“Leave the Burden and Carry the Joy”

For the past three weeks, I’ve been in Benin, West Africa, working on my project to create A Women’s Oral History of West Africa supported by the National Geographic Society and Sennheiser. In 2022, I became a National Geographic Explorer. Over the next two years, I’ll be travelling along the coast of West Africa, from Benin in the east to The Gambia in the west, documenting the stories of African women aged over 60 because this region, from which I hail, has the lowest life expectancy for women on the continent, just 60 years old. Nigeria, the West African giant, has the lowest life expectancy for women in the world, only 54 years in 2022.

Since beginning the fieldwork for the project last October in a coastal village near Benin’s commercial capital, Cotonou, I’ve interviewed close to 30 women about their lives, their stories, their journeys. I’ve listened to many narratives about childhood and adulthood, marriage and widowhood, aging and death. But over the last seven days, the stories I’ve heard from women of various ages and backgrounds can only be described as traumatic. 

From a woman whose husband left for work one day and never returned, to another who gave birth to 11 children and has outlived all but two of them, the West African women I encountered have endured tough times that have significantly shaped their lives.

For the first time on this phase of the trip, there were tears. It reached a point where, after a second woman broke down while telling her story, I thought, “I don’t want to make another woman cry,” for her sake but also for mine.

Yet, after almost every conversation, the women and/or their family members said the session had been therapeutic, that they had learnt something about themselves. One woman said she’d never had the opportunity to think about her life and what happened to her before, and our conversation had made her want to consider these things in more detail.

There were also elements of joy.

For example, in Togo, I interviewed a woman who, after being engaged in local organising for much of her life, and now approaching 70, is contemplating running for political office in 2025 because she wants to see change in her lifetime, and she believes she will. She doesn’t think her age is an impediment to her ambition.

I spoke to another woman who has dedicated her life to safeguarding girls and women by providing them with educational and economic opportunities so they can be self-sufficient and lead full and free lives. She is determined that no woman should be exploited because of her social or economic circumstances.

All these women are the embodiment of resilience, not in spite of, but because of their vulnerability. If you’ve suffered and you’re still here, you’re here for a reason. Finding that reason is key.

When starting out on this journey, I never imagined how mentally and physically taxing this work would be. Many times over the last seven days I’ve wanted to stop – not quit, just take a break.

I’ve had to lean on the shoulders of friends, one of whom urged me to, “leave the burden of what I’ve heard behind and carry the joy forward.” 

And that’s a privilege I have: to leave the burden and carry the joy. 

Every conversation has reinforced my purpose and, if the women can persevere, so can I. My challenge is learning how to jettison the bad and leverage the good so the vital work of documenting African women’s stories can continue.

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