When you go out to meet people, ideas and projects are born from their needs. This is what happens in the south of Chad, where needs are intertwined with desires for redemption. Starting with learning to read and write. Sister Marilda Sportelli, an Alcantarine Franciscan talk about her experience among Chadian women.
The town of Doba is located on the large road that leads south from the capital N’Djamena. This asphalt road literally splits Chad in half, connecting the country’s political capital with what everyone considers the real economic city of the south, Moundou.
I arrived in Chad in November 2018 and found myself immediately immersed in the lives of Chadian women. I threw myself into working at Foyer Anuarite (a drop-in centre for girls). We take in Ngambaye, Goré and Mongo girls born in the rural villages, who want to go to high school in the city. They live with us 24 hours a day, from October to June, in a space dedicated entirely to them. Thanks to the Foyer, I have tried to enter the lives of these young girls.
I do not believe in chance, so I let go of my fears and mistrust and, little by little, I discovered the world of ‘Dene Marem’ (‘woman friend of mine, in the Ngambaye language). With this simplicity entrusted to me, the literacy course for women was born. I looked around and, thanks to the experience of local catechists, priests and lay people, I managed to enter many homes and communities, especially Arab-Muslim ones.
A white woman, with a cross around her neck, entering a Muslim community is unusual, certainly not the order of the day. It was with this surprise that I was greeted by the community leaders, which were all men.
In the first Islamic communities I met here in the city, I never received refusals, but always a warm and respectful welcome. Getting to the women and talking to them has not always been easy. I learned to wait and go through several steps: meeting the community leader, who is seldom the same as the imam; meeting the husbands of the ‘designated’ women; only after the third or fourth meeting was I able to meet and get to know the women.
What has always struck me at their first glance is the simplicity of their being second, third and fourth wives of the same man, their being mothers of many children who fill the house and come out from everywhere. Beautiful girls with the marks of ethnic groups and cultures painted on their hands and faces, which want them to be this beautiful, hidden among the clothes that cover them completely.
We are in the second year of the ‘Dene Marem’ project, and the literacy courses fill up as soon as enrolments open. The women alone are the master of beauty and care, and looking at their interest and attention, they seem to have hit the nail on the head. In the first year, we managed to involve about 40 women of Catholic, Protestant and Muslim faiths.
This is a beautiful cross-section of a world of women who live in the market, in the neighbourhoods, on the small country roads, and who carry the economy, education and life of the whole of Africa on their shoulders.
Women get on well with each other, but I never thought the understanding could go this far. Women, in fact, can be perfect enemies, but also excellent accomplices in life. This is my everyday experience, at present: accomplices in discovering themselves as women worthy of the name.
The literacy school has made it possible to weave relationships between us, allowing the different clear-cut and well-defined affiliations to leave room for storytelling. In the hours devoted to women’s health (a world waiting to be discovered), I have been able to see and hear from the women present real taboos that could not wait to be revealed.
An ‘intimate’ world kept hidden, but which, just by being together, could be revealed and perhaps accepted more: the violence they have suffered, the absurd sexual practices to which they are subjected, the different ways of taking care of their bodies with what little they have. All this silenced me and the medical missionary who had come for the training.
A respectful silence accompanied this interminable confrontation, and it was nice to end it all with a hearty laugh that did not aim to silence hearts, but enveloped them in that healthy awareness that knows how to smile at the dramas suffered, because African wisdom keeps wounds and injustices alive, and with a disarming “It’s all right, sister”, we continue to bear everything.
The ‘Dene Marem’ project has also been enriched by the publication of a newsletter dedicated solely to women: a small, artisanal tool to provide an opportunity for education and storytelling. The 4 pages that talk about medicine, school and books, as well as psychology that dares to speak to the heart, are not very much. Distribution is entrusted to the women themselves, who rely on their neighbourhood relationships and market friends.