I’ve seen it happen time and time again. We just want to fix things for other people. It makes us feel useful if we can be fixers.
It’s in our nature – especially for those of us who live in affluent countries. Some of my African friends have pointed out that it’s a trait that’s particularly evident among North Americans. It emerges from a culture that values independence over community. To be independent we have to be fixers and givers rather than receivers or dependents.
Now there’s nothing wrong with wanting to help. Helping is a good thing. The problem comes when helping turns into fixing and we end up imposing our own solutions and values on someone else’s challenges. Unlike helping, fixing comes from a place of superiority instead of compassion. It’s something I have to resist again and again when one of my teenage daughters has a problem that I’m pretty sure I can resolve better than she can.
Today, a lot of bloggers are writing about the importance of empowering girls around the world, to help them rise out of poverty, oppression, and even slavery. It’s a cause I believe in deeply. In all of my travels in developing countries, the stories that impacted me the most deeply were the ones about young girls who’d recently escaped from sexual slavery in India, and other young girls subjected to genital mutilation in Ethiopia.
Here’s one of the things that I’ve seen have a significant impact on young girls all over the world (including my own daughters)… good role models. I’m not talking about celebrities or even perfect people, I’m talking about REAL people who live authentic and meaningful lives and let their values guide their actions.
Young girls need to be shown what impact women can have when they have the courage to live with passion and conviction despite the fact that they may fail sometimes. They especially need role models in their own countries and communities – women who have risen above the odds and impacted change in big or little ways.
I have had the privilege of meeting several such women who serve as role models in their own countries. Today, I want to honour them for the part they’re playing in changing the world. To change the world for young girls around the world, the best thing we can do is celebrate powerful women wherever they are, listen to their stories, and then find out how we can support their work.
For just a moment, step away from all the fixing you’d like to do and just listen…
Elizabeth was just 23 when I met her in Ethiopia, but she has wisdom and strength beyond her years. She has committed her life to serving the cause of justice for those who are poor. She gave up her home in Addis Ababa to move to a remote village in the Afar desert to help a nomadic community build a water diversion project so that they can move beyond the hunger that has plagued them for a number of years (since the climate has changed and drought comes more frequently). Arriving in a conservative Muslim community, Elizabeth was told “this project will never work if it’s lead by a woman”, but she persevered and a few years later, dramatic changes have occured. Not only do they have abundant crops where nothing once grew, but there are more children going to school because families do not have to uproot themselves in search of water. The most exciting change is that gradually, women are being allowed to hold leadership positions in local governance, because the community witnessed what Elizabeth was capable of.
When I met Fidelis, I couldn’t help but notice the fierce energy burning in her eyes, despite the quiet calm of her face. It didn’t take long to find out that my first impressions were dead on. This was a women who would stand up to almost anyone without flinching (she had the nerve to tell Jeffrey Sachs he might be wrong on some of his thoughts on the Green Revolution for Africa and encouraged him to listen to more Africans), but still had the grace and compassion to make everyone in her presence feel valued. One of the most striking things she said in her visit to Canada was “Why do you people in the West always think you need to FIX everything?” She was working tirelessly in her native Kenya to help farmers learn more sustainable agriculture practices. I remember a story she told about how they’d learned to give goats and chickens in some villages because then they were more assured that the women and children would eat (men were too proud to eat that lowly meat and preferred beef). Sadly, Fidelis passed away a few years ago. A bright light too soon gone.
Mary Beth left a career in teaching to work in agricultural development because she witnessed marginalized tribes during times of conflict not having enough food to eat and it awakened a driving passion in her to do something about it. She was quickly promoted to leadership and now serves as Chief Functionary/Secretary for the Rural Women’s Upliftment Society (RWUS) in a remote area of India. When she visited Canada, she could not believe how much waste was accepted in our culture. “I visited a potato farm,” she said, “and saw so many potatoes that were left on the field to rot after the machines had finished the harvest. I couldn’t help but think of all the people those potatoes might feed.”
Victoria is the first woman to serve as General Secretary of the Association of Evangelicals of Liberia (AEL). AEL is active in resettling refugees from the many years of civil war, including helping many farmers to successfully return to their land. As a single parent who provides a home for not only her own children, but her nieces and nephews (who she is supporting through school), she was struck by the self-centredness of Western culture. “When we have a surplus, we give it to someone around who does not have enough food. There are always people around who need food.”
Shama carries herself with poise and strength. There is little doubt when you meet her that you are meeting a leader. She works in program management for Church World Service in her native Pakistan. As a woman in a leadership position in a male-dominated world, she often has to assert herself or choose to ignore the prejudice she’s subjected to. Some of the projects Shama manages help families who’ve been displaced because of conflict gain access to food. It is clear she loves her country and she longs for a day when more of the young girls she meets in rural areas have access to education. Sadly, though, even where there are schools, she fears that young people are not being taught to think creatively. “They are taught by rote,” she says. “Questions are frowned upon. I’d like to see that changed.”
I wish I’d had more time to spend with Kabita on the tiny island in the Sundarbans in India where she lives. My first impression of this young schoolteacher was that she had great respect (and expected the same) for the children under her guidance who danced for us when we first arrived on the island. She took my hand and gently guided me around her village, helping me aboard the bicycle transport, protecting me from tree branches along the path, and making sure I was comfortable. With pride, she introduced me to the place she calls home where she works tirelessly to bring education to children from marginalized tribes. I have never felt so comfortable holding another woman’s hand, but there was a special bond between Kabita and I right from the start. There were tears in both of our eyes when we parted.