Two Prostitutes, Three Peanut Sellers, and Me

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.

12 Comments on Two Prostitutes, Three Peanut Sellers, and Me

  1. avatar gayzag palandjian // March 5, 2013 at 8:35 am // Reply

    Your short but mountain-moving story speaks of present realities of our world.A cruel one,no doubt about that.Extreme poverty,rather MISERIA!!!!Misery that has enlapped the world we live in.How can one forget such inequalities!!!!
    Time for the filthy rich to awake and extend a real hand to try to mend the wrongly led people of the whole world. Time to share the wealth,abundance of food etc., with those who lack ALL THE FACILITIES AND GOD GIVEN RIGHTS TOO.
    Please write more about what goes on in THE THIRD,rather Unknown world…..
    May God bless you and your good work forever.Keep it up, perjaps you can move the conscience of the MAGNATES of t he world and make them G I V E \!!!!

  2. avatar Joseph Dwyer // March 5, 2013 at 12:07 pm // Reply

    Thanks Kristi – an important story and description of real life in so many countries in our world. Joseph


    Concerning to Kristi Rendahls article I feel the same as you and I also appreciate very much that AW is printing her reports from other parts of the world. I even regard Kristis reports as good litterature and I think it´d be good to publish these articles as short stories.

    But Armenia is not in an economic situation to support these many suffering countries in Africa. In the first place thats the task of the former colonial states which still nowadays make huge profits in African countries.

    And furthermore the problems here in Armenia are still steadily increasing daily.
    I am sure you know the report of the Policy Forum Armenia published on Oct. 3rd

    The report clearly expresses how Armenia in a period of only a few years is expecting a strong devaluation of the Dram, if nothing is changed. A change would be the building of a government of national unity, including all constructive powers, maybe including the Diaspora, too.

    But as long as the government leans on the support of the oligarchs the devellopment goes in direction of this devaluation. We all know that even a devaluation of the Dram will hardly influence the life of the oligarchs. But it surely
    will strongly increase the number of Armenians leaving their homeland.

    Who wants this ?

  4. Right. before everthihng, I mean everything, we have to be human. Being a human before anything else is what can unite the human species in out planet and lead to alleviation of his sufferings.
    Thanks Kristi again for this powerful piece. You are a blessing to these pages.

  5. avatar gaytzag palandjian // March 5, 2013 at 10:35 pm // Reply

    t present the number of these has risen to 1,470 in the world…
    If only 2 o3 are thsoe at the top lioke Bill Gates and the Mexian(I forget his name) and another,if these would kindly agree to form a club of the top 2 or three, and then another from top Ten,likewise, down to top100 or 50 or all the way down to below the ten billion mark,creating the ¨ World those Club of the above 1,470,pledgeing to percentage wise invest in the WORLD RELIEF FUND FOR THE THID WORLD COUNTRIES….say beginning fro,m 20% from the top (above ) towards..I less down think they would possibñly SURPASS THE World Bank-e.g. not really so indeed,thus try to reach out and hethose downtrodden so to say poor , or the ones in Misery…THE WORLD WOULD BE A MUCH BETTER PLACE-BTW it stipulated that there are a few new Armenian origin ones in Moscow.One of them has more wealth than KK.

  6. Thanks, Kristi, for the beautiful story/experience.

  7. To Gaytzag, povery, wars, famine and all the rest of ills on our plant as we know have multiple causes, but I am surprised by your comment that “if the filthy rich ” could give a little more is your solution. Do you have a problem with the wealthy? is it bad for me to enjoy a certain standard of living if I have worked my buns off getting there? we know many things can be done and they should but throwing money to regimes or countries that are corrupt and undemocratic is feeding the wrong people. and i for one am not wealthy but i do work hard for what i have so stop demonizing “the wealthy”

  8. avatar gaytzag palandjian // March 6, 2013 at 7:35 pm // Reply

    To dear Arek,
    Please -not only you-excuse me for such bad writing in haste and dropping out letters etc.,etc.
    The reason being I was working on a ¨paper¨that will go out in an hour (just completed it.I should have been more explicit, elaborative about it.
    I only meant to convey the VERY RICH by word ¨filthy¨.Like those Billionairs,forming a club of comparision with a few million owners, or further down to less so.
    Thjos on really top,what dos it matter to sya the Mexican No.1 billionaire to 57billions ,if I recall well, some 20% was INVESTED not given outright to a Fund -that of the Billionaires Club ,which I imagine, that they ought to form…
    You see his country is so POLARIZED that WORST THAN THE ARMENIANS(BTW, an eye opneres that we are not alone this wise)his country men POUR INTO T HE U.S. IN SEARCH FOR A PIECE OF BREAD…Do you follow what ám saying???? I believe some 12 million or so that have crossed the border over…some get caught ,sent back then attempt agian.Where do you live? haven´t you heard of that…
    Then again, if our OWN 5/6 No3 GOOD NEWS,I read yesterday on internet we have 3/4 billionaires in Moscow!!!!! plus the other 5/6 can do the same That which I am advocating to start off our NATIONAL INVESTMENT TRUST FUND, then down to milliaires to hiundred thousand investors to even us each investing a hiundreed bucks or 2oo dolalrs.Just calulate to what that would amount to…Which could FIRST BE UTILIZED FOR
    R E P A T R I A T I O N…then loaned indeed(not handed out) to those who wish to renovate businesses in RA/Artsakh and Javakh .etc., i am tired repeating this.Please let me go…if you have further queries ,let me know please!!!!
    Oh near forgot I did not mean people such as myself and others who have during 50/60 yrs hard work procured the elementary tools to live apt. or homes.Also help in very small sunms to RA/Artsakh…
    But what caught my attn was when I read there are 1,470 Billlionaires out there…ours close to 10…


    Your idea is very good and I like it much. But it will always be just theory. Why these
    billionaires got so rich : They worked hard and they kept their money together. And
    I think the richer you become the more you are anxious to lose everything again.

    Furthermore I think it would be very difficult to bring higher amounts to Armenia, without supporting the government and the oligarchs first. Why Kirk Kerkorian withdrew ? Not because his money finished, no – because he noticed how he has been cheated !

    Before billionaires start paying the Armenian government has to be changed and the oligarchs have to quit the Parliament. Now there is no hope !

  10. Very moving article Kristi and thank you but that is the Facts and it will get worse for years to come !!!

  11. I am so glad you put light such words of truth (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.) Good journalism

  12. avatar Robert Huntington // October 3, 2014 at 2:08 pm // Reply

    Their generosity reminds of something I once heard, “There are two kinds of people in the world: haves, and have-nots. The haves are takers, the have-nots are givers”. I sure enjoy the company of the have-nots, for their warm spirit of sharing, of giving.

    And Marlo Thomas said, “My father said there were two kinds of people in the world: givers and takers. The takers may eat better, but the givers sleep better.

    Nice article, Kristi. Keep them coming :)

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