Women Coming of Age in Today's Uganda
Nakisanze Segawa, Caroline Ariba, Rosey Sembatya, Shifa Mwesigye,
Lydia Namubiru, Peace Twine, Harriet Anena, Lydia Namubiru,
Elvania M. Bazaala, Sophie Bamwoyeraki, Grace Namazzi,
Hilda Twongyeirwe, Julia Musiime, Laura Walusimbi
Edited by Christopher Conte
The spectrum of cultural and societal acceptance --- from centuries-old tribal traditions to hip hop, mini-skirts, sexual orientation --- and the expectations and pressure (emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, physically) that extreme behavioral range puts on women in Ugandan and other African societies is near impossible to begin to grasp for a middle class white bloke like me, who grew up in the suburbs of California. That said, I do think a glimmer of understanding is maybe starting to illuminate the interior of my dim dense noggin. This has come about, I'm certain, because of some unusual advantages I've had.
In 2009 I moved to a small village in the remote Rwenzori Mountains of western Uganda near the Congo border. The clan there is the Bukonzo, traditionally mountain people, and many of their customs and daily habits, work, and beliefs are much the same as they've been for decades, perhaps centuries. I lived there for nearly three years, made many friends, attended weddings and funerals, school functions, celebrations, sporting events, hiked the hills, went to church services, and chatted idly about this and that over tea or the occasional beer. (As I've told many friends, "It wasn't one of the best times of my life. It was the best time of my life.")
While living there, I worked for a coffee coöperative that consisted of eighty-five percent women farmers. They'd started the co-op themselves. I believe there were eleven original members; the first meetings were held under a tree. By the time I arrived the co-op was a decade old and had more than 3,500 member farms, an office headquarters, a coffee storage warehouse and a small housing facility for some of the employees; I lived there.
During the next few years those farmers built two factories, bought a twenty-five ton truck, established a thriving international export business, successfully completed the tedious-beyond-belief bureaucratic labyrinth of the organic and Fairtrade certification processes, and increased their incomes many times over while improving the quality of their coffee to such a high degree it is now internationally recognized; they sell hundreds of tons a year all over the world.
As it happens, a large proportion of the co-op members can neither read nor write. Many are single mothers and subsistence farmers, working two to three acre plots, growing coffee as a cash crop. I came to know quite a few of them well. They are sweet, fun, and tough. However, many have never been to Kampala, about seven hours by bus away from their homes, the city of 1.6 million people I now live in with my wife, who is Ugandan and grew up here in the crazy, poly-potholed metropolis.
So I've had a chance to closely observe both upcountry Ugandan women and ones that have lived all or most of their lives in a city with a large expat community, cineplexes, shopping malls, wifi-equipped coffeehouses and plenty of nightclubs, expensive hotels and celebrity scandals. And yet, many of these city-raised women are also steeped in (some might say burdened by) cultural traditions or, more accurately, torn between the culture their parents and grandparents want them to continue to adhere to, to make certain it endures . . . and the seductive, glitzy western pop monoculture that is rushing in from all directions, arriving on every jet from London, Amsterdam, Berlin, New York, Paris, a continuous storm-surge of the new, disruptive, and certainly non-traditional.
No book that I'm aware of better captures and conveys the enormous dichotomy and the cultural schizophrenia that these women deal with every day in Uganda until the coming of this just published, thoughtful, eloquent anthology, Crossroads: Women Coming of Age in Today's Uganda. All the pieces are autobiographical, all by Ugandan writers who, logically enough, are also women. In the introduction, American journalist Christopher Conte, editor on the project, writes,
I had no interest in producing yet another travelogue in which an outsider would dissect Africa, and the authors wanted no part in any attempt to fit African stories to stereotypes that depict the continent as either long suffering and helpless (and hence in need of rescue) or as somehow noble and attached to nature (and hence the envy of some people in the 'developed' world). Instead, we hoped that stories by 'ordinary' people, told in the straight-forward manner of journalism, would offer readers more authentic glimpses into one small corner of a huge and diverse continent that is neither as pitiful nor as romantic as the stereotypes suggest.
In the piece from which the book takes its title, Caroline Ariba, addresses the daily dichotomy directly:
I am a Ugandan woman, and proud to be one. I went to school and earned a college degree. . . . In Uganda, having an education like mine means you are modern, strong and reborn. . . . But time and again, I find myself wondering: Am I any different from less fortunate Ugandan women?
Later she writes:
Uganda is a multi-cultural country, but most of our traditions have at least one thing in common: They all hold that women should be submissive.
And in the essay's final paragraph Ariba says,
I am a university graduate. I should be able to say no to my culture, to be free to do as I please. But no, not everything I do is of my volition. Sometimes I can't fathom the decisions I make. I keep thinking I am different from traditional Ugandan women. My English may be well beyond the 'yes' and 'no' that is all some rural women can say. But on another, perhaps more important level, I speak the same language as the women who can barely read and write. Is that freedom? I don't know . . .
Other essays discuss everything from sexual practices to the spiritual world, the rituals of marriage and bride price, abuse by teachers and family, and, inevitably, the often complex relations between Ugandans and muzungus (foreigners). In her fine, strongly felt, smartly written "It's Complicated," Lydia Namubiru explains that her "feelings toward westerners, the western world and its involvement in Africa are a rather complicated landscape." I think that's what they call "putting it mildly."Namubiru tells of her youthful love for western literature --- Oliver Twist, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, David Copperfield. But she also adds, "I do think the west's current popular music scene is a crap heap, but I have to admit that tunes by Lionel Ritchie, R Kelly or even 50 Cent have inexplicably thrilled me on many a night out." She indicts the westerners' obsession with time and punctuality (an ongoing dispute in my own household, and one that at various times I switch sides on). "While westerners invest their time, Africans simply use ours," Namubiru contends.
But where Namubiru's unsparingly honest, trenchant intelligence really shines is in the last few pages of "It's Complicated" where she really (there's no better way to put it) lays into the current do-gooder industrial complex in Uganda --- the massive NGO scene --- with which she has had considerable experience and occasional employment.
"It can be argued that prostitution is better than marrying a man for his money," Namubiru writes, starting off at a trot, "and so it can be argued that colonialism was better than the current system of benevolence which with the west is subduing Africa. Prostitutes and colonialists surely are morally repulsive, but at least they are honest about their intentions. For prostitutes, love is a simple business transaction. Colonialism was pretty straightforward too: the West wanted raw materials, so it went out and took other people's land to get them."
Then she breaks into a gallop:
I don't know the full intentions for which the west keeps throwing its money at Africa today. I just know that the self interest of both westerners and Africans keeps the machinery growing in size and intricacy. So what if the charity that rains down on Africa like manna from heaven obstructs organic development, stifles local innovation and creativity, and negates the need for growth of a good work ethic? So what if this props up bad governments by plugging holes in their service delivery with loose mud? So what? After all, western leaders get to make their electorate feel good about how their tax money is helping abroad, and African leaders get to mask some of their own failings.
Lydia Namubiru, ladies and gentlemen! And every one of her sister writers in this book are just as strong.
Crossroads: One helluva collection of writing by a group of writers who have something important to say and have no fear of saying it.