A Lesson in Empowerment
“So what did you learn?” I ask Brandi, the tall, striking 20 year-old daughter of my cousin. She has just returned from a school-sponsored semester living outside Cape Town, South Africa. Her job experiences were divided between working with elementary school children and inmates from one of the country’s toughest prisons.
She pauses for several moments before answering in a voice of quiet confidence, “I learned about empowerment.” Another pause. “I learned I can make a difference.”
I remember the rain pelting my body and sending cold rivers of water winding down my face and neck as I slowly walk along an empty street in Durban, South Africa. Head down, hands clenched in fists buried in the pockets of my faded denim overalls, I look as if the weight of the storm’s ominous clouds has settled permanently upon my 22- year-old shoulders. Tucked in my pocket is a letter I am mailing to my parents telling them I am okay.
But the definition of this nebulous word lies in the detail.
Scratched on the tissue-thin blue stationery of an international aerogram, I mention briefly my inability to find work in Durban and my plan to travel to Cape Town, a city where jobs are reportedly more plentiful. I do not mention that the money earned as a waitress in Johannesburg months earlier is nearly gone, spent exploring Botswana, Rhodesia, Swaziland, and now the coast of South Africa. Nor do I say the van in which four of us have been traveling has died and that I am hitchhiking south with a friend from New Zealand. After all, my earlier decision to temporarily abandon school and travel halfway around the world was my own.
“I think it’s a bad idea,” my dad said when I first phoned to tell him of my plans. “But you’re an adult, old enough to make your own decisions, old enough to live with the consequences.”
Only later did I understand his response. Deeply embedded in Dad was the belief education must always come first, must be the highest priority for his children, his college students, for everyone. Without an education, doors do not open. Options are limited. He wanted our future to be brighter than his distant past. He did not want us scarred by the pain of poverty. By the time I returned from Africa, I understood and switched my major from English to Business.
The rain blinds me to the young man cutting diagonally across the street, hurrying as if to catch me. I feel the gentle tap of his finger on my arm, an umbrella raised above my head.
Momentarily surprised, I stutter a thank you and quickly add “But let’s share. We are walking in the same direction.”
He shakes his head. Before scurrying back to the other side, his brown, Indian skin fading into the shadows of a side street, he whispers, “If I am seen with you on the same side of the street, I will be put in jail.”
While many of the details of my past fade like raindrops on sand, this courageous act of kindness remains with me . . . a reminder of what it means to listen to one’s truth, to empower oneself to greatness.
Mary Ellen Miller
7/8/2014 09:39:56 am
Amazing that the idea of empowerment, especially of women, is still so little understood even today! Thanks for adding your special insight to an important topic, Mary.
7/8/2014 03:15:12 pm
Mary, as a friend and a classmate, I admire the courage you displayed in your African travels. As a father and a teacher, I marvel at the faith that your dad showed in you when you made that fateful call. He and your mom were no doubt doubtful, but they trusted you to follow your own path. You certainly rewarded their belief in you.
7/8/2014 04:41:24 pm
Certain sentences of yours grab hold of me, begging me to linger. Today there were two:
7/11/2014 07:15:08 am
Mary, It is really frightening to think of your time in South Africa. To me, at the time a young teen, I saw it as an awesome adventure. I thought of you every day and thought about the wonderful experience learning a very foreign country must be. But your trials and tribulations were never shared with me and now I understand why. Today I see you as an incredible woman who is very much empowered in her life. You don't set boundaries (except for dogs) that would stifle your adventurous spirit and quest for knowledge.Dad may have said that education comes first and foremost in everyone's life, but I believe that you did receive an education in Africa, just not in the traditional way. It also gave you immense strength for your life ahead.
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