There have been days when I wonder whether I’ve become desensitized to the chaos and suffering in the world. I’ve witnessed the poverty of West Africa, the political turmoil of the Balkans, and the trans-generational trauma of Cambodia, and each is worthy of a thousand days of tears, yet I shed not one. Instead, my gaze focuses on those near me, those whose stories cannot be easily summarized as good or bad, tragic or inspirational.
While in Freetown, Sierra Leone last month, I frequently crossed the road from my hotel to sit in a beachside restaurant. I went there the evening of Valentine’s Day, expecting little more than my usual pot of tea and a cup of freshly roasted peanuts sold by a lovely boy named Abbas. I wore a red dress, not thinking of the association with the holiday.
Some 30 minutes later, a woman came to introduce herself. I’ll call her Monica. I’d seen her looking out over the sea and judged by her attire that she was a prostitute, so I was a little surprised that she’d chosen my table. A friend of hers came soon after to join us, and it didn’t take long to confirm their occupations, which I’d classify as part-time, reluctant prostitutes. I’d use the more politically correct term of sex worker, but prostitute is how Monica described what she and many other young women feel is the only option.
“I don’t like it,” she said, “but I strive for my family.” She’s 21, and the mother of a 6-year-old. Her family knows that she does this and asks her to stop, but they don’t have any alternatives. Doing nothing is not good, she says. With her one gold tooth and red scarf wrapped around her head, she is beautiful and exudes wisdom, though she didn’t finish high school.
We cover the obvious topics that a woman might cover when talking with a prostitute. Condoms, STD testing, the evils of HIV/AIDS, how men treat her, crazy men, mean men, what countries the men are from. And, of course, money. Her response to offers to pay more to have sex without a condom is that the money won’t be of use if she’s dead. I couldn’t help myself from smiling about this small but important act of defiance.
She tells me that she’d like to become a hairdresser and is looking for an apprenticeship. In the meantime, she approaches “walking” with as much sense and fortitude as one can expect.
They were both born in 1991, the year that the war began. At age 9, the age of my little niece, men stormed Monica’s home, then tied up and beat her grandmother on the floor in front of her. Her life changed in an instant. To this day, she doesn’t know whether her grandmother is dead or alive, because she fled and never saw her again.
A rebel woman rescued her. Rescued her, anyway, until she tried to prostitute her to older men who wanted a young virgin. Monica was small but wise enough to know what that meant, and mighty enough to save herself.
She ran for weeks in the bush from village to village. She talked about the babies she saw killed, and how. She described encountering hungry children to care for. That’s how she said it: children. Not “other children.” I fear that at age 9 she’d already left childhood behind.
After this epic story prompted by my single question—Do you remember the war?—she said, “I didn’t have much experience with the war.”
At some point I ordered a round of Sierra Leonean beer, Star brand. I don’t even drink beer, but it was the only answer for the occasion. “God saved my family,” she said. She complimented my pedicure, and the other prostitute offered me a skewer of meat sold by a street vendor. The mixture of mundane and extraordinary conversation at the table was too much for my mind to comprehend.
Soon after, Abbas and his two sisters came to sit with us. So there we were: two reluctant prostitutes, three skinny children selling peanuts, and me.
The kids were contented to sit there and drink water, not disturbing anyone, just tired from another six hours of walking in the heat and hungry for grown-up company. One of the women bought a cup of nuts from them.
Later, a blind woman passed our table, led by a child. The other prostitute, the mother of two little children, gave her money.
Just a day earlier, I’d given a maple syrup candy to Abbas. He slowly ate half the candy, licking away the sweetness instead of biting into it. Then he carefully wrapped the remaining half and held it. An hour later, when his sister arrived, he gave it to her.
Around 7 p.m., the women told the children that it’s too late for them to be out. “Some man might snatch her,” she said, pointing to the 9-year-old girl. She knew all too well the possibilities that lie waiting in the dark. And in the light.
The thing about it all is that I think she sat down because she felt sorry for me. I was sitting alone in a red dress on Valentine’s Day and she was feeling celebratory in her own ironic way. She thanked me later for accepting her conversation. “We may be different, but we all breathe the same,” she said, inhaling and exhaling deeply for effect.
I will break down in sobs one day, but it won’t be because of the daily struggle of Monica and her friend, or Abbas and his sisters. They neither want nor need my tears or pity. I will break down because their generosity shames me. My bad experiences are largely a result of my own poor decisions. In their lives, there is no room for error.
“You have to be strong in life,” Monica told me, maybe telling herself at the same time. But their actions told me that before everything, you have to be human.