When I think of Asha (not her real name), I think of her beautiful baby Faida, a little over a year old, Faida’s beautiful baby smile, the tender way Asha touched Faida’s head. When I think of Asha, I think of how in another life, in another world, we might have been friends, we might have laughed together, we might have had so much to say. We’re nearly the same age. But in this life, in this world, we do not speak the same language, and all I could do was cry for her, pray with her, smile at her, wave at Faida, say hello, ask how are you, say thank you, thank you very much.
In 2007, Interhamwe soldiers came to her village and killed both of her parents. They decapitated her father and other men and put their heads on sticks and then lined the road to the village with them. They beat her mother so badly she didn’t survive her injuries. And they took Asha to the bush, to live as the “wife” of one of the soldiers. She was a virgin when she was kidnapped, and this she counts as a blessing because that meant she had only one “husband” in the bush…instead of six or seven as some women had.
And a few months later, she became pregnant with Faida. At first, she told me through Fiston, who was translating, she was mad, she was angry this had happened to her. But when her baby was born, she named her Faida, which means blessing, because she had watched other women lose their babies, and she got to keep hers. And then she escaped, managed to get away, managed to survive a trek through the bush, managed to get to Bukavu, where she is living with her baby. Blessing. Her baby—whom she was struggling to care for, to feed. She told us she was ready to give Faida away, was ready to let her go, because she couldn’t handle watching her suffer anymore.
While Asha was out one day, neighborhood kids tried to kill Faida, put her in a sack and pushed her in a ditch, because her father was an Interhamwe. Faida will never know her father. I wonder what Asha will tell her, what story she will weave together to explain her existence, how she will tell her about her name, how she will tell Faida she was a light spot in a very dark time.
Asha told us she wished God had made her a tree—then, she could be cut into firewood and burned, and she would be a benefit to someone. Or, a cow, who could be butchered and could feed another person. Then, she said, she would have a purpose. She would have a meaning. Then, in one quick motion, she would be over, and life would be finished. She would be a benefit to others.
She wants to talk to her mother. She wants to have someone to ask questions of, to tell stories to.
I remember in college literature classes having discussions about whether or not humans were basically good or basically evil. Which one is our default? And which is the change that comes from an outside influence? That isn’t a question I wonder about anymore. When I think about that question, I think of Asha’s father, his head on a stick on the side of a dirt road just outside her village. I cannot believe that we are basically good. Philosophically, I just cannot believe that right now. And though we shy away from using words like “evil,” I can think of no other appropriate word when talking about what has happened and what continues to happen.
But despite Asha’s story, or because of it, I can believe there is hope. I have seen enough to know we are not good, but I have also seen enough to know there is good, and that good is more powerful than evil.
When we first met her, Asha had just met one of the members of Bishop’s church, a woman who had heard Asha’s story and couldn’t walk away. A week later, before we left, we spoke with Asha again, and the change was striking. She looked us in the eyes, she sat with her shoulders back, she smiled. Little changes, but they made her look completely different. She had started a walk with God. She had been enveloped in a church community that was passionate about God and about living what they preached—love and compassion and peace and selflessness. She had been to a graduation ceremony celebrating three women who had stories similar to hers; these women were now self-sufficient, financially independent, able to dance and sing and laugh hysterically. Bishop’s church was trying to find Asha a new place to live, and there was some money to set her up with a little business. The difference in Asha was that she had hope. Before we left, she said she knew she had a purpose now, she knew there was a reason she was still alive, that there was something more for her.
I’ve struggled with how to end this, with how to wrap it up. There is no neat ending. There is hope, yes, but there is still pain and Asha will still miss her mother. I don’t want you to think I am saying that because Asha will get a new place to live and she has a little money now that everything is better and we can all feel settled because life has a neat little bow tied on it. That’s not what I mean at all. But what I do want to say is that before going, I saw Congo as an issue. I saw rape as a death sentence. But Congo is a country. And I have seen women who have come through things more difficult than I can comprehend, and they have smiles on their faces, and they are successful, and that is more difficult to comprehend than the evil that caused their situation. That they can say, I have forgotten. I have forgotten what was done to me.
That is my hope for Asha. That she will continue to feel loved, and that one day she will laugh and say, I have forgotten, I am strong again. And that she will know exactly what to tell Faida when she asks about her father.