I had been told and prepared in our prep course before we left for Uganda that this country was unlike any other in Africa. However, nothing could prepare me for the absolute beauty I encountered as I stepped off the plane and onto the runway in Kampala. Uganda has been named “the pearl of Africa” and this is no overstatement. Unlike the pictures from National Geographic and the images on TV I had seen of vast deserts and prairies in many parts of Africa, Uganda is completely green with bright red/orange dirt. It rains almost daily and because of this, the landscape continues to stay green.
About half of my time was spent in Gulu, the northern part of the country, where most of the destruction from the war with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) occurred. Here I spent a lot of time travelling to remote little villages in some of the poorest districts in Uganda to interview women about their lives. It was always a little scary hopping onto the back of a boda boda, a taxi motorcycle, with a man who barely spoke any English and being whisked away on little dirt roads leading to what appeared to me as the middle of nowhere.
But the experiences I had in those little villages interviewing the women and getting to know them and their lives are probably some of the most impactful moments I have had. I always travelled with an interpreter because although the national language is English, most people in these villages never had the opportunity to go to school or learn English. Whenever I had a few spare moments to talk with women who weren’t being interviewed for the research I had come to do, I would always ask them to tell me about their lives and their views of the world. The next few paragraphs are some of the interactions I had with various women during my time in the villages and elsewhere in Uganda.
An overwhelmingly majority of the women I talked to in the remote villages discussed the hardships they faced. It was difficult for them to spend their entire day farming, cooking, and tending to children while many of the men went into the larger towns to drink or talk with friends instead of helping with these tasks. Many of these same women earned the vast majority, if not all, of their family’s income through selling the crops they had grown. These families lived on less than $0.50 a day and it was often very difficult to get all the necessities the family needed and frequently they would go hungry in order to feed their children.
Although their lives were very difficult, these were happy people. Everyone would sit around and laugh and exchange stories as they went about doing their work. I remember once I was sitting with a group of women, one of which knew a few words of English, and she tried to teach me a few words in Luo. I would try very hard to concentrate on how she was pronouncing the words and then of course, I would repeat them back. But once I did that, all the assembled women would break out into a chorus of laughter at my very poor Luo. I had a great time and I spent the majority of the time laughing right along with them. I probably sounded pretty ridiculous. They ended up nicknaming me the “jolly woman” and every time I returned, my interpreter would tell me that’s what they were calling me.
I spent a few days travelling around the Amuru district in northern Uganda interviewing different NGOs (Non-Governmental Organization), learning about the work they do with a woman from that district. As with everyone else I met, I was eager to learn about her life and what she thought of the world around her. She began to tell me her story and told me that her husband had been killed during the war leaving her and her two daughters to fend for themselves. As is common in Uganda, the land she lived on was snatched up right from under her feet by her in-laws. Because property rights for women are sticky, with the Constitution guaranteeing women property rights but also allowing customary laws to supersede the Constitution, many women do not have rights to property; instead, they are only able to use the land their husband owns and once he has passed away, the land traditionally goes to his family in order to preserve the estate leaving his wife and children with nothing. Because this woman had no male children, the family strongly believed she should no longer have access to the land to farm. I was assured that this was not an isolated incident in Uganda. Instead, this was the way life worked for the women in Uganda.
I asked this same woman about the practice of dowry, which in Uganda is the equivalent of bride price where the groom buys cows for the bride’s family as a condition of marriage, and how this made her feel. Without hesitating she answered that this solidified a woman’s position in her family as a piece of property, to be used at her husband’s will and pleasure. I asked her if she thought getting rid of this practice would help women to become equal to their husbands. She agreed with this but also told me a little about the practice of polygyny and the mitigating effects dowry had on this. Polygyny is still legal in Uganda, which leads many men to marry multiple women. However, as my new friend pointed out to me, a man must pay dowry for each woman he wishes to marry. Therefore, men that could not afford the additional dowry expenses generally only married one woman. To my friend, it seemed that dowry helped keep men in check and only once polygyny was outlawed should the practice of dowry be done away with.
On one of my many, many bus rides to and from Gulu, I ended up sitting next to a woman who worked for an NGO that specialized in property rights for women but also held classes about HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, and husband/wife relationships. I asked her about what her organization did to promote land rights for women and whether or not they had been successful. Very excitedly she told me it was her job to raise awareness in surrounding villages about the importance of land rights for women and teaching them what the Constitution had to say on the subject in order to instigate change in customary law. She said at first they hadn’t been too successful because the beliefs about women and property are very entrenched in the society. Secondly, because there are many organizations which focus on women’s issues in Uganda, men began to feel left out and would react by trying to retain their privileged standing in society.
Once this property rights organization began integrating men and their needs into their development strategy, it became much easier to convince them of the importance of property rights for women. However, the organization took this one step further and began to offer classes about how men and women needed to work together, as equal partners, in order to solve the problems they faced, mainly issues dealing with property rights. I, of course, was elated to hear that this organization had the foresight to see that men and women are two halves of society that need to work together, equally, to make a better world.
Travelling around the “pearl of Africa” has taught me a lot about life and especially about the lives women around the world lead. Although the situation in Uganda has room for improvement, I know that there is a bright future ahead as men and women learn to see each other as equals and work for a better future.