Originally published in Brave Souls: Experiencing the Audacious Power of Empathy
by Belinda Bauman.
I learned about love from a woman named Hope.
Espérance is the French word for “hope,” and she and her sisters risked journeying for days by bus, motorcycle, and foot to tell their stories in rebel-occupied Congo. There we sat next to them, women listening to women about their stories of life in the midst of war. We sat for hours hearing the histories of survivors who had witnessed the deaths of their husbands or children, women who had survived brutal rape, torture, and other violence, their pain compounded by rejection from those they loved. I use the term survivors rather than victims for this reason: yes, they were victims of corruption, systemic violence, and a soul-stealing culture of rape that had grown up in the weeds of war, but they were not helpless, not voiceless. They were survivors. And with every story, I wondered if I could ever be half as strong as they were. I remember thinking, this is Esperance’s reality—her world. When I met her, my eyes took in only the obvious: her orange shirt stained with work. Her pink and blue tie-dyed skirt wrapped around her thin waist. Her white head scarf with a gray bow. Her neon-green flip-flops with white daisies. Her high cheekbones framing her deep-set eyes. Her lips pulled tight as she planted her feet, calloused like the roots of a tree. She was the first of eleven women to speak that day. Eyes downcast, she dutifully told us her name, her age, and the number of children under her care. Esperance had beautiful hands, although I doubt she thought so. They were dry and rough from hard work, her long fingers elegant, intertwined obediently in front of her as she spoke. She was fifty. I was forty-five. She had four children. I had two. She was a widow. I had no idea what that felt like. She and I were alike. Yet she and I were so very different. I was looking at my notes when I heard Esperance say, “You remind me I am still human.”
I don’t recall breathing as she unfolded her story like a new garment, turning back the corners of each sentence: She and her husband had set out to find cooking wood. “It must be done,” she said, “even though it’s dangerous.” Husband and wife met militia soldiers in the bush. Each man carried a machete tucked inside his fatigues, next to his gun. She heard them before she saw them, the click of metal against metal. But there was nowhere to hide. For a moment, I looked away as she spoke. I was uncomfortable and anxious. I felt cowardly and disrespectful. Taking a breath, I looked at her feet, her hands, and finally her face. She had tears in her eyes. And so did I. Esperance continued. In a nearby clearing, the soldiers bound her hands. When her husband resisted, she instinctively threw them, still bound, over her head, the universal sign of surrender. She knew all too well what the soldiers would do to anyone who resisted. First, they shot her husband. Then they flung their fists at her. She was thrown to the ground, stripped of her clothes, and raped. Again and again. Hours later, they left her in the forest, where she remained for three days—torn, bleeding, unable to walk. As she spoke, she looked at her hands. Her thumbs stroked her thin wrists nervously. Eventually, she was found by women she now calls “sisters.” At the hospital, she struggled through month-long treatments for pregnancy, HIV, and STDs. The rape she’d endured was so violent, so destructive, she said she was “not whole” and could never be fully repaired, even with surgery. Esperance explained she would have despaired
if it were not for pastors who sent her Mama Odele, a trusted caregiver from the church, to her. Pointing to Odele, sitting in our listening circle, Esperance told us how she co-led a trauma recovery program with other volunteer counselors trained and supported by World Relief Congo. These gentle, heroic women had cleaned Esperance, clothed her, and taken her to the hospital for treatment. When she returned home, they visited her, brought her children food, and helped her find work. Nine months later, these were the women who stayed with her through a complex maze of tears and pain as she gave birth to a baby boy.
She finished her story by saying their kindness had brought her back to life. The room was silent as she ended. A holy silence.
Bauman, Belinda. Brave Souls . InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.