Why We Need Women: International Women’s Day & Standing with Girls to Change the World


hen it came it right down to it, she might as well have just been the old woman who shacked up in a shoe.

True, she seemed only about 5’2, and her worn and weathered skin looked like polished leather, and she was all of a frail eighty-eight years old, but there are women who make sure wherever they live is taking steps in the right direction.

When we knocked on her door just before an afternoon storm blew up over the hills in the east, the 88 year old woman beckoned us straight into her circle of 10 big-eyed, hungry kids. Every face in the room was nuanced and intricate, rich with story.

Women who want an easy story rarely change history.

Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
180122_ANLM_EstherHavens_991Esther Havens for Africa New Life
180122_ANLM_EstherHavens_1352Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
180122_ANLM_EstherHavens_1062Esther Havens for Africa New Life
DSC01120Levi Voskamp

Grandma Em’s an 88 year-old woman who had 10 children living under her roof, 10 children around her table looking for food for empty tummies, 10 children looking for a pillow and place to sleep, 10 children needing shoes and clothes and school fees and books, all under Grandma Em’s care alone.

When you care about a woman, you care about a generation.

How did that string of lines go again?

There was an old lady who lived in a shoe, she had so many children — she had so many children she’d welcomed, that she became kind of a bottomless well of joy, that she drank from a well of youth, and welcoming children had her become well in her soul. A woman’s life withers or expands in proportion to how much she risks opening her heart.

There’s not a stick of furniture in the house.

Grandma Em motions for us to come in, to sit on the dirt floor, on the mats she rolled out. The cotton bed sheet that serves as the only door way in the two room house, it moves in the wind, moves behind Grandma Em, its pattern of garlands of roses feting the dirt hut with pale festoons of grandeur. You can feel how Grandma Em’s smile is regal — brave.

You can see it in the sinews of her neck, her strong arms: A woman becomes brave like muscles are built: she exercises courage even when she’d rather not.

Grandma Em was a refugee for 50 years, driven out of the country of her birth by bloody machetes hungry for her people. She reaches for my hand. Her gnarled fingers feel light between mine — she feels like so much light. Her face begs memorization. We search each other’s eyes. The desecration of God happens wherever we dehumanize women of His making.

I can’t stop thinking it: Grandma Em looks like a luminous ebony pearl.

Looking for joy is a woman’s best way to look young.

180122_ANLM_EstherHavens_1258Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Levi Voskamp
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life

Grandma Em doesn’t tell me about the birth of her own 7 children — only that she has buried 3 of them and 4 remain.

She doesn’t tell me all the details of how she came to be mothering 10 children at 88, only that when their parents died or found themselves crippled with disease, Grandma Em found herself holding another child, another swaddled babe.

She does tell me how she kept saying just that, time and again and again, “You can stay with me.”

Who doesn’t yearn a bit to hear that beckoning: You can stay with me, you can belong with me, you can be loved by me, you can be chosen by me, and everything you’ve ever counted on, can be counted as lost, but you can stay with me.

There are women who are front porch lights and when everything else grows dark and leaves, they remain and make themselves a place to stay.

I lean in and ask Grandma Em, “What gives you the courage with each of these children — to say yes? When each child was brought to you — why did you never say, ‘No — I can’t help more?’”

Grandma Em sits tall in front of me, her eyes reading mine, mine reading hers. She leans forward too and I notice how her pronounced her collar bone is but what I am thinking is:

A wise woman forgets about holding out for the wishbone and remembers to grow a backbone.

Grandma Em slaps my knee hard, like my own grandmother always did, like she can jar me awake, and then the words she says next are like a bolt from the other side:

“I just — I just don’t have a tongue that could chase away a child.”

I don’t have a tongue that could chase away a child.

Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
180122_ANLM_EstherHavens_1308Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life

My own tongue’s stilled. I don’t have word for Grandma Em. Things in me are thrumming hard:

Do I have a tongue that could chase away a child in need —- so that I can have more ease, more comfort, more things?

Do I have a tongue that could chase away the eternal — just so I can have the temporal?

Or — do I have a tongue that could chase away self-gratification — so there could be glorification of God?

“I never could have words that would stop a child running toward me,” Grandma Em takes her hand and holds it to her heart.

I don’t even notice that my own hands have followed suit, are pressed against my own heart.

And then Grandma Em says, “I’d rather have them here…” She pats her chest, there over her own defiant heartbeat. “Whatever I have, I share with them.”

She’s holding her hand over her heart.

Share what’s in your heart and you receive more than your heart can hold. You can read that plainly in her eyes.

“I always just want to embrace them.” Grandma Em grips my hand tight.

I hardly dare whisper it to her: “You didn’t ever say, ‘I just — I just don’t have enough’?”

And Grandma Em says it without a trace of any shame, “I know. It doesn’t look like I have enough. But if there’s something on our plates, there’s always something to share.”

I want to cup her face.

If you think you have enough to share, you’ll always have more than enough. If you don’t think you have enough to share, you’ll never have enough to be happy.

Happiness is a function of sharing and living given gives you joy.

“There are definitely days I have completely nothing,” Grandma Em nods towards the door “and on those days, I cook greens from the garden. And then I give each of the ten children just one small spoon on each of the plates for everyone. And they only eat that.”

All of the children are watching my face. I reach out to touch little Frank’s cheek.

When children go to bed with a small spoonful of greens in their tummy, who says they can change that and pull a greenback out of their wallet?

There are women who don’t have enough food for their babies, but they feed their babies hope, they feed their babies dreams, they feed their babies love and they feed their babies resurrection power.

Grandma Em’s voice resonates in the little mud hut:

“Even if there’s not enough food in our stomachs, there’s still enough love in our hearts. We have enough. We are content.”

I look around into the eyes of these 10 children who call her Mama, her grand children and great grandchildren and grand nephews and nieces and far distant cousins.

When children go to bed with a small spoonful of greens in their tummy, who says they can change that and pull a greenback out of their wallet?

“We live away, on the edge of things — so we can be contented in all things.” Grandma Em is looking at her clutch of little ones. “We can be content with the what we have, if we aren’t looking at what others have.”

There it is: Her house grew smaller and her heart grew larger and she comes from a long line of women who contend with oppression, contend with poverty, contend with little, and are content with fighting forward and loving large and giving much and never giving up.

There is a proverb,” Grandma Em turns to me, “ ‘Whatever a child cannot see, she will not cry for.’ 

I nod — but I want to tell Grandma Em:

It may be true, whatever a child cannot see, she will not cry for — but what if we turned our eyes from the more that we cry for, and turned to see you, who cry to be seen?

What if we stopped looking for more — but started looking toward the plight of more women?

180122_ANLM_EstherHavens_1219Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Levi Voskamp
Esther Havens for Africa New Life

Ann Voskamp with Levi Voskamp

What if we turned a blind eye to all the stuff that consumerism wants us to cry for — and refused to turn a blind eye toward our sisters — and our refrain jarred the world awake:

We see you, the woman forgotten, the woman fighting forward, the woman forging a way where there seems to be no way, and we will cry with you, and we will rise with you, and we will lift the the sky with you.

When I dance under that rising sky with Grandma Em and her brood of 10, words come and those words feel like a revolution:

It takes courage to stand against evil toward women, but even more so to stand against the indifference toward the plight of women.

It takes courage to rise and join the cry:

Every life needs a woman.
Every woman needs an advocate.
Every advocate needs a dream.
Every life-giving dream needs a woman.

And we never stop circling back to the gift of women, the hope of women & the promise of women.

Outside of her house with so many children laughing like light and playing with hope, Grandma Em and I know exactly what to do: we hold on to each other, enfold and encircle each other, and we keep turning to see each other.

And it happens like a movement of wind: we are the women dancing with a rising of possibility.

On International Women’s Day, don’t chase away the dreams of our daughters

Change the world & emancipate a girl:

Give one girl an education

130 million girls right now — are being denied an education. And every one of those girls counts. You could be one of the blessed & lucky ones who get to put one of these girls into school.

On International Women’s Day, you could be one of the blessed & lucky ones who get to stand with your sisters in Africa and help them dream. When we refuse to be part of helping girl’s dream — how do we refuse to be like Christ?

On International Women’s Day, this is our chance:

When we help a girl dream— we’re the ones who live woken.