It's when we take things for granted that we are in the most danger of forgetting their value. When we forget something's value, when we forget how important something is, we are also running the risk of having it taken away from us. It's easy for us to forget, for instance, the stigma that used to be attached to any open discussion about health issues facing a woman. In the not too distant past a young woman beginning her menses received no education about what to expect, and was convinced that any discussion about her body and its natural functions were taboo.
While the women's movement of the seventies managed to change some of the attitudes that had made it difficult for women to feel comfortable even talking to their doctors, the current backlash against women in North America could see even those small gains rolled back. Having taken for granted that they had won control over their bodies through landmark cases like Roe v. Wade in the United States, and the Supreme Court Of Canada declaring any law that hindered a woman's right to abortion unconstitutional, women in the United States have gradually seen control over their own bodies taken out of their hands.
Given prevalent attitudes towards women and sex education, it's easy to see a return to the days when women's health issues, no matter how life-threatening, are no longer considered topics for public discussion. It shouldn't take an act of bravery on the part of a woman to talk about the state of her health, but there seems to be a new chill descending over North America designed to silence women's voices. Thankfully, any woman who is searching for a source of inspiration, an example of bravery in those circumstances, doesn't have to look very far.
Nasra Al Adawi, a poet of Omani and Tanzanian heritage, has just published Brave Faces, a collection of poetry and prose in tribute and honour of the African women she has met who are coping with either breast or cervical cancer. The prose sections of the book are either written by Nasra based on her meetings with individual survivors of cancer, individual patients recounting their stories, or by medical professionals discussing the state of female cancer patients in Africa and the disease itself.
With only two exceptions, all the poems are the work of Nasra (Nasra Al Adawi is a pen name), and are without a doubt some of the most purely emotionally powerful poetry I've ever read. In the opening chapter the book, "Breathing Africa", Nasra talks about how the death of her father from cancer roused in her the courage to become a bold poet, and his desire to be buried in his native Tanzania ignited her desire to leave her home in Oman and travel back to the country she was born in.
"I am not sure if poetry is a sensible way to fight cancer" she says in her introduction. While it may be true that words on a page or spoken aloud can't heal a body, there is no way of measuring the impact of the intent behind them on the spirit of the listener. Can you imagine the lift it would give to you knowing that somebody cares deeply enough about the circumstances of people in your situation that they are inspired to create poetry that speaks to your experience?
Nasra's poetry does just that. Without presuming to "know" what any individual is experiencing or feeling, her poetry speaks of universal truths that all of us can identify with. They're about the journeys of self-discovery we all must take in order to grow and thrive, finding the strength that's needed to do what we want, and finding the means to keep going when the reasons aren't always obvious.
While Nasra says that the women she met in the Ocean Road Cancer Institute in Tanzania have been an inspiration to both her poetry and her life, the poetry she writes is inspiring to anyone who has ever questioned themselves. There's no false sentiment or cheery platitudes contained within the lines of her work. Instead she offers the gift of her own struggle with doubts, the hope of her dreams, and the compassion of her empathic soul expressed with eloquence and just the right amount of pride.
Those of you who have read my work before know that I deal with an acute, chronic pain condition. While, unlike cancer victims, I have the comfort of knowing it's benign, if I were to allow myself to dwell on the fact of its permanence I could easily succumb to despair. Nasra's poems spoke to the struggles I cope with as if she had access to my innermost thoughts.
I can't speak for others, but reading her poems was like balm to a wound in my spirit. Hearing understanding from the voice of a stranger is an incalculable gift and one that I'll always treasure. I can't help but believe that the women to whom she has read these and other poems receive the same presents of hope and understanding that I received.
But if it's examples of courage you're looking for, the brave faces of the title, the prose pieces of this book are where you will find them. Here are the stories of individual African women who have had to struggle not only against the disease, but societal taboos that inhibit their ability to talk about their illness, let alone seek help. "I was ashamed", "I was alone", might be how they felt, and what their circumstances were, but that didn't stop them from taking care of themselves. Even if it meant questioning a doctor's opinion, traveling to foreign countries for treatment because Tanzania's state-run hospitals are under-equipped and underfunded and only the very wealthy can afford the private hospitals. (Let's give a big round of applause to the policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. It's their insistence that developing countries like Tanzania cut funding to health care and other "frill" programming if they want debt forgiveness, that make these circumstances possible.)
But even more important is the bravery that each of these individual women have shown in standing up and telling the world their stories so that other Africans can learn from them. The message they are trying to impart is a vital one for women in every country, not just the countries of the developing world. Your body is nothing to be ashamed of, do not be embarrassed to seek help if you are sick – it's not your fault, it really is better to lose a breast than to lose your life, and you will be no less of a woman for its removal.
Reading the individual stories I could not even begin to understand the struggles they endured in their attempts to seek treatment or the difficulties they faced. To hear one woman casually talk about traveling first to India for treatment, and being so sick she could barely walk, but coming home anyway because she couldn't afford to stay any longer was heartbreaking enough. That the same woman was only able to continue her treatments at home because she purchased the medicines required for treatment herself, was incomprehensible. For a person used to free access to fully equipped state of the art hospitals, it's impossible to even begin to understand the level of courage any of this required.
Brave Faces is not only a book of poetry and prose about the courage to live one's life to the fullest no matter what is thrown at you; it's also about people working together in common cause. Look at the opening pages of the book and who has paid for its development and creation. Everyone from the Prime Minister of Tanzania, who wrote the foreword to the book, private corporations like Avon and DHL, and medical professionals have come together on this project. Then there are the people who translated the book into both English and Swahili so it could be read all over Africa and around the world. Most important though, are the women themselves who volunteered to tell their stories, for without them there would be no book.
Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the world after lung cancer, and the most common malignancy among women. The incidences of breast cancer have increased steadily from 1 in 20 women in 1960 to 1 in 7 in 2007. It is an epidemic among women and nobody knows why. The only positive is that if breast cancer is caught early enough, the chances of survival are high, which makes being able to comfortably talk about it and access to screening procedures vitally important.
In North America we like to think of ourselves as forward thinking and enlightened, and in the past have been condescending towards the people of developing countries and their "backwards" attitudes when it comes women's health issues. Brave Faces not only refutes that opinion, it stands it on its head. The women we meet in Brave Faces are every bit as sophisticated and brave as their counterparts in the west, and the government officials and medical professionals – a great many of whom are men, by the way – show a compassion and caring for these women that you hardly ever see in North America any more.
Brave Faces was written to bring hope, encouragement, and education to the women of Africa when it comes to dealing with breast and cervical cancers. In an attempt to help the fight against cancer all proceeds generated by the sales of this book will be donated to cancer awareness programs in Tanzania. However I think this book will be of benefit to anybody who reads it for the message of hope, courage, and faith in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles that it delivers. We all face various challenges in our lives; Nasra's poems and the women we meet through her will inspire all of us, no matter what we are dealing with.