Ausettua in her handmade suit;
Photo: Katherine Wolkoff
Brigitte asks why the Congo dolls have shards of mirror for eyes.
"To show that if it can happen to them, it can happen to you," Rukiya says, motioning her to sit on the couch.
"What pain, what sorrows, do you have in your life that have driven you?" Brigitte asks, looking around.
"I, too, was raped," Rukiya says, leaning closer. "Many, many times. There was no baby, but it was still a violation. And I was 13, 14. And I didn't talk about it to anyone for 30 years."
"How many were there?" Brigitte asks.
"Ten. And afterward, everywhere I went, people would say, 'Oh, there's that girl that got a train pulled on her.' It got to a point where I just would not feel anything."
"Even to this year, I don't have any desire," Brigitte says, looking down at her hands. "I can flirt with a man, but once he crosses the line, I become someone else. All I want to do is bite him—and if I had a knife, I'd cut him. I'm only 30, and I would like to be in love someday, but I can't."
"That's me, too. And it was hard to share affection with my kids," says Rukiya, whose son is serving a ten-year prison sentence for dealing drugs, while her daughter ended up going to San Jose State and becoming a child therapist.
"It's still very hard for me to accept my children," Brigitte admits. "I love them, but I don't have the heart to be their mother. Sometimes I'll take the food I'm cooking and throw it away because I'm just angry. "
"We may have to go through more pain than other people," Rukiya says. "But out of making dolls, I find a peace. All of us have a gift that God gives us. And you, Brigitte, are a weaver."
Before the week is over, many of the New Orleans women offer their hospitality. At the homes of Herreast Harrison and Joyce Montana, Brigitte and Janet get a glimpse of a local African-American tradition: the handmade costumes worn on Mardi Gras. The "suits," as they are known, are stunning cascades of wildly colored feathers and bravura beading that take a whole year to design and fabricate, usually involving a full family effort. The way the women describe it, when you step into a suit to join the parade, you are transformed. You become your heritage. You reach deep into your African roots.
Brigitte and Janet are deeply moved by what has been lost in New Orleans. Both are overwhelmed by seeing street after street of rotting, abandoned houses and patches of dirt where libraries and schools once stood. One afternoon, driving through the Lower Ninth Ward with a few of their hosts, the car stops where the levee broke. The women look up at the street sign.
"When I am here, I don't feel like I'm an African," Janet suddenly says. "I feel like I am one of you."
Everyone in the car hugs, arms encircling arms, until it's hard to tell where one woman begins and another ends. Because what started as a project to make bracelets has turned into something more—the creation of a band of sisters.
Meet the New Orleans
We Hear You!