Despite my location I could have been buried in the thick lazy descriptions of a Truman Capote summer afternoon. Perched uncomfortably on a too skinny bench, the shade of the tree provided no shelter from the UV rays seeping into my skin which was ever deepening to a more violent shade of red. I had long ago given up on shooing the flies away, and they did swarm to me like the cooking piece of meat that I was. My discomfort had drawn my focus completely to maintaining a lady like sitting position, having regretted the choice of a dull yellow knee length pencil skirt after hour two of the meeting. I was coveting the brightly patterned Kitenges worn by the stately Tanzanian women, they fell to mid calf or to the ground and many had pulled out extra lengths of cloth to lay over their heads, shielding their necks from the relentless sun. A low- hanging branch would occasionally tap me in the back of the head, each time causing me to reach up and vigorously scratch my neck, which was also reddening in the sun. Little Anabeth would wander over to her mother, the headmistress of the school, and then wander away again, quickly distracted as two year olds tend to be. I could hear the greedy sucking sounds from the newborn nursing as her mother perched next to me, somehow balancing much more successfully than I.
I am not usually this observant, though I am known to wax poetic when in extreme discomfort. This time, my observations came from having nothing else to notice. We had sat in silence for about five minutes. Meetings generally are distracting affairs, there are screaming babies, people stand to walk around when they are tired, there are murmured conversations between neighbors that pull attention away from the appointed speaker. But it had all ceased. The question had stolen their voices and pinned them down, slowly suffocating each of the brightly clad women where they sat. As if strapped down they each looked straight ahead or down at their laps, hands at their sides, feet planted.
The region of Mara is infected with bad spirits. Where they come from is unclear. Perhaps they are as ancient as time, perhaps they were imported with the British and German colonists, taking root in the unfamiliar buildings and languages of a conquering regime. There are stories of spirits overtaking homes, hurting children and reducing guard dogs to whimpering puppies. There are stories of finding snakes in shoes, of invisible bodies sitting at the foot your bed, and of a deep deep dread that settles at the pit of your stomach when you walk down the wrong street. There is a thin veil here between our world and the spirits. A veil as thin as the cotton cloth the women use to shield their bare skin from the sun. And the spirits were making their presence known. They dared to creep as close as the church yard.
Though perhaps they had always been here? Is ground made sacred or does is become sacred by the deeds done upon it? Well, it didn’t matter, they had arrived bringing terror, fear, and hate. Perhaps they were here by our conjuring. I had opened the meeting by talking about fear. I spoke the things I had seen and felt in Gamasara. I said that homes are not restful, blessed places but violent and fearful. That this fear is not allowed to be mentioned and so it festers and boils under the surface until it explodes out of us, in a fit of rage, and it imbeds in our spouses, our children. But still we do not talk of it. I said that all of our “praise Gods,” and prayer did not cleans us of this darkness, but sent it deeper into us, making it harder and harder to extract. And our children learned from us and also did not speak of it, or if they did we ignored it, or beat them to silence.
As I spoke the spirits rose as if called, loosening from the pits of our stomachs to the fronts of our eyes. “This fear,” I said, “makes it harder to work, makes us less patient with our children, makes it harder to go to church, makes it harder to breathe, for it is like a broken leg that we do not know is broken. So we carry on limping, and the longer we carry on the worse it gets. It breaks further, it bruises, it grinds into the muscle around it. We feel it but we do not know what it is, it is the only thing we can think about, yet it remains a mystery.” Yes we were in dangerous territory, there was no option for retreat now. So I pressed on, “tell me what your broken bones are.” A slow trickle of confidence ground out the soft rock below it until it was a thunderous fall. The outpouring of words flooded our circle. “I am afraid that my husband will beat me every time he drinks,” “There is no money for food if I bring it home, my husband takes it all and I don’t know for what.” “My neighbor almost died in childbirth last year and now she is pregnant again,” “my child keeps getting in trouble in class and he was a perfect student a month ago.” And they kept speaking, each word bringing the spirits out, summoning them all to this place, pooling around us until we all sat exhausted. We were spent, and a deceitfully lazy silence fell upon us. What was at first an oppressively hot afternoon became threatening. No longer was the oppression a lulling to sleep, to rest, to lay down our words until a later, unknown time. no, the sirens were revealing their true forms and they were ugly.
“Who will start to end our fear?” In a final stand the evil which had been dragged into the unrelenting sun revolted. Pinning us all down, silencing us where we sat, we were unable to answer. As if that question had stolen their voices and pinned them down, slowly suffocating each of the brightly clad women where they sat. As if strapped down they each looked straight ahead or down at their laps, hands at their sides, feet planted. The words, “I will,” sat just behind their teeth. Closed mouths became prisons for their own liberation, and the evil we had spoken was sewing our lips shut, resisting our stand against it. The branch tickling my neck became a jagged thorn bush, trying to silence my mouth by way of burrowing through my neck. The flies were not an oblivious nuisance but miniature terrors slowly eating away at me. Yet we remained frozen. I could do nothing else, it was for these women to finish.
And Anabeth wandered over again, the goodness of a child slicing through the evil that was thickening around us. Indeed we had summoned all the spirits to us, the evil and the divine. This divine child cut us loose from the trance we had entered. “I will,” said one voice, followed by another and another. Not every woman spoke, but the evil in each of us had been loosened, weakened by the promise of healing. I don’t know the origin of this evil. I do know that it shall not win. I also know that the grace we need is also found in this place, it is not imported. It is heard during the women’s discussion over morning Chai, it falls over the mountains with the battering rainstorms, and sticks to your white canvass shoes like squishy mud. I don’t know when the evil arrived, but the Grace has been here since She breathed over the face of the waters. There is no place too deep in a woman for this Grace to reach.
We are learning to feel our broken bones, there will be much more pain, but there is yet another dawn.