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A Real Little Rock

22 May 2008

By Pieter van Zyl

Just mention the name Little Rock and pride lights up the eyes of the residents of Blue Downs and its surrounds outside Cape Town. This little girl has become a symbol of hope in a sometimes hopeless and violence-ridden community.

Little Rock is the nickname given to the eight-year-old girl who rose from flames and, literally on fire, stumbled away from her rapist to safety 18 months ago.

But that was just the beginning of her story of courage. She was also prepared to go through the trauma necessary to face her attacker in court.

In the end this wasn't necessary. Earlier this month Abraham James struck a deal with the State and pled guilty to the vicious attack. He was sentenced to an effective 28 years in jail.
It's hard to understand how the child survived that night of hell. She'll always bear the physical scars. When she goes out she usually wears a traditional Muslim burqa, leaving only her friendly brown eyes – the windows to her unquenchable, bubbly personality – visible. The cloth disguises the scars that stretch from the right side of her face to her chest and legs.

They haven't affected her fighting spirit or bravery though. She's had to drop her plans to be a model but now she has a new dream.

''I want to be a doctor,'' she announces firmly.


Her brow furrows and her reply is a little annoyed. ''Because I want to help other kids get better some day of course.''

Little Rock perches on the couch amidst the teddy bears well-wishers have given her. She draws as we chat to her mom in their wooden shack in a Blue Downs backyard. She withdraws into another part of the house when her mother begins talking about that awful night.

They live only 400 m from the spot where on Guy Fawkes' night in 2006 she was indecently assaulted and raped before being hit on the head with a rock and stabbed with a knife.
Every day she waits for her ride to school in the same street she ran along, engulfed by flames, almost two years ago.

''We were lucky the ambulance arrived in minutes,'' her mom says. ''I couldn't touch her. It looked as though the skin on the right side of her face had burnt away.''

Little Rock is concentrating on her drawing of fragile pencil butterflies. She's in Grade 3, she says, and appropriately her favourite – and best – subject is life orientation. She even has a certificate to prove it.

She attends a private school in the city. ''No one knows where she goes to school,'' her mom says. ''There she's just another schoolgirl. She wants to get on with her life as normally as possible.''

''I like school,'' Little Rock says, a dimple peeping out as she smiles. ''I'm glad the court thing is over. It wasn't nice.''

Her father echoes her feelings. His daughter's attacker did painting work with him for years and was a friend.

''We trusted him. He often walked to the shop with the kids. I don't know what came over him that day. Why her? Why didn't he rather pick on us?

''My son and I went looking for him afterwards. If we'd found him he might be dead.''

''We've always been a close family but since this happened we're even closer,'' Little Rock's mom says. ''We had to get to know one another again. Sometimes she still gets aggressive and blames everyone around her for what happened. She fights with me. But she's seeing a court-appointed threapist.''

She decided not to run away and chose to raise her daughter and other children in the place where the rape happened. ''I want to show her it's not the community that's bad but some of the people in it.''

She dreams of a bigger house for her family. She receives a disability grant and her husband is a painter. ''We do the best with what we have. I try to make this little house a home.''

The way in which Little Rock's mother has handled the terrible attack is one of the main reasons her daughter is so resilient, experts say.

''The fact her mother believed and supported her has contributed to her quick recovery,'' Professor Caroline Clauss-Ehlers says. She's a researcher in the field of children and resilience at Rutgers University in New Jersey, America.

''The most important reason kids fight back is a positive relationship with at least one adult. In Little Rock's case it seems to be her mother. It's especially a mother's reaction to a daughter's sexual abuse that determines the child's resilience.

''Often mothers don't believe their daughters when they say they've been raped or molested, which makes the child feel like it was her fault. Believing and supporting the child empowers her.''

Little Rock's mom's community work – she tells other women about their experience – shows she can give meaning to what happened by providing positive input into other people's lives.

''Her mother's activism turns her story into an inspiring one and spreads the word children who go through trauma like this don't have to be psychologically scarred for life.''

Psychologically speaking it's a miracle Little Rock is doing so well, Pretoria Child Trauma Clinic clinical psychologist Marita Rademeyer says.

''Research into resilience in children show resilient kids have things in common irrespective of their culture and the circumstances of their trauma, she says.

Resilient children feel good about themselves and can manage their emotions. They can express themselves in a socially acceptable way. They know what their talents are and they're often encouraged to use them.

This resilience can be taught from birth to the age of five. ''Resilient children have routine and predictability in their lives; rituals like a story every night before bed, having breakfast as a family before school or dinner together at night,'' she says.

''Little Rock is so brave. She's an inspiration. She has inspired us with her determination,'' says Malvern de Bruyn, community leader and founder of the Little Rock trust fund.

It was decided to establish the trust to help Little Rock financially and emotionally in the future and to support other children through their court cases.

''Like the women who marched on the Union Buildings to protest the Pass Law Little Rock was prepared to get out of that fire and fearlessly grab life with both hands,'' he says.

It's no wonder this petite little girl has become the rock on which hopeless communities can begin rebuilding their hope for the future.

* The Little Rock trust fund is with Absa. The account number is 9109429386 and the branch code is 632005.

* This article is part of the writer's project for the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, which he has been awarded.

To see the article as it appeared in YOU, click on the link below:

Little Rock Pg 1.pdf

Little Rock Pg 2.pdf

Copyright 2008. Used with permission from Huisgenoot/YOU.

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