WHEN I TRAVEL, I AM DRAWN TO WOMEN. I love meeting local men, and children, teenagers, stray dogs, and the like, but I find myself like a magnet to women. Women seem to often have a story right up front, wearing it across their faces, in their hands, in their chores, in the back of their eyes like a secret I know they won’t share. It’s not to romanticize the hardships many of the women I’ve met along the way have faced — it’s more about knowing that it’s there, but a lack of language, a lack of time, a lack of exchange that means I won’t get to know the whole story, not very deeply at all. Despite the lack of all these things — communication, for one, time to establish a true friendship for another — there is an unspoken bond from one woman to another regardless of all our outward differences, or the passing nature of the exchange. We hold hands tightly, I always call them beautiful, and they always shake their heads, blush, or scold me for it — I’ve found this to be universal. Funny how this word — beautiful — it’s probably the easiest word to imply in another tongue, with how you say it, with a gesture. While I may not know their stories word for word or even scratch the surface, I get a glimpse, a flash of something at the back of the eyes.
We may carry children in our bellies and our arms; we carry our families on our backs as we take on each new day; but we carry our stories written across our faces.
We were staying overnight in a Masai village. Overall the women here impacted me with their strength — gathering wood (and walking a bit farther each day), wielding machetes, cooking with access to variety, keeping the cows and goats in their pens, overseeing the small packs of children that scuttled from hut to hut, all with a baby tied to their back or a swollen belly it seemed. While the status of women here has a long way to go, it doesn’t deter their strength, or their fortitude, or their ability to pick up and carry forward each new day.
Esialea’s job was milking the cows. She took my hand and pulled me over, demonstrating first with her small hands in long graceful strokes. Surely I could do it to. I reached down, and was nearly kicked in the face immediately by the cow. I flailed backwards and shouted. Esialea laughed and smacked the cow with a stick. She gestured to me to try again. I really, really did not want to. Getting kicked in the face — or worse, in the camera — by a cow was not the authentic experience I was after. Still, she waved me over time and time again, and finally I got it. I milked the cow. Esialea beamed.
We say it to each other all the time. We put quotes about it on pretty photos and share them to Instagram. But the truth is — when you attempt something and the cow tries to kick you in the face, you can run away, or you can smack that cow right back and try again. And again. And again. Perhaps it’s not about getting the milk — it’s about having the will to try again. To Esialea, sitting on the cusp of womanhood, this was second nature.
2. Seven Sisters
It was dawn at the Taj Mahal and a steady stream of people had begun entering for the day. Knowing that soon that it would be a madhouse, I was eagerly and avidly shooting away at the changing light. I saw these women approaching, and I had my guide ask them if they’d be willing to stand for me. They nodded, and patiently lined up. What I captured then is one of my favourite images I’ve ever taken in my entire life. I knew when I saw it unfold that this could be one of my best works. I rushed to get what I needed, not wanting to talk up more than a few seconds of their time — I normally do this but especially with 8 of them on their way somewhere far more important than in front of my lens, I rushed. I took just six frantic frames and thanked them profusely. As they began to walk away, one of the sisters caught my eye, and motioned to me by placing her palms flat in the air and pushing them towards the ground. I just nodded, not understanding really, and thanked her again. My guide came up to me and said “She says: “slow down.”
She says slow down. I think of this often. The woman, with her sisters, at the Taj, reminding me to go slow. To live life slowly, to savour.
3. Mama Mkombozi
I never learned her first name. We all called her Mama. Mama Mkombozi, who took her retirement funds to build a skills training centre for the youths of Moshi, Tanzania. Sewing, computers (albeit very old computers), hospitality and service, basic carpentry and fixing skills, you name it, Mkombozi can probably train you in it to some extent. These kids had fallen away from — or could never afford in the first place — secondary school. Rather than see them pitched out into Moshi or Arusha begging, scraping up a living, getting pregnant too young, or getting mixed up in drugs, Mama launched the school which also has housing. Mama spoke to us at length about the importance of giving hands things to do — especially the hands of teenagers poised to launch or burn out. She spoke enthusiastically and with passion about the mission of Mkombozi, her vision for these kids which she felt were all her children in some way. I had the honour of returning to see Mama again that summer, and again a year later. She was tired, then, when I returned. Tired, but bright, still aflame for all she was doing even on her meagre retirement fund. A soccer team, a dance troop, a photography club.
Mama passed away in 2015. It has left a hole in Moshi, though others have picked up the efforts at Mkombozi. Though I only met her three times, I felt a wave of sadness, followed by a wave of gratitude for having met her at all. Mama Mkombozi not only dreamed and made big plans, but she got to work. The importance of giving hands things to do. This, will stay with me all my days.
I met Eye in a small town outside Chiang Mai. We were working with an NGO to launch a small photography club for the girls they worked with, girls taken in from hill tribes or hard situations, possibly at risk of trafficking which still occurs in Northern Thailand. Eye played the ukulele, had a lovely singing voice, and was eager for friendship. She was quiet but she craved companionship and laughed all the time. While I won’t relay her story as it’s sensitive, suffice to say she’d had a long journey and I was in awe of her joy, her laughter, and her overwhelming atmosphere of hope. My wish is that I can be an atmosphere of hope to others, at least most of the time. It’s quite the gift to give, I’ve discovered.
5. The Girl with No Name
I was invited to a church outside of Hyderabad, India. Churches are uncommon in India as far as I know, so it was an honour and something unique to experience as well. This particular church served a social level in India — though the caste system is long gone — known as the Dalits. When there was a caste system, the Dalits were less than dogs on the social scale, dirty in many senses. They were called the Untouchables. In some areas, they still are considered this way — untouchable, unclean. They struggle to get into proper schools, get jobs beyond cleaning up human waste or other undesirable tasks, the young girls at high risk of being bought and sold out of desperation. There are 250 million people in India who would identify as Dalits.
So this church was serving the Dalit population of the town with a different message — you’re not dirty, you’re valued; you’re not untouchable, you are loved. It was a meaningful morning though I couldn’t understand a word of the sermon. I was asked to speak — but that’s another story. After church many women asked me to pray for them, as if I was some kind of guru from afar. Guru I am not, but pray I can do and so I did. Many hours later I was finally getting ready to leave the church and chatting with a wonderful girl who assists in the tasks of the church and was eager to practice her English. This is not the girl in the portrait. As I was chatting with this chipper girl, I noticed one last person lingering in the church — the girl in the yellow shawl. I asked the girl her name, and she told me: “She has no name. She arrived in the night a few months ago to the church door, cold and hungry and quiet. She hasn’t said a word in three months. But we took her in and are caring for her in the meantime. One day her story will come.”
A girl in a yellow shawl with no name. I placed my hand out and she took it. I smiled. She looked away. I said you are beautiful and she smirked. I said I was very pleased to meet her and I thought she was lovely, and could I take her picture. She nodded, adjusted her head scarf, and gave me this look. This look. Look into those eyes and tell me you don’t see a story far longer than one afternoon could possibly tell. A girl with no name, who arrived in the dark, and hasn’t said a word. And this church, waiting — for one day her story will come.
In a small town in Tanzania, I was welcomed into Glory’s home. Her husband, Sam, was at work, and her daughter was luckily at school. She was home with her young son. Their home was one good sized room, two beds, shelves, and an element for cooking, on a red dirt road with some views of the green hills. Glory has AIDS; so does her husband. They each had been diagnosed before they met, and married because the stigma is strong and isolating in Tanzania. Neither child is sick. Most of their community does not know, and cannot known. They must go through each day appearing strong but inwardly were tired and worn, both from the sickness but also from the stigma.
I sat with Glory in her home and asked her what was most important to her now. She said: “Education for my children. When we are gone, their education is all they will have.” I was floored. I could only think of what I might have said, had it been me: I would want medicine, a cure, a society willing to help me, assistance, pain relief, government provided income so I didn’t have to work and could enjoy my days with my children. These were my guesses, running through my head. While Glory’s words surprised me, they of course make sense. At the time I wasn’t a mother, so I wouldn’t have guessed that response — to put her children and only them first in line, before her own health even. In the face of everything, Glory only wanted to ensure her children would be taken care off. For me, this was a peak behind the curtain of what it means to be a mother.
I am eight months pregnant as I write this, and Glory’s words ring my ears.