By Sheila Crowley
Global Village team leader, 1999–present
Rose, a Habitat for Humanity Malawi homeowner.
Two years ago, I led a Habitat for Humanity Global Village team to Malawi. The first day on site, I met a woman named Rose. When I introduced myself to her, she grasped my hand and said, “I had a sister named Sheila. She died last year.” It was a very painful memory for her, but she seemed to think that we were destined to meet.
Rose’s brother was the recipient of the home our team was building. He could not work with us, because his wife was ill in the hospital, so Rose traveled each morning from her neighboring village to help him with his sweat equity hours. Rose carried the water for our site, using a five-gallon bucket she filled in the “boho,” or watering hole, a half-mile from the site. Over and over again, Rose would fill the bucket at the watering hole, carry it back to the work site on her head and pour the water into an old oil drum so we could use the water to mix the mud for the mortar.
I asked Rose if I could help her, and she agreed. I grabbed another five-gallon bucket and followed her to the boho. As we walked back and forth, Rose spoke English but also taught me bits of her first language, Chichewa. By the third trip, carrying the bucket on my hip or in one hand was uncomfortable and slowing us down. I realized I would need to devise a new way to carry the water if I was going to keep up with Rose.
Trip after trip, Rose carried the bucket with such grace. African women carry everything on their heads—water, bags of rice, laundry, logs and even delicately balanced bricks—and all the while, go on talking, laughing and sometimes even toting their babies on their backs. When I asked Rose if it would be okay if I tried to carry the water like her, she laughed, but agreed. It was definitely more comfortable and I felt more balanced, but my head quickly began to hurt. After three more trips, my head was already beginning to feel bruised, and Rose noticed my discomfort.
When we filled up our buckets on the next trip, she told me to wait before I placed it on my head. She then walked around in the field and began pulling long, green vines from the trees. Quickly, she wove them into a crown and gently placed the pillow on my head.
It worked and made carrying the bucket on top of my head far more comfortable. As I grinned appreciatively at Rose, she laughed and said, “It is the women’s secret.” At that moment, I felt that she accepted me and was sharing a piece of her culture with me.
Rose and I worked together throughout the day, making more than a dozen trips to the boho and back. As we were wrapping up the day, she turned to me and said, “I did not know that “mizunga,” or white, women could do this type of work. I thought you all sat behind desks or stayed at home. But now I see you are strong like me. Black or white, we have the same blood.”
It was a profound and simple statement uttered under the harsh African sun between two women. Same, same.