Wednesday, February 1, 2012


     What little light there was in the dark room, flickered out of an old, beat up TV in the corner, around which a group of men in long traditional Malian tunics sat, watching the African channel. I couldn’t tell if the newscaster was speaking in French, Mali’s national language, or Bambara, its lingua franca, because the volume was too low for me to pick out any of the few phrases I might have recognized. Maria,* the Dutch woman I was with, called the dingy room a bar, but it wasn’t alcohol they were selling. As I stood in the shadows by the door, trying to take it in, I thought “I’m in a brothel. I wonder if I should feel scared?”
    The pilgrimage that took me from my loving, protected home in the church parsonage of a small New York town, to the dark alleys and streets of Bamako, Mali West Africa’s red light district, was a strange one. Since I was twelve I knew that Africa was where I was headed--the goal that kept me scrubbing floors, saving every penny I earned, for the plane ticket that would take me there. In the spring of ‘09, when I was sixteen, I handed that hard earned ticket, marked Bamako, Mali, to the airport personnel in Casablanca, Morocco. I was finally on the last leg of my journey, a journey that spanned four years of planning and praying, the Atlantic, and nearly two days of layovers and flights. I was almost there.
     Excitement and sheer exhaustion warred in my head, keeping me up for those last four hours. I knew this trip would likely determine the rest of my life. It would prove whether my crazy dream of living and working in Africa was just that, a crazy kid’s dream, or if my sure sense that this was what I was meant for was true.
     For the next two weeks, all my nerves were strained, desperately trying to absorb everything: the colors, brightly patterned clothing, wide, white smiles against black skin, tattered rags on little, beautiful bodies, wordless bonding through barefoot soccer, gorgeous views of red Malian dirt and green mountains littered with reeking piles of trash. The strangest mix of incredible beauty overlaid with filth, heartbreaking poverty and a wealth of laughter and joy. My Dad and I traveled with international workers from our church denomination, The Christian and Missionary Alliance. We volunteered at a women’s and children’s hospital, taught at two summer camps for kids, and shared soap and smiles amidst the horrific conditions of a Malian prison. It was a hellhole of flies and heat, men crammed together in unbelievably inhumane conditions.
     Now here I was, standing next to Maria, the Dutch International worker who runs a center that provides alternative vocational training for women caught in the sex trade. Malian culture is extremely focused on greetings, so while Maria handed out fliers and talked with prostitutes, my job was to smile and shake hands. Circled by girls in skinny jeans, tank tops and miniskirts, garb that would go unnoticed in America, but in Mali’s modest culture, were a sure indicator of prostitution, Maria looked them each in the eye, and asked them if they wanted something better. The direct, motherly way she interacted with them, holding their hands, patting cheeks, laughing and teasing, helped to ease the uncomfortable looks her questions caused. “If you ever want to get out, I will be here to help you,” she earnestly told a girl, as a man nuzzled her shoulder, and kissed up her neck.
     We met two pregnant girls who were unable to get any medical attention. As a woman in Mali, you need papers signed by your husband, or a male relative providing for you. Obviously, these girls had neither, and at 8 months pregnant, one of the girls had yet to see a doctor, and planned on delivering without one.
     I met her in the last group of girls, on our way back to Maria’s car. She was seventeen, and had been in the business since she was fourteen, when she was offered a “good job” in Côte d'Ivoire. Her name was Awa. I found this out later; all I knew then was that mid way through the circle of shaking hands and smiling, the girl in the yellow tank top reached out and hugged me.
     She was starved for affection, needed desperately to be loved, touched by someone who wasn’t using her. The uncertainty and pleading in her huge eyes changed to joy when I hugged her back.
     I was always insecure, and prone to panicking inside when given a new task, terrified I wouldn’t get it right. But now my only job was to love her, and that I could do. Sweaty and covered in the brown-orange film of dust kicked up from the red Malian dirt, emotionally and physically exhausted after my afternoon in the Malian prison, holding a prostitute, I was suddenly completely content. The Bible says that “To whom much is given, much also is required.” (Luke 12:48) Hugging Awa, I knew that I had been given so much; a home, clothes and food and a good education, and I didn’t have to sell myself to buy any of them. For the first time, I fully appreciated my innocence. All I wanted was to give back. My “crazy kid’s dream” was confirmed, this was what I was meant for. I plan on dedicating my life to bring justice and freedom to girls like Awa.
     Awa destroyed my illusions, taught me that my nice, safe little world was a figment of my imagination. But, of all the shocking things I saw there, the most horrifying discovery came later-- I found I could forget. While standing in the prison, and later holding Awa, I thought that my capacity for selfishness was surely being burnt out of me. I was shocked and disillusioned to find that I could still be lazy, that a life wasted on the pursuit of my own pleasure was still an option for me.
     Even as Awa shattered my glass house, introducing me to the harsh realities of life, she taught me to hope. I realized that human selfishness is a prison you have to daily choose to be free of, and that it is the choice, not the emotion, that determines who you are. Though I may feel selfish, because of Awa I will always choose to live selflessly. Until I faced the horrific aspects of both my own nature, and the world, I could not possibly hope to change either.

*Names changed to protect identities.


  1. Posting this old essay (it was my college application essay) in honor of Anti-human trafficking week! Fight the good fight, people.

  2. Awesome essay Anna, you should speak at schools around the area. Like Grace Christian

  3. I don't think I ever actually read this all the way through. It's amazing.