Agnes & the Agony of PTSD
Three girls came to Chwele from Taru to represent our SOS club (Save Our Sisters). They traveled the 20 plus hours in the car with the older team to share with the girls of Chwele the idea of starting a club—a club of girls that would be advocates for other girls, mentoring them, offering them much needed sanitary supplies, teaching them skills that would help them stay safe and most importantly, stay in school! These girls know the power of education and know that it is their only hope for having lives that raise them above being beasts of burden.
One of the girls was Agnes Mwari, a young woman I’ve known for six years. In a land where poverty provided plenty of harrowing experiences, her past had been especially hard. When she had been accepted into our program, her mother brought me a chicken (which is a huge gift!) to thank us for providing hope for the family through this sponsorship. She also told me that the family needed that hope, as they had experienced a terrible tragedy. Their oldest daughter, in the early evening, had been out herding their small herd of cattle, and had never returned. She was later found in the forest, having been brutally raped and murdered.
This story struck me deeply. I wanted to make sure Agnes got a very stable sponsor, so I’d assigned her to Anette Packer in Newport Beach, a loyal Kenya Keys supporter who had been to Taru to see the programs in action. Anette promised to stay with Agnes through her educational career.
But it wasn’t until I spent the time in Chwele working with Agnes, that I realized just how severely she had been damaged by her sister’s death. She had been chosen to come because of her dedication to SOS and because of her academic acumen, but she was definitely the most subdued of the three girls who came. “It’s hard for me to speak in front of people,” Mama Rinda. But I will try.” She did fine, but I could feel her discomfort.
As we left the first training, where many of the girls had shared stories of pain and hardship, I put my arm around her and told her I was thinking about her. I told her how strong she was to have moved on after her sister’s death. It was then that she burst open. For the next hour she held on to me like she’d never been held before, and knowing how the families in Taru love each other fiercely, but never show affection, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the first time she had been held. She told me how her sister’s death was always with her. How it would pop up to engulf her with horror and grief. She sobbed as she told me the details I hadn’t heard: how her sister Joyce, age 12, had been loved by everyone; especially by Agnes, who followed her in age. She told me of the night she didn’t return. I could picture it. the family waiting. The cattle being found. But no Joyce. The villagers, with no flashlights, searching in the dark. “She wasn’t found for a week,” Agnes said. “My father had to hire soldiers to look.” Her body was finally found. “She was yellow,” Agnes said. “And she’d been butchered like a goat.” I held her tightly, under the African sky. I was speechless. What do you say? How do you even begin to bring comfort to a wound so gaping and deep? It’s 12 years later. She was 8 years old when it happened. And she is describing it like it was yesterday. “My mother just stays in bed,” she says. “My father lost all his money hiring soldiers to look for her and then walk me everywhere because he was afraid I’d be taken too.” A family in ruins. Her mother going on to have more children, but never able to engage or care.
And here was Agnes, a beautiful girl, coming to try to help others. She’d been teaching the adults in our program as well as helping at the Kenya Keys community library, while waiting to start college in the fall. But clearly for this girl, there was no real “moving on.” As Mariam, the adult leader who had accompanied the girls said, “When all the other girls are jumping about, Agnes doesn’t jump.” Her spirit has been broken. She goes through all the right motions, learning and giving, but she is stone inside, frozen in time living and breathing the agony of her sister’s death.
Again I was speechless. I could feel the guilt swelling inside her: she was the one that lived. Suddenly the lights that were flooding the grounds where we were went out. Plunged into darkness, she kept holding on. The quiet joined us to witness her pain. And then the lights hummed and came on again, a welcome relief. I told her that she was like the light that came back on. That just because there had been such darkness in her life, it didn’t need to stay dark. That her sister would want her to be happy; would want her to laugh and live and be, and hold on to the life that she herself wasn’t allowed to live. She calmed a bit, perhaps surprised to think she had been given permission to be happy. That in being so, she wasn’t being disloyal to Joyce’s memory. I told her she could carry Joyce’s light, and that her life could reflect it.
I could tell this was a new thought for her, a thought that she liked, but certainly not a thought that brought her instant relief, as I would have magically wished.
The next morning she came to me again, wanting to be near, seeming to be grateful that there was someone that now knew what she was carrying. I told her I’d been thinking about her; that there was a problem called PTSD. I explained it to her, and how it could hold people prisoner to the past. And that other people suffered. Her eyes came to life. “How can I learn about it?” She asked. I told her I’d get some information from the internet. That people get better—not all better, but that they can improve as they understand what is happening. She smiled. It had never occurred to her that she wasn’t consigned to live this life of horror.
I never found internet strong enough to download information, but I promised her I would send it to the Kenya Keys office when I returned; that they could print it for her and she could share it with her family. Knowledge is power. Education is light. It can’t solve everything, but the thought of linking Agnes to information that could make her feel less alone made me happy. It’s what makes this work so rewarding. It’s about helping the light turn on.
Go gently into your future Agnes. Let hope give you wings. The information is on its way.