My first peek into ‘The Sisterhood’ came through my maternal grandma. Apparently she had looked after me as a new-born on and off in my first year of life. But my real reference point of meeting her was as a 5 year old child returning to Africa with my mum and two siblings.
The driver who had brought us to my grandmother’s town parked his car at the top of a narrow dirt road while someone continued further down on foot to fetch my grandma. I always thought that when I met her, that I’d distinctly recognise her and fall in love with her. Two African women came screaming and dancing up the road towards us seemingly ecstatic, with tears of joy streaming down their faces. One of the grabbed me and threw me very nimbly onto her back; the other one did the same to my older sister. Then they turned around and still kept up the dancing and singing as they carried us back to my grandmother’s home.
Everything that I was going to learn about women’s right to an education, to earning respect, to be taken seriously and to be afforded the right to make choices about their lives; I was going to learn from my grandma or from my mum, who had been taught by my grandma.
But I digress. In the blazing heat of the African sun, and the frenzy of singing and dancing old ladies, I realised that I had no idea who my grandmother was. Both women were equally as happy to see us; they both rejoiced equally and sang as loudly as each other. I looked to my mother as if to say ‘tell me which of them my grandma is so that I can instantly love her’. But my look was lost in translation. I later learnt that the lady whose back I was riding on was called Lady. And she was my grandma’s friend.
This was my introductory lesson into the Sisterhood and what I learnt that day was to rejoice in each other’s successes. My mother was the only child of my uneducated grandma who fought her utmost to ensure that my mother got the education that was denied her. She had finally come home with three children, and a Masters’ degree in tow. Lady basked in my mother’s success as if it were hers. As far as she understood, the success of one woman was a success for all. She stood tall with my mother as if she had earned every bit of that degree herself. Later on I would ask my grandma why Lady as so happy to meet children she had never seen before, and my grandma would answer simply ‘because she is a woman like me and understands that successful children are everyone’s success’.
That was my first and most enduring lesson. Celebrating others made them realise that they were part of something greater than themselves. Meeting my grandmother did not immediately invoke love or a sense of belonging. It was interacting with her and having her there when I celebrated my triumphs, failures, and knowing that she had my back whenever I embarked on something new; that was what gave me a sense of connection; what strengthened the bond between us; and what ultimately gave me the impetus to try my best inspite of myself as well as because of where I belonged to.
Looking back now, I realise that this is a lesson that is relevant to all generations of women, and the message is still as fresh today as it was for me all those years ago.
It’s not necessarily blood ties that automatically bind us, but our shared experiences. Our up and downs, our joys and failures, and the support we have for each other.
Now as an adult, I look back at that 5 year old child riding the back of an unknown woman who was rejoicing as she carried that child along to her destination. And I realise that sometimes, I feel just as lost in the face of new challenges, and that I also look for familiar faces in the crowd. The truth though is that it is perfectly acceptable to feel that way, but rather than seek a familiar face, I really ought to be looking for that old lady to celebrate me, to bear me on her back and to help me get to my destination. But most importantly, I ought to be ‘that’ old woman for any fellow woman who needs that help.
This is what my grandma taught me.
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