Breaking My Silence and Shattering Stereotypes - One Mother’s Story of Madness & Domestic Violence
By: Divinity Matovu
I spent the first year of our courtship being love bombed. I’m talking hours long intimate conversations where we shared our most audacious dreams, deepest fears, darkest secrets, and childhood traumas. I’m talking weekend excursions to camp and swim at the Nile River. I’m talking romantic vacations to East African beach destinations like Zanzibar and Mombasa. I’m talking amazing sex where my pleasure was first and foremost. I’m talking foot rubs, sensual massages, oiling my scalp, cooking me delicious meals and serving me like a Queen, romantic dates, thoughtful gifts ranging from jewelry to handwritten poetry.
He proposed after we were only dating for 3 months. My family - especially my father - responded to my engagement news with skepticism. Who was this Ugandan mystery man who had swept me off my feet and asked for my hand in marriage without having ever met or even having spoken to my family? “He is probably just searching for a Green card,” my father warned. In the moment - as a 22 year old who thought she had found her soul mate - I was furious that my father would insinuate that my one true love was faking it and only was interested in me due to some nefarious plot to become an American citizen.
One day about 18 months into our relationship - we were engaged but not married at that point - my ex and I were walking in an area of Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, called Nakulabye. We had just finished having a lunch date and we were looking for a taxi to take us home. Nakulabye is a busy area and there were hundreds of people on the street. Vendors selling fruits and veggies, boda boda guys waiting with their motorbikes to transport customers across Kampala, taxi drivers and dozens and dozens of people on foot and in their cars moving from place to place. All of a sudden, we saw a commotion and witnessed a man slap his female partner. They were either married or dating based on what I could assess. He slapped her so hard that she stumbled. The next blow sent her to her knees. The man was shouting at her and began to beat her in broad daylight with dozens of witnesses who stood by gawking but doing nothing to intervene. “Babe, DO SOMETHING!!!” I shouted. Without a second thought, my boyfriend said with a look of disdain “What do you expect me to do? That’s their personal business and has nothing to do with us. Let’s go.” That was the first red flag. His casual dismissal of the intimate partner violence we had just witnessed shook me to my core. When I brought it up with him later, he explained that he would have been putting us both in danger if he intervened. He comforted me and told me he would never hurt me like that but it was better that we minded our own business in that situation. I was still shaken but I accepted his explanation and we never discussed it again.
One year later - in summer 2010 - we exchanged marriage vows on a beautiful beach in Maui, Hawaii in an intimate ceremony attended by a handful of friends. I was 24 years old.
My father passed on my request to escort me down the aisle and give me away. We also bypassed the extensive, and expensive (for the groom) Baganda tradition of paying dowry. Had we upheld that tradition, my ex, his family and his community would have had to deliver thousands of dollars worth of gifts and cash to my father and my family. As an American, I was “worth” a lot but my ex didn’t want to have a traditional ceremony so he didn’t pay my dowry. I actually footed the entire bill for our wedding and honeymoon as well as all the fees associated with his K1 fiancee visa which facilitated his entry to the United States. This should have been my second red flag, especially because he was always adamant about upholding his cultural practices and his heritage in nearly every other area except the dowry ceremony - called a kwanjula. For instance, when we had our first and only biological child 2 years into the marriage, he insisted that I uphold the Baganda tradition of breastfeeding until our daughter turned 2 years old even though this was physically taxing to my body.
I filed for divorce in 2014. Him telling me that my decision to pursue a MBA was emasculating him was the final straw. I was tired of the abuse, I was unhappy and depressed and I didn’t love him anymore. By that time, I had exhausted all efforts to reconcile and make my marriage work. Counseling with a psychologist. Counseling with a pastor. So many I’m sorry, Divinity. It’ll never happen agains. I had forgiven too much and I was doubting whether he actually ever loved me, or if I was just his golden ticket to America. He really played the long game and I fear my father was right - he was only interested in me due to some nefarious plot to become an American citizen.
Fast forward five years later to summer 2019 when, at the age of 33, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and told that I suffer from post traumatic stress disorder after I had a midlife crisis level emotional meltdown at my home that landed me in the hospital. This was not my first hospitalization. I was diagnosed with post-partum depression in 2013 when my husband lied and told my father I had “went crazy” and threatened to harm our daughter. This was a lie. What I said was that I was going to divorce him and that I would hurt him if he ever harmed our daughter. My father and my husband worked together to have me committed to a mental institution against my will. This was an extremely traumatizing experience that I do not have the courage to write about at this time.
For several months after my emotional breakdown in 2019, I violently resisted my diagnosis and the stigma attached to these labels which basically said I was a damaged “crazy bitch” who can’t control my mood or emotions. PTSD was one thing, but the bipolar diagnosis hurt me deep because it brought up memories of past trauma from my marriage.
That’s what my ex-husband would call me when we argued. He would lash out at me in his native tongue “BANANGE! oli omukyaala mulalu” Which in context translates to “Gaaahhhhdamn you a crazy bitch.” These words hurt almost as much as the physical (a few times), sexual (occasionally), financial (often) and emotional (frequently) abuse I silently suffered in a marriage to a fiercely misogynistic and patriarchal man. Marital rape is a very real thing and I endured so much in silence because I had an image as a confident, strong woman and I was ashamed that I had allowed myself to get in a situation where I was an abuse victim. I did not want to be seen as a victim so I never told anyone.
Some of the worst, most sadistic abuse took place during the 2nd trimester of my pregnancy with twins. The baby I miscarried in utero was most likely due to the stress I was under on a daily basis isolated in Uganda away from my friends and family and healthcare. My ex husband would do things like hide my passport, lock me in a room for hours at a time and withhold food and water. I was essentially being tortured but if you saw my social media feed, I was living a perfectly curated life with a happy, loving marriage.
The stress got so bad during my pregnancy that some of my dreadlocks were falling out.
After I recovered my passport and made a desperate plea for help, my father paid for my one way flight home to escape the abuse. I was six months pregnant. Too ashamed to disclose the worst of what I had endured, all I had told my father was that I believed my husband was cheating on me and I was scared to give birth in Uganda because I didn’t feel I could get adequate healthcare there (in addition to the abuse, my husband would leave our home for days at a time with no contact or explanation of his whereabouts). When I arrived back home in the US, I immediately went to see a doctor and I was told about the other baby. The doctor said that I had a high risk pregnancy and would need to return to her office every single day for the rest of my third trimester.
“Black women disproportionately experience violence at home, at school, on the job, and in their neighborhoods. Black women face high rates of intimate partner violence, rape, and homicide. Black girls and women also experience institutionalized racism; they are disproportionately punished in school, funneled into the criminal justice system after surviving physical or sexual abuse, disproportionately subjected to racial profiling and police brutality, and incarcerated at rates far exceeding their share of the population.”
The data speaks for itself. More than 40% of Black women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime and I am no longer ashamed to admit publicly that I am one of them.
One thing my ex-husband likes to do is threaten to “expose me.” This is a classic tactic used by abusers to control those that they prey upon. He has repeatedly threatened to expose my mental health diagnosis by posting it on Facebook. This is part of the reason I decided to share my diagnosis as part of my story. For years, he threatened to expose me for having an abortion when I was 21 - something I told him in confidence. I remember the night I told him - I was still mourning the loss of that child and he held me and kissed the tears that fell down my face. I am disgusted now to know that the same person who was so loving and caring in that moment would later reveal himself to be the monster I came to know as our relationship and our marriage evolved. He claims that I aborted because I didn’t know who the father was but that’s a lie. I know it and he knows it. The truth is that I learned of my pregnancy just as I was about to graduate from USC, I did not love the man who impregnated me and I was not ready to become a mother. He has also threatened to expose me for seeking comfort in the arms of my first love when I returned to the US six months pregnant and traumatized from the abuse I’d suffered. Well, I am exposing myself. Yes, when I got home to my family in Wisconsin, my first real boyfriend reached out to check on me. We reconnected. He was there for me every moment of my last trimester - taking me to doctor’s appointments, moving me into my apartment, cooking for me almost every day and essentially nursing me back to health. He wanted to be by my side when I gave birth but we both agreed it would not be kosher and we didn’t want to deal with all the judgment and questions from our friends and family. I was still a married woman at that time. Interestingly enough, my ex was also involved with several women throughout the entirety of my pregnancy and it is rumored that he even had another woman pregnant while I was pregnant. That woman’s child - a boy - is just a couple months younger than our daughter Nyah. I only found this out from my ex mother in law a couple years ago.
It is important for me to say that I am not ashamed of any choices I made during this entire ordeal. I did the best I could with the resources I had, and I am a survivor.
By the grace of God, I went full term and was in labor with Nyah for 12 hours before delivering her vaginally. She was a healthy 8 pound baby and the most beautiful angelic being I’d ever seen. My husband was not by my side during the birth because we were estranged at that time (he was not happy I had escaped and left Uganda without telling him). I have dozens of emails of him apologizing and begging me to take him back and sponsor his Visa to return to the US which I stupidly did in an attempt to uphold my vows and make my marriage work. I wish I had filed for divorce back in 2012 before he came back to the US and before Nyah was born. At one point, I considered trying to get him deported due to fraud but I decided that Nyah needed her father close so I never pursued deportation.
My father, my stepmother and my grandmother Martha were by my side during Nyah’s birth. I called her my miracle baby. The hospital even asked for permission to study my placenta because Nyah’s survival was a medical anomaly. I bonded with my baby right away and I breastfed her for 2 years as the Baganda tradition required.
Words can’t really explain the bond that takes place between a nursing mother and her hungry, infant child.
I have been an excellent mother and I have loved my daughter fiercely. I never thought I’d see the day when she was literally torn from my arms by the State of California.
After wild and false accusations from my ex-husband who weaponized my 2019 mental health crisis, my dedication to my career, my polyamorous lifestyle / sex life and my use of cannabis to portray me as an unfit mother, the courts said I was emotionally unstable and unfit to care for Nyah, a determination that I have fought against every step of the way with my doctors and lawyers advocating for me. As of today - October 13, 2021, it has been 730 days (exactly 2 years) since I have physically seen my daughter. My attempts to travel to Florida to visit her have been blocked by her father. My ability to speak with her regularly via FaceTime has been blocked by her father since March 26, 2021 for reasons unbeknownst to me. The only thing I can think of is that he receives some type of sick, twisted, sadistic pleasure from torturing me and alienating me from our daughter.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness month which is why - with the support of my therapist Dr. Bettye Ford - I decided to share this now. To everyone out there who has survived domestic violence, to every loving parent who has fought a custody battle to enforce your parental rights and all the people who are battling the stigma of a mental illness, please know that I lift you up. I support you. I am you.