It’s Complicated- Yes. But wonderfully simple at the same time.
This collection of stories by Ugandan women should be read by men, as much as by Non-African women for they are like splinters from a single shattered gourd. As an African myself I smell the heat, the dust, see the swaying hips balancing head- bearing burdens, and above all the rich earthiness of simple honesty. Each concentrates on a single shoot of reflection or incident to grow into a taller stalk. Together they are a small stand of food. Women in Africa grow food and men eat it. So should they consume these nourishing offerings. Each has a different flavour.
The food lies ‘between’ as much ‘within’ each story, and the gourd itself is reshaped in the telling. One talks of taking a stand for her name to be acknowledged, and realising that categories do not exist for her given name, yet stubbornness succeeds and it is finally written down. Another comments on the conceit and insensitivity of NGO do-gooders who speed through with vehicles inscribed with tag lines ‘Defeating poverty’ Bringing hope’. Just stop for a moment and see that: If you are a traditional Ugandan you know natural health and your athletes win Marathons, yet rich Westerners are oblivious of the traditions they trample over. Instead they draw complacent satisfaction and great incomes. It must smart.
Not a single story is a political or emotional tract, these are women easy in their skins, un-seduced by Western alternatives (except sometimes in adolescence through television or music) but what each reveals is the fracture that exists between traditional roles and values, and the increasing fragmentation. The role of women is much in focus, especially to the girl who wants above all to be a boy and be allowed to kick a ball with an aching urgency, before too late. Soon, any village inhabitant will no longer discipline any child within it, without rancour, or the child’s resentment. That collective community who understand the need for a child’s integration collectively can achieve what a single parent struggles with. Even a pair of girls out of a wild spree, smooth their dresses before being seen by some all purpose aunt. The modern earning woman who supports her family must still kneel for her husband.
Mostly these stories reconcile these traditional practices because they are the roots from which each finds a place in the sun. Uprooting is not considered, and those who have tried it have lost their essential peace. Those who haven’t know they will. So it could be called a critical celebration of Uganda whose old face is familiar and loved, although its ways are sometimes restrictive like a grandmother asleep in the shade. Shh don’t wake her!
The tales are told in a direct and simple language with intimate details, as though the tellers are together peeling potatoes, safe in their kitchens, although all are accomplished writers, poets, teachers, graduates, artists. Their self knowledge and an ability to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of alternatives never over-rides that direct simplicity, or their literary ease on gossip, on events, on problems, very rich. It is a most disarming eavesdropping!
It is also marvellous portrait of why African women secure the traditions, educate at critical right of passage moments, and in their Sophia wisdom sway through the emotional as much as the physical landscape. It took me back to my heart’s home, and my Zulu mother who once said ‘Ow Darling, Men! What they for? Make babies, make work. Useless!.’ Yet I imagine that any Ugandan man would understand that, and celebrate his women and stand listening quite happily.