I have learned this so far in my first year of Peace Corps service. Although I think I have known it for a long time (maybe forever), women do an awful lot.
I assume anywhere in the world a person goes they are sure to come across women working as hard, if not harder, than the men. And my little African village is no different. Women here work exceptionally hard.
From sunrise to sunset, with little to no rest in between, all women — young and old, single and married, pregnant or not — work hard. They do the laundry, wash the dishes, make the meals and go for water from a well that may or may not be nearby.
When they aren’t working around the house then they can be found right there beside the men working in the fields: planting, fertilizing, weeding and harvesting. And all of these tasks are done while they are taking care of children, sometimes with one strapped to their back via a sling like cloth.
I never stop being amazed at how physically and emotionally strong these women are. I get my own water from the well, but after I get it I am exhausted, and I don’t even carry it on my head.
There are some days when just the thought of getting that water is enough to cause me to put it off until the next morning. I’m not being lazy; honestly, it’s dread.
But these women in my village never stop because they can’t afford to. They’re the glue that holds each family and community together. They truly keep it functioning.
Aside from carrying water from the well, the village ladies do other things that make me feel like a little, powerless, inept man.
When I go to start my brazier for cooking dinner, I always go to my nearest neighbor for some hot coals. Instead of using tongs to pick up this glowing ember, she just reaches into the fire, pulls one out and places it into the brazier. Notice I said places it, not tosses it.
To get these coals, the women carry huge loads of firewood for miles from the forest to the village — all on their heads or in their arms.
These are all impressive feats, but the one activity that awes me the most is when I work side by side with them in a field or garden. Holding a five to seven-pound hoe, these women will cultivate the soil for hours on end. And long after I call it quits from exhaustion and blistered, bleeding hands, they keep toiling away.
Recently I heard on the radio that Hillary Clinton was giving a speech in Afghanistan and asked how Afghanistan was ever going to develop if only half of the population was empowered to do so. I couldn’t agree more, but in my case it’s Zambia and not Afghanistan.
A much larger emphasis is placed here on educating boys than girls, so in general the boys grow into more educated men, while the women fall behind in their education. And that leads to a lesser social status.
This is never clearer than at public meetings when women defer to men, even in regard to women-focused topics like prenatal health.
Things are better now for women than they were 10, 15 or 20 years ago, but there is still room for improvement and equality.
And while living here in this tiny village I look around and those doing some of the most laborious, backbreaking work (the work that must be done) are women — some as young as 9 or 10 and some well into their 80s.
Although it is frustrating to see the unfair treatment of women in many areas, its also very reassuring to realize that to make the greatest change, the most dramatic change, it all starts with women.
I don’t have to look very far to find a group that can have an impact and lasting effect on the surrounding community — by working with them I’m reaching far more people, generations and bringing about positive societal change. Simply put, women are the soul, the backbone and the caretakers of this community.