African Testament – Holding and Releasing Stories of Trauma

African landscape

The  dilemma in trying to write about this, is that even in our own Western hyper-sexualized culture, we don’t talk about what is most sacred, true, worshipful and designed to display the image of God.  And even in most therapeutic practice, so little actual story is discovered, meaning so little of the actual assault on a person’s body and the conclusions made in the midst of the harm – the shame, the accusatory whispers of evil which are connected with specific moments in time.

I imagine some of you reading this and thinking, “Seriously?  Is all that really necessary, especially for folks who might be struggling more with simply getting a good meal that day?”  All I can say is:  a body is a body, and a human heart is a human heart.  Our research conversations seemed to bear that out.  As you read this, you will no doubt believe it to be hyperbole.  Perhaps, but in a way similar to Paul’s writings in the book of Acts – describing the impossible always sounds a bit dramatic.

When I left for this research trip, my husband Steve reminded me, ‘You guys (Dan, Becky, Abby and me) talk more openly and pursue these realities about sexuality here in our own culture in ways most people never talk about.  The barameter is way off in terms of normal conversation.”  It was an important reminder that I have been called into a crazy realm.  I did not ask to live and work in the realm of sexual harm.  So off we went to meet up with other crazy people.  Being pulled aside by Jacob who said, “I want to thank you most of all for something you said to all of us a few years ago.  You looked around at all of us and said, “You guys are crazy.”  He threw his head back with knowing freedom, and said, “It is so true – but we didn’t wanted to admit it.  We are crazy.  I am crazy.  And isn’t it so that God is crazy in the way he works with us.”  But the thing is, Jacob and all these African friends live their crazy callings in ways that can cost them their lives, and most certainly their standing in their communities and churches.

The women in my research group were all West Africans.  As I fumbled nervously with the microphone, trying desperately to take appropriate notes while timing each interaction, I found my therapeutic soul frustrated. But slowly the momentum built, and it felt safe to dive in.  Soon these women did not want to stop.  After the allotted research time was completed, they simply did not want the time to end.  They had tasted a freedom seldom given, and they wanted to feast.  What began to pour out were waters of weighty sorrow.  It was too much.  It was too much for any heart to bear well, and yet these are the waters they swim in every day.

One woman described the deaths of three young prostitued girls due to AIDS in Chad, young women she described as ghosts. They had been taught a distortion of Inshallah (a surrender to God’s will) such that they had completely resigned into a state of shadow, the attempts to find their hearts, their desires, was like reaching into the mist.

We heard story after story about the assaultive practice of female genital mutilation.  The practice is couched  in Ethiopia in the thinking that girls must be kept from temptation, so this is only way to preserve her.  In Western African cultures the practice seems to flow more from an attempt to simply keep a woman under control. Either way, it was story after story which showed, as Cherry said well, “Evil is smart.”  They spoke of needing, at times, to walk the girls and women through actual anatomy charts so they could understand exactly what was done to them, as most of them have never thought it important to know.

Several courageous conversations arose in response to this, and to the teachings on evil’s accusations, and our agreements with evil’s interpretations of our stories. These conversations took my breath, rended me. Genital mutilation is such a direct, frontal assault on God’s beautiful design for a woman to know pleasure.  Somehow it never crossed my mind that the practitioners themselves might have experienced this in their own stories.  But of course.  My goodness, of course.  Why would I think differently?  Because these are my friends.  We’ve traveled a sweet road together, how easy it is to forget that we come into this work because of our own stories.  That’s the point of our whole curriculum up to this point.  But I still held a refusal to see, to really believe, that those I love would be so harmed.  I walked away from those conversations furious.  And I walked away so proud of their courage to name, some for the first time, such a direct frontal assault on God’s beautiful design for their lives.

A common theme ran through all of the stories.  I had to press and press to see if what I was hearing was accurate, but they assured me it was.  In Western Africa, any form of sexual harm is blamed on the victim.  This is true for the rape of women, but it even true for children.  There is a common thought that men should not be asked to control their desires, so of course the harm occurs.  The depth of the ‘this is just how it is mentality took the oxygen from the air in the room as it was described.

As you can imagine, I was more than ready to hear about some of the rituals and practices used to heal and restore.  It was gorgeous to hear of the prostituted women taken on trips to the beach, where slowly, around the fire, with food, the long, slow process of story telling could begin.  Wonderful to hear of the expected war of  “dont make me dream!” in response to visionary conversations of small businesses and education.  More wonderful still, to hear of the breaking down of fear as the women came to understand that practices of voo doo and witchcraft had no ultimate hold on their hearts.

On the final day we were tired; we looked like we all had been hit by a truck.  I was longing for some Amharic worship (the past few times we had been there, the Women at Risk team had led us all in what seems, to all of us, to be the true worship of heaven).  There is a quality to Amharic worship which must be experienced to be understood. I sat for ten minutes while writing this, trying to find something to compare it to.  It can’t be done.  All the other Africans acknowledge it, revere it.  It has been in the culture since before Christ’s birth. It begins very low, a bowing and bending, a humble swaying before a holy God.  This is not done as beggars, but as those who acknowlege the presence they are approaching.  It cresendos with jumping and hollering and delight, then returns to a quiet, humble gratitude.  It is pure,  and utterly human.

That’s just it.  The staff for Women at Risk are truly human.  You can search for the stifling religious spirit, but you won’t find it among them.  They are too grateful for that.  They have a fluidity about them that the other African practitioners have traveled far to learn from.  Their success rate for providing an environment of restoration is 96%, meaning only 4% of the women they work with return to the streets.  That is unheard of in any culture.  They work with humility, precision, and a deep dependence on the Spirit of God.  The most glorious thing was to hear them say, when asking for prayer, “We need prayer to be able to name more specifically our own shame, so that we will be able to address the shame in the women we serve.”   By the time this was expressed, the cost of such a request was utterly clear.  It could have been paraphrased”  “We need prayer to move against our culture in a way that will cause us to be hated,  we need courage to dive even deeper in to the spider web of evil’s accusations against our human hearts, so that we’ll know how to do helpful surgery when freeing others from the web, we need patience to plow into soil so hardened that the earth will shake, literally, when the ground finally gives way….” One day every tongue tribe and nation around the throne.  Surely we’ll laugh at the crazy ways we lived, surely we’ll lament the way we assaulted his loving intentions for our sexuality.  He’lll wipe our tears, and we’ll dance with Amharic humility and Joy.

How all of this will impact the nature and nuance of the curriculum developed for a training/learnig center in Addis remains to be seen.  But we are grateful we had a chance to be instructed by these, the gold of the earth.   I’m writing this missive having just been assaulted by a barrage of political ads on CNN.  I have returned to a culture of The Bachelorette and  Whatever Her Name is Boo Boo.   How each of our cultures perverts, despises and assaults beauty was immediately seen.  I also have been reminded of conversations in the counseling office which show the damaging effects of extreme moralism, the attempts to legislate morality and superimpose other forms of control over sexuality.  We may not mutilate, but we shame with equal power.

Coming home on the plane I found myself having flashbacks – literal flashbacks – of story after story of trauma my mind and body took in after the Asian Tsunami in Sri Lanka.  When those stories surfaced from beneath the stories we ingested during these African conversations, I realized again how much secondary trauma is real.  We were just doing research, offering a bit of teaching… right?  No.  Eden is a distant memory, but a deep memory nontheless. We are not designed for this assaultive, more than fallen place.  My body, as all of our bodies, hold these broken stories with deep grief and a sense of not knowing what to do with it.  Abby’s beautiful teaching on PTSD and self-care, though familiar, was imperative for me as I headed back into my life in Colorado. I think of beautiful Ugandan Eunice, who described a ritual she has developed as she takes a shower, to literally wash off the stories she is not meant to carry. This frees me to know I must not chide myself for my exhaustion and need for a good, long massage.  I will do so, holding my friends, but releasing them, their sorrow, and all we have suffered corporately, to Jesus.  He’s the only one big enough to carry it.


Jan Meyers Proett – wife, friend, counselor, speaker and author of The Allure of Hope (Navpress, 2000) and Listening to Love (Waterbrook, 2004). Learn more about Jan and her ministry.