Today is International Women’s Day. It’s a good occasion to think about what I’ve learned from women in my life. I will do that by a series of adjectives that describe women who have been my mentors. I should point out that I don’t believe women have a monopoly on inspiring character traits. I do not deny the contributions of equally remarkable men. But I think women are more often the unsung heroes. The voices of some women may be inaudible. This is an attempt to add voice to those we cannot hear. The first stories describe women who influenced me from our years in Niger.
I begin with a story about Saratu (not her real name). The adjective that describes Saratu is CREATIVE. Saratu was an elderly Nigerienne woman whom I will never forget. Her daughter was my Hausa language tutor when we lived in Niger, West Africa. Like most elderly women in Niger, Saratu never went to school yet somehow she had learned the basics of reading. She had seven children and they have all been highly educated – some of them completing PhDs. One day I asked her daughter how they had learned to read. They grew up in a small village with no books anywhere nearby. But Saratu knew that her kids must learn to read and so she found a way to teach them their letters. They had no running water in their compound. A child with a donkey cart would deliver water in a barrel every two days. There were mailing addresses stamped on the outside of the old metal barrels. Saratu taught her children their ABCs and practiced their reading skills using old metal barrels as her most available reading resource. Saratu was remarkably creative.
Many of the women who inspire me are TIRELESS in their efforts to care for their families and community. This photo illustrates a farmer in Niger planting her field. She does her own childcare with her baby on the back. The planting holes have been dug in the dry ground with a small hand hoe. She is now dropping a pinch of millet seeds in each hole. Women all over the world contribute to their communities through selfless dedication and unpaid labour. Our society is deeply indebted to their tireless efforts and strength of character.
Another character trait that always strikes me about women is their connectedness. Perhaps never more than during times of trial and hardship, women reach out to be CONNECTED in community. This picture was taken near our home in Niger. It was a time of severe food shortage in the country and we were assisting with a “food for work” project. Women would gather by the hundreds waiting to pick up an allotment of food products. These courageous and resilient women gathered together, shared stories and took care of each other’s children. In similar circumstances, all over the world, women gather to mobilize their shared resources to address their common challenges.
The most profound characteristic I learned from the women of Niger was their patience. Perhaps no experience has changed me more in life than being present in the moment of one of life’s most painful moments – the moment when you watch a young child take their last breath. This was a tragedy that I observed on more than one occasion in Niger. Probably the worst moment of all was when it was my own first-born child who died suddenly at the tender age of 2 ½ due to the horrific illness of meningococcemia. It was every parent’s worst nightmare. But I learned so much from that. One of the lessons came the morning after Emily died when a long line-up of villagers came to greet us. Their greeting, one after another, was “Sai hankuri” – “Have patience”. And they spoke from experience. The women in Niger who inspired me were LONG-SUFFERING in every sense of the word.
But while women the world over find the strength to patiently endure the challenges that face their families and communities, they will not and do not remain passive. They use that trait of connectedness. In the face of need, they are COMPASSIONATE. This photo shows some of the women I work with at the Health for All Family Health Team. For these women, their day job is more than a way to get a paycheque. Their work is a vocation. I can’t begin to tell you all the stories of how these women have jumped in to respond with compassion both within the bounds of their regular duties or well beyond the call of duty. They have worked creatively to raise funds and raise awareness for multiple causes in our community & around the world. The women I work with every day of the week teach me compassion.
Another trait that I have learned from some of the brilliant women I work with is their commitment. It’s quite phenomenal that most of my most senior colleagues are women. This includes the CEO of my hospital, the Dean of Medicine at the University of Toronto, the Chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine, CEO of the Central LHIN, my local MPP, and the Ontario Minister of Health. Some of them are seen in this photo on the day of the grand opening of our family medicine teaching unit in Markham. Each of these women is incredibly approachable and unassuming. But as role models in my life, I have learned from how COMMITTED they are to work with the utmost standards of excellence and professionalism. They make me want to also want to work with a full measure of steadfastness and dedication.
And then there’s the team of volunteers that I work with in the “Give a Day to World AIDS” campaign. This is a movement that challenges Canadians to give one day’s pay on World AIDS Day to organizations that will use the money well to support people and communities affected by HIV. The campaign is almost entirely driven by volunteers – most of them women. I am ceaselessly overwhelmed by the extraordinarily GENEROUS contributions of brilliant women who give hours and hours of their time each year to make this happen. These women teach me over and over again about through their gifts of generosity.
I’ve also learned from my colleagues in the Toronto Addis Ababa Academic Collaboration (TAAAC). This is the program that supports the training of Ethiopian physicians in Ethiopia for postgraduate clinical specialties. One of my great mentors is the incomparable Dr Clare Pain. She is the Canadian psychiatrist who co-founded TAAAC along with Dr Atalay Alem, a wonderful Ethiopian psychiatrist. Clare is truly a force of nature. She has dedicated herself wholeheartedly to this project – spending huge amount of the last ten years working to recruit Canadian medical educators to volunteer their time and efforts to help build the health workforce in Ethiopia. She is one of the most DETERMINED people I know – and someone who teaches me in countless ways.
A description of the women who have taught me would not be complete without a shout-out to my family. So I’ll start with my sisters who are among the most RESILIENT people I know. These three beautiful women are my sisters. Each of my sisters has had some measure of personal heartache in recent years. About two years ago, my lovely sister Kathy became a widow when her husband died suddenly leaving her with three young boys. My sister Judy found out two years ago that she had metastatic cancer requiring major surgery followed by six months of chemotherapy. And my sister Karen has a child with Rett Syndrome. Karen’s beautiful daughter Abby cannot speak at all and has other significant disabilities. Yet each of these sisters of mine has persevered. Each of them has a professional career in teaching or healthcare. They continue to contribute to their family and their community. And each of them has taught me about resilience, perspective and perseverance.
Finally I must say a word about my mother. How can I pick an adjective to describe all that she has taught me? I’ve picked an adjective that may be the most important of all. For all the amazing things I could tell you about my mother, when it comes down to the final analysis, she is a HUMBLE person. Sure she’s opinionated and feisty in many ways. But she knows the value of self-reflection. She has an opinion about just about any topic. But she’s always willing to listen to another point of view. She works hard and has accomplished a tremendous amount in her life. But she’s humble enough to recognize that even though she grew up on a cattle farm in rural Ontario, she entered this world with a huge package of privilege and advantages. And her vision is to put those opportunities to good use to build a better society.
Last night I posted this question on facebook and Twitter: Can you tell me some words that describe the women who have influenced you? I had a flurry of responses and put these together that I offer here in honour of the women we’ve learned from. This is my International Women’s Day tribute to the incredible women who have enriched my life.