I was interviewing a group of older refugees under an acacia tree on the border of Sudan. When we were finished I thanked them for their patience and offered them the chance to turn the tables: “Do you have any questions for me?”
“Are you married?” one woman immediately asked.
“No,” I said as I took apart my tripod.
“Do you have children?”
I shook my head.
“How old are you?”
I finished wrapping up my microphone cables and looked up to see that everyone was crying. One old man sitting off to one side had tears streaming down his face. They were looking at me with utter pity, as though I had just been given a terminal diganosis.
“Well,” the first woman said after an awkward pause, “there’s an old man on the other side of camp.” She hesitated. “He only has three wives, so he can take one more....”
“You’re not fertile anymore,” her companion added brightly, “but he might still have you.”
Up until that moment I had been quite proud of myself – traveling alone halfway around the world, handling expensive camera gear, learning a foreign language. But in North Africa a woman is valued by the status of her husband and the number of her (male) children. It was a rare glimpse into a cultural mirror – a chance to see myself the way they saw me. And the realization that I have just as much to learn as the students who will one day get my footage.