Warning, this post is about Domestic Violence and may upset you
I usually hate to write about negative aspects of what I observe around me, but this time I felt a need to, for the sake of all women and men who have suffered from domestic violence, and will suffer in the future. This is not an easy topic, so I must warn you this, post may upset you, but please ready anyways.
When I moved into my apartment my first week in Bafia, I was assured by how modern it looked, and how educated and classy my neighbors were, half of them running off to work in suits and dresses with briefcases, often driving their cars to the office. I was sure that of all places, this would be that safe haven, where people would understand me, and would be just as open as I was about the world. Every morning as I went to fetch water from the well on the other side of the complex, I would pass my neighbor and her children who scampered around the area. She welcomed me warmly, often sitting enjoying the sun, once even meticulously giving her hands a manicure that I would have to pay people massive amounts of money for. Our complex seemed so perfect, and my neighbor so happy, I felt sure that nothing could ever happen. I was proven wrong so quickly, jarred from reality with a jolt, only a week in.
I was washing dishes outside, listening to music, when I heard that noise. Not a quiet, or shy noise. No, a loud, demanding sound, almost inhuman, sounding as if it were between birth and death, of some sort of excruciating pain. As I tried to ignore it, I heard a gate open, and the young girls of the apartment running by, as if on a mission towards the inhuman noise. I continued my work until they showed up, right in front of me, looking sheepish, as if they needed to ask a huge favor of me. As they huddled for a bit, finally, the bravest of the group, Leslie came forward, and asked “Auntie Laura, please. Can you help?” “What is it?” I asked, already dreading the answer. “It’s the neighbor. Her husband is beating her.” I looked at her in shock, because of her matter of fact manner, although I could tell from their eyes, that they all were upset, and not in a shocked this was the first time kind of way either. I paused, and reflected on the situation. I also realized, that this wasn’t just some woman. This was my kindly smiling neighbor, who painted her nails while basking in the sun. This person had a name, and a family. This wasn’t some number.
As I saw it, I had two options. One, I could tell them what Peace Corps had ordered me to do, which is also quite rational, that under no circumstances should I ever even try to get involved in family matters that don’t concern me directly. This seemed like the best approach, because not only was I supposed to, but it was also the safest, and most culturally appropriate. My first reply was thus, “Leslie, what do you want me to do?” which came out more like “What on earth do you think me, the weakest of my family with no upper body strength to speak of, can do against that extremely hulky body building angry husband?” “Is there No one else that can help? None of your parents are home??” They shook their heads. Leslie didn’t speak. Instead, one tiny tear almost escaped from her eyes. Every girl was looking at me.
And so, despite all the rules, despite my safety, despite my fear, looking at those girls and seeing their desire, their hope, to help one woman, and me standing there, as a role model for them, showing them what a grown woman should do, I had to do something. But what became the question, as I drew towards the house of wailing. As I called her name, the wails continued unabated, no matter how loudly I shouted, asking “Is everything alright?” As two little children came out, comically and eerily happily playing, I asked them what was wrong, and the youngest said “Papa hit mama in the throat, and now she is hurt,” as matter of factly as if I had asked if the sky were blue. “Well tell her to come out, that I want to see her,” and the girl obediently went in, and came out a few minutes later to say, “she’s coming.” Throughout this the wailing continued, this time with the sounds of water being splashed, on someone, until she finally came out, completely drenched, collapsing on the floor, holding her throat and wailing. As I tried to calm her down, what I dreaded happened: he appeared out of nowhere, with eyes of anger. “What are you doing?!” he asked. As calmly as I could, I said, “Your wife told me she is sick, and wants to get help.” For a moment we locked eyes, trying to find some sort of balance, neither of us truly wanting to get out of hand. As we “Fine, whatever. Do whatever you want with her.” And with that he walked away, as if uninterested. I told my neighbor to get ready, and that I would find her a motorcycle taxi to take her to the hospital.
By this point finally, an adult, a history teacher appeared, to find Leslie, his daughter. As I talked to him, I felt slightly more reassured that we were doing the right thing, seeking help at least. When she finally reappeared, I asked her, “Do you want to go to the hospital?” and all she could say was “I want to leave this place! I need to get out of here!” enraged. As she finally changed, and got herself on the moto, I felt absolutely guilty, but sure that I should leave her to find help on her own, because I could only imagine what might be asked of me next, which I could not give. As she turned the corner Leslie hugged me and said, “You see auntie? You did do something.” I shook my head knowingly. “Leslie, this may not make things better. Let this be a lesson to you all, be careful who you marry!” 3 days later, the neighbor’s husband took a suitcase in hand, and took a taxi moto away, and has yet to be seen again.
This story, among many others, could happen anywhere, not just in the developing world, but in the so called “developed world,” where domestic violence is easily hidden behind doors. It’s events like these that make me want to speak out, and encourage everyone to do the same. It’s scary, and not always easy, and poses many questions for the future of the family. But if you can be as brave as Leslie, you realize that unless someone speaks out, we risk teaching our children that this is ok. And how can we ever let them learn that?
For an inspiring Ted Talk on the topic of domestic violence, listen to Leslie Morgan Steiner
Read more about the UN’s End Violence Against Women Day