The Widows of Gitega

Today's UPI Column

So There I was...

up country, in Gitega, Burundi’s second largest city; fall 2003. It’s a little wild up there. One of the “suburbs” had their new precinct captain assassinated on his third day of office while I was there. Some say the rebels did it, others say that it was his predecessor. They put up a replacement and he lasted one day before being killed. They couldn’t find anyone else willing to take the office - big surprise!

I was speaking at a conference called “Let’s Unite to Stop the Violence Against Widows!” The Group I was working for, Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Services of Burundi was sponsoring this event at a catholic retreat house. There were 30 women invited, all widows, young to old, one pregnant and 6 with nursing babies.In Burundi the widow is very near to the bottom of the power ladder. The only people lower are street children. Widows have no protection, legal or physical. You can steal from the widow, or rape the widow with impunity. Because the widow cannot afford bribes, she rarely has recourse to law. Impoverished, her own family does not want her back, and if she speaks to a man who is married, she is suspected of planning to steal a husband, so her married friends turn against her too. Often her biggest problems come from her former in-laws who want the house or land back, and are willing to push the children of their dead son or brother into the street to get it.So I was there from far off planet America to speak to the condition of these women.
I was asked to talk to them about women’s rights!They came in their best – wrapped in color – one yardage for a skirt and another around the shoulders. I was told that most of them borrowed the clothes. Some of them even have shoes - plastic slippers we would call flip flops. For them this was the best three day vacation of their lives; the austere catholic hostel - the Ritz; the food, the best they have eaten in a long time. This was the first intervention, just to pull them up out of grinding poverty for a few days.The second intervention was that they were invited to a conference. In Burundi only important people go to conferences, and only the rich attend any kind of schooling in adulthood. They told all their neighbors and relatives that they were attending this event, and it raised their prestige. The gift of a notebook and a pen is significant, especially since only seven of them read or write, but just owning paper and a pen makes you special. Their stay was paid for, and they were given a small “transportation” allowance. When they were given this stipend at the end of the second day, they held an impromptu dance. I didn’t believe that a single one of them would use the allowance for a bus ride home. They would walk home, however far that was, with their babies on their backs and the stipend would buy food and pay the small but impossible school fees for one of their other children. And some of those children would have a notebook and a pen.The babies nursed, and the babies cried. The babies made puddles on the floor like puppies. Sometimes the mother mopped up the puddle with the baby’s blanket and then wrapped the baby back up in it - sometimes they don’t bother. The day was hot and dry; it took about thirty minutes for a baby puddle to evaporate. Most of the babies looked healthy. They were happy because their mothers were happy. They did not yet know that they have been born into the lowest position in one of the least developed countries in the world. I was looking at the bottom of the world totem pole. I was sad, they laughed.We opened the sessions. My translator, Felicite, started with an exercise that we would call an icebreaker. She had each of them stand and say their own name, and then repeat the name of each previous woman, going around in a circle. That was clearly a thing they had never done before. They were shy, hiding in their shawls, putting their hands over their mouths, whispering. This did not go unchallenged. “Stand up, speak loudly!” she encouraged them. And then one by one they stood, and spoke their own name out loud, and other women listened, and tried to remember. They said “I am ME,” and then they affirmed that “You are YOU” and “WE are US.” And suddenly the activity took on real power.Then I was on. They were clearly fascinated with me, but a little skeptical. I told them the story of my grandmother and how she became widowed by the influenza epidemic in 1918. How she managed to raise her three boys on her own in the great depression. I told them that a hundred years ago in the US, the plight of the widow was not much better than their own, but that things had improved as social reforms were made, and women started to vote, and fought for their rights. Then I outlined for them the universal rights of women as designated by the Beijing Women’s Accord. I told them that this was what all women of the world hope for. They were amazed to find out that their legal rights in Burundi are better than women’s rights in some countries. They can own property, they can vote, they can worship as they see fit, and change their religion if they please. Their rights may not be respected or enforced, but at least they exist, and can be fought for. They found out that a rich Saudi woman might be less free in some ways than a poor Burundian. But we all know that they would change places if they could.When I told them they have a right to the physical integrity of their own bodies, they look confused. I clarified.
“You have the right not to be raped or beaten.”
A hand is raised.
“Not raped or beaten by soldiers?” the woman asked.
“Not beaten or raped by anyone!” I said.
“But husbands…,?”
“Not even husbands.”

There was silence, and then they laughed, loud and long – this was the funniest thing they had heard in a long time. Most of these women would be glad to have a husband - even one who raped and beat.Over the course of the next two days, we ate together, and talked together, and played with the babies. On our third morning we were displaced by a group of Burundi government ministers who wanted to our room on short notice. We were women, so of course we are displaced. We were sent to another part of the grounds. It is a little more than two miles away. I had a car and a driver, but it was a nice cool morning and I decided to walk with the women. So in my high heels, I led the parade of colorful women up the badly rutted dirt road. The arriving ministers sped by us in their SUV’s, covering us with their dust. The new room was actually nicer than the old one. The babies peed on the archbishop’s floor too. But lunch was served back at the first place. So after a morning of teaching, with an afternoon to go, I measured my strength and took the car to lunch, while the women walked. This did not feel very good to me, but I knew without a doubt that they were stronger than I. Even the ones who had AIDS or malaria could outwalk me with a load on their head and a baby on their back. I felt wimpy.We were supposed to get our room back for the afternoon, but the ministers were slow to leave. We sat and watched them depart. One very important guy’s off-brand Asian SUV wouldn’t start. We sat around and watched as the men tried to push start it, and jump-start it and didn’t have much luck. I explained to the women that this brand is known to suck, and that this minister should have held out for the Toyota like the other minister’s. The women laughed. I am pretty sure that the minister understood my English as well as the translation. He was not enjoying being laughed at by widows, but since they were beneath his notice, he could not notice. He was also not sure who the white woman was, so he ignored us. God has such a funny way of balancing the books some days.I decided that the ministers' slowness should not rob these women of their teaching time so we gathered in the shade of a tree. I was taking questions, and teaching about how to talk to your children about difficult things; things like death, AIDS, rape, war, ethnicity and poverty. My translator got a little nervous with my answer to a question about how to tell you children that soldiers had killed their father. The soldiers of the ministers, with their automatic rifles, are still only a few feet away from us. She asked me to go to the next question. I protested that we are only telling the simple truth about everyday reality. She pointed out that in Burundi the simple truth could get a person killed. We changed the subject.The last of the big men left and we claimed our room. It was time to say goodbye, and the women decided to dance. They started to sing - rhythmic, harmonious, and with joy they took the floor. Their arms sailed, they feet kept the beat. Every part of their bodies moved, as they wove in and around each other, singing. I was sitting at the head table drumming out the beat, enjoying their joy. How could people who have so little, break so quickly into joy? How could women so oppressed break into complete freedom of expression? They sang a song of blessing on their teachers, thanking God for providing us to them. They surrounded us with the dance and with their genuine affection. This became too much for me, and I got up and joined them. The whoops and hollers at the sight of me dancing with them raised the roof. We danced for an hour. Everyone was soaked in sweat; the smell was tremendous, but we were happy.
I thought I had nothing to teach these women. I thought that my world was too far from theirs to cross the barriers. I thought that I would find them broken by their condition. I thought wrong.

(Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Services of Burundi can be reached at

And telling their story is a gift to all of us.
And telling their story is a gift to all of us.

Robin M.
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