The story of one mom’s persistent strength and joy…
Most of us have heard the old proverb, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” I recently heard a twist on the saying by an Australian poet named Cameron Semmens: “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Give a woman a fish, and she’ll feed her whole family for a week.”
It’s a bit cheeky. But it’s also a well-known fact in international development circles that microcredit and vocational training works best when it’s focused on women. Not only are repayment rates better, but whole families are more likely to benefit from the increased household income.
It’s a testament to the grit, work ethic and stamina of the women I meet on a regular basis in some of the poorest communities of the world. And it’s a testament to these mothers’ faithful love for their children.
But employment rates for women are lower than for men, in pretty much every country of the world. And the gap is tied to economic growth, accessibility to education and social norms.
When you add disability into the mix, the situation for women becomes dire.
In developing countries, women with disabilities are at a triple disadvantage as they battle stigma that inevitably stems from being a women living in poverty with a disability. Women face limited access to education, medical services, rehabilitative services and all in the midst of widespread poverty.
According to WHO’S World Report on Disability (2011) employment rates for women with disabilities are 19.6%, compared with 29.9% for women without disabilities, and compared with 64.9% for men without disabilities.
It’s troubling that the very women who are continually excluded from livelihood programs and training are the hardest workers I know. And they’re the same ones who learned early in life how to overcome adversity.
Lyna is a perfect example of this.
Lyna is a single mother in Malawi who provides and cares for seven children on her own. So far, she’s been able to keep them in school.
Lyna is a fighter. I saw it the moment I met her. It was in the determined way she leaned her weight against the top part of her thigh, using it as a crutch to walk. Her one knee is perpetually bent at a right angle, likely caused by a dietary deficiency in childhood. In Uganda, it’s caused by a monotonous diet of cassava. In Ethiopia, it’s commonly caused by chickpeas.
When I sat with Lyna outside her home, I watched her one-year-old daughter snuggle into her lap. Lyna’s arms, rounded by muscles from her long work days, gently wrapped around her child. Lyna had just come back from working in the family garden, and she was sweaty, but her little girl didn’t seem to mind. She didn’t even seem to notice.
Lyna works hard. She has to, or her children go hungry.
And she clearly loves spending time with her kids. It’s a balancing act… a long, thin tightrope of motherhood and work I recognize all too well.
I still remember the days (long ago) when I had to kiss my toddlers goodbye for a two-week project visit on the other side of the world. It ripped my heart out to get on that plane.
The pressure of work and motherhood can feel like a lot.
I can only imagine how much heavier that pressure is for someone like Lyna. Someone who’s pushed to the edge of survival on a regular basis.
I caught a small glimpse of the heaviness when Lyna told me about her struggle to make enough money to feed her kids, in spite of her unending work.
“Sometimes we would go two days without eating,” Lyna said. “There was nothing I could do and I felt very bad for that. The children would complain ‘Why are you not preparing food for us?’”
She was doing everything she could to help her children. She showed me the maize field about 2 kms from her house and climbed over whatever obstacles appeared in her way as we walked. She had worked in this field for a long time to provide income for her family, but the income was never enough.
During the visit, Lyna proudly showed me the black sewing machine she recently received after completing one of Hope and Healing’s livelihood programs.
I watched her concentration as she ran the fabric under the machine, her smile turning into clear-eyed focus. She told me that, thanks to the tailoring work, she and her family no longer skipped meals. Her eyes were bright as she shared, “Now the community members look at me in a new way. Now I am seen as someone who can better sustain my family.”
I watched Lyna as she stretched out her arms and danced in front of her kids while singing. They laughed at her antics, and she seemed quite happy as they giggled and shook their heads at her.
Lyna told me about the church she attends close to her kids’ school. It’s clear that her strength and joy come from God. She said, “I prayed to God that He would do something to change my life, to bring more money to my family. God has answered my prayers. I feel like I have received a breakthrough.”
It doesn’t surprise me that Lyna has been relying on God for help and strength. I often feel like the women I meet in other countries have a lot to teach me about faith. The kind of faith that deeply understands that God is the author and sustainer of all life. The kind of faith that looks to God for breakthroughs when life is too much.
Maybe there are days you can relate to Lyna. You feel like you’re walking a tightrope as you juggle work and kids and parents and social expectations.
On those days, if you’re like me, you cry out to God for strength. Whether you whisper at night or shout in your car, I know God hears you.
I love what Philippians 4:4-7 says: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (NIV)
Peace in the chaos. Strength in the exhaustion. Courage in the darkness because God’s got it covered. Like Lyna, we set our hands to the task God has given us and trust Him, but we don’t stop praying. In fact, we need to keep praying. And we need others to support us in prayer as well.
Because breakthrough is just around the corner.
I wish I could sit down with you and hear everything on your heart. Then maybe we could pray together. But since we can’t do that in person, I’ll point you to a place where we can do the next closest thing.
100 Miracles of Prayer is a Facebook community of praying women who encourage and pray for each other. We pray for women like Lyna who are wrestling to make a living for their kids or for kids who are going through surgery. It’s a place where we can pray for each other as we share our requests.
We all need prayer. I know I do. If you do too…
…this community’s for you.
Beth Jost-Reimer has been working with Hope and Healing International for almost 30 years. She’s heard hundreds of first-hand accounts of hope and impact from families in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It’s a joy for her to document individual voices and the faces of families who are trapped in and eventually set free from the vicious cycle of poverty and disability. Beth and her wonderful husband Darrell are almost empty nesters and currently reside in small town Ontario, Canada.