There are more than 2 billion mothers in the world today by some estimates. In my travels, I have seen the special role that mothers play in making the world a better place for all children.
A mother’s love is a force of nature, whether making sacrifices to ensure that her daughter is able to get an education or fighting for justice for their children. The mothers of the disappeared (ANFASEP) in Ayacucho, Peru lost their sons during the long, violent conflict in Peru. For nearly 30 years, these women have been trying to find out who killed their sons and where their remains are.
With their love, mothers are changing the world – one kid at a time.
Happy Mother’s Day – and thank you – to each of you mothers!
Atlantic Ocean – looking east from South Carolina, USA
Atlantic Ocean – looking west from Rabat. Morocco
When you look out at the ocean, do you ever wonder who is on the other side? I do! So when we were at the beach in South Carolina, I felt compelled to look it up. Turns out that Morocco is directly across the Atlantic from South Carolina. I had recently been to Morocco, so I could vividly picture what was on the ocean as I walked along the shore.
For this week’s Photo Challenge: Dialogue, we are asked to bring two photos into dialogue. The first photo, taken on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, looks directly east across the Atlantic Ocean towards Morocco. The second photo, taken in Rabat, looks directly west towards South Carolina. The photographic dialogue even reflects the time difference; the first photo was taken in the early morning, which is afternoon in Morocco.
Sometimes we need a reminder that our beautiful world is really not so big after all. And that often our connections can be greater than our differences.
What to find out what’s on the other side of the ocean from where you are? The Washington Post published a quick reference – check it out here!
I have a complicated relationship with International Women’s Day (IWD). On the one hand, it vexes me greatly that we have only one day a year – designated by the United Nations General Assembly in 1977 as March 8 – to celebrate the many contributions of women around the world. On the other hand, we still need to focus attention on the fact that women, who make up half of the world’s population, still face almost incomprehensible inequality in societies throughout the world. Not just inequality, but inexcusable pain and violence.
One in three women in the world still experience violence (including rape and marital rape, spousal abuse, and child abuse) in their lifetime. The numbers are closer to one in four in the West – numbers that are still shockingly high.
Even before birth, preference for male children leads to feticide and infanticide in many parts of the world. Millions of girls and women around the world face obstacles to education, access to health, freedom of choice in marriage and divorce, land ownership and political participation. Even in the West, women continue to face inequality, including professional obstacles.
The UN theme for IWD 2014 is “equality for women is progress for all”. And there is no question that that statement is true. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement for IWD 2014:
“Countries with more gender equality have better economic growth. Companies with more women leaders perform better. Peace agreements that include women are more durable. Parliaments with more women enact more legislation on key social issues such as health, education, anti-discrimination and child support. The evidence is clear: equality for women means progress for all.”
IWD means different things to different people around the world. For some, it is a day to celebrate the strength of personal relationships with mothers, grandmothers, daughters and friends. Some choose to celebrate the overall contributions of women; in 2014, I noticed a particular interest in celebrating the “bad ass” women in our collective history (which I do applaud). For others, it is the opportunity to highlight all that still remains to be done.
For me, IWD is all these things. It is also about wanting a world where my daughter and my sons are treated equally without thought or legal requirement. It is about teaching them that this is what they – both boys and girl – should expect in their future. But it is also about celebrating the strong community of women that has brought us this far.
I took this photo of a painting that hung in the stairwell of a hotel I stayed in last year in Yaounde. It was dark in the stairwell, but I paused every time I passed it. The painting appeared original, but there was no name given to it. No artist was listed. But for me, it captures the spirit of International Women’s Day. We still have a ways to go, but we are together in this effort. We learn from each other and we support each other. Here is my perspective on International Women’s Day 2014:
It may take us time, but when women work together, nothing can stop us.
I first learned to cross-country ski when I was 19 and living in Norway. Learning to ski in a country where skiing is the national pastime was both a blessing and a curse. (The national slogan”Nordmenn er født med ski på beina” or “Norwegians are born with skis on their feet” may help you understand why little Norway is so dominant in the Winter Olympics.) The curse part was that I was 19 the first time that I strapped on skis; I think I spent most of that first afternoon either falling down or trying to get up. To add insult to injury, as I struggled to complete the “beginner” 2K loop, dozens of skiers zipped right by me – including both a 90+ year old pensioner and a baby. I would call him a toddler, but not for the fact that later I saw him crawling around on a blanket in picnic area by the parking lot. Nothing bursts your bubble quicker than the realization that even a kid who can’t walk yet can ski better than you can.
The blessing part is that cross-country skiing can be such a joyful experience. I learned in Norway that it is cross-country skiing is a sport that just about everyone can do. I also learned that skiing allows you to get out and experience nature in a way that is very different from the rest of the year. The stillness of the snowy woods can be breathtaking. In the silence, you hear your breathing and the rhythmic sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh of your skis, interrupted occasionally by the sound of an animal or a bird. Unlike summer’s cacophony, in winter each sound is individualized and accentuated, carrying alone across long distances. From afar, I heard the yank-yank-yank-yank of the red-breasted nuthatch while skiing on Lake Harriet last week; it was still calling when I skied up to it 10 minutes later. When you are out in the cold, but not feeling it because your arms and legs are working hard, pumping heat through your body – that’s when cross-country skiing makes you feel the power for conquering winter.
And then there is this. The unique light and colors of a deep winter day that perhaps can only be experienced on skis.
It’s been years now since I learned to ski. I rarely fall down anymore, although I am still passed on the trail by faster skiers. Truthfully, I haven’t been out on skis much in the recent past. Climate change and the warmer winters of the past decade have meant the snow conditions have been less than perfect in Minnesota. This winter, however, the snow conditions are wonderful. And I have rediscovered my joy in cross-country skiing.
We had just dropped off my old friend Erik and his unwieldy crew at the airport, when my daughter Eliza let out a dramatic sigh from the back of the minivan.
“It’s pretty much BORING without our cousins!”
Curious, I launched into a lengthy cross-examination to determine why she thought they were our blood relations. She went along with the questioning for a while, mumbling one syllable responses out of the corner of her mouth as she gazed morosely out the window at a long, undulating line of sunflowers. Some kind person, in the interest of beauty, had planted them along the highway. Now they were more than six feet tall, so large that you could almost see the Fibonacci sequences in their bright spirals. Even from a minivan with a six-year-old pouting in her booster seat in the back.
After several miles of this, Eliza suddenly sucked in air until her cheeks were full. She then blew it all out, frustration personified. I watched her in the rearview mirror as she put everything in her small, defiant being into these words:
“Because! I just FEEL like they are.”
How do you define family? Is it common ancestry? Shared experiences? Mutual commitment? Living in the same household? Common values? The people you know you can count on for support? The people you know you can get into a knock-down-drag-out fight with but they’ll still love you? People who you feel deeply connected to even though you rarely see them? All of the above? Or none of them at all?
The boys in the photo above are brothers I met at the Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana. Their mother Kebbeh considers them her sons, although only the oldest is her biological son. The younger boy and his little brother (not pictured) are her neighbor’s sons. The neighbor had gone back to Liberia with the first wave of resettled refugees, with the promise to send for the boys after she got settled. They never heard from her again. Post-conflict Liberia was dangerous, so they fear the worst. But they really don’t know what happened to her. So Kebbeh is raising the boys as her own, feeding and caring for them, sending them to school. They are family.
When I was in Buduburam, I met a woman called Ma Fatu who ran a cook shop on the main thoroughfare of the camp where many of the refugee-owned businesses were. The street had no name, of course, but the Liberian refugees called it “Wall Street” because so many financial transactions were made there. Ma Fatu has a feisty personality. I think she would have been equally at home as the proprietor of a saloon in the Wild West or a grogshop in Regency England. She took a lot of pride in her cooking and in knowing her customers. She’d eye me critically as I tucked into my jollof rice and say, “I know what you white people like to eat.” Then, the next day, she would dish me up a heaping serving of jollof vermicelli.
I had noticed that there were several young people helping in the cook shop, washing dishes, waiting tables, whatever needed to be done. It was only on my second trip to Buduburam that someone told me that they were not actually her children. During the war in Liberia, her husband and her biological children – her entire family – had been killed. Over the years at Budububuram, she had taken in several young people who had also lost everyone. In the face of all this loss, Ma Fatu had created a new family. In a refugee camp – miles from home and without even the possibility of legal recognition – she had forged familial bonds of love and support.
Like every parent, I’ve got a stockpile of my kids’ drawings of our family – stick figures showing Mom and Dad, Brother and Sister. Sometimes Grandma and Grandpa and/or Cat and Hamster.
When you are young, the definition of family is very narrow and also very immediate. But as you get older, you develop deeper relationships with people who are not related by blood. In many ways, you create your own family of the people who give you what you need to flourish. Like the heliotropic sunflowers, you turn to the light, needing full sun to thrive. If you don’t, you wither away.
I’ve had this discussion about the definition of family with a number of my former asylum clients. Under U.S. immigration law, your family is defined as your spouse (only one – your first spouse), your children by birth or legal adoption, and your parents. Of course, many people in the world use a broader definition, with half-siblings, cousins, and children adopted without legal recognition counting as immediate family members.
One of my asylum clients once said to me,
“I feel so sorry for you Americans. Your families are so very small!”
I had never really thought about it that way before. But I could see her point.
Article 16(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that,
“The family is the natural and fundamental unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”
Back when the UDHR was adopted in 1948, it is doubtful that the drafters envisioned even biracial marriage, much less same-sex marriage and the multiple forms of family that exist today.
But the bigger point, I think, is that no matter how you define “marriage”, the push for the changes in the legal definition has happened because of thousands – maybe millions – of personal decisions by individuals to define their closest relationships as “family”. The reality is that there is a very human need to live in a family social structure – the natural and fundamental group unit of society. The law can better accommodate that reality but regardless of what the law says, people – like Kebbeh and Ma Fatu – will create their own families.
Maybe my young daughter is right. The true definition of family is a very personal one, self-defined by each of us. The definition of family maybe really IS the people who you feel like are your family.
So I think the real questions for each of us then become:
How do you define your family?
What does your family mean to you? and
Wouldn’t we all be better off if society and the State protected and supported all of our families?