Imagine you are at the edge of the Wild Coast of rural South Africa, in a region called the Transkei, which is two hours by the worst roads imaginable to the nearest doctor. The view is stunning. From the rolling hilltop, you can see the mouth of a small river flowing into the Indian Ocean, with trees deeply rooted in the sand, growing up a steep hillside to the right and a colorful village of Rondavels (traditional round dwellings with cone shaped thatched roofs) dotting the landscape to the left. I am with two fellow masters students and we have traveled a full day and two flat tires to get here. This is Bulungula Eco Lodge. After a much needed night’s sleep, we wake excited for our ‘Women Power’ Tour.
Our guide Kululwa comes to gather us. She is a young vibrant woman with bright brown eyes and a smile that covers her whole face. She asks if we’re ready and we embark on our way through a winding foot path into the colorful village. Kululwa takes us to her rondavel, and first paints our faces with a traditional Xhosa mud/water mixture that is a perfect natural sunscreen. Then we go to gather firewood and carry it back like Xhosa women have forever, on our heads. This was not nearly as difficult as our next task. At least with the firewood, the varied lengths helped with balance. Fetching water was our next task, and we had small buckets, compared with Kululwa’s larger one. We also couldn’t fill it up to the top or we would spill, it was quite comical to see our inadequacy. When we made it back to the hut, Kululwa showed us how she would build a small fire under a metal tripod. She then scraped the skin off of a giant squash, showed us how to grind maize meal for ‘pap’, a traditional staple food, and made us all lunch. Throughout the day Kululwa told us about her life and we asked her lots of questions. Through questions and prompting, she told us that she was not married, which is pretty rare for a 25 year old village woman. She admitted to us that she did not want to marry and instead did these tours so that she was able pay her parents the ‘lobola’ or bride price they would have received when she married. I was surprised by her admission, and extremely touched by her bravery. I have thought of her many times and how hard it must have been for her to carry out her decision in such a small, traditional village.
Now picture yourself in a medium-sized college town also on the coast of South Africa in the Eastern Cape. We are here for the world-renowned 10 day Grahamstown Arts Festival. One day we gathered around a stage, where two young men dressed in really far out colonial type costumes, picked random people out of the audience and transformed their hair and makeup before your eyes into works of art. There was a guy that they turned into a cheetah who was part of an extensive jungle scene all coming out of his head and hair. There was a young woman who had a dancing ballerina doll balanced in a ring on the top of her head. The music was loud and their work was so creative and quick. It was quite magical.
The days were filled with cool thought provoking plays, art exhibits, or musical performances, and at night we would hang out with our college student friends/hosts. One day I was feeling particularly in need of some quiet time, so I ventured out on my own, and walking down a random street through town, I came across a group of young women street performers that mesmerized me. I had been looking for signs and asking what I should do with my education and which direction I should next take my career. I stood and watched these nine girls sing, and dance, and drum, with such joy and abandon that it almost made me cry. I was struck by their tenacity. To basically make opportunity, where there is generally very little, made me know in an instant, these were the kind of young women I wanted to work with, or work for. Ones that are determined, hardworking, and will find opportunity. I still wasn’t sure what capacity I would be working with them, but another seed was planted.
The final and perhaps most powerful set of experiences I had took place at the Saartjie Baartmann Centre for Women and Children, a full service domestic abuse shelter, where I did my thesis research. I met and talked to some of the most amazing women I have ever met. One woman told me about coming to the centre and at first being so broken and scared and with such low self esteem that she could barely hold her head up. By the time I met her she was smiling and able to tell her story with pride about how far she had come. She told me a story of a contest that the centre had, a beauty pageant of sorts, where she entered, and was able to walk in front of the group with her head held high, and for the first time in her life, she felt beautiful and strong. She ‘won’ the contest. There was another woman so deeply involved in gang and drug life with her mate, that she was afraid to talk. She genuinely feared for her life, and could not go outside of the centre walls. Another woman pridefully showed me a poem written by her young son, who before coming to the centre had major problems with school and in general, but since being there had completely turned around. It was abundantly clear that this mother loved her son deeply and would do anything for him. These women and the other’s like them left an indelible mark on my spirit. Their resilience and hope for the future, in spite of the horrible atrocities they had endured, will stay with me forever. That and the fact that because they have few marketable skills and lower levels of education, many would be forced to move back with the perpetrator of their abuse.
This glimpse into the hard life of a young Xhosa village woman, the example of tenacity in some hard working street performers, and the shining examples of triumph over hardship in the women of Saartjie Baartmann Centre showed me what women are capable when given very little access to resources and opportunity. There are examples of this in every corner of the globe. Women can do so much with so little! Why not give them the opportunity to connect with any resources they choose to empower their lives? Imagine what underrepresented women worldwide could do if given the chance!
Due to the sensitive nature of the conversations I had with the women, and the concerns for their safety, I did not photograph the women of SBC. Trust me when I say that they were all gorgeous in spirit, and their beautiful faces are indelibly imprinted in my mind.