Women Warriors, Feminine Fabulous

I read Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof's book, Half the Sky when flying to South Africa a few years ago, right after the book hit the shelves in '09 actually. Traveling to Cape Town with family and a few others to engage in some humanitarian efforts proved amazing minus the African-based, Tennessee-sponsored organization we traveled through, which was ridiculously conservative on all fronts. (Just to be an ass I donned my Barak Obama t-shirt more than once while there, and it had the desired effect.) Before I share how the book came to life for me, I want to say that I despise poverty porn--you know, the images and videos we see on melodramatic commercials that make us feel guilty for the money haphazardly spent on the six pack of beer in our fridge. Half the Sky transcends this category by introducing us to women in intimate ways of discovery and vulnerability.

The township we gathered in, Overcome Heights, portrays a huge irony even in its name. The refugees dwelling in the corrugated tin shacks on the southern peninsula sand dunes of Cape Town were not empowered to overcome anything in their lives. I found the half-rotten wooden sign holding the name offensive. We were inviting the inhabitants to TB testing, along with other general medical tests like blood pressure checks. A group of women who lived in the township met us each morning to walk us through the narrow outdoor corridors and into the bowels of poverty and destitution to invite their neighbors to the testing site.

It's also worth saying that I think slum tourism is despicable. If you google "Cape Town Township" an option to further your search automatically pops up as "Township Tourism." This multiplies rubber-knecking interstate car-wreck voyeurism to levels of obscenity. I get angry sometimes at the NYC tour buses driving through Harlem. Standing on the Amsterdam Ave. sidewalk waiting for my daughter's school bus to drop her off on the corner of a giant subsidized housing complex while tourists snap photos can easily leave me irate on our walk home. All this to say, I'm not posting any pictures of the people I met, except this one of a boy playing at the bus stop.

I saw a woman who had been burned by acid. She didn't want to meet us. But I felt like I already knew her thanks to WuDunn and Kristof.

Marsha, our guide and mother of two toddlers who also lived with her mother introduced us to a good friend. This girlfriend, err, nineteen-year-old woman, had three children under five living in one room with cardboard box flooring to keep the sand at bay. Of course she was prostituting herself to feed her growing family. Where did the kids go while she was working? She did not want us to stay long. We moved on after a quick greeting. A piece of my heart still sits on the cardboard in that room not knowing how to respond or speak. But again, I thank WuDunn and Kristof for giving me permission to meet her.

Most transformative for me, aside from the trail of unchaperoned kids under age 5 that walked with us throughout each day (because I passed out Smarties and stickers), happened unexpectedly for all of us, including Marsha.

A woman running a daycare about a mile deep into the township where the crime rates escalate through the tops of the dunes in the darkness of night, and the women succumb to terrors that police cannot reach.

The subtitle of the pulitzer prize winning book is "Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide."

The men of the township (on the whole) spend their days smoking at the corner, playing barefoot soccer in the nearby glass-infested field, or simply absent from the routines of fetching water from the central spicket, chasing the children to school, or working themselves. This woman called to us as we passed by unaware because the children saw my candy donations and were anxious to greet us. Turning at the sound, we stood stunned as we saw this woman's space. Filled with at least ten children, she had one stuffed Barney animal, a plastic walker with no batteries, and one pillow on the floor for reading time. (I'm not sure what she read to them.) She had a daily routine taped to the wall including snack-time, hand-washing, and nap. Otherwise, the children played in the sand, I guess. Once my Smartie supply was drained we inquired of her ongoing needs and promised to get her some of the monetary goods she requested. I had brought a shopping bag of infant shoes my own kids had grown out of. I felt stupid handing them to her. "Here," I thought, "I hope these help. I'm sorry I'm such a rich stupid fucker that I buy new shoes for my kids every few months."

She spoke to us of her own misery in watching these young toddlers walk the alleys alone while their mothers were forced to leave them for work, usually as housekeepers in the affluent white neighborhood across town. The mothers paid the woman about $1 per week to watch their children. The mothers were able then to provide food for dinner and snacks for the day with their income (notice I didn't say lunch). And the mother of the daycare could do the same for her own children.

Here is the other side of the city.

THIS is what I understand Half the Sky to embrace, promote, and hep us understand.

Last moment of sharing: While we were waiting in another crowded slum hallway embedded in the shiny tin, standing sticky and ashy in the hot sun, I asked Marsha what it feels like to meet with various groups of white people each month, show them her territory of life, receive their pity, to have them return about their business after a good self-pat-on-the-back at the end of the week. I asked if she was ever angered by it or frustrated by the injustice of white supremacy, corrupt governments building a state-of-the-art World Cup soccer stadium while forgetting its people in Cape Town, etc. She looked directly into my eyes for an extended moment before answering.

She thoughtfully responded, "When you are a mother trying to protect your kids from the horrors of night, and you are working to bring home a simple loaf of bread for the dinner table each night, you will take whatever help you can get. It doesn't matter what color their skin is or how long they stay."

Not much left to say after that.

I will never understand. And I won't ever be able to do enough to fix the atrocities of Overcome Heights.

I'm learning though, that I can be angry on Marsha's behalf, and on behalf of the woman running the daycare, and on behalf of the women cleaning the houses of South African wine-makers, and on behalf of those forced into prostitution and rape, and on behalf of all who are named in works like Half the Sky.

And I'm s...l...o...w...l...y... very, very slowly, coming to a point in my own spirituality that allows me to say that my anger does not need to manifest as guilt or pity. It can activate into something stronger, more productive, more sustaining and life giving.

March is Women's History Month. Yesterday, the 8th, was International Women's Day. There are lots of organizations, especially those focusing on women, like CARE who are celebrating this month with all sorts of education and awareness bits. But I wonder, do you know about Kiva? Kiva began a few years ago by a young American woman and her husband (I actually took classes with her brother in seminary), and the success of the non-profit has sky-rocketed since. It's micro-lending to specific women across the world of developing countries. You pick which women from the website you want to support as they begin their business ventures. Once your loan is repaid (you choose the amount) you can re-lend to another woman. This month, new users get a free $25 loan to start their involvement. So go start one, please. Thank you.

That''s the point of all this. Just to share my love of Kiva. Sorry it took me so long to get here.

One last thing, it is going to be the women who change the world and eradicate poverty. Each chapter in the WuDunn/Kristof book begins with an awesome quote. I like best the one commencing chapter 2, a sentence from Florence of Arabia: "Women might just have something to contribute to civilization other than their vaginas."

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