April 1, 1998
The women my husband and I met on our trip to Africa greeted us with
song. Everywhere we stopped, they sang of their lives, they sang of their
hopes for themselves and their families, and they sang of the new Africa.
In Ghana, the women who greeted us were dressed in aqua, orange, yellow
and other bright colors. They were united by a common mission -- the
chance to become full participants in their country's political and
economic development. They showed me the micro
enterprises they've created selling jewelry, art, clothing and other
goods. But nothing delighted them more than showing me their day-care
center, where children were being cared for while their mothers worked to
support their families.
Last year, when I visited South Africa, the women sang to me of strength,
money and knowledge. When my husband joined me there last week, we
witnessed the remarkable changes born of these three ingredients.
As we approached the Victoria Mxenge Housing Project, we could still see
the shanties where homeless squatters -- mostly women -- lived. Now, on
the other side of the street, we found a vibrant community that women
have built by pooling their resources, securing small loans and
constructing homes together.
Last year, I asked the women if they believed they would own a home
themselves someday. Their answer was a resounding "yes." This time, when
I asked how many had become homeowners, hands shot up throughout the
group. In just one year, the number of homes
in that village has increased from 18 to 104.
Roads once made of dirt are now paved. The concrete slab where we
gathered last year is now a community center, complete with a day-care
center and a store. And the women have just bought a larger plot of land
that will provide fertile soil for new businesses and new homes.
In Rwanda, I was anguished as women spoke of the struggle to rebuild
lives ripped apart by genocide. In Uganda, I heard the stories of women
striving to provide education for every boy and girl and using
microcredit loans to increase their incomes and improve their lives. And
in Botswana, I listened to women leaders who are helping combat the
scourge of AIDS and promote legal rights.
In Senegal, I met with a group of women from the Malicounda Bambara
village who have done something truly remarkable. Although female genital
mutilation affects less than 20 percent of women in Senegal, in many
villages like Malicounda, it is considered a
rite of passage for all girls.
These women decided that female genital mutilation had harmed their
daughters' bodies and spirits for too long. They decided that it was time
to end the pain, hemorrhaging, infections, AIDS and childbirth
complications caused by this deadly tradition.
They showed me a skit that they have used to educate their religious
leaders, their husbands and their neighbors. Malicounda Bambara villagers
have now banned female genital mutilation, and in the process, they are
inspiring others to do the same. Just last month, 13 villages with a
combined population of more than 8,000 people joined together to end
female genital mutilation in their communities. And now, Senegal's
President Diouf has called for a new law to abolish it throughout the
In Thies, Senegal, I visited a group of parents at the Mode Kane School
who are improving their children's lives by improving their own
education, literacy and health. They, too, sang a song of their journey,
a song they called "Women's Rights": "All people ... have equal rights.
The right to education. The right to health. These rights have changed
our lives ... in our homes, in our neighborhoods and in our country."
As I leave this remarkable continent to return home, I am reminded of how
one of Senegal's greatest authors, Ousmane Sembene, described a group of
women from Thies who marched and sang in the name of simple fairness and
progress. He wrote, "Ever since they left Thies, the women had not
stopped singing. As soon as one group allowed the refrain to die, another
picked it up and new verses were born. ... No one was very sure any
longer where the song began, or if it had an ending. It rolled out over
its own length, like the movement of a serpent. It was as long as a
With every generation, the chorus of African women becomes stronger and
more powerful. No one remembers where the song began. But I hope the song
of Africa's women never ends.
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