Today, I'm shaking in my shalwar kameez as I write about the incredibly surreal experience I had in a border town brothel. That day last May jarred me more than anything else has in a long time. Perhaps that is why it's taken me a year to actually pen these words; it takes time and intentionality to swim through the deep waters of the soul. I am so honored to be sharing this behind-the-scenes glimpse (with some photos!) of the work we do in red light areas through Akhi's Place. I'm guest posting over at Djibouti Jones for Rachel Pieh Jones as part of a "What I Learned" series on cultural diversity.
Stench. Filth. Nausea. Everything I had imagined and everything I had feared hit me in the face on that day last spring when I walked into a brothel in Southern Asia and sat down on one of the beds. All the things I had read came crashing down on my head. Men came in droves, in and out, in and out, slinking around like they didn’t want their Mamas to catch them. At the same time, there was a tilt to their shoulders, like some kind of badge of merit or achievement had just been won. Young girls, barely thirteen or fourteen years old, with their beautiful faces painted like a white-washed picket fence eyed me from their perches on the teeter totter of hope and resignation. And just like that, they pulled on my arm; they pulled me into their world.
Underage girls. Drunken men. Large women, with gaps in their teeth. This is what I had expected. There could be no questions; I was their guest. I couldn’t ask what I really wanted to know. I couldn’t grab the girls by the hand and whisk them away to safety, to freedom, to take them back to the childhood they had lost. The idea of freedom is like pink cotton candy; it’s fluffy and light. The reality, though, its road, is more like a ton of bricks settling down in the hollow of your stomach; it can weigh on you and shift your every move around with its awkward gait.
I had expected to feel everything I did while sitting on that bed. With the soiled curtains mocking me as they blew haphazardly in the wind, I became outraged that this was happening in my world, on my watch. I expected to have the image of the little boy begging me “Aunty, Aunty, please take me home with you. Don’t you love me, Aunty? Don’t you want me, Aunty?” to be seared, branded, embedded into my memory, into my conscious, a part of my very being. I expected the anger, the fear, the what-ifs to run amuck in my brain.
What I never expected was to accept the hospitality that was offered. I didn’t see the grace or the love coming, and it pummeled me over, like an avalanche. Right there, on her sturdy bed, the overweight Madam, the one in charge, the one who held the power (maybe) to stop this atrocious work, invited me to come over and drink a nice cold bottle of Sprite.
This same lady who was influential in keeping all of those young precious girls inside the brothel, working and earning and sinking ever farther down, was just as influential in getting small girls, babies really, outside the brothel, away from the stench and the sin and the sorrow. How could this be?
With tears in our eyes, we talked of *Satvik, her eight year old daughter, who had recently come to live in the residential home that my husband and I operate. Here I was, sitting on the bed with the brothel Madam, swapping tales of report cards and holiday treats, laughing at the girlish antics of the one who had made both our lives come full circle. I, with my rescue, and she, with her “business,” had found a little bridge to connect the chasm between us. Tentatively, like the first five minutes of an already maladroit first date, we began to walk along that bridge, makeshift steps and all.
She told me how she had brought her girl to Akhi’s Place, to our girls’ rescue home, determined that Satvik grow up with a different story, living out a better life. This same woman who commanded the other girls to “get back to work” had made sure another girl received the chance to go to school, to learn English and computer skills, to get as far away from the white-washed tombs hiding in the eyes of the brothel workers as possible.
What I learned that day last spring was pretty simple, really. Whether I am sitting in front of my computer screen or sitting on a bed in a brothel, I can’t slap a one-size-fits-all label on to others. I can no longer pretend that I am capable of measuring the unseen oceans within them. Mothers want the same things for their children. Whether we are sipping luxury from a white suburban spoon or engaged body and soul in the atrocities that even a dingy curtain cannot hide, we want something more for our children.
I saw unspeakable darkness in the border town brothel that day. Its palatable grip choked my expectations and what I thought I knew about ministering to the exploited. I also saw, and inhaled in short steady doses, the reality that Light and Hope can live there, too. There is a Madam, now a friend and ally, working with my team and me to see that same Light push the darkness back a little further. I can’t help but believe that His Light is also warming her from the inside out in the process.