From the Field: Refuge in Guinea

Lane Hartill, CRS West Africa regional communcations officer, recently visited the country of Guinea. While there, he visited an educational center CRS supports. And he got to know one of the teenagers who attends it.

When I meet Teresa, she is immaculate. Not an easy feat in this city covered in cinnamon colored dust. She has on a spotless mushroom-colored skirt. Her earrings, pastel-colored beads shaped like corkscrew pasta, match her necklace.
But when I look closely at her jewelry, it’s plastic. It looks like something a little girl would play dress-up with. She’s 19. My guess: That’s all she can afford.

Teresa invites me to her house. It’s in a run down area of Kankan, a city in eastern Guinea. When we arrive, it’s clear that she and her family barely get by. The house looks gnawed on and about to collapse. Her room has no door, just a flimsy curtain for privacy. There are no light bulbs because there is no electricity. Light comes in through the single window with iron bars across it. The light illuminates a chewed and crumbling foam mattress on the concrete floor. The queen-size bed has a mattress packed with straw. In the morning, her back and neck hurts. Teresa told me she shares it with her sister and her sister’s two kids.

Guinea sewing

A student at a CRS-supported educational center in Kankan, Guinea, practices his sewing skills. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

On the shelf behind her bed, Teresa’s life was summed up: A knock-off Yves Saint Laurent handbag hung next to tins of sardines; a stuffed tiger snoozed on a box of oral rehydration salts. Faded pictures of Teresa as a baby were propped up next to her Nivea deodorant.

As we sat in her muggy room, Teresa told me about Him.

It started years ago, when she was in grade school. Something came over her and she tore up her notebook and started screaming in the middle of class. She stormed out. She doesn’t know what prompted this.

That led weeks of wandering. She slept next to the river for a while. Then she slept in the cemetery. She started hearing voices. She saw people following her, talking to her. Sometimes it was a boy, sometimes a man. She’d stop and look back; and a man would be standing there, watching her. But nobody else could see him.

She told her dad. His response? You’re possessed, he told her. You’re a little sorceress.

Then at night He started coming. “He’s taller than you,” she told me.

He’d slip into her bed. Nobody could see or hear Him except Teresa.

“He wants to touch me,” she says.

Then the voices and the man went away. But He came back in 2003. She dropped out of school, convinced she was possessed by the devil. She tried to pray it away. She went to Church and pleaded with God to make him go away.
But He was still there at night, next to her, telling her He loved her.

She was trying to convince herself that she wasn’t crazy, that she wasn’t possessed.

But then, to make matters worse, her mom, one of her only friends and the one person she could count on, died.

Teresa, barely a woman, became the mother. She took care of her nieces. She supported her father who couldn’t find work as a carpenter and her sister who had babies but no husband. She cares for them now on the little she makes from braiding hair. Her nieces are her guinea pigs. At night, she practices new styles on their hair.

I tell Teresa she isn’t possessed. People in my country have this problem, too. There are people and medicine that can help. They can make things better.

She seems relieved. She puts on her bathroom sandals and scuffs off to take a bucket bath.

* * *

I’m happy to know Teresa has Angelina and Gabriella, two female Mexican missionaries from the Institute of Seglares Missionaries who run a CRS-supported educational center in Kankan. Angelina is one of the few people Teresa can turn to. And the center is a refuge for her; she goes there several times a week to learn how to sew.

It provides classes in embroidery, literacy, and sewing for physically disabled young Guineans. They also run a clinic attached to the center that uses homeopathy to treat injured Guineans. While the center focuses mostly on the physically disabled, Angelina and Gabriella helped Teresa buy a sewing machine, which she’s already using to mend and make basic clothes. One day, she says, she wants to open a boutique.

I don’t know if it’s the center, but since Teresa’s been going to it, He hasn’t come back. I tend to think the friendship with Angelina and Gabriella has a lot to do with that.

* * *

When Teresa comes back from the bath, she puts on a stretchy pink shirt, an acid washed jean skirt and some pretty beaded sandals. She rubs some sweet-smelling moisturizer into her skin. Then a few spritzes of Boss cologne go on her neck and under her arms. I’m not sure if she knows it’s for men. “Do you want some?” she asks me, passing me the bottle. “No thanks,” I say. “You should keep it for yourself. It smells really nice.”

Then we are off, strolling down the dusty lanes. She wants to show me her neighborhood. I buy us a few sticky discs of peanut brittle and we walk and talk with our mouths full. She told me about her love of action films—she’s partial to Van Damme—and how she dropped out of school in junior high. She’s worried that she’ll lose her French (she speaks her father’s village language at home). So she reads French books and goes over her dog-eared school notebooks so she won’t lose it.

People stare at us, not used to seeing a foreigner around here.

Their looks speak for themselves: Who’s that guy? And what’s he doing with that girl?

Good, I thought. Keep staring.

This is Teresa, and you have no idea what she has to deal with.

This is the girl you’ve ignored for years.

She could teach you a thing or two about persistence.

* **

It is time for me to go. But Teresa wants me to stay and hang out with her a little longer.

She dug in her purse and handed me a picture. It was her, fashionable as ever, staring back at me.

“Thank you so much,” I told her. “I’ll hang it up above me desk.”

I’m looking up at Teresa now, hoping she’s okay.

Hoping He hasn’t come back.

Teresa, a pseudonym, has been used to protect her identity.

– Lane Hartill

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