These days, most of us are feeling lost. We don’t quite know where we are, so we can’t work out where we’re going—as individuals, as citizens, as members of the human species.

The land looks flat as far as the eye can see around us; no promontories we can climb; no heights from which we can look out; thus no sense of perspective. For me, feeling this lost sends me back to basics, back to relying on what I’ve learned from ostensibly nonliterate women, women whose survival testifies to their choices, strategies, wisdom.

It was a little over 30 years ago that I first met Victoria Tauli-Corpuz in the mountainous northern region of The Philippines, called the Cordilleras. I wrote about that trip, and Vicky, in my book of essays, The Word Of A Woman. I was in the archipelago at the invitation of the Philippine women’s movement, leading an international delegation from my NGO, The Sisterhood Is Global Institute. But I arrived a week earlier than the others so that I could journey to the north and, through certain contacts, meet with women who were semi- and fully underground in the New People’s Army, and also with Indigenous women, primarily of the Igorot, Ifiguao, and Kalenda tribes. I titled the essay I eventually wrote “500 Years in the Convent and 50 Years in Hollywood”—which summarizes part of the Philippines’ history of postcolonial despair and neocolonial corruption. But among the many memorable moments of that trip there is one encounter to which I return again and again whenever I feel lost. It took place during that early journey to the north, and I share it here.

The region has a single two-lane highway that weaves through a countryside of wounded beauty, a metaphoric and literal battlefield. Logging industries for export to Japan gash the hillside forests. Half-built schools and community centers stand as mute testament to abandoned development schemes, in the midst of villages subsisting in extreme poverty. Here, as in similar villages throughout the world, I am told the women “don’t work.” And here as everywhere else, the men sit drinking cheap beer in the local lean-to tavern, staring out with dull eyes, while the women never seem to stop moving except to nurse an infant at the breast. Otherwise, they’re selling meager wares—handicrafts, weavings, baskets—in a small marketplace, or carrying loaded pots or baskets on their heads or backs, or squatting beside open cook fires, or bending over rice paddies through which they wade ankle deep in water, or hunching above mountain streams, pounding laundry clean with rocks and their fists. In every activity, each woman is surrounded by three or more children, stair-stepped in age, hungrily clamoring for attention. The government, the district authorities, the international aid agencies—all may be confused about the best solution to these villagers’ problems. But the village women are quite clear about their needs.

As early as the 1960s, Indigenous women of the region managed to stop construction of a huge government-backed dam—the Chico Valley project—intended to be the largest in Southeast Asia. The dam would have diverted the river (source of irrigation for the rice paddies) and flooded ancestral tribal lands; it meant resettlement for the Kalinga people. Igorot and Kalinga women had been “drafted” as guides, cooks, and washerwomen for the project surveyors. In order to stop the project, and also to stop their own menfolk from traditionally violent means of resistance that the women knew would lead only to bloodshed and defeat, the women devised a plan. Each morning they watched the surveyors lay out their stakes; each afternoon, they stripped naked, pulled up the stakes, and burned them in full view of the surveyors. Neither the surveyors nor the tribal men dared touch the women because they were naked—in effect, tabu. (Women are treated with great respect among the Kalinga, whose origins were matrilineal; some Kalinga tribes still follow women leaders.) The women performed this protest day after week after months, until finally the project was cancelled by the government and its powerful sponsor: The World Bank.

The Cordillera Women’s Education and Resource Center is based in Baguio City, but actually functions out in the remote villages of the region. Baguio is the nation’s summer capital, with a population of 120,000, public flower gardens, a hot springs, a golf club—and a U.S. base and “rest and recreation” area. Baguio is also the site of the Japanese community, and the place from whence many of the Filipina “mail-order brides” are recruited—a tragically high number of whom are destined for sex-tourism brothels. The Cordillera Women’s Center does some organizing in Baguio, and Vicki Corpuz, the center cofounder and director, manages to publish a little news journal on the activities of local women and women’s groups. But most of the center’s energy is spent on taking its humble programs—primarily literacy and advocacy—out into the hills and rice paddies.

We go out into one of the tiny rice-paddy villages, actually a cluster of six open-sided lean-to huts, one wall old corrugated metal, the rest packed mud and straw. It’s a day’s trek, first by minibus from the little town of Bontoc, then by foot: hiking down one steep hillside, across an intimidating rope bridge strung over a deep canyon and the river far beneath, up the other steep hillside, onto a plateau, and along the thin strips of earth—tightrope-style, one foot in front of the other—that divide the paddies. At last we sit on the mud floor of one of the huts, drinking peanut coffee from a shared tin cup. Most urban Filipinas speak English and some also speak Spanish and/or Chinese; the city women speak only a little Filipino (Tagalog), the language of “the common people”; the tribal people of the north have their own languages and dialects. One woman translates.

Gunnawa, the woman in whose hut we sit, comes from a family of peasants who have lived on this land for centuries. She is the mother of seven children, many of whom crowd around us as we speak. She is in her thirties, but looks like a woman in her sixties. Her teeth are rotting; her skin, tanned to leather, is stretched across a gaunt frame. But her eyes gleam with intelligence.

She is proud that her children are learning to read; a woman comes as often as possible—sometimes once a week—from the Women’s Centre to teach them. Gunnawa’s greatest regret is that she herself never learned to read or write. We talk about her dreams for a better life. She has never set foot outside of this village, never even gone as far as the rope bridge. The longing in her soft voice is clear well before the translation reaches me through another woman’s voice.

What did she want, more than anything? “To learn to read,” comes the quiet reply. I look around at the poverty of her life. I ask again: “Not more food, better housing, some easing of this intense lifelong labor?”

No,” Gunnawa insists, forcefully, with dignity, “to read.

You see,” she continues, a smile softening her sharp-boned face, “someday I might leave this village. I might go somewhere. I have heard that there are roads going places. I have heard there are signs on the roads. If I could read the signs, I would know where I am. If I could read the signs, I could know where I was going.

Later that afternoon, high above the river canyon, each of us clutching at the ropes of the swaying bridge, Vicki shouts to me that somehow, some way, she will find the funding to start an adult literacy program for Gunnawa and the women of this rice paddy.

And she did.

I have never forgotten Gunnawa. Because all of us need to know how to read the signs. So we can learn where we are. So we can know where we’re going.