In honor of International Women’s Day, I am thinking of the many amazing women that you’ve never heard of and will never meet. Ten years ago, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya- I spent a year and a half meeting extraordinary women every day. And I’m not talking about my fellow volunteers (they were also amazing, but you may hear from them, about them, or know women similar to them)- I’m talking about the Kenyan mamas and daughters that kept their families together, kept food on the table, that worked miracles with the tiniest bits of material (whether wood, metal, cloth, or maize) and their ingenuity to make everything stretch a little further than it should.
These women, whom you’ll likely never meet, are the heart of that country. These women are made of strong stuff- but not like iron, which is brittle and can break, but more like the vines in a rain forest- strong, supple, resilient, and tenacious. Whenever visiting a woman’s home- and let’s just be clear, there is no “home” in Kenya without a woman in it, she would always have chai and something for you to eat. After I left Kenya and had more perspective, I felt ashamed because while there I didn’t recognize the depth of their hospitality and generosity and I’m further ashamed to admit that when they visited my home, I was often a poorer hostess despite having greater means.
While in Kenya, these women gave me the gift of their stories- many of them heart-breaking- stories of children lost, being beaten and raped by spouses or relatives, dangerous abortions and lack of health care; but also stories of hope and achievement- starting their own businesses, finding school fees for their sons AND daughters to go to school, getting training as midwives and community health care givers, building the strength of community from the women around them, and above all continuing to feel the joy and happiness of being on this earth- whatever the hardship it presented them with.
If I can share one of my most precious memories- try to come with me on this journey: I have ridden a local matatu (bus) to a small village where I am going to talk with a group of community midwives about HIV/Aids prevention and sanitation. As I disembark, I am met by a member of the group. She looks like a typical village woman- wearing a fantastic patterned dress, and greeting me with a hug and a gorgeous smile immediately. We are in Western Kenya, north of Kisumu, so the ground is a deep red clay, there are tall tropical trees surrounding small homes made of cinder block and corrugated metal. The track down into the village is deeply rutted by rain and the occasional truck that is able to navigate the road. The weather is warm and it’s midday with a bright sun shining overhead. This mama and I walk hand in hand down the road, her grip is firm with a hand rough and incredibly strong from years of labor, whereas mine is small and weak in comparison- but her touch makes me feel like her equal. I have a backpack and a hand drawn presentation (think “powerpoint” on fabric) that I am planning to walk them through. As we come down the hill, I hear singing and clapping. It is a beautiful, mesmerizing sound and I search out its source. Suddenly, I realize it’s a home at the bottom of the hill with about a dozen women standing outside- it’s my destination. These women are singing for ME and my arrival. The joy in those moments, as I entered their circle, hugged and embraced by all, was a feeling I’ll never forget and cherish so deeply. If we were able to bottle that joy and sense of community and giving, we would be far further along to peace in this world. Eventually, after more singing and dancing in the dirt yard of this modest home, we went in and settled down, had chai, made introductions, laughed, shared stories- and eventually I gave my presentation. But again, my contribution was so slight in return for what they already had and what they had given me. Even today, my heart aches to return to that moment. I wish you could know these women and their love for life and their families.
On this International Women’s Day and as Kenya seeks to elect its next president (one of the candidates is accused of criminal charges, including murder, by the International Criminal Court stemming from the last election…), I’d like you join me for a moment and think of these brave women and what we can do, in our lives to either honor them, help them, or simply remember them. The next time I see you, let’s hug with the joy that these women passed on to me and that still warms me. Imagine the happiness we can spread!
Top- A local women’s group getting a tour of a Community HIV/Aids resource center that the community built.
Middle- Samburu women dancing and singing.
Bottom- Tony standing with our dear friend Judy, her daughter Cindy, and two other girls.