Her name was Miriam Wabanga, though she was simply Ata â€“ â€śgrandmotherâ€ť in her African language – to most of us.
Ata.Â (Spoken with reverence.)
She was my closest friend during the two years I lived in her Central African village as a Peace Corps volunteer.Â She was twice my age and different from me in so many ways.Â I see now how much she has influenced the life I constructed for myself here in my world, and Iâ€™m quite sure she changed the lives of many youth in that small village, who in turn have had children changing the world around them.
This is grandmother power.
She didnâ€™t lead any campaigns or stage any protests, at least not while I knew her.Â She wasnâ€™t saintly by a long stretch.Â Her eccentricities were adorable and annoying all at once.
But Ata had found her voice.Â She spoke out around the cooking fire, at church, and at community meetings – even when there werenâ€™t other women stepping forward, and even when the men werenâ€™t happy about it.Â She often gave voice to the painful truths that would otherwise stay hidden, where they eventually fester and cause problems.
We all know how challenging it is to find and use our own voices.Â We do so despite deep conditioning to stay quiet and make nice.Â We also ask the voice to make itself heard through a deafening chorus of our own inner voices.Â For Ata, speaking out within her overwhelmingly male-dominated village looked easy, but there were repercussions â€“ lots of them.Â She dealt with criticism, shaming and punishment.Â She paved the way for the younger generation of girls to find — and use — their voices, whatever the cost.
Never mind that she was illiterate and poor.Â She also had a scrupulous reputation, which she earned the hard way.Â She got extra points for being a stranger who moved to her husbandâ€™s village and learned the local language as an adult.
Ataâ€™s emotions were on public display, and she was as kind as she was fiery.Â She generally had a gaggle of kids with her, from babies on up to teenagers – her grandkids as well as other village kids.Â They wanted to bask in the magic of her smile, and when she turned it on them, they bloomed.Â But she also shared openly her grief, her outrage and her pain.Â (And yes, there was a lot of that to go around)Â She moved through emotion, rather than getting lost within it.
Bringing grandmother power alive
I lost touch with Ata five years after I returned home; civil wars and a dysfunctional government prevented my letters from reaching her.Â I imagine she has passed away by now.Â Â And her photo is still on my desk, having traveled with me across the country, through my career and along the trajectory that is my marriage/divorce/rebuilding.
I look at her face and Iâ€™m reminded of how I want to be.Â Fiercely truthful, yet kind.Â Connected, yet sovereign.Â Powerful, yet vulnerable.Â A visible and potent integration of divine feminine and masculine energies.Â Leading by example.Â Being the change I want to see around me.
Ataâ€™s friendship has helped shape who I am, and who Iâ€™m becoming.Â Her lessons transcend culture, circumstances and socioeconomics.Â Iâ€™m nearly the age now that she was while I knew her, and Iâ€™m beginning to embrace the role I see I can play here in my own community : that of passing along the torch, of igniting the flame and of planting the seeds that will grow into the next generation of leaders.
I wrote this post as part of my friend Tara Mohr’s blogging campaign. Please check out the incredible posts written by other bloggers between May 7 – 14.