Rev. Ryan Canaday travels to Africa to empower women to tell their stories

June 01, 2016
Editor's note: This is a reflection from the Rev. Ryan Canaday about his trip to Rusinga Island in Kenya from May 19-28, 2016. He traveled there with Project Humanity, a nonprofit that works with local leaders in Africa to launch "Story to Service." More information about Project Humanity follows his reflection.

Submitted by Rev. Ryan Canaday
Associate Pastor, St. Luke's UMC Highlands Ranch, Colorado

I went to inspire people, particularly the women of Rusinga Island — since Project Humanity is centered upon women's empowerment. I went to facilitate groups and introduce our "Story to Service" concept (4 principles: know your story, know you matter, live with intention, be part of something bigger than yourself). I was excited. We worked hard on developing this concept/program. But you know how it works, right? The paradox. You go to inspire, but you're the one who's actually inspired. You've experienced this, right?

There were moments where I was at a loss for words. We sat in awkward silence. Moments where I felt useless — let's be honest, the face of extreme poverty feels suffocating. Sometimes it's easier to simply snap a photo of a smiling child — even if he's only smiling for a second — or an infant ... because there's just something about babies and hope that go together. But you can only hear the story of a mom losing a child to Malaria, a woman being infected with HIV/AIDS, the young girl who drops out of school due to lack of funds, the sexual assaults, the abuse, the business that was supposed to work but didn't, the devastation ... you can only hear this story so many times before saying to yourself: "What in the hell I am doing here?" 

Sometimes we have to actually sit in hopelessness in order to encounter hope. 

On our last day in Rusinga, Project Humanity hosted a women's conference. I was honored to be one of the speakers. I was also scared to be one of the speakers — will it translate, will it make sense, will it inspire? You know the drill — the questions asked by all the butterflies filling your body. 

The women in this room were among the most courageous women I'd ever encountered. Near the end of my talk I asked them to stand if they'd lost a child due to illness or tragedy; almost all of them stood. They sat back down. I asked them to stand if they'd ever suffered from an illness that robbed them of joy. Again, most of them stood. They sat back down. I asked them to stand if they had ever experienced sexual assault or domestic violence. These women stood — at least half of them — boldly proclaiming their story. No one said a word. They didn't have to. 
They were standing.
Looking at one another.
Saying "no" to the shame ... together. 

Saying "no" to shame. This is always, always inspiring. The women of Rusinga are brave and courageous. As one women said while leaving the conference: "Today I learned that I am not alone. My story must be told." 

Yes! Tell it. Own it. And know that shame will hate you for it — for shame loves silence. Stand as one. Look at one another in the eyes and know that you are not alone. Hold on to the pieces of hope amidst the hopelessness. 

Project Humanity standing with the women of Rusinga Island. I experienced a great gift along this journey. This morning I am grateful.
Project Humanity is nonprofit organization that works with local leaders in Africa to identify and develop sustainable projects that emphasize women's empowerment with a focus on health care, literacy, and micro-financing. Volunteers from all over the world travel with Project Humanity to contribute in these areas. Over the last several months, Rev. Ryan Canaday has been working with Darren Tipton, the Founder & CEO of Project Humanity, to develop a program that is rooted in the power of storytelling and the idea that knowing and sharing one's story is essential in making the story of the community stronger. We went to Rusinga Island, Kenya — where Project Humanity has established relationships with its people and leaders — to launch this "Story to Service" concept.