake of the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the agency. Reading reports of his statement was excruciating for me, because I have seen first hand the good work Oxfam does. However, what is more pertinent to the issue I am attempting to raise here, is that the day Archbishop Tutu conferred my degree was not the first time I was touched by a clergyman from the Church of England in South Africa. In the years leading up to my graduation ceremony, I was being sexually abused by priests from the Church of England in South Africa. So far as I am aware, the Archbishop has never fully addressed such systematic and institutionalised sexual abuse happening in his own organisation.
When Archbishop Tutu made his statement about Oxfam, saying that he is ‘deeply disappointed’ about the sex scandal, I was reminded of all the times I had been sexually abused by Anglican priests. Not that one ever needs much reminding; my own memories of the abuse I experienced are with me everyday, and continue to impact my life on a daily basis. My memories dwell just beneath the surface of the veneer I have so carefully crafted to conceal them, covered in the shroud of silence I have draped over them since the first touch in 1978, when I was ten years old. By the time of Father Desmond’s inauguration as Archbishop of Cape Town in 1986, I was 18 and still being abused. I was not the only one; there were others, too, many much younger. Today, I am speaking only for me, but my heart goes out to all of them.
When I read the Archbishop’s statement about Oxfam, I wept, because I knew that, as a man, it was time to put away childish things, and to speak my truth – to him. A man now, I am standing up to protect the child I was then. Knowing what I know, I see no way of living with myself if I let the Archbishop’s comments about Oxfam go unchallenged as they have in all the mainstream western media I have read. But realising as I am now that breaking a silence of forty years is as painful as maintaining it, I despair.
From the age of ten and throughout my adolescence and teenage years, I was repeatedly and routinely sexually abused by priests at the church in Kimberley where my maternal family worshipped. As a child, those words – sexual abuse – were not part of my lexicon. The abuse was alienating and confusing. I did not know what to do, so I kept quiet, knowing that I was not alone, and that there were others, too. That knowledge provided a distorted sense of comfort, normalising the abnormal, which, after all, is what life in apartheid South Africa trained us all to do. As a child, having such special attention bestowed on one by priests is a confounding experience: one feels simultaneously special and repulsive. There can be no underestimating the impact such attention from men one called ‘Father’ was to a shy withdrawn boy, a boy who had a distant biological father, a boy who was routinely being bullied at school for being soft. In the intervening years, I have come to realise that there was actually nothing special about me – I was just a pretty boy who fitted the bill for abusers who knew how to read vulnerability. I was not so much selected for the special attention as groomed for the abuse that was to come.
For my part, the abuse I experienced has had a lasting impact on my life, starting with the first diagnosis and medication for clinical depression after my teachers noticed dramatic changes in my behaviour at school. That was in 1979, the year I turned eleven. I still remember that first visit to a psychiatrist. It was just after American Airlines flight 191 fell from the sky. The newspapers in the doctor’s waiting room were full of pictures of the crash. I have always loved aeroplanes – and it is some comfort that I am writing this on an Emirates flight from Johannesburg to Dubai, high up in the sky, moving fast, everywhere and nowhere at once – so I stared long and hard at those pictures of the crash, maybe too long and too hard; perhaps they were a distraction from my own crash and the trauma of finding myself in a psychiatric institution. I even remember the drive to the hospital. Realising where we were going, I remember asking my mother from my usual place in the red leather back seat: Are we going to the mad house, Mummy? I remember my mother looking back at me through the rear-view mirror of her white Mercedes, a perfect teardrop rolling down her cheek.
I have lived with clinical depression all my life. Over the years, self-loathing and despair have become part of my experience, habitual thoughts of suicide part of my routine. I have cultivated different coping rituals to get through the desperation. I love trees, and especially revere date palms; they have become a part of how I seek out relief from unrelenting feelings of worthlessness. One of my coping rituals is to look at trees, first counting all the unobscured leaves, then the leaves that point up, then the leaves that point down, all the time repeating: it’s all in the mind, it will pass. I admire how upright and resolute the date palm is, growing as it does in some of the world’s harshest environments. I strive to be upright and resolute like that, and when the despair passes, as it always does, I stand upright and resolute, maybe too upright and resolute because those who don’t know me well often describe me as distant and aloof, even that I have an air of arrogance about me. I would like to think that what they’re seeing is the date palm I strive to be, in human form.
Were it not for the unconditional and unending support of family and friends, I fear for what might otherwise have become of me. I remain on medication, and during a recent visit to my local pharmacy in Pretoria to collect my stash ahead of this two-month trip to Asia and the Middle East, the large quantity I required wiped out their supplies. But sensing the seriousness of my condition, and that I was about to board a flight, they sent an employee to another chemist to fill up the remainder. Thank you again for that. I have now resigned myself to anti-depressant medication being a permanent fixture in my life. Eventually I managed to remove myself from the abuse, but the experience and its effects endure. They surface in my daily relationship with myself, and with those I love, on whom I feel I’ve been a heavy burden. My personal ties with Oxfam are already known. Supporting my wife who works in Oxfam’s humanitarian team has brought this crisis into our lives in a very particular way. As a child I didn’t know what to do about what was happening to me. The truth is that as a grown man, I still don’t know what to do, and I frequently fumble, as I feel I am now. We are private people, and I never expected our personal and professional lives to collide in this painful way. While the sexual abuse scandal that has buffeted Oxfam in recent days has made headlines around the world, it also has personal dimensions, and I trust that Oxfam will get this right. However, Archbishop Tutu’s resignation as ambassador to Oxfam does not inspire me with confidence that the Anglican Church of Southern Africa will do the same.
Again, I am only speaking for myself about what happened to me at my maternal family’s church, where the abuse was systematic and continual. I am, so far as I know, the first of my generation to do so publicly as I am doing now. Never before having articulated what I experienced, I find I still lack the vocabulary to put it into words, or to understand why it happened; such has been my experience of the conspiracy of silence around sexual abuse in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa.
Let me be unequivocal: I have great regard for the work Oxfam does, having witnessed it first hand in several countries around the world. For that reason, I separate the work of the organisation as a whole from those Oxfam employees who abused their authority and power. Oxfam has gone to great lengths to admit its failures regarding the sexual abuse, and my admiration for the work that Oxfam does remains. However, I am left wondering whether Archbishop Tutu can unequivocally say the same for the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. He had far more direct authority over priests like the ones who abused me – priests who pledge obedience – priests who were appointed at leisure, and all are still in robes today. Because of the conspiracy of silence in the Church, men like me have felt it best to live our entire adult lives in silence with the trauma of what happened to us – even in the church building, even during religious ceremonies.
I’d like to end with a message to my maternal family who are devout members of the Church of England in South Africa. I’m sorry for the distress my disclosure today will no doubt cause you. My maternal grandmother’s ashes are interred in that church in Kimberley – may she rest in peace – and today I separate the sanctity of that beautiful building from the abuse I experienced in it. I now wish I could have confided in you then, but as a difficult child who was always in trouble at home and at school, I thought I was in the wrong – again. I was afraid, and so I started to construct veneers to cover what was really happening in order to prevent even more trouble and embarrassment for my family in Church. I especially didn’t think that they would take the word of the difficult, delinquent child I was, especially above that of priests. But I guess my abusers knew that.
Note: This statement has been edited to remove the name of the church mentioned in the piece above.