Last week I showed up for one of my favorite groups and nobody was there. For a long drawn out second my heart stopped and I thought that somehow I had been mistaken. That all the feelings in the room over the last 6 weeks, all the disclosures, all the tears were a façade. But then I buried my doubt and asked, “But why? Where would they be?” One of my local counselors saw the disappointment on my face and stood and said let’s find out. She rose and left the empty school room without looking back. I followed hesitantly at first and then rushed to catch up, “Justus, what are we doing?” “We are going to find out,” she said firmly with her back towards me she was on a search for today’s Justice (signifying the appropriateness of her given name).
A few minutes later we landed at the compound of one of the girls in the group. “Mama, hello, where are they?” Justus asked flatly. “They went for a coup, the principle canceled school.” Justus looked at me sadly with a small bit of misgiving, “Do you want to see where they were forced to go?” “Yes” I said immediately, “Let’s go.”
Are you sure, it’s not easy”
“I don’t care, let’s go”
We reached the narrow entrance to the interior on the far side of the village and were forced to start walking one by one. We walked for nearly 45 minutes, crossing a small quick moving stream with unique sounds of the African bush following us. Gradually, the sounds changed and we started to hear a drum beat followed by female voices. The closer we came the sounds became more and more defined. Drums followed by a chant, and then again. We grew closer and without any volitional intention we were suddenly moving in pace with the song from afar. We reach the burnt barrier to the plot of land they were working and the sounds embraced us.
All of a sudden we saw approximately 40 teenage girls, dressed only in short lappas or worn out shorts. They were all topless and a few of them had white paint on their face. They notice us and start moving towards us slowly without any pause in their singing or impact to their work. A few moments later Justus and I were facing two young girls bowing slightly before us so we could touch their backs. I reach out and touch one back (I notice she has a series of small razor marks along her lower back and spine indicating membership in a bush society). Without consciously knowing what is going on, I do exactly what I am suppose to do and I reach out and pat this small topless girl softly on the back. It appears as if she is both asking for and giving permission at the same time. Out of the corner of my eye I see Justus do the exact same thing. With no verbal message relayed, we become part of them, part of the coup.
I walk slowly following their lead. Slowly I reach out for the tool a young girl next to me is using. Justus does the same and joins in fiercely; making it evident she has done this many times before. We bend slightly and start digging in short powerful jabs at the top soil. After a few quick digs the crusty grey soil starts to turn and a dark rich under-soil rises to the top. According to one of my guards (who I processed my experience with later that night) this activity is called highland farming because of the vista of the land. The land owner has the capacity to plant and grow rice, corn and cassava on unbalanced surfaces and lets things grow more wildly than the traditional rice growers of the East.
We work tirelessly for approximately 55 minutes and then all of a sudden I realize the reason we are not tired is intrinsically connected the three boys who are accompanying us with their drums. The music is energizing and facilitates a sense of togetherness without demanding it.
At first Justus keeps checking in to make sure I really want to be there but at some point, (likely at a point when I didn’t realize she was checking in), she stops doing it and simply focuses on the work.
A few hours pass and the principle of the school appears clean, well-rested and unruffled. He is topless, dressed in rain boots and loose fitting pants with suspenders. On his head sits what appears to be massive a Mexican Sombrero with a thin string keeping it tied around his chin.
The principle takes a quick double take of me but then sits down slowly under a large palm tree and begins chewing on a toothpick. I’m enraged and coil at his entitled manipulation of circumstances and complete lack of participation in this extremely taxing activity. Apparently, in the interior, it is commonplace for teachers and principles to take the students out of school for weeks at a time to scratch their land. These teaches claim that it is their right because they are not getting paid adequately by the government. They see the children’s work as payment for all their hard work. Today’s scrap is day seven of 9 hour a day unpaid child labor.
The students have no choice in the matter. If they want to pass they must work for free; in the interior the planting season lasts nearly 5 months. The female students likely see scraping as the best of a number of bad alternatives; one of which is being forced to perform sexual favors for passing grades. In a school in the next district over it has been rumored that three young girls under the age of 15 have all been impregnated by one young male teacher who drinks palm wine while teaching class.
Thankfully I am tired enough not to react to my impulses which is to approach this bizarrely dressed principle and start yelling and demand an explanation. Instead I decide to approach him with a smile and present to him the 3-4 Kpelle phrases I have managed to learn. “Good afternoon. How’s the body? Looks like rain.”
He clicks at my ability and nods. I play dumb and ask him to explain what is going on and why the children aren’t at school or attending the group he had previously supported. He makes no attempt to hide his motivation and clearly states his unconstrained beliefs and entitlement regarding his exploitation of this coup.
I figure I won’t help anybody (especially the girls) if I loose my cool so I start to tell him a little bit about CVT and our activities. We both know he has already heard all this as we always do a community sensitization campaign before we start the intake and assessment phase of our program. We also always get permission from the teachers and principles before using their school building to hold our groups but I feel the need to talk about the effect of human rights violations on children and remind him of the maltreatment these young girls had endured to date. He is obviously very smart and has no trouble following my fast paced English and seems to agree but simply states, “yes yes what your organization is doing is very important for these students and I have already seen some improvements in some of them. So many children have trouble concentrating and many are nervous or act out in aggressive ways. I never saw this kind of behavior before the war, but it’s time for farming and there is work that needs to get done.”
I then ask (almost sheepishly) if it would ok if the girls stayed back for the one and a half hour long group held once a week on Tuesdays for the remainder of the farming season. At first he denies my request but then notices the girls have all paused to eavesdrop and it becomes obvious he will be the bad guy if he doesn’t accept the offer. He quickly changes his mind and announces he will be granting the girls permission to stay back for the group. A few of the girls giggle and screech and then just as quickly as it all began, we are back to work, hoping to get the whole plot of land turned before the end of the day.
It was a small achievement but our next group was powerful and this event managed to join the group, making it even more cohesive than before. Upon arrival to the small, dirty classroom the girls quickly run to the doorway and begin singing the song I had become familiar with on the farm and they each present their backs to me for a pat when as I enter the classroom. Again we never discuss the meaning of this gesture but I go home and dream I was initiated into their small bush society and rise tiredly in the morning feeling for small scars across my lower back.
The honor is again mine and my heart aches with pride when I think of these young girls. Hard work won’t break them, the lack of respect and basic rights won’t break them, the denial of education won’t break them and their strength and resiliency amazes me completely.
Thoughts on human consequences
This experience of mine was just a small example of the human rights violations I witness here every day. There are many other things I see and hear, things that I try to document but can’t, things that simply won’t fit on these pages that I imagine sharing wiht others. Many of these things are heinous things: things that enraged saddened and stunned me. This blog is my small attempt at sharing and staying connected to my other self - my other life. I am touched and moved that you take the time to read it.
I hope to come back home and share what can be shared; but, what can not be shared, what does not fit in these pages, is another form of trauma because it is my secret. I wonder if there will be things that I attempt to spare from others like I am spared by people like Justus. The powerful individuals that surround me here allow me to bear witness to traumatic stories while feeling safe and I am grateful for each and every survivor I have met. Their strength courage and commitment towards recovery is an inspiration.