Charting the Next Course: Women Speak from a Mighty River

By Christine McNab, guest contributor. Can Tho, Viet Nam

She’s petite, yet stands tall and steady, strong shoulders and arms steering eight foot-long oars through a swift Mekong current. It’s dawn, and many women do the same, navigating their low wooden boats through a jigsaw of vessels at the Phong Dien floating market. Women here do a brisk trade in produce, exchanging pounds of watermelon, daikon, pineapple, cabbage, morning glory, onion and squash for Vietnamese Dong. The bounty from the Mekong Delta provides much of the food energy for Vietnam’s 90 million people. Women are at the heart of this essential commerce.

“Vietnamese women are often in charge of driving the small boats, and buying and selling at the fruit and vegetable markets,” says Maru, my guide. The work is taxing – a technique combining crossed arms and oars to nudge the boat through narrow spots; a one-legged start of a long motorized rotor for speed, and hours under a searing sun. Our driver, Tay, has been steering boats for more than twenty years. “Women here work very hard,” Maru tells me.

I want to find out a lot more about Tay and Maru, and I will this week as part of my new multimedia project, A River Runs with Her: the Lives of Women and Girls on the Mekong.

Near Can Tho, Viet Nam, March 2016. Photo: Christine McNab

Tay has done the hard work of steering boats on rivers and tributaries of the Mekong Delta for more than 20 years. (Near Can Tho, Viet Nam, March 2016. Photo: Christine McNab)

I’m devoting 2016 to this self-funded project for many reasons. For one, I believe attaining gender equality is at the heart of international development. Many studies, history, and a lot of common sense tell us that we can only make progress when women have the same rights, access to education, health, jobs and justice as men. Women have made great strides in much of the world, but in too many places, women and girls are simply valued less. Equality means equal value, and it also means equal voice.

We don’t hear from women enough. The Economist recently published an excellent essay on the importance of the Mekong River to biodiversity, culture, and Asia’s economy. I admired the reporting, but noticed there wasn’t a single female voice in the piece. Instead, women were in the kitchen making soup or in bars serving beer. I want to hear more from these women.

The newest international Global Goals for Sustainable Development, set by international leaders last September, include important targets for women’s equality, for education, health and participation in governance. The goals are hopeful and ambitious. I wondered what women living in communities along the Mekong think about these goals? What do they need to achieve them?

And then, there’s the mighty Mekong itself, a legendary, 2700-mile artery connecting six countries, many cultures and one of the most bio-diverse areas of the world. Its waters are a lifeblood for millions. As the climate changes, the Mekong, and the traditions and economic lives of millions are changing with it.

Tay doesn’t speak much as she drives her boat down a Mekong Delta tributary. But I want to know what she thinks about all of this. I think it’s her time, and time for all women, to tell the world what they think.

Learn more about A River Runs with Her project in this 1-minute video.

To follow the project, see www.ChristineMcNab.com, add http://www.christinemcnab.com/her-stories/ to your RSS feed, or follow along on Facebook.
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Christine McNab is a global public health worker and communications expert. Her TEDMED talk illuminates the story of how she combined her passions and partnered with the Gates Foundation to create what might be the most artistically crafted vaccine promotion campaign ever.

Artistic Humor for the Soul: Q&A with Bob Carey

Bob Carey is the photographer and subject of the “Tutu Project.” This series of stunningly silly videos and still self-portraits was originally launched to cheer up his wife, Linda, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and later went viral. He spoke about the power of humor to help cancer survivors.

Photographer and cancer activist Bob Carey at TEDMED 2014

Photographer and cancer activist Bob Carey at TEDMED 2014

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

Based on the viral nature of the Tutu Project and the impact it’s had, our goal has been to find opportunities to continue to share the images and story, and not only within the breast cancer community. I feel that it’s important to share creative ideas that use art and humor as a means to help live with the many challenges in life. When TEDMED asked me to speak, not only was I excited, I felt it was the perfect opportunity and audience to share my work.

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

It matters now as there will always be challenges in life– and inspiration can impact people every day. I hope that my talk will inspire others to see that there are many approaches–sometimes unusual, unexpected or creative– one can use to cope.

What kind of meaningful or surprising connections did you make at TEDMED?

The speaker coaches were kind and compassionate, not that I wouldn’t expect that to a certain degree, but I bonded with them and with that, felt empowered to speak with my tutu on– a first for me. Another meaningful connection was with one of the speakers. The staff was wonderful as were the attendees. It seemed that although the subject matter was different, we were all looking for new and creative ways to approach problems.

Discovering Beauty in Science: Q&A with Zachary Copfer

At TEDMED 2014, microbiologist and artist Zachary Copfer tells delightful stories about how bacteria became his artistic medium of choice.  We recently caught up with Zachary to hear more about him, his TEDMED experience, and what lies ahead.

Ultimately, I hope people see my work or watch my talk and say "Wow science is awesome, give me a lab coat because I want in on this!" - Zachary Copfer. (Photo by Jerrod Harris, for TEDMED).

Ultimately, I hope people see my work or watch my talk and say “Wow science is awesome, give me a lab coat because I want in on this!” – Zachary Copfer. (Photo by Jerrod Harris, for TEDMED).

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

I hope the talk will have the same impact that I strive for my artwork to have on viewers: to get people excited about science. Science is amazing, fun and beautiful! In my artwork, I have found a way to play with science to inspire in others the overwhelming sense of awe I feel when I step back and think of how complex and amazing the universe is.

Please list the top 3 TEDMED2014 talks or performances that left an impression with you, and why.

Naming the top three is almost impossible; I couldn’t even keep track of the number of talks that made me think “oh wow” or gave me goosebumps. Two speakers who instantly come to mind are Diana Nyad and Kitra Cahana. As amazing and awe-inspiring as I feel science to be, nothing can match the power of hearing stories about the human spirit. These talks both gave me goosebumps and had me tearing up a bit. Peggy Battin’s talk was another that left me thinking as I walked out of the auditorium. The issues she explored were issues that a lot of people don’t like to think about, let alone discuss. That makes it all the more important to have people like Peggy discussing them publicly so that others may start to feel more comfortable with them.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

The simplest way to put it would be to say that I want my legacy to be a smile. A shared smile evokes in other people an almost indescribable sensation. A genuine smile is a selfless act that makes other people feel welcome, connected and cared for in a way that few other expressions can communicate. A smile also says that life is fun and is meant to be enjoyed at every moment. To live a life that makes people feel the same way they feel when they receive a genuine smile would be the greatest legacy I believe one could leave behind.

What’s next for you?

To keep playing with science. To explore the aesthetic possibilities of scientific theories and to find ways to share them with others.