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Watetu wa Gichuki - Water Carrier - Hero Image ;

Water Carrier: A Space to Lay my Burden – Black Women Resilience, Resistant and Recovery

Taking you back to the spring of March 2019, upon hearing the news that my father, my hero, my strength was gone, I was devastated. As a diasporan from Kenya living in Canada, I learned the news far from home, and while I was driving. I had the foresight to pull into a gas station where I broke down wailing in grief. I could feel the stares, but I was too distraught to care. Suddenly, I was surrounded by warmth, a sister, a Black woman came and embraced me and cried with me for over an hour. She held space for me, she cried with me before she knew why we were crying, and she never said a word, she just held me. She never knew my father and as I cursed God for denying me two days before I could reach Kenya, she just let me curse, scream and break down. She held space. A Sister, whose name I will never know, but I will always hold dear and say blessings for every day.

Fast forward to the Spring of March 2023 when I lost my sister Mercy. My beautiful sister was there one day and gone the next day. And just like that, Cancer robbed me of my sister. I don’t even remember collapsing, this time I was at a prestigious hotel in downtown Toronto Canada. My anguish was so deep that my wailing would have rivaled traditional mourners. This time though, I did not feel the stares, there was only warmth. I was surrounded by my village, I was shielded from the gaze. We had gathered at a summit to address the continued HIV endemic among people of African descent in Canada. My village held space for a sister they did not know and allowed me to share who she was to me, and to the world. A week later in a gathering addressing Black Mental Health in Canada, our elder Aina-Nia Ayodele did a libation ceremony and I was able to call my sister’s name, then there was song and dance. Even far away from her final resting place, this ceremony and space holding was critical for Black people to freely grieve all the losses that had taken place during the surge of COVID-19 without a chance to grieve. Space was deliberately carved for the purpose of grieving and celebrating life. I share with you to highlight how grief visits us in spaces we least expect and how grief is shared. Most importantly, I share with you the importance of grieving spaces, especially at a time when grieving rituals and practices were limited by COVID-19 lockdowns.

Watetu wa Gichuki - Water Carrier - Jazz Funeral_Photo by Emily Kask/Redux

Caption: The jazz funeral - 'which dates back to the late 1800s and the birth of jazz itself - remains a powerfully transcendent rite and a preferred way for Black New Orleanians to honour its revered dead”. Photo by Emily Kask/Redux.

Using an auto-ethnography continuum, collaborative ethnography, and an intersecting Black feminist analysis, this paper is a reflective text based on my lived experiences and leading two talking circles and two semi-structured interviews with Black women in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) Ontario Canada following the murder of George Floyd in the United States spring 2020. The conversations centred on 12 Black women and how they negotiate recovery spaces, especially in workspaces to unpack vicarious grief while coping with the pressures of projecting the strong Black woman after being in resilience mode for too long. We shared the losses of the many folks and specifically Black folks who were dying because of COVID-19 and social determinants of health impact. We talked about personal losses of jobs and marriages. We shared about the impact of watching videos of murdered George Floyd. We shared the losses of gathering in person due to lockdown limitations as we made do with virtual spaces.

Grieving Roller Coaster-Resilience

In spring 2020, the global Black community experienced a bereavement crisis, as videos of the murder of George Floyd circulated widely, with nowhere to grieve without the white gaze. As protests broke out in the United States, protests in Canada were taking place in response to the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Black-Indigenous woman, following a mental distress call to the police.

In this paper, grief trauma is not limited to loss of life. Grief is also an emotional response to the loss of someone or something including job losses and healthcare losses experienced by other Black bodies.


Grief is the spiral and over-representation of Black bodies in the news, experiencing violence in form of police brutality, loss of children in the child welfare system, constant death toll, trauma, misuse of the system on our Black bodies. – Simone, CEO/Therapist Agape Lens

The Water Carrier-Healing Spaces

Vicarious grief trauma is embedded among Black women and has become normalised to an extent.

We have become numb, we go home and make dinner for our children because if we allow ourselves the privilege of truly feeling grief’s impacts we may never recover if we articulate our feelings, question things, express pain, we will be viewed as the angry Black woman.– Shaare, a social worker in a Women’s Shelter

Black women are used to juggling multiple burdens on their backs, heads, front, and shoulders both physically and metaphorically; thus, the concept of the water carriers was born. This concept was birthed through my childhood growing up in Kenya; women carrying water and other loads on their heads is a familiar sight. Sharing the concept with other women of African descent the concept resonated. Using the image of the water carrier, an image familiar in many Black cultures, we explored the multiple and intersecting factors influencing Black women’s mental wellness in the face of relentless grief. We shared how with every death and experience of anti-Black racism directly or indirectly, like the water carriers, once your load is on your back or head you have to keep balancing it. In that journey to bring water home, women rarely put their burden down even when they stop to chat with other women. We have been carrying this load for so long that it has become an extension of our physical and mental selves that it tastes like home. To the onlooker, carrying has become so normalised it appears unremarkable to the one balancing the weight it takes a lot of exertion to keep themselves upright and moving forward. This sentiment was summed up by TT a Social Worker with the Ontario government as she folded her laundry;


Sometimes we take on the position of a leader. I think we as Back women are known to be jugglers. Right, we know how to juggle everything that is thrown at us, but not realising that juggling and balance aren't the same things, we know how to keep things going but it doesn't mean that we're balanced mentally you know what I mean? In the words of RiRi we fake it, fake it till we make it …– TT, a Social Worker with the Ontario government

Even in a space that invited women to sit and chat, the need to stay occupied is evident. The stigma surrounding Black women and self-care fostered by the schema of the strong Black woman continues to shame Black women into feeling guilty when they choose to take care of themselves; thus prioritising caregiving over self-care. The discussions that kept emerging centered on the fact that as Black women we learn early to keep on going no matter what is happening, we must pick ourselves up and proverbially dust ourselves off and move on.


The main theme that emerged was the importance of resisting the schema of a strong Black woman (SBW) and creating recovery spaces. In these spaces, Black women could share freely and openly grieving their losses personally and communal. The Invitation to the zoom focus groups was an invitation to bring authentic selves which women took me up on .The space was limited to the greater Toronto Area Ontario Canada and even though it was a virtual meeting, women could chit chat about familiar things and discuss barriers and strategies of navigating COVID-19 lockdowns in the area. My interlocutors’ ages ranged from mid 20s to early 50s. They occupied different workspaces from health care, social services, academia, government, pharmaceutical, journalism to students. They showed up with their colourful headscarves, folding laundry, making soup, undoing weaves, locking hair, little ones interacting with aunties, and sharing the coffee ceremony process. The space allowed for authenticity and autonomy void of the gaze of “others” or expectations to conform to standards; women gave themselves permission to participate without hesitation. Yeukai a PhD student and health promoter jokingly shared as she pulled her wig off;

This is the only space I feel that I do not have to pretend and keep appearances. I can just relax and speak my truth.– Yeukai, a PhD student and health promoter

As Tilly a mental health social worker in a community health centre made her ital soup, she walked us through the process of adding each ingredient: Ginger, garlic, corn, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and sprinkling spices until the ancestors bid her stop. Tee sits across from me in this zoom meeting. She brought her drink with her. She gives me a big smile, but I can see in her eyes that she is exhausted. On top of being a midwifery student, as an only child, she has been the sole caregiver of her parents who had COVID-19

As the interlocutors settled and shared how they knew me and how I connected with each one of them, I realised that in that moment I became a bridge, bringing people together, and once more, I was glad that I was holding space for my sisters to connect and to meet each other helping realise the importance of the virtual space in sharing our vulnerabilities. As we delved deeper into discussions of grief and its effects on us at both an individual and community level, you could see the sorrow etched on the women’s faces. Gone was the easy-going banter of recipe exchanges and doing hair. In its place was the palpable grief that emanated through the screen.

Watching and listening to the women interact, the schema of SBW kept coming up and its association to poor mental health. The Black woman in this space has normalised her pain because over time she has internalised the expectations. Myths and stereotypes of the SBW who can bear it all and smiles through her pain have been created. Taking space to regroup is such a foreign concept that Black women feel shame and guilt for taking that space. Gee Social Health Worker on taking space to grieve shared “Even though I knew I needed the time, and you know, in my mind I could make sense of it. However, I still felt that shame because of what other people thought.

Even though I knew I needed the time, and you know, in my mind I could make sense of it. However, I still felt that shame because of what other people thought.– Gee, a Social Health Worker

Centering of white women in spaces created for Black healing is a challenge that kept coming both in the talking circles and interviews. Most white women have a way of shifting the narrative to center themselves. Di Angelo maintains that whiteness itself refers to the specific dimensions of racism that serve to elevate white people over people of colour. Historically obscurity has been critical in the sustaining and operationalising of whiteness. Blackwell argues that People of Colour (POC) need spaces to gather and be free from the mainstream gaze that pervades, where POC can be authentic without catering to white people-hurt feelings. The space allowed women to feel comfortable enough to share the impact of gender violence, the murders, and protests, COVID-19, job loss, and ask sisters to share opportunities without needing to be strong.

Watetu wa Gichuki - Water Carrier_Women Gathering_Photo Courtesy of Afrocilious Café, Hamilton, Ontario

Caption: Black Women Gathering: Photo courtesy of Afrocilious Café Hamilton, Ontario

Through the lens of admiring the SBW, we construct the notions of white women’s fragility. White women’s tears are acceptable and embraced in workspaces while Black women have to walk with an aura of strength as they bleed and lead. Audre Lorde spoke of being tone policed. In her keynote speech in 1981, Lorde shares a particular incident where a white woman asks her;

Tell me how you feel but don’t say it too harshly or I cannot hear you.– Audre Lorde sharing a particular incident she experienced

This resonated with Shelly a Health Promoter at Public Health who shared being shut down in spaces created to debrief George Floyd’s murder…

The presence of white people made Black people feel uncomfortable… they felt that they needed to mask their emotions and not come out too strongly. They felt invalidated.– Shelly, a Health Promoter at Public Health


Lack of spaces to share and feel validated often leads to disengagement, both a form of resistance and self-preservation. Disconnecting for a while allows for holding space for oneself and other Black women to help them carry their water for a short while. Even though we draw from the same well and our grief may sound similar, our paths diverge, and we eventually have to walk alone in our various workspaces to navigate everyday racism and grief.

It is our coming together at the well that allows us that shared moment of levity, understanding, a warm embrace, and a word of encouragement that we will resist one more time. Umoja, the unity that is derived from creating our own spaces that allows us to rest even if for a moment.

About the author

Gichuki is a PhD candidate in the Global Health Program at the Institute for Applied Health Sciences at McMaster University Canada, and a Scholar at Stronger Futures Centre of Research Excellence (CRE) Murdoch Children’s Institute Australia.

Her proposed PhD dissertation focuses on racialised and newcomer women's health, particularly with Intimate Partner Violence. Her study considers the extent to which an Afrocentric praxis have been applied in research that examines Intimate Partner Violence experiences among Black, African, and Caribbean women in Canada.

She also works as a Program Manager in the Violence Against Women (VAW) sector. Her experience is in both VAW and the public health sector, working with women living with HIV, survivors of gender-based and sexual violence, newcomers, refugees, and women with precarious status.

Twitter Handle:

Gichuki tweets at @watetumercy and you can follow her on Instagram at @soulsistax. She can also be found on LinkedIn.

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