Growing up in the Au Vent region of Dominica (south eastern Atlantic windward coast), I knew many women who were what I would now call ‘strong women’.
As a child I saw them as merely women who because of their circumstances had no choice but to do what they did. Take for instance, Ma. Christina who worked at the Agricultural station at the other end of La Plaine. She went out to the field from 5:00 o’clock with a large basket on her head in the mornings and came back just before dusk laden with a few dasheens or a few breadfruits and some firewood. Others made similar journeys to the ‘bush,‘ cutlass in hand, always a few steps ahead of their husbands.
These ladies are examples of rural women who were heads of households, homemakers and women of the soil all at once. Grand holidays like Christmas, New Years, Easter and Boxing Day were especially busy, as they had to gather as much produce and meat as possible to ensure that everyone will be fed and also have clean ironed clothes.
They went to Roseau to do their small shopping by truck. They retuned to La Plaine bearing shoes, books, pencils and snacks for the children.
Before Premier Leblanc cut roads deep into the countryside in the mid- 60s, they made the two-day round trip on foot via the Morne Trois Pitons rain forest and Laudat (Chimen Letang) carrying their baskets on their heads. Often times they arrived in Roseau in the early morning hours while the town was still asleep drench from the heavy rains they encountered in the interior.
On Sunday mornings, they would be the first ones at church cleaning the benches and the churchyard and getting things in order before the rest of the congregation came in. As I reflect on this I can now fully appreciate how ‘hard’ it must have been; they must have been tired. Yet they carried on. I did not realize just how phenomenal they were, and what it must have taken to do what they did. Note too that they were women well over 50 years old.
These were the matriarchs on whose backs our once small close-knit communities were built. They raised children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces, some who went on to become very successful. They succeeded at their mission of keeping the house and family together. They were active in the Social League, Credit union, other Civic organizations and the Catholic Church.
They were also the ones who went to the houses of the sick and indigent to wash, cook and clean. Interestingly enough, they were also at the fore of orchestrating the process of selecting the Village Council candidates who were mostly men. At the same time they accommodated, worked and were friends with each other despite their political differences. They carried the weight of the community on their shoulders- yet some were always off to the fields before the sun emerged.
Their stories are stories of inspiration and hope- in the face of adversity they never gave up. In the face of poverty (‘Malaway’) they kept their dignity and knew that against all odds their children had to be educated. In their own way they were women who defied what was expected of them. They were the true pioneers of the women’s movement in Dominica and examples for young women to emulate. They were women of character and strength and in their own way, they were empowered. They were ‘rebel’ women who led by example and went about their business in the old fashion way.
Theirs is the story of many women in Dominica and other parts of the developing world. I am sure we all know a Ma Mary, Ma Joe or Ma Sonnyboy. I hope you have realized how amazing they truly were and got a chance to tell them this.
The majority of these women were probably never validated or had their work lauded. Now I pause to do so, though most of them have passed-on. I thank them for being excellent examples of strong women- women of spirit and heart, physical and emotional strength, selfless and caring. These women were the backbone of their families and communities all across our island home.
A belated hearty Mothers Day greeting to these heroines who have gone to their eternal rest and the few who are still with us.