The chill of a winter morning greets our team as we load into a four-wheel-drive Jeep, en route to the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in western Tanzania. Checking the world clock on my phone, I think about my wife and three small children knowing they’re asleep back in the U.S. I have been gone 17 of the past 23 days—by far the longest period I’ve ever left my family. I miss holding my wife at the end of a long day. I miss kissing the little faces of my daughters and son. For yet another day, I choose to trust that God will take care of them in my absence.
The Nyarugusu Refugee Camp is run by the United Nations, and we’re headed there to witness a trauma healing conference taught by community developer Fred Otieno, who uses the In Touch Messenger during his biblically-based seminars.
Fred leans in to tell us a story. He holds up a photo of a woman sitting on a hospital bed, shirtless. One half of her chest is bright pink, stark in contrast to her naturally dark skin. The image is startling—I almost don’t know what I’m looking at.
“Was that an acid attack?” I ask Fred. I’ve seen enough reports of women permanently disfigured by men throwing acid on them, usually an act of unjustified retaliation.
Fred shakes his head: boiling water. The woman had been cooking, but she left home to get maize cobs for her hungry children. When she returned, her husband—who had been out—was livid that she would stop cooking. In a rage, he picked up the pot and threw the water on her.
Though I only look at the picture briefly, it sears my mind and I feel a commingling of rage and heartache. How could a man who was supposed to protect his wife do such a thing? And over something as simple as leaving the house?
Police arrested the woman’s husband but released him two days later without charges. She wanted to return to her parents for security, but tradition dictates that once you’re married, you’re no longer welcome back. With no place else to go, she is stuck living with her husband. And my heart breaks at the thought.
As long as I can remember, I’ve felt a strong desire to protect women. My younger sister and I, just 15 months apart, became children of divorce at an early age. We lived primarily with my mom, and—whether it was asked of me or not—I took on what little a protective role as I could. Then on July 5, 1992, I lost my father for a second time.
Dad had been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma six years earlier. When the doctor who broke the news left, I was the only male left in the room. All the most important women in my life—mom and sister, grandmother, aunts, and stepmother—burst into uncontrollable wailing. My chest tightened, and it felt like the room was filling with water. I was drowning in their grief and did the only thing I could: I went to them one by one, wrapping my arms around them. When everyone was comforted, I quietly walked to the corner, sat down, and wept.
No one told me, “Son, you’re in charge now.” I was just a 12-year-old boy who, in a moment, tried to take the weight of his family’s world on his small shoulders. My grandfather was long gone, and now my father was too. It was my responsibility, or so I thought, to care for these women. In time I would learn that it wasn’t, and that in many ways, I couldn’t do it. As I grew into a man, I began to learn about healthy boundaries. I could care for these women to the degree that it was my job. Ultimately, my stepfather must protect my mom. And when my sister married my friend, I handed her security to him.
Meeting my wife became the full righting of the ship, so to speak. It’s a process, but in marriage I’m learning what it means to cherish and protect now that I’m a grown man. I’ve certainly not done that to the best of my ability. In 10 years I’ve lost count of the times I’ve let my wife down. Yet each time, I grow a little more—I change bit by bit. And as I do, it’s my hope that I’m modeling for my children how men should treat women.
After we arrive at the refugee camp, Fred’s conference begins. I note how he intentionally mixes women leaders with men. He encourages them to speak up and share their stories as equals. Seeing Fred in action—teaching men the value of women in a society that often reduces that value—brings joy to my heart. By openly discussing gender-based violence, he’s putting a stake in the ground that says, “This is an issue. And it cannot be ignored any longer.” I think about the community God has called me to serve—my family, neighbors, friends, and fellow church members. As I listen to Fred speak, I feel compelled to follow his example in whatever spheres of influence the Lord gives me.
In the end, it’s not up to me to fix any woman’s problems—or any man’s, for that matter. But I can pray. I can work on myself. I can love my wife and children well. And I can speak out when I see women being treated as less than God’s beloved daughters.
Photography by Gary S. Chapman