Celebrating and Nurturing Women’s Leadership in Peacebuilding – Malindi Reflection

Thank you for your leadership.

These words, spoken by a Kenyan woman peacebuilder, both gladdened and surprised me – gladdened because it’s always nice to have someone affirm a positive contribution they feel I’ve made; surprised because my focus had been on serving, not leading.

She spoke at the conclusion of a five-day retreat whose theme was Celebrating and Nurturing Women as Peacebuilders. Co-convened by Catalyst for Peace and Green String Network, the retreat hosted forty women peacebuilders from Kenya, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Zimbabwe and the U.S. at the Driftwood Resort on the Indian Ocean in Malindi, Kenya.

As the only non-woman invitee, I had spent those five days doing my best to be present in a positive and supportive way when that was deemed helpful, but mostly to stay out of the way, out of the room and to do anything I could behind the scenes to help the women claim and hold a space created by women and for women.

As I thought of it, I was making a small repayment for all the support I had received, most of it from women, over the thirty years I led three different organizations. As I have shared with anyone who would listen over the past several years, I feel that the single most important factor for a positive future for humanity and the entire Earth community is the growth of women’s leadership in all areas of human endeavor.

For far too long, men have created and dominated the spaces of formal power and decision-making. As a consequence, early in the 21st Century, humanity stands at a precipice in a world populated by an endless number of human-fueled volcanoes frequently erupting with random violence, doing incalculable damage to individuals and communities and nations, and creating disruption and dislocation on a vast and unimaginable scale; and devastating and degrading the entire Earth community. Far too often, the majority of victims are women and children, those typically given the least voice and the least access to power.

It is long past time, I feel, for men, so accustomed to the seats in the front row, to retreat to the back of the room, opening the front row for women, with their unique vision, values, experience and wisdom. It is long past time, I feel, for women, so accustomed either to being excluded from the circles of deliberation and decision-making or struggling to be seen and heard in spaces created by and for men, to claim the right to lead from spaces created by and for women.

It was in this belief that I embraced a role as a back-row sitter, as an outside-the-room helper and spiritually-focused space holder; as mostly a listener and a learner; and, when I did speak, to do my best to have my words be a positive reflection of the strength, wisdom and beauty of the women I was privileged to be supporting.

For obvious reasons, I’ll leave it to others to share what they feel is appropriate, given the essential value of confidentiality at the center of the gathering, of what happened in the room when only women were there.

But I was blessed to be in the room to hear about the work many of these women were doing, including – Kumekucha (New Dawn) trauma healing and peacebuilding in Kenya; Peace Mothers in Sierra Leone leading community healing, reconciliation and development; the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission in Zimbabwe; accompaniment, advocacy and community empowerment in Kibera, the most materially disadvantaged part of Nairobi; active peacebuilding and community healing in rural Kenya. All with a focus on women’s leadership.

A resounding theme was voiced by the woman working in Kibera when she shared these words of support for women who are struggling –

She can stand for herself.
She is enough!

One woman characterized the work this way:

A big candle to light the little candles
A big pole to help the house stand
A third stone to help the cooking pot balance

In the work of empowering women who feel powerless, she spoke of the importance of helping them see strength and possibility they aren’t seeing, and offered the example of this brief dialogue that opened a path toward empowerment and a degree of self-sufficiency for women:

Who owns the cow? The man!
Who owns the goat? The man!
Who owns the milk? The woman!!!

One woman commented:

We can’t pour water
from an empty glass.
So, first,
put water in your glass!

This retreat was intended to be a time where women could gather around a deep well of mutual sharing and honoring. A time to draw and drink their fill from those waters of life. A time to refill their glasses so they had plenty of water to share with the thirsty women in the communities from which they came.

The spirit of empowerment and solidarity that grew in the room as women shared their experiences of being wounded and of rising out of the devastation of that woundedness to claim their leadership, voice and power as wounded healers in a wounded world was perhaps best expressed through the song and dance, the tears and laughter, the embraces that their stories evoked. By the inspiration and affirmation young women received from the older women who have labored long along the road the young have chosen to travel; and by the inspiration and renewed energy the elders received from the new generation of leaders joining them on the journey of healing, reconciliation, transformation.

And the spirit of empowerment and solidarity were expressed in a whole-group embodied choral recitation, led by a charismatic woman writer, publisher and story teller, of this poem by Maya Angelou:

Phenomenal Woman

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
The palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Phenomenal women, indeed!

It was the privilege of a lifetime to be able to support them in their gathering – to be as invisible as I could, and when my light shone to do my best to make sure it was shining on them in ways that helped them experience themselves as phenomenal women. As phenomenal leaders.

Which takes me back to my surprise on the final day at being thanked for my leadership. When I expressed my surprise, the woman who spoke explained, You were here to help without needing to be in the middle. Without needing for it to be all about you. That is rare leadership.

I am grateful and fulfilled that my presence was experienced that way. And I pray the day comes swiftly when that will not be seen as a rare form of leadership for men. A day when humanity fully, joyously, gratefully embraces the essential nature of the feminine, in both women and men. A day when men are fulfilled by leadership that is service. A day when the front ranks of leadership are filled by phenomenal women working in cooperative, mutually empowering ways for the good of all. A day when humanity pulls back from the precipice before us and begins the long march back toward healing and wholeness for the entire Earth community.

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