Secrets and doubts: a reporter’s wrestle

Everybody lies. As a reporter, you know this at the outset of every story, every interview: We all lie in little ways, to protect ourselves. Not about important stuff, usually. But much of what I think about in any interview is how truthful a person is being - and if they're not, why not, and to what end.

This week with Neema, I've been worried.

Mary Wiltenburg
Neema John, with her 4-year-old son Briton ('Toni'), keeps a tidy home in a slum in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Mary Wiltenburg
Neema walks a pathway between buildings in the Kigogo neighborhood where she lives.
Mary Wiltenburg
Neema and Briton, in Dar es Salaam, wait with hope that they'll be reunited with her family in the US. A former visa officer at the US Embassy here says: “We had 150 cases a day like this one.”

Everybody lies. As a reporter, you know this at the outset of every story, every interview: We all lie in little ways, to protect ourselves. Not about important stuff, usually. But much of what I think about in any interview is how truthful a person is being - and if they're not, why not, and to what end.

This week with Neema, I've been worried.

[This post was written April 17 in Dar es Salaam.]She's a sweet, helpful, gentle girl, quick to giggle, tender with her son. But in our interviews, even through the language and cultural barriers, it's been clear she's holding back. Which makes sense: I'm a stranger, and it's awkward talking through an interpreter, especially about the most intimate violations and disappointments of your life.

Still, something's felt off about our conversations. So often, Neema says she can't remember things - major things, like her father's face, which she last saw when she was 8 - that I find myself wondering: Can that be true; can trauma really have that effect?

So many questions I ask - Who are her close friends? Has she ever had a boyfriend? Has she ever done paid work? - she answers by returning to how isolated and helpless she is, how much she wants to be reunited with her family, and how she hopes I can help her. And of course she is, and does. But she's said those things so often, and so similarly, that they can feel almost ... rehearsed.

Yesterday, we spent a long evening talking in her room, with Aloisia interpreting. I asked questions until I was writing in the dark (Neema didn't have a candle, and I'd forgotten a flashlight). On the way back to my hotel, Aloisia, too, expressed doubts.

"She has never had a boyfriend?" Aloisia said. "Is it possible?"

Then, checking in at the hotel desk, I ran into a group of Tanzanian women who started asking questions about my project.

"What does Neema do for work?" one of them asked.

"She says she doesn't work," I said. "Her parents send her money each month."

"She is lying," said the stranger.

Now, clearly this woman had no idea. But in the way that such encounters can, this crystallized my doubts: What if Neema is lying about a significant piece of her story? About why she left the camp and her family; whether Toni is her blood relative; or whether or why she and her mother were refugees in the first place. That would change the whole landscape of her case in the eyes of US Immigration - not to mention this story.

I lay awake thinking: If her answers are coached, well, who's been coaching her? Dawami and Hassan, whose stories I've been reporting (often uncorroborated, since many of the people who could corroborate them are dead) all year? Could they have asked Neema to deceive me? Could they be deceiving me too?Compounding this fear was a strange thing that happened Wednesday [April 15] morning, when we were walking home from lunch. Neema, after speaking only a stray word or two of English for the first 24 hours of our acquaintance, suddenly addressed to me this full English sentence: "Please madam, tomorrow will you buy me a ring?"

I was puzzled. With Aloisia's help, I learned that before I arrived, Neema had asked her stepfather to send her a gold ring from the US as a gift. Like many of Dawami and Hassan's friends and relatives in Africa, Neema imagines her parents are rich in America - not scraping by, gutting chickens and sweeping floors.

They haven't discouraged her fantasy, but they can't afford to shore it up with gold jewelry. So Hassan had sent a gold-plated ring. When Neema mentioned the discrepancy to him over the phone, she explained to me, he had told her: "Let Mary buy one for you."

This worried me, too. Was he just trying to save face? Or trying to use me?

Late at night, such doubts can take on a life of their own. Lying between the scratchy gray sheets of the Travertine Hotel, I thought: Have they played me for a fool? What if this whole year, this whole story has been standing on lies?

11 p.m. 1 a.m. 2. I made and tore up notes for different ways to explain to a kid with a fifth-grade education, who's never seen the Internet, to whom I gave her first copy of a newspaper: Why I'm here. Why we have to be able to trust each other. What journalism is about. How her and her son's futures could depend on our conversations.

Then I realized: She knows that. She probably thinks about that every time she opens her mouth.

This morning, at the US Embassy, an interview with public diplomacy officer Karen Grissette, and political officer Randall Robinson, deepened my doubts. Both were savvy and thoughtful, and Karen had read this series closely, scouring for clues about Neema's case.

But she and Randall had each done time as customs officers in other parts of the world, and they'd seen people try to talk their way into the US using every sort of lie. There'd been happy stories too, of truth uncovered and successful reunions. But in general, they said, their work bred skepticism about cases like Neema's.

"You should do a year on a visa line," said Randall.

"We had 150 cases a day like this one," said Karen. Without the time or ability to investigate them fully, they often had to make potentially life-altering decisions based on a handful of documents and a hunch.

Riding back to Neema's house, I weighed all of that against this: All year, I've felt like her parents have been truthful with me, even when it causes them pain. They've shared things with me, and by extension with you - things that could not benefit them for anyone to know. They know what they're doing in talking to me, and they've been more frank about their struggles, the strains on their marriage, and their hopes and fears for their sons, than I would ever have the courage to be with a reporter. The few discrepancies in their stories could be memory gaps - or my own misunderstandings.

I arrived at Neema's not knowing where that left me. So I asked her again a question that's been troubling me: "Where were you born?"

Her mom has told me Neema was born in Tanzania. Neema, the day I met her, said she'd been born in Rwanda. I explained that I didn't know what to make of this.

"I think it was Rwanda," Neema said, "but my mother would know for sure."

Of course she would. It also stands to reason that a life of stateless dislocation, washing across borders and in and out of camps like a piece of flotsam on the sea of late 20th century Central African madness doesn't leave a little girl with a strong sense of place.

But what I mostly saw at that moment was one more question to which Neema would not give a frank answer.

If she's lying, I thought, her parents' attempts to bring her to the US will crumble. And I will have spent a whole year passing on lies to you.

Later, Aloisia would describe to me her impression of this moment. "You changed. Serious, very serious, no smile. Even your voice changed. I said [to myself], mama' is gone. This is a professional."

"Neema," I said, "I need to tell you something very serious. I know you're scared."

I explained that I understood if she was afraid to be truthful with me: I knew she wanted to seem perfect for her parents so they'd want her to come live with them - and perfect to the US government, so they'll accept her. "And maybe you think you have to be perfect for me too," I said.

Aloisia translated all of this. The smile had left Neema's face, too.

But she didn't need to be perfect for me, I continued. She only needed to be truthful. If there was something she didn't want her parents to know, she could say so. If there was something she didn't want me to put in the newspaper, she could say, "off the record," and I would respect that. But I needed her to be honest. She wanted my help, and the best way I knew to do that, I said, was to write about her life - even the parts she was not proud of.

"Do you understand?" I asked. She said she did.

"Is there anything we've talked about, anything at all, that you'd like to explain to me again?" I asked.

"Hapana," Neema said, with quiet certainty.

"No," Aloisia translated.

So we got to work on my remaining questions. As the afternoon rain poured down, we figured out the dates of Toni's birth, and Neema's rapes, her time in the refugee camp, the whole chronology of her adolescence; it added up. She talked about her brothers, about Dawami and Hassan. Her tone, her posture, everything had changed: she was open, forthcoming, eager to help with any details she could remember. Aloisia marveled at the difference. In the end, I urged Neema through the details of her rapes until she was speaking in a whisper, and I could say to you without a doubt: Whatever she's forgotten, she is trying to tell the truth.

As we finished, the rain, which had been dumping buckets on the silty ground outside, stopped abruptly. Aloisia suggested we get some air. As we walked up to the square, Neema was very quiet. I felt terrible: I'd doubted her, tested her, and she'd passed my awful test. Had I traumatized her too?

Then, something in our path stopped me. A chicken had beat us to the road, and left fresh, post-rain footprints in the mud. The ubiquitous slum chickens, and my amusement with them, has become a sort of running gag with Neema. Now, inadvertently, I stopped at the chicken-tracks and started giggling. Neema stopped too, quizzically.

"Kuku" (chicken), I explained.

She studied me for a minute, and looked at the ground. Then, her sober face broke into a dazzling smile, and she was laughing too. "Eh! Kuku! Toni! Kuku."

And I though, against all odds: Maybe it'll be OK after all.

Travel in Tanzania for this project is supported in part by The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, in Washington DC.

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