by Lynn Nottage

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Ruined Themes

The main themes in Ruined are the strength and resilience of women, the lasting impact of trauma, the brutality of war, and the struggle to survive.

  • The Strength and Resilience of Women: The female characters in Ruined refuse to give in to the violence that surrounds them.
  • The Lasting Impact of Trauma: Mama Nadi, Sophie, Salima, and Josephine all deal with the aftereffects of having been assaulted.
  • The Brutality of War: The region around Mama's bar is plagued by civil war, which has led to the rape, mutilation, and displacement of the female characters.
  • The Struggle to Survive: Characters must sacrifice their personal wishes in order to survive in a war-torn region.


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The Strength and Resilience of Women

Although they have endured unspeakable tragedies, the female characters in Ruined know they must continue making a life for themselves. Mama Nadi builds up a business from nothing and maintains it even in the midst of a brutal civil war, stubbornly refusing to leave her bar behind to escape the conflict. She would rather stand by the space she has carved out for herself, even when she loses customers to the war, than start over somewhere new. Salima lives each day missing her family—especially her daughter, Beatrice, who was killed—and wishing she could change what happened on the day she was attacked by rebel soldiers. Despite her painful memories and lasting trauma, she does what she must to survive, taking on the job of pleasing angry, arrogant men who feel entitled to her body. Ultimately, she gives up the battle, sacrificing herself when government soldiers attack the bar. She knows that her husband, Fortune, will never give up looking for her and that, in his rage, Commander Osembenga will not spare Mama, Sophie, or Josephine. Sophie, although in constant emotional pain herself, works toward her goal of undergoing an operation instead of succumbing to self-pity, as Josephine seems to when she protests that no one came to her aid when she was attacked, even though she was the daughter of the village chief. The contrast between Josephine, Salima, Sophie, and Mama Nadi ultimately underscores each woman’s strength and determination to reclaim their lives from the violence that has been inflicted upon them by men.

The Lasting Impact of Trauma

Ruined explores the reality that sexual violence continues its assault throughout a person’s life. The women in the play who have been assaulted carry a heavy burden of emotional pain; although the assault itself is in the past, it is ever-present in the survivors’ psyches. Sophie lives with both physical mutilation and inner agony; her method of coping with Osembenga’s rough groping is to enter a dissociated, trance-like state. Josephine bears a disfiguring scar on her abdomen, and her memories of being raped and offered no aid by her neighbors lead her to angrily ridicule others, Sophie in particular. Salima is heartbroken by memories of the home and family she lost when rebel soldiers attacked her, and she ultimately takes her own life after acknowledging that men have used her body as a battlefield. Mama Nadi is unable to accept the possibility of love until the end of the play, believing herself to be unworthy because she has been “ruined.” The trauma the female characters have endured continues to haunt their daily lives, leaving them unable to completely escape its legacy—though Mama’s tentative dance with Christian in the final scene offers a glimpse of hope.

The Brutality of War

The civil war engulfing the area around Mama Nadi’s bar is a destructive, chaotic force. It has torn apart villages, victimized civilians, and left only devastation behind. Most notably, it has led to the rape and mutilation of the central female characters by soldiers. Kisembe and his rebel militia, who claim to be fighting against an unjust government, hate the government soldiers; Commander Osembenga, who claims to be fighting for democracy, despises the rebels. The violence increases over the course of the play, until gunfire replaces the sounds of the rainforest that normally surround Mama’s bar. Even a white pastor is brutally murdered by government troops for aiding rebel soldiers—a sign, in Christian’s view, that none of them are safe. Salima and Sophie don’t relish their work placating angry, violent men at Mama’s bar, but compared to the war-torn world outside its walls—and the terrible experiences of assault and mutilation they have left behind—the bar offers a measure of safety. In spite of Mama’s attempt to protect her girls and to avoid taking sides, however, the conflict inevitably spills into her establishment, and she must face Osembenga’s wrath when he discovers that she entertains Kisembe’s soldiers as well as his own.

The Struggle to Survive

For the characters in Ruined, survival often means sacrificing one’s personal wishes or values. When Commander Osembenga buys him a drink, for instance, Christian is forced to accept it—thus relinquishing his sobriety—in order to keep the peace. While his choice ensures his and Mama’s immediate survival, it also leads Christian to begin drinking again. Mama Nadi understands that the survival of her business, her girls, and herself means catering to both sides of the war; in order to avoid trouble, she must welcome both rebel and government soldiers as her patrons. As her employee, Salima knows that survival means she must use her body to placate Mama’s customers, even if she detests doing so, because the violence outside has left her with no other options. For her, however, the terms of survival are ultimately untenable, and she ends her struggle with the certainty that men will no longer make a battlefield of her body.

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Chapter Summaries