The lump in my throat came when she took out the photos of her wedding day as we sat in the very house the newlyweds had moved into together.
She was wearing a silky sleeveless number that looked like it was made only for her: he was also wearing white. Her fingers slowly flicked through each picture of the happy couple posing outside in the glorious sunshine, surrounded by glowing family during the ceremony, a joyful party afterwards.
He died 3 years ago, after 18 years of marriage and 6 children. He had been ill for a few months, but nothing could have prepared Consolata for the thorny road ahead. A patriarchal society meant that she didn’t have any means of making money. With no income, Consolata couldn’t look after her growing children. And with no healthcare and no way to pay mandatory school fees, the whole family was suffering.
Long pauses came after each dark note left her lips. The silence was thick as we sat across from each other. Sometimes, she avoided eye contact, preferring to look at the concrete floor. I couldn’t help but lean in as though somehow that would ease her pain. It’s one thing to read and talk about poverty and vulnerability, but it’s a whole other ball game to sit in its living room. I must have turned my watch around one thousand times…because what else could I do?
At her lowest point, Consolata could only afford to feed her precious babies bananas – just once a day.
Consolata said others in her situation had turned to substance dependence. She dreads to think of what she would have had to do, had what happened next not come when it did…
A sisterhood of women came to visit. They invited Consolata to join them. Together, they would learn about hygiene and other life skills. They would also learn about business, because that’s what they would do: the group would save a small amount each week, and pots of money would be loaned to members who started small businesses. The group also saved money for community emergencies, like funerals or illness. I wondered how different Consolata’s journey of grief would have been had she met the group sooner.
Being a part of it turned Consolata’s life around. You could tell by how her face lit up when she talked about the group. She has started a small shop next to her house, selling grains and vegetables and longer shelf-life foods as well. She now makes enough money to send her kids to school, full-bellied and well.
Consolata brought me to meet her self-help group, which is facilitated by Tearfund. I heard them before I saw them. They were gathered in a church hall, a vision of bright fabrics and bold patterns which could only be outshone by their bright smiles and bold spirits. Consolata started singing: a strong, deep, low voice issuing the calls responded to by her comrades. They danced, joyfully…and with determination. I felt my heart rise until I was sure it was in my mouth. This, this is empowerment. This is togetherness. This is change.
And then, bananas.
Consolata brought out a silver tray and on it were bunches of bananas. Plentiful. Ripe. Full of life. Bananas: the very thing she had fed her children in her darkest days. Now she was feeding her guests. ‘Have one more’, she told me – ‘one for the road’.
When a woman stands up for herself, she stands up for women everywhere.
Consolata stood up and made changes that have affected not just her own life, but her family’s…and her community’s. She inspires other women who see what she has been able to do. When Consolata stood up, she stood up for them, too.
And when Consolata stood up, she stood up for me. She taught me about resilience, and generosity, and singing. She taught me about bananas.
Now, I’m standing up for her. I’ve designed a print inspired by my visit to Rwanda. £5 from each sale will go to Tearfund’s work in Rwanda, helping more people like Consolata move from a cycle of despair to a Cycle of Hope. Will you stand with them?
This year’s #IWD’s theme is Be Bold for Change. Whether it’s change in your life, or a choice you make that will impact someone else’s…take a step. Point out the goodness in the women around you: tell them they are valuable and important. Better yet? Treat them as such. Make space for women’s voices. House a culture of respect. Challenge degrading behaviour. Resource women like Consolata to make the changes they need.
There is no act more bold than to embolden others.