Sweet Tea and Sympathy for Invisible Women

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By Melinda Jackson

A_Melinda02Lalrinthangi is invisible. 

I meet her operating her makeshift vegetable stand in the golden rays of Northeast India’s morning sun. Cabbage, Bird’s Eye chilies, bitter gourds, okra. The sun has just risen over Mizoram state, illuminating the hillside city of Aizawl for a crisp, January day.

My husband and I were just settling in as new residents of Aizawl, he into his historical research, and me into my volunteer position for a refugee scholarship fund. Our landing had been hard. Homesick from a first Christmas abroad, I was weepy and weary, cold and cranky, and a torrent of afflictions from lice to Dengue Fever hadn’t helped.

I bundle up early that coffee-less morning, and begrudgingly brave the pot-holed hairpin turns to talk to Lalrinthangi about her son, Lallawmkima. His name means, “This son was given to me, so I am thankful to God.” He goes by Lawma, for short. He is in grade four, the last grade his mother completed before hard economic times pulled her out of the classroom.

Lalrinthangi’s tiny, bamboo-thatched home perches on thin, wooden stilts on the cliff side. We drink milk tea together inside—extra sweet to tell me she likes me. 

Like thousands of others, Lalrinthangi is an economic refugee, having crossed the porous border into India from her home in Myanmar’s Chin Hills. Mizos and Chins are ethnically identical, culturally similar, and united in the Christian faith; they are brothers and sisters separated only by an arbitrary colonial line drawn in the sand. 

But over the last hundred years, processes of politics have eroded that line into a crevasse. Mizos are Mizos. Chins are Chins. 

Chins become invisible when they migrate to Mizoram. Lalrinthangi explains that they look, act, and sound Mizo, only their citizenship cards says they’re not. No government resources, no rice subsidies, and no official jobs. So they crush stone by hand and receive nothing more than a blind eye from the Government and a few rupees. They walk door-to-door selling vegetables in the heat of the day because they made no sales at their stands in the morning. 

Without sales you can’t eat, and without sales you can’t feed your children. 

Lalrinthangi raises Lawma alone. Her husband, Lawma’s father, died of AIDS in 2006. And now she has AIDS. 

AIDS, tuberculosis, a stomach ulcer, gallstones, and crippling knee pain. My translator whispers in English that Lalrinthangi doesn’t know the tuberculosis is chronic because her doctors are afraid the news would break her. 

My petty complaints about lice evaporate, making room for a flood of sympathy.

A_Melinda01Her mothering intuition set Lalrinthangi on a path of preparing her son for—eyes cast downwards—“when I leave him.” She is growing strength in Lawma. She is growing strength out of her weakness and because of her weakness. She is putting his education above everything. Now Lawma is smart, responsible, and mature. He cooks their meals. He scrubs the house. He dons his uniform, a smart white and blue, and runs off to get A’s. 

While we wished desperately to become a stitch in Mizoram’s close-knit community, the tapestry seemed to have no room for us. Who are these saps—these White people—and what are they doing in our protected territory? Different language, different food, different complexion. We were kept as outsiders, longingly looking in at the fun-loving, God-fearing community that we were not readily welcome to be part of.

It is Lalrinthangi’s own, bold choice to stay on the fringe, invisible within her neighbourhood. She has to hide her joys, veil her sadness, and never be a hindrance because if they found out she has AIDS she would be an outcast; the community that is so rich for the Mizo status quo can turn viciously against a non-conformer to ensure her ruin.

How do you get AIDS again? Coughing, right? No, no, if she touches you, you’ll get it. What is AIDS, anyway?

She may not have friends but at least her neighbours will still buy vegetables from her. 

As a woman in Mizoram, you are already halfway to invisible.

“What are you doing in Mizoram?” my husband and I were once asked. He answered first and when I breathed to give my account, it was not my voice that sounded, but again that of our questioner over top of mine. 

“When are you leaving? How do you like the people?” 

I didn’t get a word in. Act this scene out repeatedly and shock becomes disbelief. Then disbelief becomes acceptance. I don’t matter here. Nobody cares.

Nobody except Lalrinthangi. She understands. She thinks those very same thoughts. I smile at her, she smiles at me: we are both women of difference here.

Both of our hearts grow bigger.

I have the privilege of helping Lalrinthangi, but it is she who makes the bigger impact. She accepts me into her own community, a global community—the community of the invisible. She extends her hand to share with me the love I was craving in a new land. She inspires me to work hard for Mizoram’s oppressed, fighting my own feelings of I don’t matter

Lalrinthangi knits a purl for me, then hands me the needles. 

It is time to make myself matter. 

_________________

About Melinda:

Melinda Jackson Bio Photo

Melinda’s heart beats for the global oppressed, and she’s marched to the beat of this drum into the Asubpeeschoseewagong sweat lodges of northern Canada and the Mizo jungles of the Indo-Burmese border.  As Trustee Representative for the Brackett Foundation, Melinda is working on getting scholarships to deserving Chin refugees in India’s Mizoram state. She is fueled by a love for Jesus and strong coffee ordered via FedEx from Karnataka.

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  • Bev Murrill

    Melinda, reading this gives me a pain in my chest and in my eyes. It makes me think of Jesus who, in order to reach us, became like us. Your choice to step down into invisibility will be the catalyst to raise women like Lalrinthangai into visibilty. I wonder how desperately painful it was for Him; who can know. I don’t know what it’s like for you to the degree that you are living it, but I do know that freedom has become a dimlight in the distance now for those women, where once it was all black.

    “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. Behold darkness covers the earth, and deep darkness the people, but the Lord will rise upon you, and rulers will come to the brightness of your rising.”

    I know this… whatever you;re going through, it’s all going to prove to be worth it. xx

    • Melinda Jackson

      It really is strength-giving to think that this is one of the ways in which I can follow in Jesus’ footsteps. Thank you so much, Bev, for the encouragement!

  • Anne-Marie

    Melinda, so beautiful, and so sad. Very glad to meet you, and your dear friend, who you’ve made very visible. Thank you.

    • Melinda Jackson

      Anne-Marie, I am so thankful to have met Lalrinthangi and to have had the chance to share her incredible story of strength with you!

  • HBurns

    Thank you Melinda for your big, beautiful heart that has shared such a difficult, yet hope-filled story with us today. May God continue to use your life greatly as you pour it out to make the unseen treasures seen. ‘It is time to make myself matter.’… your words at the end of this compelling post say it all. xoxo

    • Melinda Jackson

      Thank you so much for your beautiful prayer. I am so thankful that God has given me opportunity and inspiration, and I look forward to seeing his plan unfold as I step into a coordinating position for the scholarship fund.

  • Katie Richardson

    Thank you, Melinda, for sharing your story. Because of your words I can see Lalrinthangi. You truly matter and have encouraged me today.

    • Melinda Jackson

      Katie, it truly warms my heart that Lalrinthangi is now part of this circle of love and support. Thank you for your encouraging words.

  • Sarah Joslyn

    Melinda, this made me weep. My heart is in India — has been every day for the past 9 years. And the way you are using your “outsider-ness” to be a comfort to this Chin woman is beautiful. Just beautiful.

    • Melinda Jackson

      Sarah, I am so pleased that Lalrinthangi’s story spoke to your heart like is spoke to mine. It’s a wonderful thing to fall in love with India and I am excited that my time with Lalrinthangi was just the beginning!

      • AbrahamReeja

        Hello Sister I was studying the mizo character and came across u note abt Lalrinthangi. We are also staying in Aizawl as Missionaries from Kerala as family. So many times we also face problem of outsider here. But Christ love compel us to love the people in Mizoram. We are from Plymouth Brethren Church. If you like we can meet each other. We ar staying as a family here.

  • I just love your words here Melinda, as I’ve read them again and again. I know from experience that connecting with locals can be difficult, but I love that you met with Lalrinthangi and she welcomed you with sweet tea. What a beautiful post.

    • Melinda Jackson

      Thank you so much, Michaela. I look forward to meeting Lalrinthangi again soon and I hope I’ll have the chance to make her sweet tea as well — extra sweet!

  • Melinda, this is such a beautiful story you have woven together. Thank you for sharing it with us! I love that we’ve all read about Lalrinthangi and said her name in our heads and maybe even tried it out loud. She’s no longer invisible, because you’ve helped to tell her story. But I am grateful you told her story as an empowered story–a woman who has helped you as much as you are trying to help her. My heart feels like it’s grown bigger right here with you and Lalrinthangi. Thank you.

  • Julie-Anne Mauno

    Just…wow! Thank you, thank you, thank you for making the invisible matter and for making yourself matter in the midst of such challenges. We have value even in circumstances that make us feel like we don’t matter. What courage you’ve shown! <3

  • Vinoth Barnabas

    Thanks Melinda, to share this story….had me speechless for sometime. Hard to digest the struggles in their life.