Today is the “International Day of the Girl Child!” And I was left thinking so much about the moment I “met” the fearless girl on Wall Street in New York. It was such a dream of mine to see her, and I was so blessed by God to do just that last year. As I pause and reflect this year on what this day means for me, it has taken on a new meaning as I near my Ted Talk and find myself immersed in thinking about our stories as women. What our voices mean for our girls today and how we should be raising them to know their voices matter. SO here’s my story, my moment of when a statue became a girl in my arms, on a busy street in May.
Her hair was blowing with a breeze that swept down Wall street where throngs of people pushed past strangers. It licked my long fringe as I struggled off the sightseeing bus on to the tiny pavement where she stood. My legs aching with the twenty thousand tourist steps I had done, my damaged ligament begging me to slow down but I couldn’t. Not yet, not now. In some way, the sight of her was why I had come to New York City from across an ocean of thirty-six hours. The fearless girl small in stature but big enough to incite hatred, dislike, disdain and big enough to kindle hope, conversation, change. I cross the space between traffic light and pavement until I’m pushing up against visitors rubbing against the tail of the golden bull. A crowd without number push in to the ribs of the golden calf, rubbing the metal, touching what gold he has to offer. He speaks of what this street stands for, he speaks to the bitter need for more.
I bump passed them until I see her. Hands on her hips, feet apart, legs in a lunge where the brick road neatly curves with uneven grey stones. Bronze, her eyes focussed, transfixed, immoveable. I stand and watch the thin line of women taking turns next to her and the plaid shirt, Rolex wearing man dash a smile as he towers over her. I watch the scene unfold and notice something that hits my chest with sadness, no one touches her, or even stands close to her but there is always a space. Between them and this fearless little girl, there is a physical distance in each photo that mirrors an internal reality. Distance. Disconnectedness from hearing her or feeling her message, her movement, her reality. Deaf ears to hearing her voice, the global voice of 62 million little girls who are not in school today, or the 140 million children who still wait for a forever home. Blindness to gender inequality in the workplace, or the women now nursing sorrow because of rape. The fractured message preached from some pulpits about the value of women, yet unpractised in situations of abuse, leadership or marriage.
My husband positions himself behind the camera, I step forward to where she waits. Wrap my arms around her chest, and hold her tummy just like I would hold my niece or godchild. Bend down and place my cheek next to hers, touching her hair, cuddling her, suddenly I feel a child between my arms and I wonder what I would tell my little girl if she were facing a world of war. A world of space and hollowness, of disconnect and distance. My heart whispers to her the very thing that rises up in that moment; you are loved, you really are valued and chosen, you can do anything, anything I promise you because I feel your strength, don’t waver, don’t buckle because you are loved, I promise you. The smile on my face hides this internal whisper, but the world disappears, as something shifts between me and a girl. When I look up again, people are snapping photographs of me hugging a statue. Turning around my husband notices them and laughs, I laugh because something of tender devotion to a world unseen, leaves others grasping for a camera.
Three days later I return home, back to South Africa to receive the Desmond Tutu – Gerrit Brand award for my latest biblical novel. My name is called and I smile casually as I receive my award, a lifelong dream rubbing the skin of my fingers. A microphone is thrust in to my hands with the directive, “you have 180 seconds to say something.”
“What, but no one told me I was supposed to make a speech!” I object but no one hears, the eyes of the crowd wait for the youngest recipient of this prestigious award to stun the crowd. God, I whisper in my heart, what do you want me to say?
The image of this girl on the pavement of New York and the feel of her cheek caress my mind. Stuttering emotionally through the thank you’s, I turn to the story of the fearless girl. How the heroine in my book is one such fearless girl who once decapitated a man to save a people. Peering in to the faces of the women in the front row I breathe out, “you are valued, you are chosen and you are loved, you are brave and you will make it, I promise you, you are loved.” At the end of the evening, a stranger named Tina introduces her friend to me. Her friend is tall, pale faced and wears a black hat. Tina thrusts her phone at me, “look at this,” she bubbles, pointing to a picture of the fearless girl statue on her messenger. “I sent this to her,” she points at the woman with the hat, “I felt God wanted me to tell her that she is like this statue.” The woman smiles, “I am Gerrit’s wife, you won his award this evening, I have a tumour on my brain, cancer.” I want to grab her and hold her right there as her teenage boys stand at her side and her tiny frame bends somewhat under the weight of everything facing her. “Through what you said this evening, I know this was for me, I know God is telling me I am like that fearless girl, I will make it, thank you.” I touch her hand with deep love and for the rest of the evening I watch her from a distance.
I still feel the rough starch cotton of her New York dress, the one I felt as I bent down to hug that little girl on Wall Street and the sense of wonder that filled the air all around her. Magically anointing the air with something deeper than mere presence, it was what lay at her core, deep in her heart I believe that left me feeling this way. I think about that fearless little girl often, and the moment where bronze became cloth, where I no longer held a statue but a girl. She was erected to remind the world how we need more women in the workplace, but she has accomplished much more. Expanding boundaries, dishing out hope, leaving a mark that may stretch far beyond her own Wall Street sojourn. I’m left thinking how simple it seems to be, to incite hope in others, how this little girl with her silent presence continues to mark my life. Waking me up to what we as flesh and blood women can do if we claim our space in the world and offer our presence, our strong, immoveable presence. If only one day soon, we will.