Escaping a cult’s clutches
But to those who’ve lived at the mission and managed to escape its cult-like clutches, it’s “hell on earth”.
Erika Bornman’s ‘Mission of Malice: My Exodus from KwaSizabantu’ tells of parental abandonment and disownment, an ingrained culture of fear, public beatings, molestation, rape and all kinds of abuse, which – if you let KSB tell it – is done in the name of the Lord.
When Bornman is nine, her parents leave her and her two siblings at KSB to go study in France, and this is where a lifetime of trauma begins.
The siblings are separated almost completely, and because boys and girls aren’t allowed to speak to each other, Bornman can’t even risk reaching out to her own brother.
There are no televisions, radios or magazines allowed, effectively shutting those living at the mission off from the outside world.
KSB is a place of intense fear, where children are regularly told how sinful and evil they are. “...If we don’t confess our sins, if we die with one single unconfessed sin, we will go to hell for all eternity,” Bornman writes.
Children are forced to confess their “multiple sins” often, and they’re encouraged to snitch on those committed by friends. If they don’t and the friend is caught, they’re subjected to horrendous beatings too.
When she is 15, Bornman’s father dies, and soon after, her mother all but abandons her as well.
This becomes heartbreakingly clear when, at 16, as she’s threatened with expulsion because she hasn’t been regularly confessing her sins, Bornman’s mother adds insult to injury: “Because I am a teacher at the school and this is our home, if they expel you, I have no choice but to kick you out as well”.
Desperate to stay at the mission despite it all, she vows to confess her sins regularly to a new counsellor. When she’s 17, it is this alleged ‘man of God’ who begins to molest her. This continues until she’s 19, and at 21, Bornman finally manages to leave the mission.
The rest of the book gives readers a glimpse into how the author built a life beyond KSB and learnt to deal with multiple layers of trauma that reveal themselves as she grows older.
By her own admission, what happened to Bornman at KSB was "not that bad" when compared to the experiences of her black peers. On the one hand, that comparison rankles. Who's to say what is or isn't bad, traumatising, scarring? But on the other, it's hard to overlook the opportunities her whiteness afforded her.
A big part of her exodus from the mission was aided by friends and family. But when she writes about getting opportunity after opportunity with no qualifications and very little experience, I can't help but wonder how differently the lives of black ex-KSB members unfolded.
But this is ultimately Bornman’s memoir, and while I wish that she wrote more in-depth about her experiences at the mission, I can appreciate that ‘Mission of Malice’ is less a dissection of each of her traumas and more a glimmer of hope that a good life is possible, even after KSB.
Feels like a friend
Through short chapters written in a light, conversational tone, Bornman soon begins to feel like a friend, and it’s almost impossible not to root for her.
I really enjoyed reading about the author reclaiming parts of herself she hadn’t even known she’d lost, and I wish we got even more of that and less of the ‘they said, she said’ the last quarter of the book devolves into.
I struggled with the last 15 or so chapters, which go into detail about all the accusations against the mission and its often-flimsy rebuttals. While I also understand why Bornman needed to include it all in this book, I would have been much happier to read about just her journey.
But, upon some reflection, perhaps that’s the point – that Bornman’s journey is so inextricably linked with KSB that there’s no telling her story without including it, all of it.
‘Mission of Malice’ is available on order at Windhoek Book Den for N$240.
Cindy van Wyk is an eternal bookworm who shares reviews and other bookish content @lovereadingxo on Instagram.