When Elizabeth Warren insisted on reading a old letter from Coretta Scott King on the floor of the U.S. Senate on February 7, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ordered her to shut up. In a classic example of mansplaining, McConnell commented on her silencing by saying, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” It instantly became a classic statement. But it goes far beyond political discourse. When I heard McConnell’s comment, I quickly thought of some of the persistent women I’ve come to know over the years, strong women who in so many different settings embody the calm strength and determination that’s needed for our times. None are famous politicians, but all are delightfully badass.
I thought of women like Khadilla Abdulah Ibrahim (right) and her daughter Hawaia, who here plow a small plot on the edge of the camp where they live with hundreds of other displaced families, just outside Bilel in the Darfur region of Sudan.
Here’s an image of a Syrian refugee mother shortly after landing on the Greek island of Lesbos.
This is Santos del Socorro Rojas, whose son Jorge Alberto set off from Nicaragua in 2004 for the United States. Yet he disappeared in Mexico en route. Santos spent nine years searching for him. I was with her on December 16, 2013, when she found him in Tapachula, Mexico. That’s persistence.
Sister Stella Matutina is a Benedictine nun from the Philippines. She has been detained by the military and repeatedly threatened because of her work to protect the environment and people of Mindanao from giant mining and timber companies. Such threats are taken seriously, as several priests and other church activists on Mindanao have been murdered for their faithful witness. Four years ago I spent several days with Stella, and came away truly inspired by her dogged persistence to protect all of God’s creation. Last year her order transferred her to Tanzania, I suspect to keep her alive, but she’ll doubtless soon be stirring up trouble there.
In the next photo, Giltena Duda studies for her basic literacy class in her home in Belgrade, Serbia. Duda is pregnant with her seventh child. She and her husband are Roma refugees from Kosovo, and thus legally marginalized in Serbia. They built their home on unregistered land and pirate their electrical hookup. Without legal residency, their children can’t attend a regular school, and they have difficulties getting formal employment. Yet both adults participate in a literacy program sponsored by the Branko Pesic School, where their children attend classes. The school is supported by Church World Service. Here’s Duda studying, and then there’s a photo of her outside her home.
Twelve years ago, Sister Dorothy Stang, a Catholic nun from the United States, was murdered at this spot in a jungle community in northern Brazil. After she was shot by killers hired by wealthy landowners, her body lay in the rain for hours, her blood soaking into the soil of the Amazon she tried so hard to save. For years, Dorothy had been harassed and threatened by those who wanted to destroy the jungle, but she persisted in proclaiming the Gospel until the moment she was shot.
In the next image, Delina Nleya gets a push from her son Nkosikhona, 7, on the street near their home in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Nleya suffered a spinal cord injury, but didn’t let that get her down. She supports her five children by selling vegetables, and travels all over in her chair. I accompanied her as she rode in a crowded Kombi (a van used as public transportation), which meant her wheelchair had to be taken apart to fit into the vehicle, then reassembled when she arrived at her destination. Like many people living with disabilities around the world, Delina Nleya refuses to be a victim. Despite people telling her all the time that she can’t do something, she persists in doing what she wants, even experiencing joy as her son pushes her fast.
For many women in Latin America and beyond, the white kerchief has become a symbol of persistence, of resisting empire, of demanding truth. The now globalized symbol was first crafted by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who every week took to the Plaza in Buenos Aires to reiterate their demands for justice. Four decades ago, they joined together to demand information on what happened to their disappeared children during Argentina’s Dirty War. They continue marching today, demanding answers, practicing persistence.
Sometimes persistence is quiet, hard to see, easy to overlook. But it’s there. An example: amid all the high drama that came after the 2010 earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince, Haiti, here’s an image of Mariolette Souffrant helping her son Lucien Scheinder get dressed for school in a tent city in the Mais Gate neighborhood, several months after the quake. Souffrant had lost her house and lived at the time in what generously could be called a tent. It’s what you see behind them. Nevertheless, despite all the challenges, she got her four-year old son up every morning and got him dressed in a clean and ironed uniform, then walked him to the Notre Dame de Petits School, run by a Russian Orthodox congregation.
Another quiet example of persistence: Every morning in Ankawa, Iraq, as her 4-year old son Luis prepares to leave for preschool, Raeda Firas takes a stick of oil and makes the sign of the cross on his forehead. The family was displaced from Mosul by ISIS in 2014, and lives in a church-provided modular home.
All around the world, women are refusing to be put “in their place.” Despite being warned, despite being given an explanation, they are persisting. Take these three Guarani indigenous women I met in the dusty little town of El Bananal, Argentina, two years ago. I spent a couple of hours sipping mate with them as they explained the leadership role that women had assumed in their community. “It’s we women who are struggling to change things, and because our men are busy working we have to take leadership. So when we have confrontations with the politicians, whether in their offices or in the streets when we protest, it’s we women who are at the front. And it’s gotten to the point where the politicians are afraid of us. When some provincial officials came to our community recently to respond to our protests about lack of schools, we had to chase after them. They tried to hide from us. They told people they were afraid to face the women of this community,” said Nelida Alpiri. She’s the one in the middle, with Sonia Jimenez on the left and Noemi Ortega on the right.
They are part of a group of 11 women in the village who came together to bake bread and empanadas and sell them to raise money to build new bathrooms for their homes. It’s a slow process. They’ve been at it two years, but they’re slowly raising the money needed to buy the construction materials they need. Their desire to have what they call “dignified bathrooms” is what drives the women’s political involvement, not a specific ideology–as conservatives in Argentina have long claimed as a way to justify violence toward the poor.
In their Guarani culture, homes are owned by the women, something that underlies how they answered me when I asked them if there was a problem in their village with domestic violence. “We don’t hit our men. If they misbehave, we just throw them out of the house,” Jimenez responded with all seriousness. But do they ever hit you, I diligently asked. There was shock on their faces. “Why would they do that?” Ortega asked. “If my husband hit me I’d never let him back in the house. And our lot was given to me by my mother, so he’d just be out of luck.” Maybe we should send Mitch McConnell to live there for a while.
In the next image, Amon Akuel Aler digs holes where she hoped to insert poles to begin the construction of a shelter in an internally displaced persons camp in Turalei, South Sudan. Families started arriving here shortly after fighting broke out in December 2013, and new families continued to arrive in March 2014–when I captured this image–as fighting continued. Many were living in the open and under trees. This woman had not seen her husband since the fighting began, and was separated from two of her five children as they fled Bentieu. She had not located them yet. She dug the holes hoping a humanitarian group would help her with poles and some sort of tent material to keep out the rain and sun. Her struggle reminds me that despair can be a luxury of class. The truly poor have no option of despair if they are going to survive. Instead, they must persist.
Koko Kondo was eight months old when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. She was cradled in her mother’s arms in the parsonage of the city’s Methodist church where her father, Kiyoshi Tanimoto, was the pastor. After the blast, her mother dragged her toward a small patch of daylight, eventually pulling them out of the rubble where the church once stood.
In the days after the bombing her mother cared for her while her father, a graduate of Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, rowed a boat ferrying victims to the other side of the Ota River. When journalist John Hersey came to the ravaged city to document the bomb’s devastation, her father was one of the people he profiled.
Although Kondo doesn’t remember the actual bombing, her father’s ministry in the following years helped shape how she understood it. He created the Hiroshima Maiden Project, which assisted young girls who had become disfigured from the attack, and he worked with the Moral Adoption Project, which raised funds in the U.S. to build orphanages in Hiroshima for war orphans.
As if having an atomic bomb dropped on your city wasn’t enough, the humiliation of being a hibakusha–an atomic bomb survivor–was part of Kondo’s life from early on. As a teenager, she was forced to stand naked on a stage at a conference while doctors and scientists scrutinized her for signs of radiation’s long-term effects on the body. Later her U.S. fiancé abandoned her days before their wedding because his relatives thought radiation exposure had made her unable to bear children.
But it was a bizarre appearance in 1955 on the television program “This is Your life” that changed the course of her life. The show’s producers flew her family to the U.S., and put them on stage with Robert Lewis, the pilot of the U.S. plane that dropped the bomb.
The 10-year old Kondo stared at the man. She had always dreamed of what it would be like to “kick, bite or punch those bad guys.” Instead, she walked over to Lewis and touched his hand. She had seen tears well up in his eyes moments earlier when the show’s host asked him how he felt after dropping the bomb. Kondo remembers that Lewis told the host that he wrote in his flight log, “My god, what have we done?”
“That was the moment I changed,” Kondo told a group of international church leaders who I accompanied to Japan in 2015. “I said to myself, ‘God, please forgive me for hating this guy. If I hate, I should hate war.’”
Kondo, who went on to graduate from American University in Washington, has dedicated her life to working for peace. She has traveled around the world repeatedly telling her story, but in recent years has focused on stopping the inexorable slide toward militarism in her native Japan, fighting particularly against the abrogation of Article 9, a clause in the Japanese Constitution that outlaws war as a means to settle international disputes. Forgetting the horror of their own past, a significant number of Japanese, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, want to do away with Article 9 and even acquire nuclear weapons, something President Trump says he supports.
Here’s a photo of Kondo as she laughs with some of those church leaders in 2015, including my friend Bishop Mary Ann Swenson. I share Kondo with you today, the ninth in my series of persistent women. To say she personifies persistence is an understatement.
“If you stir water in a big washtub with a chopstick, nothing happens at first,” she has said. “But if you keep stirring, eventually, you get the water to flow in one direction.”
A Somali mother and her children, fleeing attacks by Al-Shabaab militants at home, crosses the arid bush in northeastern Kenya on their way to the Dadaab refugee complex. It’s a trek that takes several days.
As I think about persistence, this women often comes to mind. I didn’t ask her name, and she wasn’t particularly interested in slowing down to talk with me. She was on her way to safety, interested only in saving the lives of her children. She and her daughter are carrying all of their worldly possessions. Like many who flee horror, they only have time to run, and depend on the solidarity of others to survive. Her persistence is woven into a larger international community where survival for the most vulnerable depends, for better or worse, on the response of those with privilege. When I really look hard at her image, her persistence inexorably tugs at me, demanding I respond. Her persistence is a gift to me, but it demands I be more than voyeur.
This photograph was captured in 2011, when Dadaab swelled to half a million people. The population has decreased under a voluntary repatriation program brokered by the United Nations, though the Kenyan government keeps threatening to close the camp, claiming with scant proof that it serves as a recruitment center for Al-Shabaab, which in recent years expanded its terrorist attacks to civilian targets inside Kenya, in part in retaliation for Kenyan participation in raids inside Somalia. On February 9, Kenya’s highest court stayed a government order to evacuate the camp, ruling that such a move would be unconstitutional and would amount to “group persecution.” In the meantime, Dadaab today remains the world’s largest refugee camp, with some 250,000 residents. I don’t know if the woman is still there or not. Wherever she is, I know she continues to persist.
Alefa Soloti is a farmer I met in Dickson, a village in southern Malawi that has been hard hit by drought in recent years, leading to chronic food insecurity, especially during the “hunger season,” when farmers are waiting for the harvest. She has worked with her neighbors in switching to alternative drought-resistant crops and installing an irrigation system. She embodies the persistence that make women natural leaders in the struggle around the world to combat the effects of climate change. Here are two images of her, each showing a different view of her strength and persistence.
Marion Zenneh is one of several dozen women who work together to grow cassava on a six-acre farm in Mount Barclay, Liberia. The income-generating project, called “Say No to Poverty,” is administered by the National Federation of Women Employees and Allied Workers, with financial support from United Methodist Women. Like many Liberian women, Zenneh has seen incredible violence yet remains an unflinching advocate for life. For some perspective on the country, check out a recent article on how Liberian women persisted in building democracy, despite overwhelming opposition.
Persistence can develop at a young age. I witnessed that in late February in Juarez, Mexico, which sits on the border with El Paso, Texas. It was 5:30 am when Yarely Arellano and her mother Patricia set off from their home on the outskirts of Juarez, beginning a 90-minute trip by bus and walking to the U.S. border. When they got there, Patricia remained in Mexico while her daughter, a U.S. citizen, walked across a bridge into El Paso, where she attends the United Methodist-sponsored Lydia Patterson Institute. Her mother accompanies her on the trip because of the danger of assault on the city’s streets and buses. After classes every day, she spends two hours cleaning the school as a way of repaying a full scholarship. With that and other after-school activities, she sometimes doesn’t cross back into Mexico until 8 pm, where her mother is usually waiting to accompany her home. Yarely has made the round trip every school day for four years, and will soon graduate. She wants to go on to university and study nursing.
And this is Ellen Bundang. She lives in Abucay, a seaside town in the Philippines province of Bataan, and here she’s laughing as she sits on the floor of her home. Born with abnormal legs, she is a member of the local Persons with Disabilities organization. Her laughter reminds me how liberating persistence can be.