If I told you how much my life changed when I met my friend and survivor Esperance, you might roll your eyes and tell me you’ve heard that story before. The headline? “Sheltered white woman is shocked into reality after meeting a war survivor in Congo.”
I would roll my eyes too if only it were true.
Africa wasn’t new for me, I had lived in a handful of conflict and post-conflict countries for nearly a decade by then.
Those years changed me—I am sure of that—but they changed me far less than I thought. I became more compassionate, more sensitive to the plight of those who suffer. But in my privileged reality, I didn’t understand their pain, and paradoxically, their joy. I had carefully built a wall of protection around my own heart, a shiny veneer to avoid too much pain— my own and the world’s. I settled into an evangelically acceptable version of high functioning apathy. I became an expert at camouflaging my indifference. Friends would ask about my life and my standard refrain was “All good…” But it wasn’t good. I was afraid, alternating between restless and numb, my faith felt distant. I had no real peace.
I had lost my way, and I was afraid of what I had become. By the time Esperance collided with my world, I was desperate. I wanted to feel again, love again, and belong again. But I honestly didn’t know how.
This is why meeting Esperance was entirely different. Her story is rare, yet sadly all too common– personal, yet universal. Esperance lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the poorest country in the world, where a woman is subject to sexual violence every 60 seconds. She is survivor (not a victim) of systematic violence, a soul-stealing culture of rape and a government riddled with corruption. She grew up in the weeds of war, but she was not helpless, not voiceless.
I don’t recall breathing as she unfolded her story like a precious garment, turning back the corners of each sentence in the light that filtered through the cracks of the old cinderblock.
She was fifty. I was forty-five.
She had four children. I had two.
She was a widow. And I had no idea what that felt like.
I could not look away—she and I were alike.
Yet, she and I were so very different.
Esperance and her husband had set out to find cooking wood, when they met militia soldiers in the bush; each man carried a machete tucked inside his fatigues, and each man had a gun. She heard them before she saw them, the click of metal against metal.
I remember looking away for a moment as she spoke.
I was uncomfortable and anxious. I felt cowardly and deeply disrespectful. I wanted to emotionally run, to cover my ears, to shut out the reality… but by the sheer grace of God, I looked at her feet, her hands, and finally her face.
She had tears in her eyes.
And so did I.
I felt my mind and heart decide to stay in the discomfort of the tension, choosing to lean into her story, instead of pushing away.
The soldiers bound her hands. When her husband resisted, she instinctively threw her hands, still bound, to the top of her head, the universal sign of surrender. She knew all too well what the soldiers would do to anyone who resists.
They shot her husband and then they flung their fists at her. The violence she endured was so physical, so destructive, that she “was not whole,” and could not be fully repaired, even with surgery.
She believed she would have died that day, if “her sisters” had not found her. Pointing to several of the lay trauma counselors in our little circle, Esperance said it was these gentle, heroic women who had cleaned her, clothed her, and taken her to the hospital for treatment. When she returned home, they visited her, brought her children food, and helped her find work.
“These ones brought me back to life,” she said as she allowed herself to smile. “And you,” she said looking at our group, “remind me I am still human.”
Her story left me undone. Her words pierced my soul; the ground we tread together felt holy. But it wasn’t her pain that ambushed me. It was her love. Her unwavering belief that in being rescued, she was now loved.
In being loved, she now belonged.
And in belonging, she could now welcome others.
“If we have no peace,” writes Mother Theresa, “it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other”. In that moment, I remembered peace. Esperance’s story became my story. Her people, my people.
After our first time together, Esperance asked Mama Odele to write the words “Tell the world” across a sheet of paper. Because she cannot read or write, she signed with the most personal thing she had: she stamped it with her thumbprint. I carry a digital version of this with me wherever I go. Esperance’s thumbprint became a mandate and an invitation for me—a mandate to tell her story—violence against her is violence against me.
Educator turned advocate, Belinda Wilson Bauman seeks to bring hope to women in crisis. After living internationally for a decade in conflict and post-conflict zones, Belinda experienced what she calls a “beautiful collision” with the brave souls of women who survive in the most dangerous places in the world. She is a wife and mother, speaker and contributor to Newsweek’s The Daily Beast, Huffington Post and Today’s Christian Woman. As the founder of One Million Thumbprints, she leads a movement of peacemakers empowering peacemakers in the world’s worst conflicts. Belinda and her husband, Stephan, and their two sons, Joshua and Caleb, live in Grand Rapids, MI where they relish promoting peace, raising chickens and gazing at stars while living in the country.