Writing about hardship is a standard motif for Peace Corps bloggers. We volunteers experience plenty of difficulties, both large and small — it’s one of the major differences between our lives here and our lives back home. It’s also often what is most interesting for friends and family to read about, so I hold forth about peeing in holes in the ground, fetching water from the well, and biking ten miles to get an onion. I write about people staring at me, people calling me names, people asking each other if I’m a woman. I share stories of loneliness, disillusionment, frustration.
But I don’t know the first thing about hardship.
I feel disrespected when a group of boys taunts me as I ride past? Try greeting the headman and watching him completely ignore me, directing his attention instead to the male volunteer next to me, simply because I am a woman.
I think I get frustrated? Try having my input summarily dismissed at meetings, simply because I am a woman.
I resent being mistaken for a woman? Try having to wear ankle-length dresses and skirts at all times, including while biking and when hoeing my yard, during temperatures hot enough to fry an egg on my front porch, simply because I am a woman.
I think it’s hard to be stared at? Try being leered at by a man who is mentally undressing me with his eyes. Then another. And another. And another, who for good measure also demands that I marry him. Try experiencing this a hundred times over, every time I enter my market. Try experiencing this a thousand times over, every time I step outside my door. Simply because I am a woman.
I think it’s hard to pee in a hole in the ground? Try being a woman, and then try peeing in a hole in the ground.
[Editor’s note: I’m advised that it’s rather difficult.]
I have such an incredible amount of respect and admiration for all of the women who serve in the Peace Corps, in Zambia and throughout the world. But it’s not just because of the staggering amount of hardships they overcome, or the challenges they confront with heads held high. It’s also because of this indescribable thing that I can feel but can’t name.
It’s because of their hidden wells of strength and resilience and resolve. Because their passion inspires me, their radiance captivates me. Because they have this confounding need to talk about their problems even though they already know full well the solution. Because I still have no earthly idea why they always go to the bathroom in pairs.
It’s simply because they are women. Because I’m a man, wondering what I see in them but unable to touch their inner mystery. Because I’m drawn ineluctably to the fire in their eyes, to the flash of their teeth, to the swing in their waist, to the joy in their feet.
Because they’re women, phenomenally.
In remembrance of Maya Angelou, and inspired by (with the last two paragraphs paraphrased from) her poem, Phenomenal Woman