This blog post is about girls - one in particular – and her name is Nombinqo.
It’s not fair to say Nombinqo grew up in rural South Africa. Growing up implies so many things - a sense of completion, inspiration, growth and pleasure – just as many smiles as tears. Perhaps more. No, Nombinqo did not “grow up” in the full sense of the word. Nombinqo worked.
Nombinqo’s days were hijacked by the realities of rural life in the developing world – water collection, farming for pennies, seemingly endless efforts to ward off disease. As Nombinqo became a woman, a wife, a mother… these things remained the same. Well into her thirties she lived off of government grants, white rice and an alternative corn meal – spending what time she could spare from the fields collecting dirty water from a distant source.
Nombinqo has always been brilliant, loving and well respected. While born into poverty, she had many of the tools with which women all over the world build families, careers, even empires. What Nombinqo didn’t have was access to the basic resources that enable a person to live in freedom. Nombinqo didn’t have access to clean water.
Nombinqo’s life changed in the late nineties when the government built a well in her village. Without having to collect water, she began to save those extra minutes each day, like pennies of interest, and use them to earn extra income – enough to buy a sewing machine. Nombinqo sewed long skirts, curtains, clothes. She sewed her girls the uniforms they would need to attend school. With the profit from her home business Nombinqo bought wheat, yeast and oil. Combing these simple ingredients with the gift of clean water, she made bread and began to sell her loaves in a neighboring town.
Soon, Nombinqo’s daughters were “growing up” in a way their mother never did. Not only could they attend school – Nombinqo’s first gift to them – but if you walk through the grassy yards of the village today, you’ll find them laughing and playing. Their laughter is affecting, mostly because it’s rare. In a place where oppressive poverty pervades every moment of daily life, these children are simply, immeasurably rich.
When I first met Nombinqo she was already a Mama – a middle-aged matron in a small village in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. As a wandering girl of 20, I was entranced by the simple beauty of her story. But one question haunted me for months: “How did Nombinqo know what she was missing?”
Surrounded by people who lived no differently than she did, Nombinqo still believed that there was something greater - a more human experience that she longed for. It’s the same hope I see in the eyes of countless women I’ve met since then. As Oscar Wilde famously quipped, We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. The object of Nombinqo’s water collecting, sewing, baking, breathing… was to provide for her daughters an intangible but essential thing of incredible worth. Where I work – we call it dignity.
Unfortunately, pervasive poverty keeps billions of women from fully experiencing the promise of human dignity with which we’re all born. Nombinqo’s struggle to provide a more complete life for her family was only made possible when her basic needs (in this case for water) were met. For others, the missing element is food, education or the place to express beliefs and opinions.
Without a distinct change – without a paradigm shift like the digging of a local well – Nombinqo’s determination could just as easily have turned to desperation or even resignation. If that had happened, I never would have learned my lesson: that with the most basic tools for growth, our will to live in dignity can animate the most beautiful changes in our lives.
What’s remarkable about human rights is that they are universal (much like the human experience itself). Nombinqo and I share these rights; they’re ours – a bond of humanity that makes her sorrows my sorrows and her story of triumph my joy. Though she may not mark this day on any calendar, Nombinqo will celebrate International Women’s Day by providing for her family. I’ll be celebrating with her, by putting into practice the simple lesson she taught me. There are some prerequisites to living a life in dignity, and with each basic need comes an equally basic human right.
In observance of International Women’s Day – and looking forward to World Water Day on March 22nd – I’ll continue to defend women and our human right to clean water. Join me in connecting girls and inspiring futures.
- Katherine Straus
Katherine directs development for The DigDeep Right to Water Project. You can reach her here: email@example.com