An autumn of questioning and the fear of forgetting

Fall Collage

October has slowly crept in, enveloping me in Boston’s fresh and crisp air, leaves that are slowly changing to a deep red or a bright yellow that crunch beneath my feet. Autumn may bring with it many cliches – like pumpkin spice lattes, the smell of hot apple cider, and the bringing out of scarves, boots, and leggings.

Yet, in some ways, I am still in denial, continuing to wear sandals and flats, and refusing to take out my fall jackets. Perhaps I have not yet let go of this summer; I am not yet ready to move on. Sometimes, it is hard to believe that only two months ago, I was in a different universe – in a small town in rural Sierra Leone, completely disconnected, and yet more connected than ever. In Sierra Leone, I let down my guard, and the wall that sometimes seems present between myself and others was dissolved. I spent hours each day with a family and especially two young sisters in their early 20s, chatting with them about their daily lives. I was there to listen to their squabbles among friends, boyfriends, and cousins, family drama, their hopes and dreams of pursuing further education after they raised enough money by running the family roadside shop. I watched videos with them of Salone artists on their phones, sampled street food, and watched Nigerian films with them in the local generator-powered ‘movie theatre.’ We discussed religion, and I listened to their gossip about marriages, divorces, relationships, and quarrels in the village.

In many ways, it feels like summer was so long ago, and yet, just yesterday. There are many things I have not yet come to terms with about returning to the U.S.: it is more difficult to be truly ‘present’ here when you are faced with constant pressures to ponder the future. It is more difficult to step outside your comfort zone. Most of all, it has become more difficult to be truly vulnerable, to dissolve those walls amongst people when you are separated by the twin invisible bars of technology and being ‘busy.’ In the face of losing this sense of peace I gained over the summer, I cannot help but be enveloped in nostalgia. When running between dozens of classes, meetings, and projects, my mind wanders back to summer – which brought out from me some of the rarer qualities of my self, a certain authenticity that comes from living honestly, and fully, deeply and presently.

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Fall has also brought me new traumas before old ones have fully healed. I am still grappling with questions from cases witnessed in Sierra Leone — like what institutions can best serve survivors of domestic abuse who are too often re-victimized by police and traditional authorities, told to pay for medical care before a prosecution can be pursued, and sometimes told that the husband has simply ‘been warned’ and has ‘agreed to stop beating you’ and that it is time to go back home. And how it can be that I, or we, failed the survivor of violence who was simply told that the police could not find her husband (although he was in the neighboring town), or the young 14-year old girls who were already deeply jaded and had become prostitutes servicing military men, or the young child suffering from a heart disease who was unable to find medical care. These are traumas not only of witnessing tragedies and heartbreak, but fraught with feelings of guilt and personal failure. The questions I struggle with are, how much responsibility is on me? And how much on the institutions that failed these young women? And perhaps more so, how will things change?

And suddenly, before any of these questions have been resolved, the fall has plunged me into new difficulties, echoing and illuminating many of the same inquiries. My classes involve constant reading about rape, sexual violence, and sexual harassment. We discuss the intricacies of inequalities arising from race, class, and gender, and we delve into theories underlying violence. In my clinic, I represent domestic violence survivors in their family law cases, and this too, involves understanding cycles of violence, listening to stories, and serving as an advocate.

These questions are deeply interrelated, indeed inextricable, from what confronted me in Sierra Leone. In both places, the questions are of how violence against women can be stopped, addressed, prevented, and how survivors can be supported. The cycles of abuse are the same everywhere, and the failure of institutions have some commonalities as well. Things work much more so in our backyard, and yet, one in three women still experience some form of abuse – so there is something still to rectify in the system itself, and in culture too. As different as these countries and places are, the roots of the problems are similar. And so the questions I faced in the summer, never really disappearing, are now accompanied by more and more. Perhaps fall’s most redeeming quality is that: the deepening of understanding, the solidifying of personal relationships, the power of stories, and the burgeoning of ideas and dreams to address these thorny complexities.

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With autumn, finally, comes the fear of forgetting. I worry that someday soon, I will begin forgetting the people I met in Salone — their faces, their voices, their names, their personalities, their exuberance. I worry that I will forget the motorbike rides through the countryside, the lush greenery outside the capital, the empty roads and the pounding of the rain. The taste of grilled corn on the roadside. The dancing and singing. The daily mende greeting on my way to fetch water. I worry that slowly, these memories, experiences, will fade from my mind.  That they will be replaced, or worse, reshaped. I want my memories to be accurate and truthful – yet, I know they are fuzzy around the edges and perhaps, romanticized.

There is nothing, really, like being somewhere. Once you leave, it seems as foreign as ever — and this foreignness is my very fear.

Perhaps, then, the only solution is to keep returning. And to bring those memories back to life before it becomes too late.

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3 Responses to An autumn of questioning and the fear of forgetting

  1. Nathalie says:

    Autumn is really a season which brings about nostalgia and questioning. Although it can be daunting, at the same time questioning actions and decisions can be helpful in bringing new perspectives in what do be done or to realise that we do not have much answers of what can be done. Only trials and errors can help us sharpened tools; only experience brings us the perspective for more skillful actions. At the same time, one should remember that we can only do the best that we can at a given time and that we are not responsible of all of the violence and rights violations. I know it is harder said than put in practice; but when engaging in human rights work I think it is important to recognise the limits of our actions and that we cannot burden ourselves with all that we cannot prevent or improve. While justice is crucial to improving the lives of victims of violence, I think there is also a need to work on other levels for effective action. I’m thinking about education and engage community level action.
    I’d love to hear more of your work with the clinic.

    • Akhila says:

      Thank you for your thoughts, Nathalie! Definitely, I am gaining new perspectives and experiences this autumn to build upon my learnings this summer. At the same time, it has been a time of moving on in some ways without having sufficient time to sit and reflect on what I have learned and what these big questions are.

      And I agree, we can really only do our best. It is sometimes difficult to step away and realize you cannot solve everything, but I think too, that there is something to be said about pushing ourselves to do more, to address problems we see, and to challenge ourselves. Without this, I think it is easier to lose hope and become cynical about what can be done.

      Agree, a more holistic perspective is needed. Justice is not even existent right now, so one part of my focus is that. But we also need education, shift in culture and thinking, social services, etc.

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