The plane hummed over the Sahara Desert, hour after hour of nothing but rolling beige dunes passing beneath me and my pressed-to-the-window nose. Then at long last, a few scraggly trees appeared, a dusty crevice started to sparkle and become a river, and finally, the tree-covered hills of Nigeria came into view.
Then those too eventually gave way to another seemingly endless expanse: the massive sprawling city of Lagos.
We swung low over the stacks of gray buildings and rutted roads down to the airport with a heavy whump, then bobbled over to the terminal. I had come here from our headquarters in Washington, DC to meet my companions on this journey: a model named, Philomena Kwao, from London and her photographer friend, Sefa Nkansa, from Ghana. Philomena is a Women for Women International ambassador, helping to raise awareness by sharing our mission with her many fans. Sefa was there to capture Philomena’s first meeting with these women she’d been supporting from afar for many years now, and I was there to lead these two into the field and help record the stories of the women in our program. As a recent hire to Women for Women International, this would be my first chance to meet our sisters in person too.
In the terminal, I recognized in a second the proud figure walking down the airport’s international hall. It was Bukola Onyishi, our Nigerian Country Director, who had come to make sure we first-time visitors didn’t lose our way. I had come to know my colleague, “Buki,” well through our many Skype calls about work issues but now with her warm smile and melodic voice, wrapping me in a big hug, it felt like I was reuniting with a long-lost family member. And I was so happy to meet Philomena and Sefa, who had arrived before me. We all converged in this little hall and just talked and learned about each other’s homelands and families and admired one another’s different fashions, accents, demeanors. Philomena asked Buki if we would get a chance to sit and talk in the same way with the women in our program, saying, “I can’t wait to go to a woman’s home here– to share in that sacred place, to hear of the pain and joy, to know what a better life means to her. We all come from such different places but in that space I want to find our connection.”
We talked of this longing for connection and admitted our fears of possibly not being able to relate or be nearly as relatable as we wanted. Our experiences were so vastly different. These women lived in a region that had been torn apart by years of conflict: violent attacks, family members murdered, their own bodies violated, their children hungry, and many families forced from their homes into desolate temporary shelters. Despite all this, the Women for Women participants muster enormous strength and gather together day after day to study and strive to build toward a better future for themselves and their children. They often walk miles to our centers to not only learn new skills but to help invest in one another and support each other’s success. We marveled at what deep wells they must draw upon to continue with such resolve after going through unthinkable trauma and worried about how trivial our challenges must seem in comparison. But Buki reassured us knowingly, “you will meet them, you will see. They are so looking forward to talking with you and welcoming you into their homes. Especially at graduation, this will be a very special moment.” She was referring to the graduation ceremony we would be honored to witness at the end of our trip, where a large group of program participants would demonstrate all that they’d learned in the past year and would be recognized for successfully completing our program. This was what I was most excited to see and hear and understand.
The next plane was announced so we gathered our things and headed back onto the tarmac, up another set of rattle-y stairs into a beaten down puddle jumper that would carry us off to Jos in the northeast and the women we had waited so long to meet. As we lifted over Lagos once more, I tried to get another glimpse of this enormous city before heading up into the remote countryside, but alas the windows on this tiny plane were so scratched up there was nothing to look at but a prism of my own fractured reflection. So we turned toward each other again and got down to planning: how we’d try to get some good shots of the women as they learned how to farm, sew, and trade; how we’d take some pictures of the health clinics the women could now access through our microinsurance program; how we’d do some interviews in the classes and in the women’s homes. Philomena, who has studied and cares deeply about maternal health urged, “we must talk to the mothers, I want to hear how they take all this on and still raise their children.” So another stop was added to the itinerary to meet with young mothers in the program. Throughout the flight we scribbled notes, prepared our agendas, sorted our gear. We were ready.
But nothing could truly prepare us for the actual experience of meeting the women in person. After landing in Jos, we loaded into a van and set out to our first stop, a nearby training center where we would get to visit one of the Women for Women International advocacy classes. After a bumpy, dusty ride through the mountains, our van pulled up to a long row of classrooms. We unloaded our equipment, brushed off the yellow dust that had blown over all our belongings, and headed in.
Here, a class of women was learning to negotiate with community leaders through role play. The dirt floor sifted into the beams of light coming in through the open windows as a tall woman named, Christiana, demanded that she be heard: she wanted to be able to take her goods to the market and trade but there was an impossible curfew set for women that forced them to return to their homes long before they could sell enough of their wares to cover their costs and to keep something to invest as they’d learned to do in our financial management class. Another woman, dressed in men’s clothes scowled back demanding, “why should I listen to a woman? Why aren’t you at home with your children, taking care of your husband?”
Christiana leaned down close to the “man’s” face and insisted, “sir, my children are safe with their grandma and my husband is away in town trying to earn money too. We must make a better living to support our family together and to grow our farm. It is my right to trade what we grow and I tell you we must remove this curfew for me to do it.” The “man” scowled back and said, “tell me how will this benefit the community?” Christiana leaned in again and said, respectfully but sternly, “sir, this will bring strength to the community because we will be able to feed our children and they will be able to go to school and have a better future and we will be able to buy more seeds and goats and grow better crops so that we do not need to stay hungry or poor anymore.”
This exchange went on for many minutes and the other women in the circle listened intently to their classmate, nodding and whispering affirmations that things must change. I walked the perimeter of the room, recording video, snapping photos with the flash off, trying not to disturb the scene, allowing the passion that these women spoke with to enter me and beginning to better understand what drove them.
The advocacy class was just the beginning and soon we were off to talk with the young mothers Philomena had asked to meet. Just a little farther down the road, we came to another hall where about twenty young mothers– babies strapped to their backs and fronts and shuffling about their feet– sat waiting for us to arrive. In this class they were learning about improving health and sanitation practices to protect their families from disease and to learn about medicine and family planning to support more manageable family sizes.
What caught my eye first was the calm: the children weren’t crying, they seemed settled and patient, the women weren’t harried, but they did look tired and a worry showed across their faces. We took their hands, touched their babies’ cheeks, and sat down to talk.
I asked, “how do you support one another while you’re in class?” After a moment of quiet glances at one another, one woman, breast feeding as she spoke said, “this is our most difficult problem, we want to learn but our babies need care so we lift each other up by taking each other’s children while we study if we can. But it is not easy.” Another said, “we need to start a program, we need to be free to learn during these times.” Philomena asked, “how do you make sure your babies have what they need in terms of medicine, vaccines, and checkups? This must take so much time and effort while you’re learning too.” A young woman toward the back of the crowd raised her hand and said softly, “we now have this care through the program. We can now take our children to be seen in the clinic and they receive medicine and tests and this makes things easier. But we need most to have them held while we train in class.”
This group of women, concerned for their children’s well-being and knowing that their babies’ success depended upon their own ability to learn and lift themselves up touched me deeply. Later, back at the hotel, Philomena and I would talk about how we felt moved to take their children and go play right then and there so they could get back into the classroom. We remembered the gentle way the women spoke with us with such sincerity about their needs and how close we all felt in this intimate moment. We would later learn that this same group of women collected their efforts and established on their own, a daycare program so that they could have exactly what they said they needed: a safe place to let their children play while they worked on their training. They did this on their own, by their own strategy and organization, and this daycare program continues to support our program participants today.
The next few days revealed more of this same support and we again and again felt brought into the fold with more of the same acceptance and bonding with these women with whom “on paper” we shared very little in common. It was striking that despite language barriers and very different backgrounds, we shared the exact same basic human needs and emotions: the desire to feel safe, having dreams and feeling pride in working to make them real, protecting one another and having hope for the future, love, loss, mourning and rebuilding.
Just as Buki had promised, we eventually were allowed to go out into the hills of Shere to visit the women in their own homes. We walked through some corn fields and into a small collection of huts that were made of yellow mud walls and dirt floors, that despite their simplicity, held an elaborate energy of calm and strength. Here, we sat on mats and spoke first with Rhoda, who is dealing with troubles in her relationship as her husband, who has a drinking problem, has repeatedly left her alone for long stretches of time to care for their six children by herself. She bore most of these children on her own in their home with nothing but her own extraordinary strength to carry them into this world. She explained, “before the program, I struggled to feed my children. My husband he is gone and I feel alone, very far away from anyone who can help me.” But she said, “with Women for Women, I came to know others like me and we cared for one another and began to learn how to protect our families, to prevent diseases and keep our babies healthy. Then we learn how to get money and to save it to give them a chance at school and learning too.”
Philomena had brought with her some messages from women in England who wanted to send their message of support. These “message to my sister” cards carried words like, “Dear sister, I believe in you, I want you to never give up. Please know that although I am far away and in a different country, I am there with you in my heart.” Rhoda accepted her card with a soft and graceful smile, she held the card close and asked Philomena to “please tell her I am grateful, I think of you too, sister, and feel you caring for me.”
We moved on to more homes and met more women and shared more messages of support from across the world. Every time we felt a closeness so natural and genuine that our fears of seeming different, of not understanding, of not truly connecting faded away without our noticing and we were just simply there, three women together in a home, sharing about life’s journey.
On our final day, Philomena and I were gifted with extraordinary ceremonial gowns, ordered special for us by our Nigerian staff. We donned these beautiful garments and headed off to the graduation ceremony in Pushit. This was what I had long been waiting for– a chance to celebrate the with our sisters after a year of hard work; to see them display their knowledge proudly, to announce to the community that they were there to make change and that this change was happening now.
As our van approached, we could barely make out the long low open-aired celebration hall because of the crowds surrounding it. People from all over the region had come to attend the graduation and so for several minutes we pushed through the men and women and little boys and girls, who laughed at us with delight and affection to a table at the head of the hall. In front of us sat the graduating class, reserved and ready. Drums began to sound and the grads stood and approached us in a long line, dancing and stomping to the beats and organizing at the front of the room. Like magic, as if to accompany the swelling energy in the room, a thunderstorm started to well up outside, raising warm breezes that flowed over us all, blowing at our skirts and shaking the trees outside as the women began to sing and rattle their beaded instruments. Before we knew it we were pulled into the whirlwind, dancing and singing along with them, chanting words we didn’t know but caught in a rhythm we shared. For a long while we danced and laughed and wound around the room, then the drums beat slower and we were led back to our places at the front of the room again.
After this exulting start, we settled in to watch displays of the skills the women had learned over the past year. We witnessed a demonstration of inheritance rights where a woman who was told she could not have her deceased father’s lands proved to community leaders that indeed it was her right to carry on living on and farming these lands. In role play, the leaders listened and deliberated and came to decide in the woman’s favor. The other graduates celebrated her success and clapped approvingly.
Other women stood and carried forward the fruits of their farming, their looms, their trade. The pride in each of these women’s eyes and the admiration of the men and women around them made a deep impact on me. I stood and asked to share a speech, hoping to somehow convey how close I felt to them in that moment and over the preceding days. I hoped to relay how much they had changed my life in this short time and how bonded I felt to them. I was heartened as I spoke, looking directly into the eyes of these women, feeling their focus on my words as they were interpreted little bit by little bit until I was able to say as best I could how much meeting them and spending time talking with them had truly changed my life.
After I spoke, we were drawn back into the circle of music and laughter as the graduates filed out, all in one movement, all together in one dance.
Being there in these moments truly did change my life. And as I, Philomena, and Sefa gathered again at the airport the next day, we found ourselves far more quiet than when we began. It was the hush of contentment, the absence of intimidation, the feeling of having achieved what we had delicately hoped might be possible. With gratitude and profound respect, we left these lands and dispersed back to our own homes across the world. I know as we lifted away and apart that the connections we made held strong, despite the distance. This journey changed me and gave me the great gift of a feeling of sisterhood with all women: our needs are the same, love or isolation affects us the same. We must honor this bond and support and encourage and stand by one another. It’s a vow I made to myself quietly as I watched the rivers dry and the trees disappear into the rolling Sahara dunes once again, on the plane, on my way back to Washington where I proudly continue to strive every day to stand beside my sisters and their valiant efforts every day.