March 2019 Theme: Make way for her dreams
A few years ago, I was on a field mission in beautiful Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, a gorgeous and secluded kingdom in austral Africa. Ok, maybe I call it gorgeous because it looks so much like my native Rwanda.
We were touring the country, visiting communities and farmers that had received a funding for their agricultural activities. We had visited several villages over the course of the week, but there is one in particular that I still remember to this day, though it was no different from the others we had visited before. Like in my native Rwanda, the houses were scattered in the hills, clean and neat in the middle of the family farmlands. You could see cows lazily grazing in the nearby pastures, unimpressed by this group of foreigners in four by four cars.
We got out of the cars and made our way to a vegetable field owned by a group of women. Some men from the village had come to wait for us and guide us onto little dirt roads, greeting other villagers as we walked by their houses.
The women were there in the field, waiting for the visitors they had been told were coming to see them that day. They had put on their Sunday best dresses and smiled as they saw us approaching. After greeting us, the women went and stood on the side, silently, as though they waited for someone to invite them to speak.
The village chief was the first to speak, which is customary, and then the agricultural extensionist. Both men testified as to how the support had helped the community in a meaningful way.
After the men spoke, they wanted to usher us back to the village, but I stopped them and asked when we were going to speak to the women. Our guide told us that the women had prepared food for us at the community centre and we could speak with them there. I insisted that we speak with the group that had come to wait for us by the field first, even if we were to continue our exchanges at the community centre. After all, they had come all this way just to wait for us and were going to leave without even hearing any of them speak?
The men quickly consulted between them and called upon the women to come forward and tell us their story.
One of the women stepped forward and went to stand in the middle of the field. She looked as though she was the youngest in the group, she couldn’t have been more than 17 or 18. She was shy at first, as she explained how the funding had helped the women in the village achieve their dreams.
I asked a question, a question that I later realised it was very presumptuous of me to ask, even stupid, I would say:
“So, how does it feel to be living your dream?”
The girl looked startled by my question, as I could tell from the way she looked at me. She remained silent for a moment, scrutinising my face, probably wondering how to answer that or if she should even answer. She finally decided to be blunt:
“This is not my dream”, she said to me pointing to the field around her. She had a slight grin on her face and looked at me with mischievous eyes.
I could sense that the older men did not like her answer. They said something to her in their local dialect, and though no one translated it for me, I knew they were shushing her or asking her to ‘stick to the script’.
The men were standing behind me, but I didn’t turn to look at them. Instead, I kept my eyes on the girl, the way you look at a bird who was disturbed by some noise and you’re scared it will fly away before you can see it up close. The negative reactions had destabilised her and it was evident she hesitated to continue talking. But I fixed it, smiling reassuringly, and I asked the question that I should have asked in the first place:
"What is your dream, then?"
It was as though those simple words had unshackled her spirit. She turned into a completely different person, in a split second, a total transformation right before our eyes. She was emboldened and began to talk very passionately, with a confidence she did not display when she spoke to us earlier.
“My dream is to become a fashion designer! You see the dress I am wearing?”
She turned to let us see the blue dress and purple apron she was wearing, laughing at her own silly dance.
“I made it myself!” she proudly said. “And I made the clothes of the other women here!”
All the women started laughing, showing off their own clothes. Imagine the scene: we are standing in the middle of a potatoes, beans and cabbage field talking about fashion!
The girl continued: “With the money I made from the sales of vegetables, I bought a sewing machine and I am saving money to go to fashion school.”
I was happy for her and was ashamed of myself, for making assumptions that this vegetable field was her dream instead of simply asking her what it was.
I applauded her and told her to believe in her dreams, that they will come true. Two other women stepped forward and shared their dreams. One wanted to go to school as well and the other dreamed of taking care of her kids so they could one day follow their own dreams.
It was a magical moment! Even the men’s attitudes changed, and they were cheering louder than us, the visitors. I could see a lot of pride in their eyes.
I understand their first reaction to shush the girl. It was instinctive, they had felt threatened by the boldness of the young girl and probably thought that her answer would have upset us, and we might have decided to take away the agricultural support.
Who would take away a project just because the beneficiaries had bigger dreams than what we could fund?
We walked back to the village, had a wonderful time with the community before we headed back to our ‘normal’ lives.
That episode marked me in a way. It helped me realise that too often, despite my best intentions, I make assumptions on what other people dreams are when I could simply ask them what they dream of.
And everyone has a dream, whether they live on a farm in a village, or sell food by the street side, or are career women achieving great milestones celebrated by all.
In a few days, we will celebrate International Women’s Day. We will collectively rejoice of the progress made in different parts of the world in terms of gender equality, and will commit, as a society, to do more for the advancement of women.
There is one commitment or pledge however that you are unlikely to hear in any of the March 8th official speeches, a commitment I would like us to make, right here and right now: the commitment to learn what the women in our lives dream of and support them to make their dreams come true.
And if some of us don’t have big enough hearts to embrace other people’s dreams, commit at least not to shush them when they try to speak, or make disparaging comments meant to break their spirit. To those few, let me borrow the words of Brenda Fassie, one of the greatest artists to ever grace this planet, and say: “Vuli Ndlela”, “get out of the way”!
Um’Khonde Patrick Habamenshi