For as long as I can remember, I’ve been surrounded by strong women. These women have all been stubborn and outspoken, openly compassionate and generous, fiery and determined, tough and fearless. When I was young, I was none of these things. I sat quietly in corners and let other people take the lead. I did whatever people wanted me to do and honestly, I was pretty good at that.
It’s not that I didn’t have dreams, or that these strong women in my life did not thoroughly support all of them. But my dreams involved seeing the world and writing down my thoughts about what I saw. In other words, even in my wildest imagination, I was riding backseat. I was observing.
I’m really not sure what changed in me enough for me to join the Peace Corps a year and half ago. I do know that- since High School- I have been consciously pushing myself into situations that made me uncomfortable, in hopes that I would one day not be uncomfortable, that I would one day come out of my shell and stay there. I think a lot of people saw this happening to me, saw me coming out, but all I could ever see was that I was struggling. Every second that I was doing something that challenged me, I felt as if I were barely hanging on by the tips of my fingers.
A few weeks ago I ran a small essay contest for the girls at my primary school in years 3 to 6. I then selected 12 of them to be part of a group I named Gel Paoa (Girl Power). I didn’t really know what I wanted out of this group, I just knew that I wanted to help these 12 girls become leaders. They didn’t really get it either. And neither did the two young women I selected as counterparts for the project (to carry it on after I left). Even the parents of the girls were quite confused by what I was doing. I was met in some ways, by a fair amount of resistance. Not the kind of resistance that people give you, but the kind that might form in yourself if you are not sure of what you are doing. I moved forward anyway.
As we have progressed through meetings, I’ve been teaching them things like public speaking (for anyone who knows me, I’m sure you can share in my amusement about that), we ran a fundraiser together, we made group t-shirts, and we went into town for a sort of career day, using the money we made at the fundraiser. We essentially became a girl scout troop.
My village is somewhat “in the bush” in that there is not much development here. You can spend your whole life without ever going into town and therefore, never seeing simple things like running water or power lines. That being said, all of my girls had been to town at one point or another, so town itself was not necessarily new to them. But going together in one group, using the money we had earned fundraising, and all wearing our white uniform t-shirts was new. And so was getting to go to the hospital, police station, women’s affairs office, café, and education office to meet the strong women leaders that I had arranged to give small talks. Everywhere we went, people stared and asked questions. They had never seen anything like this. And I don’t believe my girls had ever felt special like this either.
After the career day in town I couldn’t walk through my village or drink kava at the nakamal without getting questioned about what we were doing. Some still don’t understand it, but others are now pretty enthusiastic about the idea. Back in the states, my aunts and mom are working on fundraising to get us official matching t-shirts. I’m hoping to do community projects with the girls. We might even start a small store at the school to help them learn business skills. And I plan on using some of them as a library team for when the library is finally finished.
This is easily my favorite thing I’ve been a part of since coming here. But it does tie for first place with my work on the Van Am, the volunteer run newspaper for PC Vanuatu. When I took over editorship, I had a million different ideas and a concrete direction I wanted to go in with it. While not all of my ideas have panned out and the Van Am is not perfect, the fact of the matter is, it is something I actively went for and that I’m proud of being a part of.
This morning I woke up, went to a joint church service, and stood in front of over 200 people to thank them for supporting the Gel Paoa fundraiser and to tell them to come see me if they were interested in a TVET training. All this I was supposed to say in Bislama. It wasn’t until I was looking out over a sea of attentive faces that I realized what I was doing. Eight years ago, I would have peed my pants and ran out the nearest back door at even the thought. This morning, I didn’t bat an eyelash. I didn’t feel the flutter of butterflies raging in my stomach, I didn’t even say “um”. I smiled, I said good morning in local language, and I spoke.
You see, it turns out that all those years of watching my amazing aunts, my grandma, my mom, and my best friend Emily, all those years of watching my little sisters grow into amazingly strong young women, of watching women like Mrs. Relyea and Aunt LeeAnn, all those years of simply observing rubbed off on me just a little. I had soaked it all up, all the greatness I was constantly surrounded by, and when I finally allowed myself to see it, I found that I had boundless strength and fierceness ingrained within me.
Yeah, I had been pretty good at sitting in corners, at observing, and at following orders. I still am. But it turns out that I’m pretty good at taking charge too. So, to all the women in my life: thank you. I am capable of doing what I have been doing- I am who I am- because of all of you.
But most of all, thank you Mom, for being there for me every step of the way, for always believing that I am capable of anything I set my mind to, and for surrounding me with those strong women. Traveling and exploring all over the world, I have never come across someone so honestly and wholly good as you are. You are a mom to so many people, but I am lucky to have had you my entire life.
In the end, no, I’m not now bursting with confidence or anything like that. I’m not even entirely sure of what direction I’m headed in. But I believe in myself. And what in the world is more powerful than that?