I was on the way to Rwanda. My seat mate turned out to be an attractive, obviously wealthy woman, in her mid 50s. Before she even took her seat I knew she was going to be a talker. “Your first time to Africa?” she asked. No no, I’ve spent quite a bit of time there actually. “Oh, I’m going through a really ugly divorce,” she said, getting settled in and buckling her seatbelt, emphasizing “ugly” by widening her eyes. “I’m on a spiritual journey with a group of women. We’re going to see the gorillas and visit projects in Rwanda and Kenya for women victims of rape and violence. I know my life seems hard, but I’m really so lucky to be where I am. I am going to help women in Africa as part of my own healing process. I really need to find meaning and purpose in my life.” I inwardly rolled my eyes, thinking this woman was in no mental or emotional place to help anyone, let alone women who had been battered, raped or otherwise gotten a bad rap in life. I wondered why it was “Africa” that she needed in order to find “meaning and purpose.”
We talked the entire flight, and she kind of grew on me, despite the concerns I had about her reasons for going to “Africa.”
I saw a beautiful woman who had been in an abusive and destructive marriage, had a self-admitted and externally-obvious low self-esteem, a series of plastic surgeries and that kind of wealth- and power-based bad relationship with her children and ex-husband that I’d only seen in movies about rich people. I felt bad for the women that she was going to “help.” I imagined them feeling obliged to be kind to her as she got teary-eyed, bringing her own drama into it, feeling sorry for them, hugging them, “bonding with them,” taking pictures with them and telling them that despite their differences, they had something in common simply because they were women. She wasn’t a bad person, just perhaps misguided. I actually did hope that somehow her trip to “Africa” would help her heal the damage that had been done to her as a beautiful, rich woman from the West Coast of the US. I didn’t agree with her motives, but if she was going to be there anyway, I hoped at least she would come out of it stronger and healthier somehow.
As we parted ways upon arriving to Kigali, we realized that strangely enough, we were on the same flight back to the US, so we arranged to meet in the airport pre-flight for a bite or a beer. I found her at the airport with a group of wealthy, new-agey, middle-aged US women who were, like herself, seeking spiritual healing from Africa. They’d been to see the gorillas. They’d visited Kibera, a large slum in Nairobi. They’d gone through some kind of 5 or 7 or 12-step program to strengthen their womanhood and heal the spiritual and emotional vacuum inside them, to address the emptiness that often comes along with the life of plenty, privilege and pressure that only the wealthy understand.
She gushed about her trip to see the gorillas, and a long discussion ensued with the rest of the women about whether the guide was Hutu or Tutsi, and what that meant, and how they couldn’t help but think he must be Hutu, and they secretly didn’t trust him, though he was actually very intelligent. They talked about how the whole country of Rwanda needed healing. One of the tour operators explained a program that she was running to help women who had been raped “shake.” This “shaking,” she said, cures them of the emotional scars associated with the horrible experiences of having been raped, watching family members killed or otherwise experiencing the terror of living through a genocide. She said a similar program had been very successful in the DRC. I politely smiled and nodded at the appropriate times, feeling uncomfortable.
My airplane friend pulled out her iPhone and started flipping through pictures of gorillas and their adorable babies. Then her eyes welled up. “We went to Kibera” she said. “It’s a terrible place. Oh, these women. You have no idea what they go through. Look at this….” she said. “This girl was raped 7 times.” “This girl, she has HIV and her older sister is all she has left to take care of her.” “This woman started a home for raped girls, she was raped too, 12 times.” She quickly flipped through a series of pictures of girls and women that she had met and who had sad, sad stories that she repeated as if reciting facts from a text-book. I wondered if she saw them as human, or if they were just more photos to document her own experience of seeing the horrors found in “Africa.”
She talked about all her goals of helping these women. She was going to start a charity in Kibera for them and she wanted me to help, since I knew a lot about this kind of thing. I was at a loss for words. I didn’t even know where to start so I smiled and said we’d talk once we got home. We didn’t.