A Body Filled With Words

Janell Burley Hofmann, December 10, 2014

I am here in Kolkata to teach workshops to girls and women that have been trafficked or are at risk of being trafficked into the modern day slave trade – particularly forced prostitution. Made By Survivors and their partner Women’s Interlink Foundation clearly defined the workshop topics that would make best use of my service: parenting, internet safety, and personal health. So all week I will travel to production centers to shelter homes to group homes to sit with women and teach. Seems pretty clear and straightforward. It certainly seems easy enough to make an outline, offer strategies for takeaway, have a clear intention or goal, answer some questions and move on to the next group. This is my career. No problem. Additionally, I have checked these boxes: I have a translator. I have served in this city before. I have a solid understanding of the issues. But I know better. It is never that simple here.  

In one of my initial conferences with the organization director, I was sharply reminded that the relentless preparer in me would need to surrender. My plan, my direction, and expectations must be softened in approach, but ferocious in message.  He told me that technology can create an easy path for traffickers. There have been close calls. This is not a potential scenario, this is reality. For the first time, I feel with intensity that my message might save a young woman’s life if I am deliberate and wise enough to reach her. He updated me on their relationships and marriages. The things that happen to their bodies at their own hands or the hands of the men in their life. We pour over powerful beliefs of society, the chronic myths and misinformation, the lack of value on a woman’s life. Teaching from my mind won’t do. This is heart work. If I want to connect, I have to be fluid and direct, open and real.

So I sit in crowded rooms and out in the open air, on the ground and in circles, over tea and crackers, laying with and against humanity, in the great pouring out. There have been hours – mountains of hours – sharing, teaching, lifetimes laid out in truth. One minute we are buried in the heaviness of womanhood, rallying to protect ourselves, to stand up, to stop it, because we know it is wrong. Then it happens so quickly, heavy urgent tears: I miss my mother. I don’t want to be married. I don’t trust myself. It’s like time traveling. I swear I am in another place in history. It just can’t be the present. I answer each question with fearlessness. I feel every woman, everywhere, pulse through me. The sunset breaks through the closed door and we hear the children outside playing and remember there is more than just this room, more than just right now. That reality is harsh and also a comforting relief. Laughter finds its way back to us. It must. The dinner bell rings. Evening chores call. We scatter. Weary and full from a day’s work, we must go. 

But I never really leave them. I imagine I am a body filled with words and stories and people so I never have to go. I add them to the gathering of voices I carry. And so tomorrow, I am stronger. 


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