Mama Johnson, over a week after being beaten
Jen- she is always wearing red or pink and usually together...
"when I was four years old, they tried to test my I.Q. they showed me a picture of 3 oranges and a pear they said, which one is different? it does not belong they taught me different is wrong but when I was 13 years old I woke up one morning thighs covered in blood like a war like a warning that I live in a breakable takeable body an ever-increasingly valuable body that a woman had come in the night to replace me deface me see, my body is borrowed yeah, I got it on loan for the time in between my mom and some maggots I don't need anyone to hold me I can hold my own I got highways for stretchmarks see where I've grown I sing sometimes like my life is at stake 'cause you're only as loud
as the noises you make I'm learning to laugh as hard as I can listen 'cause silence is violence in women and poor people if more people were screaming then I could relax but a good brain ain't diddley if you don't have the facts we live in a breakable takeable world an ever available possible world and we can make music like we can make do genius is in a back beat backseat to nothing if you're dancing especially something stupid like I.Q. for every lie I unlearn I learn something new I sing sometimes for the war that I fight 'cause every tool is a weapon - if you hold it right." -Ani DiFranco
September 12, 2009
"Life is full of suffering- and overcoming it." -Helen Keller
I have often said that I feel like I live in the middle ages. I walk around at night with a candle, I cook over a fire, I bathe rarely, I wear skirts, men run the world... It took an ugly turn this week when news got to me that Mama Johnson's face had been broken open. I was not sure what this exactly meant, but I finally got to see Mama Johnson and get the entire story. It should be said that I am an expert now at controlling my cringe/gag reflex. I am offered and shake filthy hands, or sometimes missing limbs, I watch facial sores full of pus, people who smell as if they are already half-way dead. I watch teeth rotting in people's heads, black or missing with breath like death. And I look sweetly back with big blue eyes, and smile understandingly with my straight, white American teeth. But I cringe when I see Mama Johnson's once beautiful face. The story goes that a drunk kijana (man between 18-30) came to her Cafe and was speaking offensively, when she asked him to leave he punched her hard enough that she hit the ground, so one side of the face is bruised, while the other side is broken open in three places from hitting the ground. Once she was on the ground he kicked her and it hurts her when she breaths. Finally some other village men saved her. The guy who did it then ran off into the bush. "What will happen to him when he gets back?" I ask. She tells me that because he is not her husband that he could be stoned. (That's right, stoned as in a public stoning...) Everyone who hears the story responds with how bad this is because he is not her husband. Finally, I ask the inevitable question, "What if he was her husband?" Every one looks at me like I am stupid and replies that then that is there business. So my new question to all the men I meet is, "Do you beat your wife?" I have asked about 50 men outright in my informal Brie-vey, and had not one yes answer. So I follow it up with, "Do a lot of men in Image beat their wives?" 100% of those questioned respond with yes... so clearly I am not getting the full picture. I did the only thing I could do for Mama Johnson- put antibiotic ointment on her wounds and told her I loved her.
Then I am greeted with more disturbing news. Both Jen and Juster are leaving Image. They are being transferred to other primary schools, Jen is going at the end of this month and Juster in December. I am not sure that I can convey this feeling of loss into words. No two women have been more impactful on my life outside of my family. No two women have loved me so unconditionally for no reason. They are my best friends. They are my family. They are the people who tell me everyday that I am a good person, that I am beautiful, that they love me. (When one is so far away and alone, this type of reinforcement cannot be underestimated.) They are the people who come in the morning to make sure that I am ok, who feed me when I am hungry, hold my hand when I am sick, who smooth my hair and speak English to me when I need a Kiswahili break... When they tell me, I cry. I can't help it. I can tell they feel horrible as they wipe tears from my face and tell me that they would never leave me but their fathers have requested transfers for them. Why? There is no opportunities in Image. I should know, but I ask anyways, "Opportunities for what?" Marriage. Juster says, "We are getting old, Brie, we must be married off soon." (She is 28) Jen sweetly says, "You are getting old too, isn't your father worried about your lack of opportunities here?" I laugh through my tears and try to picture my Dad calling Peace Corps and asking me to be relocated to a bigger village because of no marriage opportunities. But I tell them, "No, Americans believe in other opportunities. My Dad thinks that just living in Image is an opportunity." So I watch them prepare to sell their possessions, to pack up the sitting rooms that I have spent so much time in and I can't help but feel abandoned. Fathers attempting to marry off my Tanzanian sisters... I don't like it one bit.
If that didn't cap off a horrible Saturday than the four funerals I went to that day did. I paid respect to four bodies, their dark faces sleeping in make-shift coffins. I watched four villagers be lowered into the ground. Four times I listened to the women wail, men quietly singing hymns, someone drumming. Four times today I watched death. I still don't understand it. First an old man, his face lined with knowledge, next a baby in a casket barely larger than a shoebox, his face innocent to the harsh world. Then a small girl maybe eight years old with her black "protection" string still around her neck and dirt under her fingernails and I held it together. For the last funeral dusk was settling in. It was a mother who left behind five orphaned children. The oldest (maybe 12) had the youngest tied to her back. We trudged to the closest "cemetery" through a cornfield. I watched the five orphans drop a handful of dirt onto their mothers grave and i lost it. I retreated to the back of the cornfield and sat in the dirt, Anna, asleep on my back oblivious of the tears that I cried into my skirt. I cried for the orphaned children in my village. For orphans everywhere. I cried because people die, get sick and leave. I cried for my family and for people I don't know. I cried for all the woes of the world and because I am helpless in it. The next thing I knew the 2nd to youngest orphan girl was sitting next to me. I offered her my hand. She accepted it, dry-eyed. Maybe she doesn't understand. I held onto her hand but continued to cry into my lap. Eventually I looked up to find William standing there, who had apparently crossed the gender line when I went missing (women and men were standing separately, of course.) He has a quiet presence which I find comforting. We are exact opposites besides our age. He is educated through the seventh grade and is married with a child. We joke that he is my translator despite the face that he doesn't speak a word of English. Sometimes he just repeats what has been said with a different emphasis and I understand. Sometimes we don't talk at all and we just know. He doesn't ask me why I am crying. Instead he says, "I don't know what life is like in America, I am sure that their are problems, there are problems everywhere. You won't fix everything, Brie. Your heart is too big. This is our life. People die, people leave, people are sick and hurt, but somehow while we are alive, we stay happy. You are an African now, you need to learn how to hold your own hand." Just as I am about to object like a child and say "It is not fair!" The little orphan girl in rags puts my left hand into my right and clasps her own together. William gives and nod of approval and disappears back into the dark wailing masses. The little girls smiles up at me... little white teeth in the dark, like the stars that are starting to appear.
Juster and Jen are afraid of my tears and spend the night at my house. I sleep soundly between them and have an overwhelming presence of my own sisters, Shannon and Raeme. I wake up to them singing and playing with my hair.
"I will stay with you tonight, in case this corset gets too tight, and I will keep you company 'cause that's what a sister should be."