When Erica Cavanagh moves to Benin determined to free herself from a traumatic past through austere living and service to women, she lands in a remote village under the tutelage of a spirited and cunning midwife whose manipulations haunt her with the past she wanted to escape. She thinks she only needs to to be stronger, like the Bariba women who surround her, even the woman she and the midwife, Tounkara, find in a maize field, unconscious and bleeding after she has given birth unattended. Erica doesn’t yet know that Bariba women are trained to be impassive and endure alone, but in time the isolation she witnesses among them becomes increasingly uncanny. Only when a Peace Corps volunteer is killed in nearby Côte d’Ivoire does she begin to fear what this isolation will do to her mind.
Her memoir-in-progress, Someone to Tell, questions the value the U.S., Benin, and many cultures throughout the world place on strength. What does strength look like? How is it defined? How are we to think about strength when a Bariba woman named Fatouma nearly died of a hemorrhage after undergoing genital cutting as a girl and was told over and over that this was how she’d prove she was strong? How do girls learn to take pain? Under what circumstances must they bear up and why? What kinds of support are women and girls allowed to ask for? What is asking too much? Eventually, Erica comes to recognize the limitations of viewing a woman’s value through strength alone, and that the imperative to be strong, which is so often tied to silence, may actually perpetuate their oppression. Someone to Tell is one young woman’s odyssey of finding acceptance, love, and finally her voice despite the odds, and how that journey is essential to honoring all who struggle for a voice in which they feel at home.