This email won't be that articulate, and perhaps not that fun to read, but I just need to tell you about this. I have spent the last two days at the national hospital of Niamey, doing translations. Every three months a group of American doctors come, solely on their own dime, and stay for about 2 weeks to do free operations for bush women with fistula. A fistula is a small hole that is usually somewhere on or around the bladder, urethra or that general area, that causes women to leak urine and feces on themselves. Fistulas are caused during childbirth....normally when a young girl is married (seen some under the age of 10), who is not yet physically developed enough to have a child (has no hips or width to allow her to birth a baby), they develop a fistula. The weight of the baby during childbirth rubs her insides, until tissue is injured and dies, creating a hole. I, like most of you, had never heard of this before coming to Niger. It's almost non-existent in the West, due to our level of obstetric care, and to the fact that most of us don't get married and pregnant at 12 years old.
Most women who get fistulas are chased out of their villages by their husbands, since they can't control when they urinate, they smell bad and people call them dirty. These women have nowhere to go.....some become prostitutes, many have small children to take care of, and lots live on the streets. The few who are lucky enough to hear about the hospital's program in Niamey, or who can scrounge up bus fare to travel to Niamey, sometimes receive help. Those are the women I've seen today.
When you walk around and talk to them, they are just like any other Nigerien women....curious, a bit reserved, but smiling and ready to talk to you. I walked around the courtyard at the hospital where many of them live....some have been living in a concreted square of the hospital for over 10 years, because they simply have no where else to go. I was happy to be there, and it was nice being of use to the American doctors, helping them greet people and meet some of the women. I held babies, admired beadwork they'd done, spoke softly to the very sick, and laughed with the ones got a kick out of me being able to talk directly to them.
But once we got started with examinations, my mood started to change. I went through file after file, asking women to describe just how many still born babies they'd birthed, when exactly their husband left them, and to try and remember how many operations strangers had done for them at free clinics across the country. And once we made it to the examining room, where some were nearly in tears at the shame they felt...baring the most personal parts of their bodies for strange doctors who couldn't speak the same language, I saw what it means for some women here to be women.
To be a woman here is to never, under any circumstances, show any pain. During childbirth they say nothing, NOTHING, because it is considered weak. If a woman so much as cries out once, they will be made fun of and feel shame forever after. So I watched their breathing change, their muscles tighten, their eyes water, so that I could tell the doctors when they were in pain. I watched woman after woman climb onto the examining table, open their skirts, and reveal bodies I couldn't understand. I got confused a few times, in comparing what I knew a woman's anatomy to look like, with what was in front of me. I thought back on all the times I'd looked in the mirror, and measured my proportions visually, or women I'd seen in magazines, or friends I'd seen after sports competitions. And nothing, nothing I'd ever seen worked as a frame of reference for what I was seeing on the exam table. I saw vaginas leaking urine, and feces, vaginas that had dropped almost completely out of women's bodies, young 15 year olds, dark beautiful skin on their face, legs and arms, until you get to the stomachs where someone had sliced them from top to bottom and back again during a botched C-section. Women who'd been circumcised, with no future possibility for pleasure, no clitoris. So, so, so many women with bodies too small for carrying a child.
Women, girls, children, who'd been forced into marriage, by fathers who'd needed dowry money, by village culture that says that's all they're supposed to do in life. Women who'd received medical care from people barely trained to put in proper sutures. Women who'd been operated on countless times, by strangers who come and go, those same women who'd never quite understood what the operations were supposed to accomplish, or why they never seemed to totally work. Living in a land that has never encouraged them to demand medical care, or to insist themselves worthy enough to recieve treatment, silence is what it means to be female.
There were women there of every shade, from young girls to the old and wise, every ethnic group, and from the farthest regions of the country. At one point I stopped and laughed because we had 4 translators for one patient.....English from American doctors to me, Zarma from me to a Nigerien doctor, Hausa from the Nigerien doctor to a Beri Beri woman, Beri Beri from a young woman to her friend, who only speaks Beri Beri.
I stopped a woman I'd helped translate for, Mimouna was her name. It was hard to tell how old she was....a 15 year old's body but a 40 year old's face. I took her hand and told her I was sorry, that I saw how this problem made them suffer and I knew it was hard to be examined by strangers. She barely looked me in the eye, with no appeasing smile, no anything in her voice, she simply said, "Thats just the way it is."
Thats just the way it is.
Bodies that bear witness to oppression. This is no longer theory for me, something in a college text or a naive but well intentioned idealistic classroom argument. It's everyday. I didn't know what pain and sexism and oppression looked like, until I saw that first young girl unwrap her skirt.
When is it going to stop?
I ask you,
Cry with me, imagine what it looks like, what it feels like, how little joy and quality of life there is. Those women, those girls are our sisters. When is it going to stop?