When Lynn Forbes was a little 11-year-old, Kilimanjaro was her magical place to escape. The 5895m snow capped highest point in Africa was the secret place she would go to in her mind - to hide from the secret horrors she was enduring in her real life.
This year, the day after she turns 50, she will board a plane to Dar es Salaam and from there fly to Moshi at the foothills of the mountain to finally make her childhood dream come true and summit on the centenary of Madiba’s birth, July 18, as part of Trek4Mandela.
Forbes won’t just be doing it for herself but for girls and women all over South Africa. Trek4Mandela is about ensuring no girl misses a day of school because of her period. It’s about breaking the taboo around menstruation by opening up the conversation and driving awareness around Caring4Girls, the sister initiative that receives donations of sanitary pads and distributes them across the country to schools in need.
For Forbes, getting girls to speak is critical - if they are ever to be able to find the courage to stand up for themselves and speak out about other forms of discrimination that are neither as normal nor as natural as menstruation.
Sexual abuse is one. Forbes knows all about that. She was sexually abused at home in Oppermansgronde, a little settlement west of Koffiefontein, in the Free State when she was 11. Her abuser was a lodger living in a back room, a close friend of the family. The abuse went on for about eight months until the work contract he was on ended and he returned home to George, to his wife and his family.
She struggled for 38 years with the secret, until finally it became too much. Her first trigger was in December 1994, shortly after she moved to Johannesburg with her young family. A young woman, Alison Botha, had been horrifically attacked in Port Elizabeth, gang-raped, mutilated and left for dead. She survived.
Forbes had an overwhelming urge to speak out about her own experience. “But you feel your story isn’t worthy enough to tell,” she says. “At the same time, I was wrestling with the fact that I couldn’t go to my grave never having spoken out. I just had to find my voice.”
That voice came when she held her new-born grandchild, Kairo, in her arms in 2015. “I realised now is the time, I’m a grandmother, I have to climb Kili for Kairo to speak for her and for every other child in our country and on the African continent.”
But she had no sooner found her voice, than the family was caught up in a total media tumult, between her son, Kiernan, better known as the rapper AKA, Kairo’s mother DJ Zinhle and celebrity Bonang Matheba. Forbes, as the mother, once again felt the need to hold back and mute her voice in the light of the events that were unfolding. It would be a year before she would be ready again.
“I needed to get away just to get some time for myself. There had always been three magical places for me; the Serengeti, Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar.” She booked her flight on the Monday and by Sunday was on the island paradise. It didn’t disappoint. “Stonetown (the Unesco protected heritage capital) gave me peace. It was very special. I was totally on my own. I forgave myself.
“Sexual abuse is an awful, vicious experience that tears at the victim. You feel guilty, dirty. You feel shame. You feel as if you did something to bring it on.”
In the winding ancient streets flanked by the big ornate wooden doors, leading down to the beach and the sparkling blue sea of the Indian Ocean, Forbes finally let it go. “The anger I had felt towards that man had left me. Before Zanzibar, my idea was to make the guy pay, but when I arrived home I didn’t want to go after him criminally any more. I just wanted to make sure that what had happened to me would never define me again.”
The key thing though was to find a channel for that voice. Before she could start writing, she had to tell her family, most of all she had to tell her parents. Her mother took it the hardest, she blamed herself. It was also a very difficult time for her boys.
Forbes had to manage this, too. Only then could she start writing. At first, she thought of penning a memoir, working with some of the best publishers in the country, but later she realised that the thing she wanted most was to help others and not hurt anyone else inadvertently.
“I know where the man who did this to me lives. He lives in Bloemfontein now. His wife has passed on. I can contact him, but I have no desire to. If he reads this, he’ll know who he is - and he’ll have to deal with his own demons.
“He was the nice, kind man who nobody ever suspected. I want to warn parents with young children about nice, kind men who pay attention to their kids. I want to warn parents not to trust anyone with their children.”
She started her blog “According to Glammy” (https://lynnforbes.co.za/blog/) on Women’s Day last year. She simply couldn’t wait any more. The catharsis was immediate. “It was a healing,” she says.
The blog inspired her to start speaking, not just in formal motivational settings but wherever the opportunity arose. The response was tremendous. Forbes became overwhelmed. “The key thing for me is not to become a counsellor. I’m not qualified to give advice. My role is simply to give others the courage to speak out about what they have endured.”
Now, she is working with established NGOs and charities to channel people who reach out to her to social workers and other trained professionals who can make a critical and positive intervention. “It was difficult in the beginning, but it becomes easier every day. You find the courage and then it becomes second nature because it was always there within you. My job now is to become a force for good.
“I work closely with the AKA Foundation and I am committed to working with Caring4Girls at least until 2020, I want to help them reach two million girls and keep them in school, but the most important thing is to get those conversations started, to unlock that courage in everyone.”
Last Monday, Forbes flew down to Durban with Caring4Girls for the launch of International Menstrual Hygiene Day. She was struck once again by the scale of the problem.
“Not having access to pads is one thing, but the taboo around menstruation is at the next level. It just becomes more and more complex if you can’t speak about normal things like a period at home to your mother or your aunt, how do you speak out about sexual harassment or violence?
“Sometimes I feel as if there is a whole group of children who have been lost, who we will never reach.”
She won’t give up though - any more than she’ll give up on her dream of standing on the highest point in Africa. “Physically, mentally, I’m ready, I’ve been training hard. I’ve always been fit, I’ve done ultramarathons before, I’ve lived a very healthy life, but there is a fear. There is the fear of the unknown, the horrible doubt that I might do all this and not make it to the summit. But I’m not going to fail for lack of trying.
“You know, it’s not the mountain that we conquer, but ourselves. The great Everest climber Edmund Hillary said that. It’s as true for Kilimanjaro as it is for life. Just getting to Kili will be the achievement of my life’s dream.”
On July 12 this year, the scared little girl who dreamt of going to her mystical place above the clouds will start that adventure. But the person who comes down from Uhuru peak on July 18 will return as a whole, healed human being - with a whole new range of mountains to conquer back home.