In the U.S., the concept of “grit” is often touted as an important part of success. Yet in sub-Saharan Africa, where I lived for 13 years, the ability to show resilience and tenacity in the face of hardship is not conceptual, or optional. I started to truly understand the commonality and strength of humanity, and the insane strength of women in particular, because I was afforded the opportunity to travel the world and end up where I did.
It is hard to find the right words to explain the experiences I’ve had or the people I’ve met; the phenomenal women I’ve had the honor to know –who have been born into a shared time but a place that is a world apart from everything I thought I knew.
Universally, when it comes to women — you may not understand them, but you know them. You know them in your hearts because somewhere inside, you are them.
You have the same characteristics they exhibit. You are determined, get angry, worry about the future and your children. You crave community and seek agency. Your life has demanded you exhibit an array of traits –academic excellence, endless self-reflection, emotional analysis and the ability to negotiate your intimate relationships.
You may not be tasked with protecting your children from war or finding any way possible to feed your family because of food scarcity, but others are, and you would rise to the occasion if you had to, just like them.
When I reflect on a story that describes my experiences, the first that comes to mind is about a childbirth I assisted one dark night in a remote region in the northwest corner of Central African Republic. I had no business being in the room as I was the logistician and responsible for supplies and staff for Doctors Without Borders (MSF in French), not healthcare delivery. But there were only three members of MSF based in that village, and the two male African nurses needed extra hands. It’s surreal to look back on now, ten years later, and after my own childbirth experience in a pristine western hospital equipped with oxygen and epidurals.
But there is a purity in that night; a woman giving birth under the cloak of darkness. No drugs, no electricity, two headlamps, a kerosene lamp and forceps ushering in a beautiful new human life. The nurses made sure she and her baby survived, while I stood by her head, a lost, useless wreck, holding her hand and blotting her forehead, wondering if I should be doing more.
She came to us because she had been displaced from her village due to the rebel activity in the region. I didn’t know where the father was or if he was still alive. I vaguely remember her mother or an auntie accompanying her. I didn’t know how she had come to that tiny town surrounded by Chadian troops to the west and French legionnaires to the south. I couldn’t understand her language. I couldn’t help physically, aside from moving the light in whatever way the nurses directed and handing them equipment. I didn’t know how to get the baby out safely or make sure she didn’t bleed out.
All I really could do was hold space for her in that instinctive way a woman does for another, willing the Feminine spirit in her to assist her body to do what it was designed to do. She barely cried out, she suffered and groaned in composed, resilient dignity. She gave birth to a gorgeous baby girl.
I learned the next day she named her Erin, after the foreign woman who stood by her as she brought her daughter into the world. I saw her one more time after that and then she and the baby were gone.
I don’t know why I tell that story now, if only to relive it for myself. Perspective and time make stories more profound and help you find new truths in the cobwebbed recesses of your mind. And it reminds me — when my life seems complicated, when I am mentally stressed or when I am in pain — that I am never really alone.
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