Playwright Lynn Nottage wanted to write an adaptation of Berthold Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children set in the war-ravaged nation, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nottage and director Kate Whoriskey traveled to Uganda to visit a refugee camp where thousands of men, women, and children hoped to avoid the atrocities of the barbaric government and the equally cruel rebel militants.
It was there that Nottage and Whoriskey listened as dozens of refugee women shared their stories of pain and survival. The women recounted unimaginable suffering and nightmarish acts of violence and rape. After gathering hours upon hours of interview material, Nottage realized that she would not be writing a re-invention of Brecht's play. She would create her own structure, one that would incorporate the heart-wrenching narratives of the women she met in Africa. The result is a play called Ruined, a tragic-yet-beautiful drama about holding onto hope while living through hell.
The Setting of "Ruined":
Ruined is set in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, probably sometime between 2001 and 2007. During this time (and still today), the Congo is a place of territorial violence and immeasurable suffering.
The entire play takes place in the slipshod bar with "makeshift furniture and a run down pool table." The bar caters to miners, traveling salesmen, military men, and rebel fighters (though not usually all at the same time). The bar provides its guests drinks and food, but it also functions as a brothel. Mama Nadi is the shrewd owner of the bar. As many as ten young women work for her. They have chosen a life of prostitution because, for most, it seems to be their only chance of survival.
The Roots of Mama Nadi:
Mama Nadi and the other female characters of Ruined are cased upon the experiences of real women from the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo). During her visit to the African refugee camps, Lynn Nottage collected interview material. One of the women was named Mama Nadi Zabibu: she is one of fourteen women whom receive thanks in Nottage's acknowledgement section.
According to Nottage, all of the women she interviewed were raped. Most were raped by multiple men. Some of the women helplessly watched as their children were murdered in front of them. Sadly, this is the world which Mama Nadi and the other characters of Ruined have known. For more information about the atrocities in the DRC, read this About.com article, "Rape As Terrorism."
Mama Nadi's Personality:
Mama Nadi is described as an attractive woman in her early forties with "an arrogant stride and majestic air" (Nottage 5). She has etched out a profitable business in a hellish environment. Above all things, she has learned duplicity. When the military enters the bar, Mama Nadi is loyal to the government. When the rebels arrive the following day, she is devoted to the revolution. She agrees with whoever is offering cash. She has survived by being charming, accommodating, and serving anyone, whether honorable or evil.
At the beginning of the play, it is easy to vilify her. After all, Mama Nadi is part of a modern day slave trade. She buys girls from a friendly traveling salesmen. She offers them food, shelter, and in exchange they must prostitute themselves to the local miners and soldiers. But we soon sense that Mama Nadi harbors compassion, even if she attempts to bury her altruism.
Mama Nadi and Sophie:
Mama Nadi is most altruistic when it comes to a young woman named Sophie, a beautiful, quiet girl. Sophie has been "ruined." Basically, she has been raped and assaulted in such a brutal manner that she can no longer have children. And according to the local belief systems, men would no longer be interested in her as a wife.
When Mama Nadi learns of this, perhaps realizing the injustice of not just the attack but the way society rejects women who are "ruined," Mama Nadi does not shun her. She allows her to live with the other women. Instead of prostituting herself, Sophie sings at the bar and helps out with the accounting. Why does Mama Nadi have such empathy for Sophie? Because she has experienced the same brutality. Mama Nadi has been "ruined" as well.
Mama Nadi and the Diamond:
Among her many little treasures and wads of cash, Mama Nadi possesses a small but precious stone, a raw diamond. The stone does not look impressive, but if she sold the gem, Mama Nadi could live well for a very long time. (Which makes the reader wonder why she stays in a makeshift bar in the Congo during a civil war.)
During the middle of the play, Mama Nadi discovers that Sophie has been stealing from her. Rather than being angry, she is impressed by the girl's audacity. Sophie explains that she was hoping to pay for an operation that would mend her "ruined" condition.
Sophie's goal obviously touches Mama Nadi (although the stern woman doesn't show her feelings initially). During Act Three, when the gunfire and explosions are getting closer and closer, Mama Nadi gives the diamond to Mrt. Hatari, a Lebanese merchant. She tells Hatari to escape with Sophie, sell the diamond, and make sure that Sophie receives her operation. Mama Nadi gives up all of her wealth in order to give Sophie a new beginning.