Waisa is a tall woman with an easy smile, lines etched in her forehead from an unfair share of burden and worry. We didn’t speak the same language, but even without the translator’s help, I could see enough in her eyes: Her story was full of hard lessons, of wanting more for her granddaughters than she had gotten for herself.
I met Waisa last April. I was in Sierra Leone, a member of a small team visiting with community members who had received support through CRS Rice Bowl, Catholic Relief Service’s annual Lenten program.
Any Google search will turn up details on the tragic and challenging history of Sierra Leone’s recent years: a civil war; an outbreak of Ebola; a deadly mudslide in the capital city. But these headline-grabbing crises do not do justice to the quiet, backbreaking resilience of a woman like Waisa — a woman who has lived through it all and still stands strong with an ever-optimistic outlook for her country and her grandchildren.
Waisa was one of 12 children. As a girl, she was discouraged from attending school. Why educate women? the thinking went. Instead, she was tasked with helping at her family’s farm, not far from where she lives today. And she was responsible for selling goods in the streets of town. She married young.
She relayed this story to us with one of her granddaughters looking on: 12-year-old Kumba, who dreams of becoming a nurse.
I asked Kumba why she wanted to become a nurse. “Because nurses help people,” she replied. “And I don’t want my neighbors to have to travel if they get sick.” The all-too-recent threat of Ebola mingled with the lack of medical infrastructure hung thick in the air.
Waisa smiled as she watched Kumba. “I will do whatever it takes to put my daughters, my granddaughters through school,” she said. Kumba’s dream was Waisa’s dream.
And she wasn’t kidding. We spent the better part of the week with Waisa and her family. She woke before the sun had risen to prepare breakfast, making the fire and cooking the food. She ate with her family — her husband, her children, her grandchildren. And then she set out for her garden, a large swath of land with not a single tree to protect it from the blistering sun. I was in awe of this woman who so meticulously cared for each plant, knowing that her care in the garden translated directly to care for her family. What she grew there she sold to earn an income.
Women like Waisa, and the tremendous work that they do to provide for their families, should make us pause, particularly during this season of Lent — a season of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. What role can we play in supporting women like her?
Now, arguably, almsgiving is the least sexy of the three spiritual pillars of Lent. Sure, I’ll set aside a few moments of quiet prayer each day. I’ll even forgo that extra cup of coffee as part of my Lenten fast. But parting with hard-earned money? I’ll speak for myself — that takes a bit of convincing.
I’ll wager I’m not the only one. As millennials become an increasingly sought-after demographic in the world of charitable giving, a great deal of research has gone into understanding what motivates young donors. One finding: 71% of millennials are willing to give to a cause if they can see the impact of their gift increased through a matching donation.
That means that, instead of just looking for tax write-offs, we’re looking for impact. And we’re looking to each other to make the greatest impact possible together.
In reflecting on this Lenten notion of almsgiving, I’m struck by this idea of finding ways to match donations. We hear of companies and foundations that will match a certain percentage of each gift. But after meeting Waisa — after following (albeit slowly and far less gracefully) after her for that handful of days — I realized the real matched gift comes from people like her. She matches 110% of every donation through her dedication to her family and her community.
Taken through this lens, almsgiving becomes less of a personal act of charity and more of a communal act of justice. It becomes an invitation to join a mission, to become a part of something greater than oneself. It’s by empowering women like Waisa that sustainable solutions to our world’s many problems will emerge.
My favorite moment from my trip to Sierra Leone came a bit later. In speaking with Waisa, we learned — through a wide grin — that on that very day of our conversation, her youngest daughter was sitting for the college entrance exam. “And she’ll pass,” Waisa said — not a shred of doubt in her voice.
As we walk through these days of Lent, let us keep the many Waisas of our world at the front of our mind. Let us remind ourselves that Lent is not solely an individual journey, but one we walk together. Because ultimately, we’re not going to change the world by writing a few individual checks — we’re going to do it by listening to and empowering one another through the means we have at hand.