A Simple Question

dreamstime_m_2681547It was 1998 – the year a woman I didn’t know asked a question I didn’t expect, shocking me to the core and changing the trajectory of my life. It was in Malawi, Africa – a place I had never visited nor thought much about. This was my first time on the African continent and, like most Americans, it took me awhile to find Malawi on a map. But there had long been an inner pull towards Africa that I had never expressed aloud, and in 1998, a series of events kicked me out of the closet and onto a plane.

I soon found myself surrounded by 120 beautiful women, exotic women, women so different from me yet, somehow, exactly the same. Some had walked for days from Mozambique on bare, bruised feet with bundles on their heads and babies on their backs. Some cradled stick-thin, sickly infants who appeared to have a tenuous grip on life. Others carried lethargic toddlers with orange hair that fell out in clumps. Yet these women laughed and sang and danced with joyous abandonment and it became clear from day one that I was not here to teach. Oh, I would share whatever I had to feed their hungry hearts, but I was sent here to learn.

After a few days, we decided to spend a casual afternoon learning about each others’ lives. I went to the market to buy a variety of fruits and biscuits and juice – a treat for women and children alike. I pleaded with the men in authority to allow us to sit in chairs on a shady veranda instead of on mats in the sun. While the husbands of some of these women didn’t like the idea, the men in charge of the conference heartily agreed and quickly made it happen.

So here we are – seated comfortably in chairs in front of a table overflowing with food. In the last few days, the small beginnings of trust have sprouted between us. This is a Q & A session to help us get to know each other a bit better, I tell them. You can ask me anything about my life in America and I will ask you about your lives – so don’t be shy. You are free.

They are not shy. A woman jumps to her feet without hesitation. I can still see her face. She is wearing a tattered, dark beret, worn clothing and she is shoeless; there is a regal air about her. She speaks in a straightforward manner, unaware that she is about to turn my world upside down with her simple question:

Does anyone in your country see us?

Does anyone your country see us?

I am prepared for her to ask absolutely anything, but not this. I don’t remember much after she spoke these words. I do remember that my heart felt like it had been pierced with fire, that I stood with tears streaming down my face, completely speechless for what seemed a very long time. The women did not avert their eyes from my contorted face; some wept with me.

When I could finally speak, I told them the truth: no. No one I know sees you. No one I know even knows you exist. I didn’t even know where Malawi was until a few weeks ago, but now I do and I promise to change the answer to your question. The session then turned into a laugh-fest as we emptied the food table, talking about our lives as women and our vastly different cultures.

That night I wept facedown on the floor until I had no more tears.  I could only repent of my narrow, selfish life and ask myself a simple question: now that you know, what will you do?  I came home and, with friends, began a non-profit called Ancient Path. We’ve been partnering with various friends and leaders in Malawi for the last 16 years – now a place and people that I see and love dearly.

That simple question has re-surfaced in my mind as I read the daily news coming out of Nigeria. Last week, the whole world watched as murderous terrorists brought France to a standstill. Every detail of every story has been told and re-told and photographed from every angle. Scores of world leaders led millions of people through the streets marching in unity for freedom, mourning the 17 dead. And well we should. Terrorism is a curse and every life is precious.

Also in the last two weeks, the vicious terrorist group Boko Haram has burned villages to the ground and slaughtered countless people in northern Nigeria. Amnesty International reports that 3100 structures – homes, clinics, schools – have been left in ruins. Up to 2500 people are unaccounted for. Survivors recount horror stories we can’t begin to wrap our minds around. One man who escaped says that he walked through five villages and each one he passed was empty, except for dead bodies. Unfortunately, this story hasn’t made front page news and no world leaders that I know of are booking flights to Nigeria.

Now, there’s a new tactic that unleashes a new level of mind-boggling evil. In the past few days, three girls as young as ten years old have been strapped with bomb vests, sent into crowded markets and blown to pieces. Terror experts believe Boko Haram is now using girls they have abducted, whose lives are completely disposable, as suicide bombers.

The names of a few of the abducted Chibok girls of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign hang on my kitchen wall, printed on white paper birds. I will not forget them. Today I wonder where they are, what is happening to them? Are they still alive? Have they been sold? Brainwashed? Are they being fitted for explosive vests?

Today, I see their faces and hear the same piercing question: Does anyone in your country see us?

Today, I ask myself: now that you know, what will you do?