Today I am delighted to share a heart-wrenching story written by a friend of mine who was a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa and has continued to live and work in West Africa since 2009. The names of both women have been changed to protect their privacy.
Possible trigger warning: mentions of rape and abuse.
Possible trigger warning: mentions of rape and abuse.
She was supposed to be my (host) mother in the West African village, but she was only a few years older than me, so from the beginning I called her Awa.
Awa welcomed me warmly to the place I would live for two years. She introduced me to relatives; she patiently taught me the local language; she explained the village politics; she told me how to eat and what to wear and how much money to give during special ceremonies; and, making use of one of the few English phrases she knew, she often exclaimed, “You have a big butt!”
No matter how much time we spent together, though, there was a certain level of distance between us. Most of the time I attributed it to language and cultural differences. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t put myself in her shoes. But I also – intentionally and unintentionally – maintained walls. I didn’t want to get too close, be too vulnerable, give too much.
After two years in the village, I got ready to move a few hours away to continue my work in the capital. The night before I was to leave, Awa lay distraught on my bed, crying her eyes out. How could I be leaving her? I told her I’d visit and call. I knew I would miss my village, but I was excited to have my own apartment, running water and a fridge, a 9-5 job, and an internet connection. I was ready to separate from her a little more, and especially from her abusive husband.
Over the next couple years, I called and visited and even sent money to cover school fees and supplies for her two boys, or to pay for medicine when someone was sick. Then Awa started calling regularly for money to see the doctor or buy medicine. After a little probing, I found out she was having reproductive health problems. I did some research, then called Awa and invited her to come to the capital to see a recommended doctor here. I’ll cover all the expenses, I said.
She got approval from her husband and told me she’d call me when she arrived in the city to get directions to my house.
Directions to my house? Wait, you’re going to stay with me?
I was not prepared for this. This was crossing the line. I would go with her to see the doctor, give money, make phone calls – but not let her stay with me, not open my life completely to her.
But didn’t I just open up my house and bed to you a few weeks ago when you were here in the village, she reminded me. And so I gave in.
When she arrived late in the evening, I showed her how to flush my toilet, turn the hot water heater on, take a shower, and light the stove. I was worried more about her breaking something in my apartment then about her exhaustion and sickness.
We saw the doctor the next day, and he ordered several tests to check for STIs. He told us we would have to wait 3-5 days for the results and in the meantime she was not to have sex with her husband, who also happened to be in the city, or she might contract another STI.
Maybe you should just go to your relatives’ house for a few days? I suggested to Awa.
If I go to their house, my husband will go there and want to see me, to be with me, she said.
But doesn’t he know why you’re here? That if he is with you, it could wreck your treatment? I said, appalled.
Yes, but you know him.
I did. I knew his temper and his ability to manipulate people and his tendency to beat Awa and force her to be with him even if she didn’t want it. So she stayed. A couple days turned into several days. Several days turned into two weeks.
I felt sick and confused and helpless. Every moment I spent with her was a reminder of this painful, disgusting, unsolvable situation.
Every night we had pillow talk. Only instead of silly gossip, she told me about all the pain she had experienced because of her husband. How she had been barely 13 years old when her father had arranged her marriage, how she had cried and begged her mom to not let her go. How her first night with her husband was like a semi-truck barging through the door to a hut. How she had been sick for weeks afterward, couldn’t even eat, had to go to the hospital. How, during the years that he was a senator and had money, he would sleep with prostitutes in nearby villages and then return home late, expecting her to sleep with him, too.
Finally one night, she couldn’t hold it in anymore. She sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. My heart hurts, Ndeye, she cried to me. Ndeye, my heart hurts so badly.
All I could do was plead desperately with God. I prayed and I prayed as I rubbed her back, her shoulders shaking with sob after sob. Lord, do something for her! Give her a way out. I can’t handle this anymore. LORD, do something!
A couple days later, I sat down with Awa and her husband and explained that Awa had an STI, so both of them needed to take medicine. I also brought up the issues of mistreatment, both with Awa and with their kids. I was cautious, but when he said that the problems always stem from Awa, I had to be firm. This was my opportunity to stand up for Awa, but I was also afraid for her. What would happen when they both returned to the village?
Later that evening, Awa left to return to the village. Her husband is still in the capital for political meetings. I’m hopeful that she’s healing physically. But I’m still unsure about her emotionally and psychologically. She is suffering.
Somewhat reluctantly, I let her in close, and now I feel a portion of her pain. I have never felt such pain before; I want it to stop. I want to pull back, to stop calling, to stop sending money, to forget all of it. But I can’t. I made a choice to let her in, and I’m not going back no matter how much it hurts. It’s a process, but I’m learning to open myself up, to love, and to be loved.