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Samantha Barry... The trip that changed my life

 

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Samantha Barry with Mary James, Daudi Bernard and three of their children at their home in Luwalika village. Photo: Kieran McConville

Samantha Barry with Mary James, Daudi Bernard and three of their children at their home in Luwalika village. Photo: Kieran McConville

Kieran McConville/Concern Worldw

Samantha Barry with Umega

Samantha Barry with Umega

Kieran McConville/Concern Worldw

Samantha with Mary Assam Pyson and her husband, Twailu, at their home in Mangochi

Samantha with Mary Assam Pyson and her husband, Twailu, at their home in Mangochi

Kieran McConville/Concern Worldw

Listening to a family’s story in Mangochi

Listening to a family’s story in Mangochi

Kieran McConville/Concern Worldw

The conservation agriculture plot

The conservation agriculture plot

Kieran McConville/Concern Worldw

Agnes Jack's conservation agriculture plot

Agnes Jack's conservation agriculture plot

Kieran McConville/Concern Worldw

Twailu Kalembe with his family's harvest of maize

Twailu Kalembe with his family's harvest of maize

Kieran McConville/Concern Worldw

Husband and wife, Jaudi and Mary

Husband and wife, Jaudi and Mary

Saujati James in the ruins of her home in Luwalika village

Saujati James in the ruins of her home in Luwalika village

Kieran McConville/Concern Worldw

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Samantha Barry with Mary James, Daudi Bernard and three of their children at their home in Luwalika village. Photo: Kieran McConville

As editor-in-chief of US multimedia brand Glamour, no two days are the same. When I'm not working with the team on the Women of the Year Summit and Awards, or scrambling together a series of stories on how women can take charge of their personal finances, I'm lucky to attend incredible industry events and work closely with some of the world's most talented people. But there were a few days this spring that truly highlighted the vastness of all that Glamour stands for.

As anyone in New York City will tell you, the first Monday in May is synonymous with the Met Gala. It was my first time attending this event, and nothing could have prepared me. It was absolutely terrifying! To be on the red carpet in my bespoke Aliette suit and Studio 54-inspired hair, it was very surreal and very exciting.

It's an amazing event that raises funds for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, and is one of the biggest nights on the fashion calendar. The most amazing women were in attendance, including past Glamour honorees and cover stars Janelle Monae, Kacey Musgraves, Mindy Kaling, and Ashley Graham.

Glamour is a place that celebrates women of substance with something to say. From raw stories on millennial divorce to fighting for financial equality, we've cultivated a space for outspoken women to share, discuss and engage with the content that matters most to them. I have the incredible privilege of shedding light on the stories of amazing women, sometimes like the ones that attend the Met Gala, and other times, it's women like ones I met just one day later, when I traveled to Malawi.

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Samantha Barry with Umega

Samantha Barry with Umega

Kieran McConville/Concern Worldw

Samantha Barry with Umega

As an Irish woman, I'd always been aware of Concern's humanitarian work, but it wasn't until recently, when I interviewed Bono at a New York event hosted by the charity, that I became aware of its story and how it was founded in a kitchen in Dublin over 50 years ago. Last year, Concern worked to help over 24 million people in 25 countries all over the world.

When the Concern team approached me about being this year's honouree at the Women of Concern Awards - an event that celebrates those who use their platform to amplify the voices of women and girls - it was a remarkable opportunity to participate in their work.

Before I could accept this award, I felt I had to see for myself the work Concern was doing on the ground to help these women. Thus, I found myself flying straight from an event filled with some of the most internationally glamorous and influential women, to Malawi, a southern African nation with one of the worst records for gender equality in the world.

During my work as a journalist with the BBC, ABC and CNN, I had spent extensive time in Africa and the Middle East, and even lived for 18 months in Papua New Guinea. However, my knowledge of Malawi was minimal. Malawi doesn't always spring to mind as a country where women suffer a lot. Though it is one of the poorest countries in the world, it often gets overlooked, despite being of the worst performers in the UN gender-equality index.

While Concern is involved in a wide range of projects in the country, my interest in particular was its work with women and girls. I asked the charity to put me in front of women and girls it works with, so I could hear directly from them on the issues affecting them the most. I wanted to understand how women live their lives in Malawi and what Concern was doing to help raise them up. In my travels and research, I've often found that you can tell a lot about how a community is pulling itself out of poverty by looking at the way it treats its women.

Whether it's girls pursuing education, gender relations between couples, or the sharing of chores, I think if you can move that needle, even a little bit, you can create huge generational changes.

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Samantha with Mary Assam Pyson and her husband, Twailu, at their home in Mangochi

Samantha with Mary Assam Pyson and her husband, Twailu, at their home in Mangochi

Kieran McConville/Concern Worldw

Samantha with Mary Assam Pyson and her husband, Twailu, at their home in Mangochi

One of the most memorable exchanges I had during the trip was a conversation with a couple called Mary and Jaudi, who lived in the Mangochi region of Malawi.

They were part of Concern's Graduation programme, which includes practical support such as training and financial help, while targeting the root causes of poverty and wider community issues. The programme includes a gender-relations element, carried out in association with Trinity College Dublin, that educates couples on the importance of respect and sharing responsibility for chores, budgeting and everything else that you would see in an equal marriage.

I really wanted to chat with the couple about how it had changed their relationship, and was particularly interested to ask the husband, Jaudi, about what the rest of the village thought about him sharing these responsibilities with his wife - no other local husbands had yet taken on these chores.

Jaudi was full of joy and quite funny. He laughed and said, "Everybody thinks she's giving me juju juice, which is a love potion, and that's why I'm doing it!" He went on to tell me that the real reason is that not only have they have never been happier and more successful as a family, but with the other supports that they received, they are now planning to build a new home and open a business together.

This is an area of humanitarian work that we hear less about, but it was so heartening to see how an open conversation about gender relations can make such a difference to a marriage, and to tackling the gender inequality that can exist in a community.

Unfortunately, among the uplifting stories, there were ones of heartbreak as well. An 18-year-old called Sina was among a group of younger farmers that I met on the first day. She told me about how she had recently given birth to a child. I asked her if she was able to continue to pursue an education, but she said that sadly, although she really wanted to, she couldn't afford to.

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Twailu Kalembe with his family's harvest of maize

Twailu Kalembe with his family's harvest of maize

Kieran McConville/Concern Worldw

Twailu Kalembe with his family's harvest of maize

In a country where there is so much poverty, the fact that you have to pay for education presents an often insurmountable barrier. This barrier is even larger to women, when you consider the fact that a lot of families will choose to keep their boys in school and send the girls out to work in the fields.

As always when I travel to Africa, I was taken aback by the warmth of the people. They were so open and funny. The amount of hard work they do, day-in and day-out, on their farms to provide for their families and communities is remarkable.

Resilience and humanity

I met an older woman, Saujati James, in a village called Luwalika, who showed me around the ruins of her home, which was destroyed by Cyclone Idai in March. This huge storm killed over 1,000 people in Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, and left millions homeless.

As she recounted the story of that night, I started to cry. The house literally fell down around her family in the middle of the night, and all they could do was run. This wonderful woman had lost her home and most of her possessions, and yet she was positive and welcoming; a reflection of the resilience and humanity I encountered among the women of Malawi.

Concern launched an emergency appeal in the aftermath of the cyclone and, with the help of the Irish people, provided assistance, including essential items such as blankets, food and torches, and additional seeds to grow new crops. It is encouraging to see the progress made by families following the cyclone, but there is a still a long way to go before they return to normalcy.

I think the big takeaway from my visit is that there is such a huge opportunity for Malawi, and its women in particular, to grow and to improve their lives. Even the tiniest bit of help, education, or equipment, can make a huge difference to individuals, families, and whole communities.

Glamour does its best to amplify the narratives of women from all corners of the world. This trip reminded me that we all have stories to tell, and those messages are what connects us. As an editor, it's my responsibility to make sure diverse perspectives are heard and shared. The more we support each other and learn from one another, the better we are.

For more information on Concern's work, see concern.net

Photography by Kieran McConville

Sunday Independent