By Samantha Anderson
Photos by: Chris Gallow
Sophie is sitting at a table with Salima and Josephine reading a romance novel to them.
Josephine, gum-chewing and blue eye-shadow wearing, is excited and rubs her arms with a shiver as Salima leans in wanting to hear more. But soon Mama Nadi comes in and breaks up their rendezvous. She already knows how the story will end and there isn’t time to sit around reading when you work in a brothel. Even during civil conflict, business is rarely slow.
Mama Nadi, played by Yanna McIntosh, is the main character in Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning play, Ruined produced by Obsidian in association with Nightwood at the Berkeley Street Theatre. It is set in the Democratic Republic of Congo where ongoing conflicts continue even though the war officially ended in 2002.
Nottage travelled to the Congo in 2004 and listened to women recount stories of rape and torture at the hands of both the government militia and rebel soldiers – in a land where 45, 000 people die every month from preventable violence and hunger.
Rich in minerals, gold and diamonds, conflict to exploit the land has become a way of life in the Congo. The International Rescue Committee states that so far 5.4 million people have died.
Nottage’s play tells the story of Mama Nadi’s brothel, and the women that live there with her, safer than they would be at home.
The small theatre was full and the set showed the interior of the brothel, brick walls, beaded curtains, garish colours and plastic chairs, some with missing backs. Metal ashtrays were put out on the three tables in front of Mama’s bar.
The rule was to empty your weapons upon arrival, and all patrons did this. Mama had gained respect, in whatever way she had to. In some cases this meant chasing men out with a knife, the tin roof overhead and Christmas lights inside making it seem festive for the band.
Sometimes Mama would sing. A pool table with wooden sides was set up in the corner. Despite the violence going on outside, Mama’s place offered a bit of solace, the doors, always open.
Mama, dressed in long print dresses, had to deal with angry and drunk soldiers and mindless miners coming in and out of the brothel. Mama knew how to keep people satisfied for the simple fact that her life, and the lives of the women living with her, depended on it.
These women are not victims and do not see themselves as such even though Salima, played by Sophia Walker, was kept “chained like a goat” before finding Mama’s. Josephine was a Chief’s daughter whose father was killed before she came to Mama’s and Sophie, played by Sabryn Rock, was “ruined.” She had nowhere else to go but to Mama’s, who agreed to take her in, although it meant another mouth to feed.
To be Ruined
Being ‘ruined’ refers to an injury known as traumatic fistula. This is when, mostly because of sexual violence, women are faced with holes in their bladders, vagina and rectum from being attacked.
Traumatic fistula can lead to complete incontinence, nerve damage, stigma and unprecedented pain. Women who develop traumatic fistulas are abandoned by their communities and their husbands, often with nowhere to go.
In the Congo, a place where women are routinely fought over like stolen property, used and left for dead, taking in a ruined woman to her brothel was certainly a gamble for Mama. But she knew what they were up against. She had felt the boot pressed against the cheek, the gun nestled against the temple, ribs or mouth. She had felt the countless forced entry, aggression and seemingly hopeless situation. Mama cleaned up the blood where she could. She could not say no to a pretty face. In her words, “there will always be squabbles, ancient or otherwise.”
Director Philip Akin says the women in this play are the distillation of many women who’ve survived horrors that we can only imagine. Yet, they are still wrapped in humanity.
Obsidian is launching a fundraiser in conjunction with Ruined to raise money for the Panzi Hospital in the Congo for women with fistulas to have surgery. More information can be found at www.fistulafoundation.org
Feature image: Sabryn Rock, Yanna McIntosh and Sophia Walker (L-R)