A few months ago, I had the good fortune to hear a presentation by Leymah Gbowee. A co-recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, Leymah was recognized for her efforts mobilizing women in a peaceful protest resulting in the end of the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003.
A strong believer in the importance of education, the Nobel prize money enabled Leymah to not only send girls to school but also to provide them with the support needed to succeed. According to Leymah, there have been many successes over the last 5 years. This includes two women earning their PhD’s and a continuous wave of girls entering high school.
After speaking of these successes, Leymah passionately spoke about the challenges. They were numerous and heartbreaking. Despite Leymah’s efforts, girls still experienced significant problems.
For example, one girl repeatedly ran away from school. Leymah was facing so many problems, and now this! She was a point of dismantling the program she had created.
Fortunately, before taking such action, Leymah decided to visit the school and address the girls in attendance. As she vented her frustrations, Leymah found one of girls standing next to her. It was runaway girl. Shyly, she placed a note in Leymah’s hand. It read, “I understand all that you have done for us. I don’t want to mess up my life.”
Leymah knew this was an important moment. She asked everyone, but the note writer, to leave the room.
Then, the girl explained “I’m not running away from school. I run from school when school is dismissed.” Leymah learned that this girl was the first student to get off the bus at the end of the day. Everyone in her neighborhood knew her mother was a sex worker. At school, this girl was Vice-President of the Student Council. She was smart and commanded respect. School was a different world than her reality. The girl went on to say, “I don’t want someone in my neighborhood to say something about my life as I get off the bus.”
Leymah’s story remains with me. How often do I judge someone before knowing their entire story? Just like it takes time to read a book beyond its cover, it takes time to understand someone’s story. Time to ask questions, time to listen, and time to reflect.
After telling this story several of times, I discovered another take away message. Leymah reminded us that school was a very different world for this girl compared to the reality of her neighborhood. This dichotomy raises so many thoughts within me.
I’m reminded of a Spanish teacher I had years ago in Antigua. Teachers at this school wore a uniform that included a white blouse or shirt. As I got to know my teacher, I learned that she lived in a home with one electric light bulb. She fetched water from a community well. She shared that house had dirt floors. I distinctly recall thinking, how does she keep her blouse so white and crisp? I found it challenging even with a wash machine and a good iron. Leymah’s story causes me to wonder how my teacher felt about sharing those details of her life. Was she feeling pride at being able to move beyond her limited material to work as a teacher? Or did sharing these details put her in a place of vulnerability?
Ripple Effect Journeys was created for women who want to experience the world beyond the sights and learn the answers to questions like these.
They want to meet people, particularly women and girls, where they live, work and go to school. We hope the women we meet will be comfortable in sharing their stories. What are their hopes and dreams? What challenges do they face? What do they need to be able to meet their goals? How can we support their efforts? Rather than fixing a situation, we are there to champion individual efforts.