Frequently, women who have achieved some measure of success in the United States are asked—in public and private, at conferences and cocktail parties—the identically worded question: How do you do it?


Often, there is an odd emphasis on the second word—how do you do it?—as if to underscore the oddity of doing “it” at all, or to insinuate that any woman doing “it” (whatever that “it” may be) either has a magical bag of tricks at her disposal, or is actually forsaking some other great responsibility in pursuit of the miraculous “it.” I hate the query and the connotation, and tend to avoid it at all costs.

There is, therefore, no good reason why I chose to pose it myself in Johannesburg during Barnard’s third annual global symposium, Women Changing Africa. Blame it, perhaps, on jet lag after the 17-hour flight.

Or on the combination of awe and trepidation that our panelists inspired: Mamphela Ramphele, physician, activist, managing director of the World Bank, and partner of Steven Biko until his death in police custody; Gill Marcus, member of the African National Congress since her teens, deputy minister of finance under Nelson Mandela, and indomitable governor of the South Africa Reserve Bank; Aloisea Inyumba, survivor of Rwanda’s horrific genocide, first minister of gender for her country, and member of Parliament. And on and on. The director of South Africa’s World Cup and of its ballet theatre. The fearless editor of its crusading weekly newspaper and a leader on its Supreme Court.

What kind of question could possibly pull these women together and prompt them to engage in the conversation that 450 attendees from across the continent had come to hear? What would engage them without distracting? So I went for the easy. The softball; the trite.

“How,” I asked this incredible array of women, “did you do it?”

What I heard blew me away. For not a single woman told a tale of her personal struggles or worries. There was no discussion of child care or misogynistic bosses or meddling mothers-in-law. Instead, all of these women preached the simple gospel of struggle; the need they felt to fight.

“We just knew inside us that there was a nudge to make things happen and to change things for the better,” said Senator Inyumba.

“There is a fight,” insisted Judge Yvonne Mokgoro, “a fight that needs to be fought ... and each and every one of us is nothing but a change agent.”

“We had to say,” recalled Dr. Ramphele, “this is what we inherited. What are we going to leave behind?”

Their comments mesmerized the audience, and particularly the 80 African high school students who had joined us for the day. As soon as I opened the floor for questions, a young girl leaped to the microphone and voiced what was clearly on everyone’s minds. “How,” she asked the panelists, “can we be like you? What should we be fighting for?”

Note, not “how do I balance my work and my life?” But much more powerfully, “what should my life be about?”

It is a question we hear much less frequently in the United States, where the political foundations of society feel fixed and more secure. We have freedoms: speech and religion; civil rights and women’s rights; and equality of opportunity, at least in theory. No young American woman is likely to witness the genocidal tides that surrounded Sen. Inyumba during her youth. None is likely to suffer what Dr. Ramphele did, watching the father of her children beaten to death by political opponents. We enjoy freedoms at the bequest of those who fought for them. These are blessings, but they are also, in some small ways, curses, because they leave our brightest and most passionate young people looking for causes, and for fights to justify their lives.

This search became the refrain of the afternoon; a refrain made all the more poignant because it was aired not by American students but by Africans; by Rwandan and Tunisian and Ugandan young women striving to shape their lives as purposefully as they could. And what they heard left no room for hesitation.

“Make sure,” counseled Ramphele, “that your life becomes one more light for the generations coming after you.”

“Fight,” advised Mokgoro, “with courage, and the courage of your convictions, for what is right.”

Not how to juggle, in other words, but how to fight.

Not how to live, but for what.

In the United States, Canada, most of western Europe, and other “developed” parts of the world, we have been showered with relative fortune over the past 50 years, fortune enough to shrink many of our struggles down to personal size. In Africa, by contrast, a century of tragedy has conditioned the continent’s people—at least the good ones, and smart ones, and the righteous—to shape their lives around the broader pursuits of justice, survival and social change. Such pursuits are harder to identify from the comforts of Morningside Heights, and harder, ironically perhaps, to engage. But as our African colleagues so powerfully reminded us, the larger struggles are still out there. And even as we master the “its” that consume our own lives, we need to carve some space for the bigger, broader fights.

- Photograph by Steve DeCanio