By Fiona Malcolm
As I sat on the empty rice sack at the edge of an expansive field in Chitwan, Nepal, I watched the butterfly women bending, stretching, plucking and releasing before fluttering on with their harvest. I listened as my companion explained the importance of their lunchtime ritual.
We had met the night before when wandering through the dusty streets at dusk. I heard him call to me, proffering a basket he was weaving. “Hey lady, you want have a basket?” My usual smile and gentle nod of disinclination evaporated as I noted his advanced years and that he was working from his front porch with a sleeping child at his feet.
“I don’t want a basket,” I said, “but I’ll happily share some time and conversation with you…”. He returned my smile and waved me closer, his few remaining teeth glinting in the light from a kerosene lamp. ‘Yes, conversation is good practice for me. Come, come. Drink tea.”
And I did. I sat on the floor next to the sleeping child, who then nestled into me. Aadarsh poured some tea and began to tell me of his life. A retired headmaster, and teacher before that, he now supplemented the family income by weaving small baskets and selling them, mainly to tourists. We bonded over a shared interest in education, as I was then also a teacher. As the hours passed, the family appeared one by one to be introduced and to share a word, or offer more tea and fruit. Aadarsh invited me to visit his lunchtime teaching project the next day, and I agreed.
There was no more time to be nervous as the swarm of butterflies approached. Fluttering hands touched my hair and cracked feet danced as their owners unfurled their own sacks and settled around me, smiling visions of beauty chattering away in Pali and looking to their teacher to translate. As he did and explained my work to them, the questions came thick and fast, as did their expressiveness around their own circumstances. Most had left school around the age of eight to work to support their family, while their brothers continued with their education, and they now had families of their own to raise. They looked at their children and, as they put it, with ‘tiger strength’ decided that their daughters’ lives would be different.
Every day, during the height of the sun when they could take a break from the fields, they met and studied to improve their knowledge so that they could support their daughters by understanding what they were being taught at school. They studied Pali, social studies, maths and English. To have a native English speaker present at their lunchtime project entertained them greatly. With each shared reality, my heart softened and doubt about my own purpose increased.
That hour in a field in Nepal changed my life.
Where could I add value in the world? Could I support women in creating social change through education from a more active perspective?
I had most recently been working in a women’s college in one of the smaller emirates in the United Arab Emirates: allegedly a place of learning and educational development with a view to the purposeful minority moving forwards and becoming teachers themselves. In truth, it was for most students a holding pen between school and marriage, with college being viewed as a place to relax, with no requirement to look after siblings, and offering an opportunity to socialise with peers. It left me disheartened and unenthused by the prospect of working within a similar context.
Inspired by the idea of ‘tigress strength’ among these passionate Nepali women, I tapped into my inner kitten, which did not yet have a tiger’s roar, but which purred with enthusiasm as I whispered to myself, “You’re going to change the world as creatively and purposefully as I you can, in places that need it most. Yes, you arrrrrrrrrrrrre….”
So, I left my salaried role, began working on a freelance basis, and off I went into the world.
The initial noisy interference of “Where will I live, and how will I pay my bills?” soon settled into an occasional background disturbance as projects and offers of work began to appear.
One of the first that resonated deeply for me was a month-long teacher training project in Gitarama, Rwanda. Teachers were invited to attend from all over the country and the training was delivered at the same venue as their accommodation, an old military base. My accommodation was at the local ‘hotel’, which charged for rooms by the hour and clearly did not want working foreigners in residence. Apart from turning off the water to my room, repeated knocking on my door in the early hours and sexual shenanigans on the balcony next to my window contributed to sleepless nights. It was clear that this was not going to be resolved, so being a solution-driven individual, I opted instead to move in with some local monks. They had running water and were happy to rent out a room for some dollars, even if it was to a woman, and a foreigner to boot.
The training venue consisted of low-slung white painted bungalows set in lush gardens, with nesting storks providing colour and chaos. The bungalow rooms were well equipped with projectors and reliable electricity due to the generator which trundled into action several times a day as staggered power cuts were rolled out across the country. The glassless windows admitted fresh air – and the occasional mosquito – to the training room.
The class began to fill, and all went smoothly.
For the first day.
After coffee break on the second day, Molly, one of the quieter participants, asked what I knew about the 1994 genocide. Visibly emotional teachers joined in and implored me not to judge them or their country by that period in time. I was shaken. The very fact that they thought to ask saddened me, and made me wonder about the nature of previous interactions with foreigners that had resulted in fears about being judged on their past. I was also ashamed of my lack of foresight and awareness, as what was already to my mind a historical event was clearly a living reality for this group.
I let go of my embarrassment over my ignorance and said I knew that it had involved the two main tribes of Hutu and Tutsi, with the Tutsi being those persecuted, and that it was a time of bloodshed in Rwanda. Slowly, they offered more details to paint a vivid picture of fear, chaos and pain with repercussions that continued to be felt decades later. I learned that the ruling elite had encouraged this mass slaughter. Entire families had been wiped out, communities were destroyed, villages were laid waste and bodies left to rot in the heat, and more than half of the entire Tutsi population had been slaughtered. Vague memories I had of watching newsreels of this bloodshed at the time came flashing back as their words brought history to life.
Stories of change emerged too. With mass internal movement of refugees, on the part of both Hutus and Tutsi, the country had been in a state of flux. Now, the country was actively seeking to engage people from all walks of lives and all tribes in creating a social structure that would support the development of Rwanda. Once a month they have a day called Umuganda, which literally means a ‘coming together’. Everyone, from rubbish collectors to surgeons and politicians, congregates in an effort to help others out. From helping one neighbour rebuild their home to harvesting a crop for another or washing the pavements in the city where they live, this conscious act of collaboration serves to remind people that they can move forward and create communities together.
As we broke for lunch, I asked how this impacted education today, and was told that the children they teach are very aware of the genocide, and challenges of guilt and loss remain to be dealt with amongst them. These topics were also challenging for the teachers who had lived through this time, and they spoke of the deep resilience and courage needed in addressing some of the issues the children raised.
Bravery comes in many forms, large and small, and one such example was evidenced over lunch.
Molly was still breastfeeding her daughter, who was only weeks old. Her sister had accompanied Molly to care for the baby during training sessions. During lunch, as the teachers piled their plates high with food, one of the organisers, a ‘big Man’ in the community, had commented on the huge amounts people were eating, and joked that at least Molly had an excuse, as she was eating to feed two. Molly was clearly embarrassed, but gracefully explained that people were eating now because they did not know when they would next see food of the quality or quantity available here.
When she spoke, her voice was as still water, deep and full. No one else could see her folded hands trembling in her lap. She reminded the man that many of those taking part travelled from very poor areas of Rwanda where one meal a day was a luxury, unlike those in government roles in Kigali who could eat as much and as often as they liked. This was clearly in reference to his girth and governmental role. His countenance darkened, but he focused on his own plate after that and the conversation moved on to less sensitive topics.
That she spoke up in defense of her peers to such an important figure moved me. Apart from the possible professional repercussions, to speak in this way to such a man echoed our earlier discussions, in the course of which the teachers had argued that those in power would no longer go unchallenged. Molly must have noticed my reaction, as she whispered to me, “Do not worry for me, I no longer let men like this bully me.”
Over the next few weeks, Molly shared details of her personal loss, calmly revealing that she was the last surviving member of her family, in fact of her entire village. Her mother had hidden her under a sack in a woven basket, and she was overlooked when the village was wiped out. Through education, Molly wanted to improve her community for her own children and those of neighbouring families from all tribes. Before I left, she told me she wanted to “…not know the pain of our past, instead, to have a clear path and heart for all the futures of all the children in Rwanda”. As she spoke, I could visualise the generations of children to come, holding hands, walking strongly and clearly into a lighter, brighter future. When I shared this with Molly, her eyes softened and her smile broadened. “That’s it!” she said. “That’s our Rwanda.”
Another country where I was moved by strong women was Libya. I was involved in several short projects there, and visited half a dozen times. This was in the wake of Gadhafi, and the social and political situations were equally fragile. Yet, in this place of perceived fear and chaos, strength and beauty can still exist. Even with a security escort, the wonder of Leptis Magna stirred my heart, touching history as we walked around the glorious ruins. Other moments that flavoured my experience include late-afternoon conversations in the souq with some of my female participants; bright white buildings; deep blue skies; colourful scarves; women’s laughter; jewellery sellers calling us to their stalls; the sounds of brass minarets for a masjid being hammered into shape while the grinder wheel smoothed off rough edges. Cardamom coffee, fragrant tobacco and a whisper of salt carried on the sea breeze. Such moments are to be treasured.
My participants, a mix of university lecturers and teachers, explained that for them, life had been better when Gadhafi was in power. Women could walk the streets after sunset without fear, medicine was available and free, electricity was reliable, roads were maintained, there was no significant lawlessness because the punishments were severe, and food was more available and affordable.
As I traced the bullet holes in the school walls, powdered concrete gritty on my fingertips, I asked what had happened to education since the change in power. One of the teachers offered to show me, by taking me round the school where I was delivering training, as she also worked there. We walked around the school, through forlorn classroom bereft of learners, overturned tables with names scrawled on them in childish Arabic, carelessly stacked chairs and abandoned books thick with dust. We paused at the stairwell which was also a fire escape, but was blocked with tables and chairs. I asked why, and she told me. Hesitantly, then with growing energy and passion as her story flowed.
The school had been attacked by renegades who wanted the female teachers to bring the children to a madrasa instead. The women refused and stood against these men. They hurled chairs and desks into the stairwell to block access, shouted at the men to go away, and prayed aloud. They told them to go home and read the Koran again, threw books in a bid to knock the guns from their hands, recognised previous students and wept as they berated them for shaming themselves and their families.
The men left.
The teachers stayed.
The barricades remained as a deterrent.
My jaw must have dropped in disbelief as Fatima laughed and shrugged dismissively. “What else could we do?” she asked. “We are teachers and mothers. We love and protect our children.”
I am continually humbled to meet and work with such women – women whose daily lives are beyond what most of us can even begin to imagine. Strong, educated and thoughtful women, passionate about educating their children Standing strong against intimidation and peacefully fighting for a future for their children and their country. One of my favourite pieces of written reflection was as follows: “Peace will come with women and equal strength women have no need of this fear- and power-based society. We want our children to be safe, strong and happy. This will make a new Libya. With education, this can be so.”
Access to education in a safe environment is something that most of our children take for granted, yet is a luxury to children elsewhere in the world.
Months and years pass, and work projects fly by with them. Over the last few years I have worked in some fascinating countries including Egypt, Libya, Peru, Rwanda, Kazakhstan, Tanzania, the UAE, Ukraine and China, and written educational materials for projects in Kenya, Senegal and the UAE, encouraging light filled seeds of education and growth to flourish under the guidance of powerful women in all contexts.
I drop in for a month or so and then leave.
They are the ones living there day after day and bringing about real social and educational change.
I can still feel the resonance of their hearts beating as their energy vibrates through the ether, hear them roar with passion for the future of the children in their care and the stillness of their grace as they continue to love, teach and raise the next generation of their country.
May their seeds be light filled and flourish wherever and whenever they are.