Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be a female in a world where females are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. The powerlessness of women becomes incontrovertible the more humanitarian work that I’ve done.
Women suffer unspeakable things in this world. We are universes unto ourselves, but we remain marginalized and disempowered. Many of the constructs that create societal structure are the basis of the rationale that perpetuates the institutionalized oppression of women.
But if you are really quiet and listen, inspiration often occurs in the most unexpected of places.
It is a rare gift to be able to sit in the home of your patient and talk to them about their day-to-day life. I recently had that privilege while doing medical work with ME to WE in Kumbhalgarh, India.
After we left the clinic, our caravan of vehicles came to a stop on a narrow road on the side of a hill with a cornfield and a step well below and a small village above. We walked up the steep cobbled road into the village of Khamoda surrounded with green forests lush from the recent monsoon.
Khamoda is so small and remote that it doesn’t exist on any map. You can’t Google it. The closest that you can get is to search for the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary that surrounds Khamoda. Eight families call the village their home. This is where Moni Bai lives.
We found our way up to Moni Bai’s one-room home by way of a narrow staircase. Moni Bai’s goats seemed eager to visit with her as well and tried to weave their way into our group and up the stairs before she chased them away.
Immediately after chasing the goats away, she mentioned that she had 2 dogs until a few days ago when a jaguar came and stole them away. The wildlife preserve that surrounds her village has many predators including jaguars, jackals, wolves, and bears.
Moni Bai’s 10’x15’ home is entered through swinging doors that stop a foot short of the top of the doorjamb allowing a through an illuminating shaft of light. The clean, well-organized single-room house functioned as a living room, bedroom, and kitchen.
We were invited to sit on rugs on the floor and lean on the walls that resembled adobe, but are actually coated with smooth cow dung and are reported to help repel mosquitos while remaining cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
As we sat down to talk, Moni Bai stoked the fire of her smokeless chullah (cook stove) and began to prepare chapati. The smokeless chullah is a significant improvement from the old chullah in that it decreases the amount of wood needed, allows you to boil water and cook at the same time, and most importantly, diverts the smoke outside thereby decreasing respiratory illnesses in the community.
By her own account, she and her husband are both illiterate. Being illiterate and impoverished would in most cases leave her subject to being the subservient wife of a drunken husband that may occasionally beat her. But, this is not the case for Moni Bai, not at all.
Moni Bai’s story is unique. Her given name is Moni. Bai is added meaning that she is a respected elder. By all accounts, she is an outlier and uniquely empowered. She is looked up to by all of the women in her village.
She is in her 50’s now, but early in her marriage, she lost 3 children and became infertile as a result. In her community, it would be common for a man to leave her due to her inability to bear children, but Moni’s husband was different. He stayed.
As a result, Moni became a surrogate mother to all the children in her community. While the group of us sat and talked, a few of Khamoda’s children hung out just outside the door as if to make that point. Moni proudly showed us the corn and soya bean that she had grown and explained how she would prepare extra food for any child that may be hungry in the village.
Moni Bai was born to the most disenfranchised of the castes in India. The Tribals are considered lower in the caste system than the Dalits (untouchables). They are least likely to be educated or have access to healthcare, education, and other services. Illiteracy is common to the point that even handling money is a challenge, much less having a bank account when you are unable to read. How do you know that a banker correctly documents your money when you can’t read?
As we talked, the faint scent of the wood fire began to fill the air as Moni Bai began to knead and roll the dough for chapati, a type of flatbread that is a must-have in many Indian households. She offered to let us roll the dough with her.
She began to explain that she had to multitask. She had many jobs to do. She smiled as she mentioned that women are better multi-taskers than men. With only one man in the room to defend himself, it was pretty much agreed that she was correct about women and multitasking.
Her daily life consists of collecting about 11 large pots of water from the step-well below the village. She carries those pots on her head up to her home for cooking, drinking, and washing.
One of her big challenges is that twice a week, she must trek into the forest to collect firewood. It takes her five hours to collect enough wood to warm her home, boil water, and cook meals. This is a brave act when you consider that she regularly runs into the predators in the forest when collecting the wood. It is especially dangerous right now with the high grasses from the monsoon making it impossible to see an approaching predator.
Cooking, keeping the home, and caring for the animals are also her jobs. Her husband is a farmer and does masonry work when he has the opportunity.
We soon went around the room and introduced ourselves, told whether we were married, and whether we had children. The unmarried women quickly became a focus of her matchmaking. She was pretty sure that she knew someone for a woman in the group.
She was curious that I only had one daughter. In rural India, it is of the most importance to have a son. A daughter may be seen as a burden to the point that while illegal, female infanticide is not uncommon. I explained that I was very happy with my daughter. She said that people in her culture would continue to have children until they get a boy. She looked at me with empathy for my single-child state and said, “It is God’s will.”
This was a compelling statement to me because there was a part of me that felt that this was also her way of coping with the loss of her own children. Her suffering must have been great in a culture that values being married and having children above all else.
In Khamoda, like communities like it, elders make all of the final decisions. The elders are all men and ultimately they make the decisions, but here is where Moni Bai’s story becomes unique.
Moni Bai believes that education is the only way for children to change their station in life. She believes that she will always be illiterate, but wants more for the children of Khamoda. If she finds out that a child is not in school, she will confront the family and basically shame them to put the child back into school. Confrontations like this could be very dangerous for a woman, but Moni Bai is not afraid. She knows that this is the only way out of the grinding poverty and challenging life of the people in her village.
Her influence is felt throughout Khamoda. When she got a smokeless chullah, others saw the advantage in it and began to get their own.
If Moni Bai does something, people follow.
At the end of the day, Moni Bai is one woman who lives in a in a small village in a remote area in India. You might even wonder to yourself, do her actions even matter?
I would respond that her willingness to speak out and to advocate for education of the children in her community is the only thing that will affect permanent change.
Empowerment looks different for everyone, but it is impossible to come away from meeting Moni Bai and not to understand that she is a strong and powerful woman.
Change must begin from within. Moni Bai taught me that you must be fearless enough to make it happen. Her quiet one-woman revolution will have a ripple effect for generations to come.
Moni Bai matters.