“Sensory cues, even if not recognized consciously, can trigger recall of disturbing memories or even just the negative emotions that went with the original bad event. Sometimes this is the basis for so-called “anxiety attacks,” which seem to come out of nowhere.” ~ William R. Klemm, D.V.M, Ph.D. 

God has gifted me many things. Among them is a powerful sensory memory. So powerful is my sensory memory that a whiff of freshly baked bread will transport me to a little semi tarred road that I walked along on my way to the local TM Supermarket to buy bread. I could always smell the freshly baked bread long before the store came into view. A medicinal smell will arouse the same anxiety and sadness in me today that I felt during the endless hours that I spent in hospitals when my mum was battling cancer. A whiff of Elizabeth Arden Red Door will transport me to the rowdy hair salon where I had my hair cornrowed for school. Unfortunately, a whiff of an unhealthy “V” while standing in a supermarket queue the other day took me to the very same place. Granted, at the time, I didn’t know what it was. I just knew that my favourite hairdresser had a really funky odour under the Red Door *shudders.* The instant after I smell Red Door, I will feel a little grossed out no matter where I am.

I am telling you all this because I caught a whiff of something while walking through the mall on Friday. I don’t know what it was but as soon as it hit me, clear as day, I remembered walking into a police station in Chiredzi, Zimbabwe one late afternoon when I was 19. I was on my way from town and I passed by the local police station. I needed a police clearance certificate in order to apply for my SA study visa. I walked in meaning to ask how I could go about it.  There was a curious tension in the “charge office” that I felt as soon as I took my first step in. I paused for a long moment at the entrance and took stock. There were 3 people in the room. One policeman sat behind an elevated desk, pen poised to write and was looking down at a woman, with her hair wrapped in a white doek, who was sitting on a low bench with a girl of about 6 years of age. The two were dressed in a very well known Church’s garb. The Church shall remain unnamed. The woman was distressed. She appeared to have been crying. The girl was sitting very very still and there was a dark red stain, about the size of a pancake, on her green skirt. She kept her head down the whole time and looked at her feet. Everyone had fallen silent when I appeared in the door. For the same long moment, the woman and the policeman looked at me.

I slowly walked in trying to determine whether to stay or go. I was trying to make sense of the situation. I was a little confused.  As I walked in the policeman lost interest in me and barked at the woman impatiently, “ehe Amai, ndobva zvadii?” (translation: Yes Lady, and then what happened?”) She looked at me hesitantly and then stuttered out “muporofita akati Mwari ati mwana anofanirwa kunonamatirwa kugomo.” (translation: the prophet said that God told him that he had to go and pray for the child in the mountains.)

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, I understood what had happened. I looked at the child in alarm. Suddenly I knew what the dark red stain was. I knew why she was sitting so still. I knew why her mum was crying. I knew what the prophet had done.

What I didn’t know was why they were being interviewed in a public space. Why this poor woman was being forced to relay a story that would no doubt violate her daughter a second time in the presence of a random stranger like me. Why the officer was so cold. Why they were being interviewed by a man at all. Why a grown man would violate a child of 5 or 6. I felt so many things and so many questions went through my head all at once that I felt nauseated. I ran out.

On Friday I found myself back there. My heart hurt again. I wondered where that child is now? Was the prophet punished? Did anyone tell the mother it was not her fault? Why did I not sit next to her and hold her hand? Would the comfort of a stranger not have been better than none at all? Did that child get any counselling? WHY would a grown man rape a child? it’s Monday today and I still feel deeply unsettled.

Sometimes a sensory memory is a curse.