Photo: Theresa Pichorner/Shutterstock

Rebelles: Ivorian Women Fight for Change

Ivory Coast Travel
by Cara Waterfall Jul 27, 2012

“IT IS BECAUSE MOTHERS LOVE THEIR CHILDREN that they have them circumcised,” Fatou Keita told me.

We were sitting in her air-conditioned office at the National Program for Rehabilitation and Community Re-integration (PRNCC) in Abidjan. Fatou was telling me about her book, Rebelle.

“The fact of circumcising them is wrong, but [people] don’t know,” the writer said. “It’s just sheer ignorance: they don’t know the consequences, they themselves have been circumcised — it’s tradition [for] the woman to suffer.”

Behind her, an African doll was pinned to the wall, eyes agog and arms outstretched. To her right was a PNRCC poster with grainy photos of ex-combatants injured in the 2011 civil war.

“People from the West see it as a barbaric act, but I wanted to show it from the inside,” she said. “I wanted to explain to the world that [the mother in my book] did not send her child to have her circumcised, because she is wicked — on the contrary! She didn’t want her child to be ostracized, to be different from the others…She did that for her daughter to be integrated in her society…”

According to a 2011 UN Country Report on Human Rights, female genital circumcision flourished in the northern and western parts of Côte d’Ivoire during last year’s war. In the absence of education, the Ivorian people turned to what they knew — the traditional way of life.

In times of conflict, women’s rights are not only eroded by patriarchal custom, but also by their increased vulnerability to violence, poverty and displacement.

* * *
My boyfriend Manu and I had decided to come to Côte d’Ivoire to embark on new careers. I was going to try my hand at freelance writing while he helped entrepreneurs build sustainable businesses. I read voraciously about our new home, but there was little literature that did not focus on its political instability or the injustices inflicted by civil war.

To read about Abidjan was to imagine a feral energy crackled around every corner, that it was a place where lawlessness was the norm.

Ivorian women have long been the “moral force in Ivorian popular protest.”

Two civil wars — inspired by xenophobic politics that banned the many immigrants working in Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa fields from voting, barred anyone without two Ivorian parents from running for office and divided the country along ethnic and religious lines — had rocked the country in the past decade. More than 3,000 people died and more than a million were displaced, destroying much of the country’s economy and infrastructure.

President Laurent Gbagbo, who, along with his predecessors, fanned the country’s xenophobic flames, paid his army to slaughter, rape, and massacre supporters of opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara in order to preserve his power. Ouattara’s candidacy had been disqualified in 1995 and again in 2002 because it was believed one of his parents was not Ivorian (in fact, the nationality of Outtara’s father is still disputed and Outtara himself says both his parents are Ivorian.). Ouattara’s supporters retaliated against Gbagbo.

After a decade of fighting between Ouattara’s rebel armies in the north and Gbagbo’s government soldiers in the south, Ouattara won the 2010 presidential elections, Gbagbo was captured, and the country began the formidable task of reconciliation.

The displacement and poverty caused by the conflict made women and children more vulnerable by forcing them into prostitution or having them barter sex in exchange for food or protection. Testimonies collected by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International illustrate the pervasiveness of sexual violence perpetuated by pro-government and rebel forces. Few perpetrators have been brought to justice, because it has been difficult to implement or enforce laws due to the country’s political instability.

This environment is particularly toxic for a country like Côte d’Ivoire, which has the highest rate of HIV in West Africa at 3.4 per cent. (This number is likely much higher; reliable data is another casualty of war.) There are limited medical and psychological support services available to women and girls who are victims of sexual violence, who may need access to emergency contraception or treatment for sexually transmitted diseases like HIV.

Even before the conflict, access to health services was hampered by poor standards for patient care, outdated equipment, and a lack of facilities. Post-conflict, many of these facilities were destroyed.

In spite of the restriction of their civil liberties, the women of Côte d’Ivoire have a history of activism dating back to colonial times. One of the high points of this activism was the 2000-woman march in Grand Bassam, outside of Abidjan in December 1951. The women marched 50 kilometers from the city to the prison to protest the incarceration of 300 male activists, who had gone on hunger strike. French colonial troops attacked them, injuring 40. But the women succeeded in liberating several of the political prisoners.

BBC reporter and Abidjan resident John James said that Ivorian women have long been the “moral force in Ivorian popular protest.”

Even in times of conflict, Ivorian women have found ways to support their causes.

* * *
When Manu and I arrived in Abidjan at the end of January, the Christmas ornaments were still up in the business district of Le Plateau, tendrils of lights swaying above the pockmarked highway. But the cheerful decorations seemed like a façade.

As I looked out of the car window, all I could see were the scars of war: the shredded billboards; the husks of buildings crumbling in the cloying air, some with mangled panes; others scalded by bullets.

But when I returned to Le Plateau to meet Manu for lunch his first week of work, the district was ebullient. Women wearing the traditional pagne cloth walked unhurriedly, some with pleats billowing around their ankles. They all carried mobile phones. Luminous and well-groomed, these women appeared to be a symbol of recovery from the conflict — although I wondered if this was simply a veneer.

In the streets, United Nations vehicles were rolling by — potent reminders of last year’s crisis. Peacekeepers still patrol the city, rifles yoked to their chests, all with the same fathomless eyes.

Mayi, the 26-year-old woman who cleans our apartment, told me she hid in her house for weeks while gunfire rattled around the northern neighborhood of Abobo.

“Ça chauffait,” she told me. Things got heated. Even if she had managed to escape her house, the roads out of Abobo had been blockaded. For months afterwards, she had very little access to water or food.

On March 3, 2011, Abobo was the site of a protest march where 15,000 women took to the streets to protest Mr. Gbagbo’s refusal to relinquish his presidency. The women were naked or clothed in black – both taboos in Ivorian culture. Some of them carried leaves to symbolize peace as they chanted and danced.

Tanks arrived. It is reported that the women cheered, because they believed that the vehicles had arrived to support them; instead, the men opened fire, killing seven of the women and wounding 100 other participants. Protest organizer Aya Virginie Touré believes that Gbagbo’s army became fearful that they were being placed under a curse.

The next day, thousands of women returned to Abobo with posters that said “Don’t shoot us, we give life.”

The next day, thousands of women returned to Abobo with posters that said “Don’t shoot us, we give life.” Men showed their solidarity by forming a wall of cars across the mouth of a highway to protect the women.

* * *
Fatou Keïta remembered watching television footage of the protest; the images had been manipulated to suggest that the shootings had been fabricated: the women rose from the dead after being shot “as if it was a film.”

We were chatting in her office at the National Program of Reintegration and Community Rehabilitation Commission (PNRCC). The program was created on June 18, 2007 to reintegrate ex-combatants and at-risk youth back into their communities after these types of crises.

Her attire — a yellow-and-black, printed pagne dress and head wrap — dominated the office. She was doe-eyed and spoke in a carefully modulated voice, rarely using her hands for emphasis.

By the time of the Abobo protest, the national television station RTI (Radiodiffusion Télévision Ivoirienne) had became a mouthpiece for the Gbagbo government. (The UN has said that the station “led a calculated campaign of disinformation.”) Fatou watched the pseudo-debates and the political grandstanding to understand the extent to which the media was being manipulated. On December 15, 2010, she posted an open letter on her website accusing the RTI of ratcheting up ethnic tensions:

    1. “How can we try to impose the single thought, manipulation, lies, hate and so on? Do we forget that our television is viewed around the world? What is happening today goes beyond anything you could imagine. How can we be that much like children? By filtering what we watch, what we read!

“It was the RTI that now seems to take a strong position that recalls the extremist Hutus in Rwanda in 1994. All wrongs are assigned to one camp with no chance of an answer and that is dangerous for the peace to which we aspire.”

Fatou convinced a friend of hers, also a writer, to attend a protest against RTI with her. She had been told that the protest would start at the Golf Hotel in the Riviera Golf neighborhood. They were only five minutes from the hotel when they encountered policemen and people with masks; they were forced to turn around.

“And that is how I was saved really, because we came back home,” she said, her voice softening. “A few minutes later, shooting started and in my road, people were killed. We came back and I was lucky to be free.”

Fatou has lived through both of Côte d’Ivoire’s civil wars, but has never thought of leaving Abidjan: she lives here with her 86-year-old mother, two children and a mentally and physically disabled grandchild.

Fatou was born in Soubré, a city in the north of Côte d’Ivoire. She said the xenophobic philosophy of Ivoirité, promoted by Gbagbo, had taken root in people’s minds and that people in Abidjan (in the south of the country) still call her a foreigner. She uses her literature to address this bigotry.

Her first children’s book was The Little Blue Boy, about a boy who is alienated from the other children, because of the colour of his skin. Another book, Un Arbre pour Lollie (A Tree for Lollie), tackles the subject of a schoolgirl with AIDS who is shunned by her classmates.

In the last decade, Fatou started to write novels, including Rebelle. The book is about a young girl named Malimouna, who is caught between West African traditions and Westernized thinking. Female genital circumcision is central to the story: Malimouna does not wish to submit to this ritual — a decision that taints her in the eyes of her community. She flees to Europe and becomes an activist, fighting to liberate herself and other women from patriarchal customs.

Fatou wrote the book in response to a comment by celebrated African-American author Alice Walker.

Fatou was attending a women’s conference in Boston on the subject of African female intellectuals. The women at the conference raised the issue that African female scholars were not doing enough to help disadvantaged women in their respective countries. On the subject of female circumcision, Ms. Walker asked whether women in Africa could love their children if they committed such acts.

“She said we knew it was bad — we wouldn’t have our own daughters mutilated,” Fatou said. “But we just didn’t care about what was happening in our villages, even in our towns.”

This perception hurt Fatou. “I do not think she understands Africa. Most [African] women do love their children. I wanted an opportunity to explain,” Fatou said.

In Côte d’Ivoire, more than 36 per cent of women have been circumcised, but the practice of female genital mutilation varies according to ethnic group, religion, region, and education level. It is most prevalent among Muslim women and in rural areas in the west and north of the country, where women and girls do not have access to education.

Traditional practitioners perform this operation without anesthesia, and with scissors, razor blades, or knives. It is typically done far from medical facilities with techniques and hygiene that do not meet modern standards. It also puts women and girls at risk for contracting HIV and can lead to difficulties in sexual intercourse and birth. In some cases, women have died.

This practice is perceived as a test of courage for young girls; it is also considered to be a ritual of purification and a means of preparing the girl for domestic life. In some areas, there is an economic benefit: there is income for the women who perform the circumcisions and sometimes the village chief gets a cut. And mobile technology is helping to facilitate home visits.

“If a man decides that his daughters will not be circumcised, they will not be.”

But recently there have been a few bright spots in the campaign against female genital mutilation. The National Organization for the Child, the Woman and the Family (ONEF)
Identified 75 practitioners of female circumcision and after a decade-long campaign, thirty of them renounced their trade in Abidjan on November 29, 2011. ONEF hopes that with education, people will understand that it is a harmful practice and will abandon it without feeling they are compromising traditional values.

Fatou’s book Rebelle has sold well in her native country, even making it into the curriculum at the Second College of Côte d’Ivoire. But she emphasizes that the men are the key to changing the cultural perspective on female circumcision.

“To just have it as a law…it doesn’t work. Now what people have to do is educate these women and educate the men, because men — particularly in Africa — are the masters…so I believe that men really have to be associated with [the problem of female circumcision],” Fatou said.

“If a man decides that his daughters will not be circumcised, they will not be.”

* * *
Côte d’Ivoire has modified several international conventions to support the equality of women, including the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW 1979) and the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in 2004. In 2010, a national strategy to combat gender-based violence was drafted.

And yet, Ivorian women still wage war against a government that appears to be making some concessions on the legislative front, but has not fully thrown its weight behind its decrees.

Traditional attitudes endure at home, where a woman’s place is believed to be in the domestic sphere. Early or forced marriage is a problem: a 2004 United Nations report estimated that 25 per cent of girls between 15 and 19 were married, divorced, or widowed. And although polygamy was officially abolished in 1964, the practice is still common in rural — and even some urban — areas. Disparities persist in access to basic social services, education, and employment. Securing loans is particularly difficult, because women rarely meet the lending criteria established by banks. And since last year’s crisis, gender-based violence is on the rise.

De Chantal Ahikpolé hadn’t noticed many positive changes during President Ouattara’s reign.

“Gbagbo or Alassane — it is the same thing,” the magazine editor told me. “People are still suffering. People are still stealing the money. You have to be political to be helped. Nobody wants to help you if you don’t have some big person behind you. You still have to prostitute yourself. There is no difference. The one difference is the person who signs the check.”

A mutual friend introduced Ahikpolé and me; shortly after, Ahikpolé invited me over for tea on a Wednesday afternoon. Her hair was shorn close to her scalp in rivets and swirls. A necklace was looped around her throat three times; she fingered its oblong beads absentmindedly, like one caresses a rosary.

She returned to Côte d’Ivoire three years ago to launch her eponymous magazine after studying and working in magazine design in London for 10 years. She lives here with her seven-year-old daughter Beniela.

Instead of focusing exclusively on make-up, fashion, or dating tips like many Western consumer magazines, Ahikpolé Magazine is concerned with educating women about their rights and their health. Each issue profiles a different ethnic group and observes their traditions with regard to marriage, cooking, motherhood, and pregnancy. In a country with 60 ethnic groups, Ahikpolé is determined to preserve these customs for future generations.

Flipping through the magazine, there are recipes for chicken kedjenou (a stew) and peanut soup. One article tells mothers how to control their children’s asthma while another offers a beginner’s guide to house painting. There is also a question and answer section in which women can ask a judge about their matrimonial, inheritance, or employment rights. (I did manage to find a few articles on how to get a celebrity body and 18 ways to keep your man.)

“How can you read about doing your make-up, when next door there is a woman dying in childbirth?” Ahikpolé said incredulously.

The magazine’s tagline is “For women who are comfortable in their own skin.” It is a magazine for every woman, regardless of ethnicity.

“You have to be comfortable with who you are. If you are black so what? Me, I realize I am black when I am in front of the mirror, because when I wake up in the morning, I wake up as a woman.” She chortled.

“When your husband or partner breaks your heart, you know, you feel it even if he breaks your heart the white way, the black way, the African way.”

Ahikpolé left Beniela’s father when he said she had to choose between him and the magazine. Being a single mother in a culture that reveres marriage is difficult, but the financial pressures of single motherhood are even more daunting, especially when Ahikpolé faces such barriers in funding her magazine.

She admitted that she is picky about advertising: no skin-lightening cosmetics, no cigarettes — and no Maggi seasoning. (“We have to learn to have a good diet, healthy cooking… If Maggi sponsor the recipe, you have to put that bouillon, so no!”)

Ahikpolé had approached other businesses in Abidjan for funding, but has not had much luck. The director of the United Bank of Africa declined, as did the director of a large insurance company in Côte d’Ivoire, because she did not want to be perceived as giving preferential treatment to women.

The director of Air France Magazine called Ahikpolé to compliment her on the magazine, but she was not interested in letting Ahikpolé advertise in the pages of Air France Magazine. She told Ahikpolé that the publishers of Air France did not see women as consumers.

Ahikpolé’s choice of cover girl has rankled members of the Ivorian elite. A famous writer emailed Ahikpolé to ask why she had put “Nobody as a woman” on all six covers of her magazine.

“The woman on the front is always a woman that nobody knows who is doing a ‘man’s job’ or a job that nobody will give respect to,” she told me. “For instance, this woman — the fisherwoman of Cocody ¬— we go with her [to the fish market] and after, we revamp her.”

A russet band had been braided into the woman’s hair like a coronet. Twisted coils of gold rope adorned her neck. Crosses had been traced in orange chalk on her forehead and temples, her arms and shoulders. She looked elated.

Ahikpolé told me that sometimes the men joked around with her: ‘Okay, we won’t slap the wife on Monday, but we will beat her up on Tuesday.’

Each makeover story begins with “Il était une fois…” Once upon a time…

Ahikpolé told me about another makeover, this time of an electrician. The electrician’s father had wanted a son and when his wife gave birth to a daughter, he raised the daughter as a boy: she learned her father’s trade and dressed like a man.

The first time Ahikpolé saw the electrician she was not sure if the makeover was possible. A local fashion designer had similar qualms: “The designer asked: ‘Are you sure this person is a woman?’ I said to her: ‘Yes, I think she’s got breasts.’”

“But the day we dressed her, she was dressed so beautiful — she was beautiful. She started crying when she saw herself, because she was saying: ‘Is that really me?’ And after, we brought her to her place…” She inhaled sharply. “When she knocked on the door, they said: ‘What do you want?’ They did not recognize her.”

Ahikpolé flipped through another issue of the magazine and tapped one manicured fingernail on a page. She told me that this woman ran twice in Bénin’s presidential election, but had stopped talking to Ahikpolé, because Ahikpolé put her inside the magazine instead of on its cover.

“There are no stupid jobs, Cara, just stupid people.” She grinned beatifically.

She leaned towards me conspiratorially. “You are to define yourself by you, not by who you are with. If you are happy, you will see life differently.”

Ahikpolé was born in Grand Bassam and is continuing its strong legacy of female activism with L’Opération Lundi Rouge (Operation: Red Monday), an event she created to bring attention to domestic violence in Côte d’Ivoire.

She turned to her daughter and asked: “Beniela, what do you wear every Monday?”

“Red, Maman.”

Ahikpolé turned to face me. “Even in her school stuff, I put that.“ She pointed to a ribbon sewn into the hem of a dress.

“It is because violence towards women is done in the private sphere – at home, in office – it’s not in the streets, you understand? So if you should put a big campaign with ‘Don’t beat your wife’ or whatever, the guy will say it is not talking to him and he will keep on beating his wife.

“But if the campaign starts from home and the woman says: every Monday — my husband, my kids and I — we will put on something red, because not me” — Ahikpolé waggled a finger at me — “but a woman in my neighborhood has been beaten, raped or harassed; that is why I’m going to put red.”

An International Rescue Commission report released on May 22, 2012 said that the biggest threat to women in post-conflict West Africa was domestic violence. Although physical assault is typically what is associated with domestic violence, it takes many forms: husbands will limit women’s access to food; sexual and emotional abuse is rampant. Being disowned or left destitute is another form of violence against women.

This March, the daily newspaper, L’Intelligent d’Abidjan, stated that 60 per cent of married women were victims of domestic violence. A 2011 Human Rights Watch report stated that the ongoing instability and poverty have forced women to remain in abusive relationships, because they are dependent on their husbands for survival. There are also no laws that protect women from sexual harassment in the workplace.

Ahikpolé told me that sometimes the men joked around with her: ‘Okay, we won’t slap the wife on Monday, but we will beat her up on Tuesday.’

“I say to them: ‘Well, at least, she’s got a free day’!” She let out a throaty laugh.

Ahikpolé hosted her first L’Opération: Lundi Rouge Walk on March 17, 2012 in her hometown. It was a two-hour march that crossed the fabled Victory Bridge, where the women of Grand Bassam had walked more than 60 years ago. Over five thousand people attended.

Ahikpolé told me that every Monday, Beniela is the first one to pick out her red dress.

* * *
There is a rainbow of taxis in Abidjan. The burnt orange ones shuttle between districts; the others — yellow, green, blue — are color-coded according to neighborhood. They are often in abysmal shape: dented and stooped to one side. (A broken windshield or flat tire is usually enough to make any driver pull over in North America; here, they are minor setbacks.)

Some taxis paint benedictions on the back windshields and bumpers: Put Your Confidence in Eternity, May God be with you, The Man Makes The Man…

Fiona and I were in a taxi headed to Amepouh, a shelter for HIV-positive women, children, and vulnerable orphans. “Amepouh” means “we shall overcome.”

Fiona is an Australian expatriate who did her volunteer placement at Amepouh; now she teaches English at the shelter once a week. The organization is located in Yopougon, a district in Abidjan that Fiona called “the last bastion of the fighting.”

When we arrived at the quiet side street where Amepouh is located, a seven-year-old boy ambled toward us. He had a slight build, a runny nose, and eyes soft as suede.

Fiona was delighted to see him. She met him during her volunteer placement.

“Bonjour, A’Pitchou, how are you doing?” she said warmly. He gave me a bashful smile as he hugged the crick of her knee.

His mother trailed behind him. She had a baby strapped to her chest, bound by a wide swath of fabric. When she turned, I noticed a second baby slumped against her back, eyes shuttered against the sun.

Inside the shelter, a picture of Ivorian football star Didier Drogba hung on the wall, an AIDS ribbon pinned over one eye. There was a multi-colored mat, where A’Pitchou’s mother sat with her two infants, and a few tables and chairs. Otherwise, decoration was sparse.

Amepouh caters to 543 women from different socio-economic backgrounds — mothers, widows, the unemployed, students — and more than 1000 children. Their members come from all across the southern region of Côte d’Ivoire.

The Director of Amepouh, Cynthia, had dark circles under her eyes and a deliberate way of speaking. She explained that one of the goals of the shelter was to help the women and children regain their health. Amepouh also initiates discussion groups and games that educate their members about HIV.

In 2000, the shelter opened a foster home for some of its members. During the six-month process, the women learn to manage their health and become self-sufficient through income-generating activities, like sewing or hairdressing. In this way, they are able to regain their daily lives.

Unfortunately, there has been a steep learning curve with these activities. Amepouh had a pig farm, but the pigs did not grow; the organization did not have the proper equipment or expertise to run this type of business. Amepouh also dabbled in catering, but the remote location hindered their efforts and they were not able to provide adequate support. Their next venture, a cybercafé, seems more promising, but its completion hinges on whether or not they receive funding.

I wondered how Amepouh stays afloat — particularly given the political crises and the rules on how a non-governmental organization like theirs qualifies for funding.

Fiona had explained to me that Amepouh’s programs are funded by larger NGOs like PEPFAR (the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and smaller grassroots ones, like Save the Children and Geneva Global.

Amepouh has to demonstrate that it has the transparency and equipment to handle large sums of money. In addition, the umbrella organization sets the agenda and objectives and will only distribute the funding according to its own agenda: even though Amepouh is in the field and can best ascertain where money should be spent, it does not have the autonomy to do so.

For example, one of Amepouh’s funders placed emphasis on HIV testing and neglected to give funding to the programs that Amepouh believes are vitally important for treating people living with HIV; good nutrition, for example, is vital for the ARV (anti-retroviral treatment) to work.

During last year’s crisis, Amepouh was robbed of most of its belongings. The children’s items were stolen, including four dictionaries, 40 children’s books and six geometric sets. Computers, televisions, 25 mattresses, stoves, freezers, and sewing machines were also taken.

I read the police report with its “Inventory of Plunder:” It describes “systematic looting” — even the fans were peeled from the ceilings. When the women of Amepouh returned, there were only a few chairs left and mercenaries were holed up in their offices. (To add insult to injury, the cost to file a police report was 50,000 Central African francs ($100 USD).

War, with its capacity for displacing large populations, not only makes people more susceptible to HIV, but also affects the ability of HIV-positive people to manage their health. To date, Amepouh has been unable to locate all of its members, because their files were burned during the three-day pillage.

With their files destroyed, Amepouh did not have access to the data that supported how they had used their funding and their partners did not have back ups. And without equipment, Amepouh could not demonstrate that it had the data collection capacity to utilize the funding; therefore, the shelter’s funding officially ended last December at a time when they needed it more than ever.

Amepouh does not provide health services, but supplies basics like food and shelter as well as psychosocial care, nutritional support through the distribution of food kits, and some financial support towards the purchase of drugs for opportunistic infections.

Unfortunately, more than 87 per cent of HIV investments in Côte d’Ivoire rely on external aid — this is a very common trend in Africa. And most HIV medicines are imported, which makes them prohibitively expensive for the people who need them. To bridge the gap, Côte d’Ivoire needs homegrown solutions, like the local production of HIV drugs and a single regulatory agency in Africa to roll out quality-assured drugs more quickly.

This February, President Ouattara pledged to increase domestic funding for HIV. Amepouh is one of many NGOs waiting to see whether this promise pans out.

“The most important thing for our future is that Amepouh becomes autonomous, that we don’t have to wait for financing anymore so that we can manage ourselves,” said Cynthia.

“There was one woman I helped. No one would explain to her what she had: they told her her blood was dirty.” She shook her head. “Me, I saw she was suffering, wasting away — she had lesions all over her body.”

Amepouh still tries to concentrate on another important objective: the re-integration of HIV-positive women and children with the families that rejected them. Amepouh uses the services of a team of two advisors, a nurse, and a psychologist to tackle mediation with families. Members require the help of this team to be accepted in the way that they are accepted at Amepouh, where they are able to eat from the same plates and drink from the same glasses.

When I asked Cynthia what happens if the women need to stay a bit longer, she told me with a glimmer of a smile that they find a way. But she reiterated that the main objective of the shelter is not to keep the women here, but to ease the way back home.

The five women around the table remained hushed. The sun sliced through the airless room. I had barely heard the whine of flies since I had arrived.

Finally, another woman spoke up. “Being infected is not the end of the world. It’s true that it is a disease, but we don’t give any importance to it. We encourage people to do their HIV tests, to know they are infected. What is important to us is that we give people their lives back, that we feel useful.”

“There was one woman I helped. No one would explain to her what she had: they told her her blood was dirty.” She shook her head. “Me, I saw she was suffering, wasting away — she had lesions all over her body.”

“I told her: ‘I am going to take care of you.’ I took her to do her screening and the woman found out she was infected. It has been four years and now she is beautiful; she can work. When I see her, I am full of joy.”

* * *
When Fiona and I left Amepouh, a ramshackle taxi honked at us. Fiona negotiated the fare and we hopped in. Exhaust mingled with the acrid sweetness of burnt garbage. On the shoulder, the hood of a car swelled open, its engine vomiting smoke.

As the radio bleated the day’s headlines, I rolled my window down and let the air pummel my face. My nose twitched from the dust.

As our taxi slowed down at another intersection, a girl darted towards us — mercurial, a minnow skirting the edges of the window.

When she asked me for money, I shook my head and braced myself for another forlorn face; instead, she said, “Que Dieu vous bénisse” (May God bless you). Then she scurried away as the lights changed, her silhouette swallowed by the sun’s haze.

* * *
In late June, the Ivorian monsoon had gained strength: rain slashed the windows so hard that they shuddered; plaited branches waved fistfuls of torn leaf.

Manu and I were preparing to fly to Washington DC, where he had a conference. Before our flight, we headed to his office to settle a few last-minute details. An hour later, we took the car to grab lunch at a nearby maquis.

When we returned, sheets of rain were still spilling from the awning. As I exited the car, a person appeared behind me, uttering garbled sounds that were further warped by the drumming of the rain.

I tried not to recoil: the face and upper body were badly burned; the skin was swollen and had bubbled, dragging the right cheek and lip down. The right arm was stippled with blisters. The lopsided mouth imbibed air with difficulty.

I could not tell what age or gender the person was.

The security guard escorted the person off the compound and into a solid curtain of water. I watched the outline retreat into the storm, into the shallow graves of the city.

Manu’s driver, Bamba, told us she was fifteen years old and that the burns must have been recent; he saw her a few weeks ago and she did not have these injuries. He did not know if she had anyone to take care of her.

“It must really hurt to feel the rain on her skin,” Manu said. This statement made me wince.

When we left for the airport, I clutched a few coins in my hand. I looked for her down side streets and under roofs, but she was gone.

[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]

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