Friday, February 29, 2008

A girl from Moyamba

Several months ago a colleague of mine told me about a case he was working on. Four years ago a 14 year old orphan girl in Moyamba district, Sierra Leone, was offered “love” by a young man. She rejected him. Later when she was going to collect palm wine, he ambushed her, attacked her with a cutlass, and raped her. As a result of her injuries, she started bleeding through her nose and nipples during menstruation. She has to be hospitalized every month, and recently has been going into a severe fit every time.

After the initial attack, the man said he’d take medical responsibility for her. No surprise he didn’t. Instead, a year ago he attacked and assaulted her again. She’s now confined to a safehouse and a hospital every month when she menstruates. He’s living in his town, out on bail.

Since I heard about this girl in Moyamba, I haven’t gone a day without thinking about her. It’s with me wherever I go.

As someone focused on human rights issues, it’s not as if I haven’t read or seen my share of horrors. And like many people here, I almost believed, in a twisted way, optimistically and naively that I couldn’t be shocked anymore. But this was new. A way of suffering I never even knew or could have imagined possible.

Dostoyevsky commented, “We talk of bestial cruelty. But that is a cruel insult to the beasts. A beast can never be so artistically cruel as a man.” We can and should admire the amazing artistry of beauty in this world, but the darkness is just as artistic, just as creative, just as inventive.

I thought then, and I think now of Ivan Karamazov querying his brother Alyosha in the smoky tavern. He tells Alyosha about a “poor child of five.”

"(She) was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty- shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, and because she didn't ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child's groans! Can you understand why a little creature, who can't even understand what's done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her?"

And he asks Alyosha, if Alyosha could create a world to guarantee man’s future happiness, where he could transform all suffering into joy and comfort, but only on the condition that “it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature - that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance - and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?”

When Dostoyevsky left the Siberia prison camp where he was exiled for six years, he commented, “If someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth and that in reality the truth were outside of Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.” Like Kierkegaard, the despair of a godless world, where “everything would be permitted,” terrified him too much. So even if it meant rejecting truth, they decided to take the leap of faith, accept Pascal’s wager, and simply embrace god as a divine placebo to the hopelessness they saw facing them otherwise. There would be none of Feuerbach’s ability to find hope in the rejection of god and embrace of “the anthropological essence of religion” - god as merely a projection of man. Nor would they be able to find comfort in the Nietzschean “will to power” after the declaration of the death of god. Rather faith in god grew partially from the fertile soil of fear, fear that if they “gazed into the abyss the abyss would gaze also into them,” fear that a life without god could only be sustained by Schopenhauer’s irrational “will to live,” fear that the world may really be as dark as it often appears, and only some otherworldly power and faith could salvage the wreck.

But I’m not concerned with whether god exists or not. Stuck with my Euclidean mind, it’s an answer beyond my ability to discern. Perhaps I prefer to take the folk singer Iris Dement’s refrain and “let the mystery be,” or bear homage to Kierkegaard’s concession that he is too stupid to understand philosophy, and philosophy is too clever to understand his stupidity. I just can’t help but wonder: Dostoyevsky argued that without god, all things are permitted. But if god does exist, if god can and does act in this world, and if a girl will bleed every month through her nose and nipples, what things aren’t permitted, even with god?

My question is then like Ivan’s. If you could create an architecture guaranteeing man’s future happiness, divine justice, the conversion of all pain to joy, but one girl must be raped and have to bleed every month through her nose and nipples… would you consent? And perhaps more importantly, could you praise such an architect?


Garreth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Garreth said...


How uncanny is it that just this day, March 8, I received from my father a birthday card that contained a photocopy of several pages from a book entitled, AN INTRODUCTION TO CHRISTIAN APOLOGETICS (you can imagine I shuddered). This particular section was a discussion of Pascal's Wager. I've never liked the damn thing. It assumes too much for me, and I was wracking my brain to find some response to it, some reasoned, real-world response to the position Pascal forces us into. And then I read this....

I wish I had the words to explain the profound impact of this piece. But nothing would do it justice. I do not know how to reconcile such profound suffering with a belief in god. Just the other day I heard Richard Dawkins on the radio and Terry Gross had asked him why, if we've evolved so far, why we hadn't also evolved a higher sense of morality and displayed it by being better people. Dawkins reversed the question as his answer, "why are we as moral as we are? That's the real question" His answer is somewhat evasive, I think, and relies more on biological anthropology (that weird mix of science and sociology)than sciencetific empiricism, but still...fascinating.

I'm sure I've wandered off here, but suffice it to say I am, as always, so happy to read what's happening in your life and what good you are doing in the world.


Rosie said...

Keep up the good work.