Set in Mama Nadi's brothel along the border of the rainforest in the Northeast of the country, the play deals with the lives of four women in the midst of the ongoing conflict in the DRC. During a visit by Christian, a man who travels the area peddling everything from cigarettes to beer to people, Mama Nadi buys one new "girl" for her brothel (Salima) and reluctantly takes in another (Sophie), who is "ruined." At her brothel, Mama Nadi walks a fine line between protecting the girls and exploiting them. She is a shrewd businesswoman, who will not be conned or cowed in her own place. Within the walls of her business, Mama Nadi rules. Yet, the war encroaches. Soldiers and rebels alike make their presence increasingly known and their troubles begin to be felt within Mama's protected fiefdom.
The play takes an unflinching look at the routine use of sexual violence in the DRC's decade long conflict. Over 5 million people have died in this conflict (roughly half of those have been children), and although the war officially ended in 2002, hundreds of thousands of people continue to die every year. The country is roughly the size of Western Europe and most of the violence takes place in the extreme Northeast, along the Rwandan and Ugandan borders. To this day, almost 2 million people remain displaced inside of their own country. Eight nations have been involved in this "civil war" as well as over 25 militias and factions. Ethnic and tribal strife fuel the ongoing conflict. Also behind much of the violence are countries, corporations, and people who want to gain control of the country's vast mineral wealth. From diamonds to gold to copper to coltan (the common use word for columbite-tantalite), the DRC is one of the most mineral rich countries in the world. Coltan, of which most people have never heard, is in use by almost everyone in the world; it is found in cellular phones, gaming devices, and computers.
It is this backdrop of war, international conflict, and sexual violence that Ruined takes place. All of the women at Mama Nadi's are victims of sexual violence, as are untold numbers of Congolese women. In 2009, over 8,000 women were victims of rape as factions continued to use rape as part of their tactics against one another. With most cases unreported a UN official has called this the "rape capital of the world." For the women at Mama Nadi's, as is the case for most women caught up in this conflict, there is little to no medical or legal recourse for them. Families routinely turn away from violated family members because they have been "ruined."
However, as much as this play deals with sexual violence, it also uses the image of the woman's body and Mama Nadi's business as metaphor's for Congo as a country. Just as the women have much of their lives taken by violence, so does Congo. Just as men come and go at Mama Nadi's with no way to identify liberators from thugs, so it is in Congo. The desperate attempt of Mama Nadi to maintain her independence from and assert her power to the men who come through her door reflects the struggle of the Democratic Republic of Congo to establish its identity as a nation - post-colonial, post-tribal, and post-war. It seems no coincidence that the two men who frequent Mama Nadi's are named Harari and Christian, symbolizing the presence of other African nations encroaching upon the DRC and the numerous churches and NGOs that have made their way into Congo. When Mama Nadi holds up a precious object and calls it her "insurance policy," all of Congo can be seen holding up gold, diamonds, tin, copper, and coltan yelling at the world to look. I have been to Congo, and it makes perfect sense to me after seeing the miles upon miles of barren land left behind after strip mining that many in the country would say that it has been Ruined.
Yet the play also holds a lot of hope. Even in the midst of war, girls find a way to be girls. They have desires and hopes. They read books and look at fashion magazines. They argue over the little things in life. The play's hope is found in its characters' humanity. It shows us that in the midst of unimaginable loss, dreams find a way to survive. In the midst of violence and despair, love does make a home.
The last cast member I will mention is the music. In addition to the men who frequent Mama Nadi's bar, there are two musicians - a guitarist and a drummer. Music is important in Congo and it is vital at Mama Nadi's. Whether the songs are about loss, dreams, pain, war, escape, or love, they are songs of the heart, something Ruined is filled to brimming with. If you are in Seattle and can handle the subject matter, get yourself to the Intiman and see this play. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.