African Testament: The Privilege of Being Crazy

African landscape

Jacob and Rachel, Nigerians who live in Burkina Faso, sat quietly as we got their mics on their lapels.  He had on a matching African designed shirt and pants and Rachel had on a dark skirt with a white blouse, and a bright scarf wrapped around her neck.  Abby was adjusting the camera and Becky was holding a circular reflector and moving it according to Abby’s direction.  I sat looking at Jacob and Rachel and wondered what they thought.  I so wanted to ask.  “Do you know we don’t have a clue what we are doing?”  “Does it appear that we are competent, well-equipped, purposeful, and in charge?”  Or do you see through our equipment and calibrations as the stumbling desire to capture what is likely impossible to share—the presence of a man and woman of  enormous dignity, ferocity, and goodness?

I wrote about Jacob in the book Sabbath.  He left working for the President of Nigeria because he heard God’s call to church planting.  They went to Burkina Faso (take a minute and check it out on an atlas or on the internet).  It is not exactly a vacation destination.  The first night in their new home Jacob went out for a walk and heard a Nigerian woman singing hymns as she was waiting for a trick.  He hunted her down and asked her what she was doing.  She deferred and refused to say what was obvious, but he persisted and asked her if she wanted to do what she was doing.  She wept.  He asked if she wanted to leave the pimp she worked for and come to live with his family.  The new ‘daughter’ came to live in the only bedroom with his wife and daughter.  Jacob and his son slept outside underneath a tarp.

They described their level of sacrifice as if they had given up some old clothes stored in the garage and donated to the Salvation Army.  We have made that ‘sacrifice’ dozens of times and think of it as little more than a convenient way to dispose of clothing we don’t wear.  Jacob was equally casual in describing their sacrifice.  When I pressed him on how mind boggling it was to do so much for a stranger, he said, “Not if you see her as your daughter.”

What I felt at that moment was simple but surprising.  I didn’t feel guilt or incredulity–I simply wanted a bigger heart.  A heart that lives further into the mystery of the love of God more than I wanted to understand, help, or record the interview.

As we progressed Rachel talked about what she does to help the over 100 girls who have come to live in their home.  Each girl is not only fed and given a roof and the freedom not to be harmed or used, but they are educated and prepared for a trade or the university.  Each girl is ‘ransomed’ from her pimp or madam.  It costs approximately $500 to $1000 to buy back a girl from her slavery.  In that culture if a girl was rescued by force or secreted away to another location, Jacob and his family would be murdered.  The only way to mediate the economics and assure safety is to ransom.

One complication is that many of the girls, the majority Christians, have pimps that attend church as well.  And one of the great stumbling blocks to freeing girls is many pastors do not want the girls to leave prostitution because the pimps tithe.

I thought I would come out of my skin.  My rage and indignation felt like a return to the comfort of control.  I was no longer sitting with a couple that called forth the dignity of desire to have a bigger heart, instead, I turned to condemn the dark and vicious hypocrisy of so-called men of God.

I didn’t even need to ask.  Jacob quietly said, “They are men who are afraid and do not want to lose power.  They no more or less than the girls need healing.”  Jacob smiled and said, “I have come to see that all people need first to talk and talk, talk, talk.  I let people talk.  At first the girls don’t tell the truth.  The second time they talk they tell about 25%, the third, 50% and after that more and more of the truth.”

I asked him why he lets women talk rather than offer advice.  It is imperative to know that as a rule of thumb counseling in Africa means advice giving.  The counselor is the ‘big man’ and anyone with power in a helping context tells the other what to do.  It is the African way.  To listen is the requirement of the servants, children, and women.  Men do not listen any longer than to know what to say.

I asked Jacob how that transformation occurred.  He replied, “Rachel has told me that I am not kind.”  Again it is impossible to communicate how radical it is for a wife to speak directly to her Nigerian husband.  Since we met him 5 years ago, his heart has come to name his imposing and fearful demeanor.  He has relinquished so much more of the ministry to Rachel and has taken on an ‘approach’ that is radically disruptive to his culture.  The beauty of his change is that it has made him even more bold and direct in stepping into the dark waters of sin.

He meets with pastors and brings women to their office who attend their church and have them tell the stories the pastors refuse to hear.  He confronts men who are preaching against immorality and having affairs with young, powerless women.  He plunges into the terrain of evil where most fear to consider let alone walk.

Jacob is a humble, formidable man.  What most impressed me was when he offered this wisdom:  “Until a woman tells her story, her whole story, she will not be healed.  The person who only tells a part of their story is only partially healed.  It is difficult to tell but until one does one is not able to know freedom from shame.”

But when we stepped further into our conversation and research he admitted the stories of sexual abuse could only be told so far.  We talked about the issues of the body’s arousal and ambivalence during abuse and he acknowledged this would be difficult to address but was crucial to be named.

The dilemma is the Nigerian culture blames and shames a woman for arousal.  To be married she must be sexually knowledgeable but utterly innocent and a virgin.  It is often why genital mutilation is still exacted.  In the Ethiopian culture it is expected for a woman to be utterly ignorant of sexuality including her own genitalia and is introduced to her body through wedding night rape.   It is a custom for the bridegroom to forcibly take his young wife and mark her for himself.  It is foolish to assume that is true of all Ethiopian marriages, but the custom still exists.  In countless ways we found the dark, double bind of the evil one.  If you are sexually experienced, you are shunned and yet used.  If you are innocent, then you will be violently taken and branded.

If there was a billionth of a shred of righteousness (ever) to patriarchy it has been utterly denigrated and invalidated by the callous and sexually violent silence and participation of men.  When women are free to talk to confidential, sensitive, trusted women the stories of sexual abuse, arousal, shame, ambivalence, and deep hatred pour out just as they do in the United States.

My colleagues Abby, Becky, and Jan heard stories that are structurally and internally no different than they hear in their therapeutic and prayer work.  But the courage it took for the women to cut against the cultural stigma of talking was immense.   There were times when the cultural divide felt like a linguistic chasm that simply could not be bridged.  But it was.  Somehow.  There was no demand to talk, but what felt like the centuries of empty silence could not contain their suffering.  They spoke.

Jacob and the other men felt the terror of women speaking.  They acknowledged the need for women’s voices to rise; yet the cost is even greater social stigmatism and familiar ostracism.  To raise sexual secrets let alone to be involved with shameful women is utterly despicable.

At one point Jacob said as we walked to dinner, “We are crazy.  Crazy people.  People think we are crazy and dirty so why am I afraid of being more crazy?”

I nearly fell off a step as we ascended the steep stairs.  I wanted to scream:  “Heaven Yes….why not?  You are already one of the strangest men on the earth.  Maybe the strangest.  You have chosen a path more like Jesus than anyone on this earth I have met so why not?”

What can one man do on the continent of Africa?  Ridiculous.  And if I say that he is not alone and that Wonde, Timothy, Gitahun, and Seisai are with him at the table:  does it make the prospect of engaging the stories of sexual abuse in Africa any less ridiculous?

But the women we heard stepped into the frightful waters of naming trauma and humiliation and somehow found the courage not to surrender to silence.  All one has to do is to consider how many times Jesus interacted with prostituted women and allowed them to touch him, kiss his feet, and prepare his body for death and resurrection in order to ask why does he choose these ‘kind of people?’

It may be obvious and cliché–he dines with the despised and ostracized not merely to reach them and do them good, but they were a world more human–like Jesus,  than those full of pride and presumption whether it be religious or profane.  Human brokenness is vastly more beautiful than painted thin, contempt ridden polish and power.

The broken and regal women spoke and the courageous men stepped closer to the cost of breaking the silence.  They have given up almost everything their culture and families value—why not go the next step?

And that is what I know to be as true as the tears that run down my cheeks as I write at 3am on a plane heading northwest over the continent of Africa on my way home.   There may only be 18 people on the continent of Africa who intend to enter the heartache and shame of sexual abuse but there are 18.  And what if it shrinks to 12, or 8 or 1?  It is all foolish.  It is all crazy.  But wouldn’t it be better to sing and dance with fools who are the princes and queens of God than to sup with fools who don’t know how foolish they are?

What is next?  We will enter the tedious and necessary waters of reading the transcripts, doing the research, and compiling the themes.  We will do what Jacob calls us to do: listen, listen, listen.  But we will do more.

We have been asked to do a story workshop for those who came this week.  To do that we will need to take at least 6 group leaders and intercessors to Ethiopia.  The stories that came to the surface can’t be addressed in a few days without dealing with aftercare.  The cost of telling the stories is an entry into the trauma of addressing trauma.  Once those stories are opened without immediate care there is the potential of re-traumatization–creating new trauma rather than offering true healing.

These men and women can’t be sent to a good therapist for weekly work over a few years.  That notion is an artifact of a rich, western, self-indulgent culture.  It is also a gift we can prize but can’t use as a model in Africa.  We found that prayer, worship (oh my, what worship), and simply sitting together at meals and playing PIG on the basketball court was a step to providing a different kind of normalization for the trauma.

Far more, the men and women we met simply need time–and I mean, years, to congeal, meet together, laugh, pray and become the community of the ostracized who know more freedom and joy than those bound to fear.  They need to play, weep, and theorize together, shaping the general theories we offer to the unique worlds they serve.    They need us.  Infinitely more, we need bigger hearts.

We crave the privilege of standing with some of the greatest pioneers on this earth—these men and women intend to address the core war behind trafficking and prostitution, and in fact so much poverty, violence, and trauma:  sexual abuse.  To not heed their call would be to deny the privilege of being crazy.  I must ask myself:  How crazy do I really want to be?  Though I thank you heartily for praying for us and financially enabling us to go, I would be remiss not to ask: How crazy do you wish to be?