I didn’t know I needed other women.
Yes, I had a mom and sisters and girlfriends and aunts and the rest of it, but I didn’t know I needed them. It wasn’t until we moved to Ghana in 2006, when I saw how the women interacted there. Women were so connected and near to each other, demonstrated physically in how they would sit together or walk together, often touching or holding hands, even in that hot, hot heat.
I was an observer, an outsider, for a long time and that might be a clue as to why I became sensitized to the need. I didn’t have what they had.
At first, all I had were my long, long distance connections back home and friendly smiles and nods to my neighbours. I was the only “Obruni” (foreigner) in the group of women with whom I wished to belong. And they did their best to welcome me, even though language was a barrier. If they couldn’t talk to me, they would still gesture for me to sit beside them. Those who could speak some English would translate from time to time. The important stuff, like when it was time to stop sitting. It couldn’t have been easy for them to include me. Even so, they didn’t hesitate to welcome me into their sisterhood. “Akwaaba” (Welcome!) is the Ghanaian way.
They gave me food, they gave me proper Ghanaian outfits, they gave me advice, they showed my daughters how to care for the babies, because young women are also part of the sorority. (I knew the Cockram ladies were “in” when they started reprimanding my daughters. They hugged them from the start, but you’re part of the family when you get a scolding.) And day-by-day I realized the extent of the incredible, life-giving bond the women had with each other – one that reached out and encircled me.
Women physically helping each other have babies, women raising each other’s children, women farming the fields, women making and selling goods at the market.
Women protesting together.
Through a church partnership, we developed a microfinance loans programs for women who wanted to start their own business. It was then that I came to know the depth of their commitment to each other, putting their money where their mouth was. Women would apply for a small loan ($100-$200) which would help them do things like buy in bulk to increase their profit when they sold their goods or food stuffs at market or on the street. Others used it to purchase equipment so they could sew or cook for a living.
The women who applied had no physical collateral to offer, but that was OK because the solution was their solidarity. They came together as a group and made a commitment that they would help each other repay the loan and they would help each other get out of poverty. They vouched for each other, they agreed to cover for each other should they miss a payment, they agreed to keep each other accountable, they agreed to encourage one another. They guaranteed each other’s success.
Did I know this bond with other women, that we would guarantee each other’s success? Guarantee is a big word.
When our family moved back to Canada two years later, I was ready to build friendships like the ones I’d witnessed and experienced in Ghana. Amazingly, God had planted the same seed in other women here. (Also amazingly, they didn’t have to go all the way to Ghana to know it! Some of us need wisdom shouted at us through intense cross-cultural experiences…)
I had excited conversations with gal pals about how we could possibly help each other and others experience the spiritual benefits of friendship where we let each other in, where we vouched for each other. So began my 3-year involvement in women’s ministry at our church at the time, with a high priority on fostering Iron Friendships. (I thank my friend Diane Gratrix for giving me that term, based on Psalm 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend.”) The qualities of an Iron Friendship would be closeness, enough to know each other’s strengths and flaws; resourcefulness, recognizing that we have so much to offer one another; encouragement and generosity, celebrating each other’s successes and/or offering help when the burden was heavy.
Friendships with this sort of bond are not the norm in our corner of the world. Here, one has to work at it a little harder at it, it’s too easy to close doors and shut people out. Certainly there are circumstances and situations where we gain a closeness to one or two others… but what about fostering it and pushing the norm toward closeness and self-sacrificing love for all women. That’s just weird.
It’s so weird it has to be God.
I use that phrase because a new friend of mine, Cathie Ostapchuk, said it about a friendship recently formed between us that is causing us to dream big dreams and go for it, together. It’s so weird, how three of us were curiously brought together: Cathie Ostapchuk, Ellen Graf-Martin and I. Through the unlikeliest of circumstances (in a nutshell, a vibrant Facebook conversation, a common pull of the Spirit toward the same goal… even I didn’t previously know these women from Eve, a connector friend who brought us together), we have found ourselves united and strongly desiring to build this kind of connection between women, who are Canadian, who are Christ-followers, who are leaders – the kind of leaders who will also foster it in others. Dare we dream that we could begin the makings of a collaboration of Canadian women with the same pull, that would come to the table together, to share ideas and use their voice. Could we vouch for each other, keep each other accountable, encourage each other. Could we guarantee each other’s success?
I hardly know Cathie or Ellen, but transparency brought us together quickly. We twisted the rubber arms of 30 other women to dream with us this past Sunday. Can you imagine, that there are other women who didn’t have to go to Ghana to recognize this need! (Let me also add, I would always, always recommend a trip to Ghana.)
Cathie facilitates dialogue about women and leaders need, at Gather: Imagine Instagram photograph by Sarah Walker @thecuratedhouse
It should be said, there is an aspect of risk and vulnerability to arrive at such togetherness. It is inconvenient to offer that place to other women. It can be uncomfortable. You have to get used to the nearness. One’s life becomes a little messier, less controlled when you let others in. Many women can check out before they get too uncomfortable. They decide they don’t need it or want it.
But being on your own or doing things on your own terms means you also diminish. It’s harder to think big, it’s more difficult to be brave. Every bump in the road is bigger when you’re on your own, every obstacle harder to manage. Even dreams can become a burden when you’re isolated. My Ghanaian sisters know that inherently. More importantly, if we don’t make room for others (of which there is plenty, even when it seems crowded – that’s just the closeness, ladies, get used to it!) while we’re carving our own way forward, we are missing out on a central part of being a Christ-follower and leader.
With other women who have our back, who vouch for us and offer us a place at the table, we can move forward fearlessly. I guarantee it.
If you are Canadian woman who is a Christ-follower and are leading either in your church, community or business, we would invite you to join this conversation in the following ways: