A word about…words. Specifically, the heavily saddening and angering words occupying headlines and constellations of hashtags in the twitterverse over the past few days: World Food Day, International Day to Eradicate Poverty, famine, refugees, the Horn of Africa, crisis. “Awareness” and “Activism” seem like heavy words these days, full of either rage or depression. But awareness is not just grief and statistics, which too often lead to an immobilizing depression of their own.
So, a word–or not a word so much as an image, an image of a victim of an atrocity in East Africa:
Meet Sitawa Wafula.
I first saw Sitawa this summer in a Nairobi nightclub, where she performed at an open mike to celebrate the release of the latest issue of Kwani?, Kenya’s first literary magazine. Sitawa stepped onto the stage and quietly adjusted her hair wrap before stopping the show with the announcement that she was a rape victim, and proceeding to recite a breathtaking poem about a woman’s sexual identity. I was in town through the UNHCR, mobilizing a the Survival Girls, a theater group for young Congolese refugee women, and just that day in our workshop my girls had started to talk about rape–about how even speaking of being raped, much less seeking medical help for it, was avoided at all costs by women across Africa, at the risk of being spurned by their families and deemed unfit for marriage. But here was an East African woman, not just admitting what happened, but relating the information publicly and without shame.
Sitawa slipped out before I could find her that night, so I asked the event emcee for her number and texted her an introduction of the Survival Girls. I asked whether she’d be willing to visit the girls during that Sunday’s workshop. “I’ll come with my adventure cap on. See you there babe,” she texted. Later we arranged over the phone to meet at Nakumatt, an upscale mall. “I just got hair, and it’s big. So I will be the girl with the biggest hair,” Sitawa laughed.
Sitawa’s hair wasn’t all that huge, but her earrings were–big teardrop-shaped beads that came down to her shoulders. It was Sunday, and she wore a frilly pink dress. We shared some chicken tikka. Sitawa had been raped on Sunday June 15th, eight years ago. “My project is called Sunday Fifteen for that reason,” she said between bites. “I go into schools and tell girls what to do if they are raped. Not to wash their clothes, not to shower, to go within 72 hours to the hospital. I also raise money for girls who are too poor to buy pads for their periods. They go through the trash to find others’ used pads or sit over a hole for the life of the period. Occasionally their family will forget that’s where they are and get angry that they haven’t done their chores, and the entire time they have missed school.”
I couldn’t believe the wonderful fortune of meeting Sitawa; she couldn’t have been a more perfect guest to a Survival Girls workshop. We headed to the slum of Kangemi, where the Survival Girls live, and into the community’s church compound. The pearly-eyed old man guarding the entrance nodded and gestured with his arm, indicating that the girls he knew I was looking for were already inside. In the sharp sunlit air we heard them and made our way toward the scraps of sound floating over the red tin roofs:…We love yoooou…Africa my motherland…we need you…
The girls had come up with that song the workshop previous as an introduction to their theater piece, which they created to address rape and the refugee experience of seeking asylum in a new country. Three girls entered from stage left, three from stage right. They stepped and swayed in unison with their arms outstretched toward each other, and when Sofia, the eldest Survival Girl, clapped once, they all dropped to their knees with a cry and Dianne began her monologue, bellowing about the rainfall of bullets.
They girls broke into smiles and waved when Sitawa and I rounded the corner. Sitawa introduced herself and the girls positioned a bench for us to sit on, explaining that the compound had no free rooms. After praising their Sunday-best church outfits I turned to Sitawa.
“Do you mind telling your story?” I asked her. “The girls have developed a piece that talks about some of the same topics. I thought then they could perform the piece in full for you.”
The girls settled onto the brick steps and perched on the edge of the bench. Sitawa began in her high voice, telling the story in English and sometimes Kiswahili.
She had been raped by someone who knew her, someone she trusted. Her boyfriend’s best friend. They were on their way to church together, walking the same route as usual. He gave her a soda with something in it, something that made her pass out. That was in the morning, and when she came to, she was naked, in a bed, and the clock said 4pm. She touched herself and there was substance on her. He was there, and he raped her again, and this time she was conscious.
When Sitawa reached this part of the story, her shoulders drooped. “After that,” she said, “for months I couldn’t…” she let out a breath. “I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t want to see anybody. I didn’t want to go anywhere.”
I stole a look at the girls’ faces. They were all looking at the ground, quiet, attentive, respectful. Some of them had been gang-raped by men they had seen hack to pieces their parents and brothers. The group became a theater project when the girls said they wanted to perform the words they wrote, and when I realized that the extent of their trauma made embodiment of text not just helpful but necessary for any real reduction of post-traumatic stress to begin within them, within selves orphaned, dislocated, soaked in shame and often rendered immobile with despair. This stasis of hopelessness seizes upon trauma victims through the release of calmatives fired by the brain stem, and it happens often to physically threatened and overpowered young women. If your nervous system judges you too small to “fight” and too slow to “flight”, you get “freeze”. A depression that is much more than conscious-mind deep, the motionless numb of a “freeze” indicates that your brain stem has judged you unable to escape and doused you with a calmative–literally, your body has prepared itself for injury. If the men who told your father that he had to rape you or die, and he refused, and you watched them slaughter him before they took you out back, gang-raped you, and left you to die, you’ll be in that choiceless void of remove for a very, very long time.
Sitawa finished her story and the girls thanked her. She and I took our seats on the bench and the girls assumed their places. It was their first time performing for anyone but me.
I played a monkey called Swift in the Ives short play “Words, Words, Words” in high school, and six of Bluebeard’s doomed wives in college. Observing the directors of those two plays was all I had to go on when Sofia turned to me during one of our first workshops and said, “Ming, we want you to correct us.”
I had been content simply to be the reason for the girls to get together, to get to know one another, and make some art unhindered by the neighborhood boys peeking through the windows of whichever compound room we could claim. Just sitting quietly in the corner while they conferred and practiced was the most important thing I could do for the girls, as far as I was concerned.
“Correct you?” I asked. “Do you mean, direct you?” I looked at Sofia; she and the other girls, who stood behind her, nodded.
I figured out the directing thing when I realized it was like editing creative writing, which involves mainly a sense of pitch and order. Something had to sound right, verbally and, as it turned out, spatially. Every time they ran through the piece, I took harried notes: “1) Palome look up. 2) Nana NEEDS to either look upset or just hide her face, not believable. 3) Valentine needs to block better. 4) Dianne come in sooner. 5) S & S, stop fidgeting! 6) transitions IN UNISON!”
Once I started, it was easy to figure how the content the girls created might be ordered to the most moving effect. I told them the English song about Africa might sound good if it came first, the monologues second; that Palom’s character should be “beaten” by Claudia’s rapist character after that; that the transition to the interview skit wherein Clemence’s refugee character is bounced like a hot potato by various disinterested employees at refugee agencies, which was by far the longest section in the piece, should be prefaced by Sofia’s “Every day” song; that Sofia should first sing “Every day” before the rest join in with “I’m struggling…” It went on and on.
That Sunday, Sitawa was able to do what I couldn’t and check the Survival Girls’ dialogue. Their dialect wasn’t identical to the Swahili Sitawa and other native Kenyans speak, and she coached them on their ending chant, the one where they grabbed hands and spoke for unity, for the future, against violence. “Very glad you could help with that one,” I told her. “It would be terrible to leave with the audience wondering about their syntax.” Sitawa giggled and said she liked when Dianne’s UNHCR guard character deals with Clemence’s refugee: “Ha! The guard was hitting on her.”
“Wait,” I said. I asked the girls to run through the scene again. I looked and listened a little more closely to the tone and cadence of Dianne’s voice as her guard checked out Clemence’s pleading refugee woman. “I don’t think that was in the original script,” I said.
Sitawa looked at me, surprised at the enormous grin in my face. “What?” she asked.
“They’re doing improv!” I said, triumphant. “They’re confident enough in their roles–with each other–to fucking ad lib!”
The Survival Girls performance was listed as fourth in the World Refugee Day 2011 festivities in Nairobi and they were to perform for the Immigration Minister himself, but he Minister arrived late, stayed only a short time, and the Survival Girls performed to an emptying venue and completely deserted “V.I.P.” area. Someone bumped them down to tenth on the list, and then the emcee cut them off five minutes into their ten-minute piece. Truth is, some of the girls remain not just in unsafe mental spaces but in unstable domestic situations, which constantly triggers the same stress-hormone-cocktail poisoning their interiorities and stirring up their worst memories.
During our very last meeting, we were kicked out of the room we were using in the compound by an all-male singing group and the pale sky above had opened with cold rain. We huddled together under an awning and I asked them how they felt about the rudeness they’d encountered at their performance. “We expected it,” Sofia shrugged. Sometime that day I snapped this photo, of four more refugees in Africa, four more victims of atrocities:
These smiles are easy, a few months later, to miss. I was just in San Diego at &Now, an innovative literature conference. Innovative literature is home to some of the most dynamic and empathetic grapplings with the experience of trauma that exist in public discourse. I’ve written before about the importance safe space plays in the ongoing drama of socioeconomic development in post-conflict zones, where youth are often in various states of post-traumatic stress. I wondered how hard it would be to build a bridge between those conversations at &Now and the drama unfolding today in the Horn of Africa. At the conference with me was Liat, a dear friend from college whom I hadn’t seen in five years. We went to the beach before our flights, and I was so happy to see her and to swim in the Pacific again that I did a little jig on the sand. Liat held up her phone. “Jump again!” she said.
So I did.
Liat showed me this image she’d snapped, and I thought of that photo I took of Sitawa, throwing up her arms with the rainbow behind her. Then I remembered it was World Food Day– in 2011, when 750,000 Somalis are starving and dying in the current famine, when refugees on their way to Dadaab, a refugee camp near Somalia in Kenya that was built for 90,000 people, has swollen with 400,000 starving humans, many of whom are parents who had to choose which child to keep carrying to Dadaab their umpteenth day out of Somalia without water. But then I thought again of Sitawa, of the girls, of their will to live–which, for them, is inextricably tied with the will to move. To live once more inside a body that has starved, has been the site of unthinkable violence, is to move again, to jump and dance and sing. Awareness is not only troubling facts; it is awareness of the body I have that is healthy enough to prance for fun, of the peacetime security and political freedom and health care that make it so; it is awareness of the energy and strength in my form that can find expression in the quest to assist many more of the poor and destitute by the end of my lifetime; it is awareness of the boisterous smiles of these girls when they have every reason to lie down in the road.
Activism is just that: active. It is not only for embittered protesters with signs, not only a domain for anger and indignation. During one of our first sessions I asked the girls what they do when they feel angry. They weep or sleep or pray or sing when they’re angry, they said, but they do not fight; they want badly to go to college and they draw pictures of flowers and birds, teardrops and trees. Those smiles of the Survival Girls, huddled against the rain, youth who endure, rape victims who throw their arms to the sun in hallelujah? That’s activism.
Sitawa and the girls (all of whom gave their permission for their photos and stories to be shared here, and some of whose names have been changed) let me know through emails and facebook messages how they are doing. The Survival Girls continued meeting when I was gone, which was the best news I got all year. I do good activism when I run and jump and dance about, sure, but the best activism I’ve ever done? That’s when I’m not even there anymore.