“Nkwagala Nyo.” The women’s faces lit up as they heard “I love you!” in their native tongue. One of them grabbed my hand. She said something back in Luganda but “nkwagala nyo” was the extent of Luganda I could speak and after a few laughs, we switched immediately back to English. My team and I had been walking the area looking for women who might be trafficked. At 11pm, we were already tired but hoping we might run into some of the women, we headed to the nearby fast food joint where they often show up. Nearly there, I looked ahead and saw three African women walking our way. We surprised them by greeting them and asking their names. They stopped and answered politely. Then Uh-Oh (NL staff) tried out the Luganda we had just learned earlier in the day. “Nkwagala!” I joined in “Nkwagala Nyo!” The women laughed and the ice was broken.
We stood there on a busy corner of the red light area each trying to quickly get to know these women we suspected were trafficked. Nightlife activity was picking up all around us. Jennie had just overheard some African men selling “peanuts” for $300 a bag (probably drugs). Young Thai women with older foreign men were passing us by, hand in hand, awkwardly trying to communicate in broken English. Street kids were running barefoot, back and forth, still in sight of their Cambodian mother who was begging at the opposite corner with a baby in her lap. It was 11pm and as sweaty men were dismantling the vendor stalls the all night bars were already moving folding chairs and tables to compete for the crowded spaces on the busy sidewalk. The Tuk Tuk drivers obnoxiously stuck photos out in front of passers by, offering girl shows and excursions into dubious parts of Bangkok. A police truck flashed a light as it passed by in the background offering little assurance of law and order; few pay much attention except maybe the illegal beggars. We stopped there in the midst of this bizarre kaleidoscope of Bangkok nightlife, trying to offer some authentic hope to the mix of brokenness.
Maybe it was because it was already late. Maybe it was because we have helped so many African women lately and heard so many stories. Maybe it’s because I’m weary of seeing so many women exploited on the streets suffering night after night while they wait for hope to come through on it’s offer. I don’t know what it was exactly but I just knew I wasn’t going to waste time. “How long have you been here?” I asked “Jann”. “One week.” She replied. “Do you have a boss?” I asked her. “In Uganda,” she answered me. “Did you come through China or directly to Thailand?” “I came through China.” There was sorrow there but it wasn’t the time to tap into it. “Is your debt finished?” She shook her head no and said it was not. Anxiety showed its face and prompted the next question: “Do you want to go home?” “Of course!” she said. “Do you need help?” “Do you have a ticket?” “When does your visa expire?” I got the answers I needed and told “Jann” we could help her. “I’m sorry for what has happened to you,” I told her. “What your boss did was wrong.” She said, “She is bad!” “Yes,” I agreed, “she is bad and what she did to you is criminal.” I introduced her to Jennie and they exchanged phone numbers. As I gave “Jann” a hug I felt her body tremble as the pent up fear and distress began to leak out. The tears filled her eyes. Jennie gave her a hug and then “Jann” couldn’t hold it back and she began to cry. Jennie hugged her some more as “Jann” tried to brush away the tears. We offered to talk now about her situation but she was overwhelmed and said she would meet us to talk later and she walked away crying.
We continued on our way to the fast food place. We waited patiently, still hoping to see some we already knew but they didn’t show up. The little street girl we had befriended earlier came over and sat with us wanting to play rather than beg with her mother. Beng played with her and her dirty, but sweet little face brightened with a smile. We decided to call it a night. Beng and I said goodbye to the others and began to walk home. As we passed the same busy corner, I saw “Jann” standing there awkwardly. I reached for her hand as I passed and she grabbed on to it. I gave her a quick hug and she began to cry again. I walked away but I felt an ache in my heart. “I don’t want to let her go.” I said to Beng. Then it hit me. Why should we leave her on the street for another night? Why should she be forced to take even one more customer? I quickly turned and walked back to her. “Do you want to stop working tonight?” She said “yes.” I pulled her over to a less conspicuous spot and said, “Okay we will help you. I don’t want you to work tonight.” She began to cry again. “Here is some money for taxi and for food. You go back to your room and rest tonight. Tomorrow you call Jennie. God has heard your cries. We are going to help you to go home.” “Jann” burst into tears and said thank you over and over. We hugged her again and sent her back to her room. I went home feeling a mix of joy and sorrow.
The nightlife of the streets of Bangkok is intense. People from all walks of life bump against each other and interact through various forms of exploitation, greed, and brokenness. To passers by these African women may just be streetwalkers looking for money through the selling of their bodies. Few see past the surface. Few stop to ask. God sees and on this night God heard the cry of this woman. He gave us eyes to see tonight beneath the surface. We were there in the right place and the right time by God’s appointment. Once again, we got to participate in one of God’s miracles. Once again God’s love was demonstrated. “Kwagala Nyo!” “I love you very much!” It pushes back the darkness every time.