It is commonly purported that smell is the most sensitive of our senses and has the strongest connection to memory. When I put myself back into that room of the hospital, it is the smell that hits me first. Perhaps the disorientation began with the smell, but maybe it was the surprise factor. Was this visit on our itinerary? Did I miss it? Was there an announcement or a description of the place that I overlooked? Was the group prepared somehow in my absence?
When our team of American peacemakers and mountain climbers entered the fistula hospital, it felt wrong.
The hospital blindsided me. I have been to some terrible places and I have sat in clinics in Africa with bodies stricken with advanced HIV disease, but that hospital was beyond anything I have experienced.
Of course we were there to advocate for women like the ones lying motionless on cots, but our very bodies felt way to loud—to big, too bright, too much. We lumbered through the gate and across a courtyard in plain view of an assortment of men, women and children who sat on plastic chairs staring at us. We were the anomaly, the strangers visiting their misery.
The smell began at the entrance and increased as we made our way into one of the buildings on the hospital’s property. This smell of incontinence, blood and dust was overpowering. Like a haze, it made it hard for me to focus. I was toward the back of the group and tried to smile and wave to the bystanders. I did not want them to think that we were simply a foreign mob of voyeurs, but maybe we were?
Our guides shepherded us into a relatively small recovery room where several women occupied beds tucked against every wall and corner. A doctor was describing each of the patients and how the hospital addressed the profound surgical needs they presented. Our group was so large that there was no room to spare, so he would pivot his body and point to each of the women while describing their particular horror. One woman had endured multiple surgeries to her “front side” and they still had not been able to address the “other side.” He lamented that the surgeries thus far did not appear to be particularly successful.
She lay listening to him describe her body’s injuries in a language she did not understand while fifteen odd, white faces stood over her taking in this information.
Why was he doing this? Why were these women being subjected to this kind of objectification? Wasn’t it enough that they had been brutally attacked by multiple men while simply tending their garden, walking to the neighbor’s, or hiding in the kitchen cupboard while militia solders hunted them like animals?
Wasn’t our presence just adding to their humiliation and degradation?
And, to think that these women were the lucky ones—the ones who had connections to medical care and the privilege of being in this place.
My senses were on overload: the smell was so strong I could nearly taste it as I tried not to gag, the sight of these bodies (ravaged by both the violence of men and the tools of surgery) was more than my eyes could contain, my ears were burning not only with the words that were being shared by the doctors and aid workers but also with the moans of women in pain, and then I was touched.
My back was to a woman on her cot. This was not intentional, as I was straining to hear the doctor above the din of the hospital traffic. She was calling to me, and then reaching for me. She was desperate to tell me something. I turned and saw her sad eyes and how much effort it was costing her to try to get my attention. I tried to respond with kindness, “jambo…jambo sana…” I then frantically tried to find a translator. I grabbed the arm of one of the World Relief staff and said, “this woman needs to speak with me, but I can’t understand her!” I felt a sudden urgency.
“Winnie*,” he said, “she is telling you her name.”
Here I was so torn with whether or not it was right or ethical to even be in that room and I was questioning the verity of being an observer of such pain and torment. Yet, a woman who had been subjected to this pain and torment was trying to tell me her name. She was putting a name to a face, and a name to the horrific violence in Eastern Congo. She was flagging me down in my self-absorption and mental-gymnastic-hypothetical-ethical dilemma to say: I am right here, look at me.
A shift occurred for me in that moment. I became a genuine witness. An eyewitness. Through a translator, Winnie’s story emerged and my heart broke again and again and I felt her desperation, discrimination, and torture.
And then we turned to her daughter. The precious, smiling girl rolling around at the foot of the bed. I had assumed her age to be around three. But, no, her mother said that she was five. Her name was Grace*. She was the product of Winnie’s first rape. They had both been brutalized this time and had both undergone surgery.
I wanted to hold that child so badly; her mother physically couldn’t. And as I watched Grace pitch back and forth on the dirty blanket in a paper-thin dress, I just wanted to make her better (whatever that meant). I was warned not to pick her up because of the damage done to the lower part of her body. This sent a shiver up my spine. Oh, right, she is here because of damage; someone (or multiple men) wounded her tiny body so ferociously that she needed to be here with her mom.
Winnie encouraged me to ask Grace what had happened to her. I couldn’t. How do you ask a five-year old to re-tell of the most horrific violence imaginable? I know in my head that re-telling trauma has a healing effect for the person traumatized. Yet, I was the one not sure I could handle it.
I held her tiny hand for the rest of our time at the hospital. I kept telling her how loved and precious she is. I kept thinking of how God must see her—as one of his most beloved. I wanted her to know deep in her bones that she is not a mistake, that God made her and loves her and wants a bright future for her. But, the reality is that her circumstances are bleak beyond words. The world she inhabits is an angry, ugly one—especially for a girl.
Holding this juxtaposition felt like holding a bowling ball with a spoon. Too much…just too heavy and too much.
So, I prayed. I prayed because that is the only thing I know how to do when the situation is too much. I choose to trust that God is not surprised by the events of this world. That God is the ultimate mother.
I choose to have stubborn hope in the face of utter desolation.
I choose this because I will crumble if I don’t.
The 1MT campaign is one of solidarity. I might live in comfort in the United Sates, but I have sisters facing insurmountable odds in places like Eastern Congo, South Sudan and Syria. To raise awareness of their plight, to raise funds for places like the fistula hospital, and to pray desperate prayers for God to work Divine glory in the midst of such suffering, is to be a part of this solidarity movement. This is also in invitation. Everyone will not climb a mountain or even write a blog post, but we can each do that next, right step in solidarity for women like Winnie and girls like Grace. We all suffer when we stop caring, stop moving, and stop praying.
To get further involved:
- Give a gift and add your thumbprint
- Follow us on Twitter (@1MThumbprints), Instagram (@onemillionthumbprints), and Facebook
- Pray that Grace* and Winnie* will find emotional healing in the Lord and that He would use them to empower women in situations similar to theirs
*Names have been changed for obvious reasons
Ruth Bell Olsson is an activist at heart. After over a decade of HIV/AIDS advocacy, Ruth now pours her energy into changing the world’s approach to the global orphan crisis. By focusing on the globe’s most vulnerable children and finding loving homes instead of institutions for their care, Ruth believes we can influence a generation for peace. Ruth earned her Bachelor of Arts in philosophy from Wheaton College and her Master of Arts in global leadership from Fuller Seminary, with a concentration in biblical peacemaking. Ruth writes and speaks on a variety of subjects and loves to wrestle with the deep mysteries of living a life of faith in a complicated world. Ruth and her husband Jeff are founding members of Mars Hill Bible Church and they live in Grand Rapids with their three children: Zinnia, Oskar and Kagiso.