Women’s Voices: A discussion on English literature in Uganda
A good story – what can it offer us besides a way to pass the time? According to Shari Stone-Mediatore, stories are a way to understand and learn about experiences that are not reported in formal ways. She brings the idea that fiction becomes a space where it is possible to re-think events and occurrences within the context of emotional, personal and “bodily elements”.
Fiction is able to use prose, and sometimes poetry, to explain the feelings and details of any given situation.
Written by Jessica Veaudry
Each story that we read presents multiple experiences and situations. These stories cannot be used in a way that explains the situation fully, but rather in a way that allows us to re-think, or place ourselves in another perspective.
I use this notion to highlight the importance of the nuances included in stories by three Ugandan writers as a way to discuss sexual taboos and the realities of motherhood and domesticity.
Inclusion of Women’s Literature in Uganda
Uganda has much to offer; including a rich history of literature. There is a strong history of oral storytelling and narratives in traditional languages, but for the purpose of this article, I will focus on literature written in English. More specifically, I will focus on English literature written by women.
Women’s stories are important because they are written from a perspective influenced by systems of patriarchy, and have important experiences to share and a position within literacy discussion to develop.
The history of English Literature in Uganda was marked by a conference of African Writers held at Makerere University, Kampala, in 1962. It was not until the middle of the 1960s that East African writing in English began to hold a position in literary and historical circles. Women held strong positions in oral, but not written, literary works in Uganda.
The hierarchical and gendered history of English education, where women were, and are, excluded from full participation in education, contributes directly to this inequality. Despite this, the voices of Elvania Zirimu, Rose Mbowa and Jane Kironde Bakaluba contributed to early English literature in Uganda as poets, playwrights and authors in the 1960s.
But it was not until after the 1980s that more women wrote in English and became know on a wider scale. The creation of FEMRITE in 1995 was a large factor in this change.
The most recognized Ugandan organization to focus on encouraging and supporting women’s writing is the association and publishing company FEMRITE: the Uganda Women Writer’s Association. In response to the limited inclusion of women writers in Uganda in the 1960s, a group of dedicated women established FEMRITE in 1995, and it was with this project that women writers slowly began to be more recognized.
FEMRITE’s efforts are integral to the inclusion of literature by women to support and encourage women’s education, literacy and academic contributions. By incorporating and validating Ugandan women’s writing in literary circles and discussion it will become better recognized within other avenues of research.
The inclusion of women’s voices in both East African and global academic discussions is essential because these voices have historically been left out of discussions, and therefore created gaps in and assumptions in many avenues of research.
What Do Women Have to Say?
Women are often discounted on the grounds of being emotional and unreasonable within a history and culture of patriarchy. Alternatively, it is this feminist reflection that combines an emotional approach with a focus on gender and sexuality that can make a valuable contribution to social theory and forms of knowledge.
By considering the emotional offerings of fiction, stories become a useful tool for filling out spaces within research from other avenues. Emotional experience is relevant because it is both a product of inequalities, cultures and institutions, and can create energy for resistance to these structures.
I chose three novels to explore according to my expectation that there are valuable things to be said and understood within novels that are created around a variety of experiences, including fictional ones. It is the emotion that comes through prose and description that can reveal valuable and useful elements of experience that can inform understanding.
Women Speak about Sex
The Official Wife (2003) by Mary Karooro Okurut is a satirical commentary on gender, sexual and cultural norms. It talks about sex in a way that at times is graphic, and for some taboo. The protagonist is Liz, who narrates her experiences on health, politics, sexuality and culture interspersed with her experiences of polygamy. Her husband Ishaka has a second and younger wife whom is the cause of tension between Liz and Ishaka.
Another key scene is when a strange woman comes to the house of Liz and her husband, claiming to be a Pastor. When Ishaka comes home, Liz finds out the woman has lied in order to get into the house and blackmail Ishaka for money since he would not give her a marital commitment or financial support as part of their affair.
The main event that anchors most of Liz’s critiques, discussion and laments is Ishaka’s insistence that she accompany him to an important social event as his first, and “official” wife, and her resistance to this invitation. The novel is filled with the internal conflict Liz has towards her husband and his choice to have another wife, but at the end of the story, Ishaka falls ill, and Liz decides to care for him.
This novel offers a plot, but also constant dialogue, that challenges and addresses sexual and cultural taboos. Liz talks about an emotional experience in relation to feeling expectations that she love and support her husband, even when she has stronger feelings of anger and jealousy because of her husband’s choices and actions.
Her dialogue brings in a blunt discussion of sex as she talks about her husband’s sexual relationships, and she voices her feelings against the cultural and social expectations that she should accept and be content with the situation as it is. Okurut brings us a frank and interesting feminist discussion.
On her discussion of sexual discourses in Uganda, Sylvia Tamale from the faculty of Law at Makerere University points to how gender hierarchies are maintained when gender and sexuality are covered by secrets and taboos.
Okurut engages with this concept by bluntly addressing many taboos and discussions about sexuality and gender.
Mothers & Wives: Stories of Domesticity
Sylvia Tamale also brings up a discussion of domesticity, and how this social structure continues to limit the political and economic participation of women.
The next two novels I will consider both have characters that are young women whom become pregnant. This life change brings with it stigmatization, economic burdens, restrictions with education and work, as well as touches on the politics of abortion.
Cassandra (1999) by Violet Barungi and Memoirs of a Mother (1998) by Ayeta Anne Wangusa are both stories following the lives of young girls who become pregnant, and how this impacts their lives. These stories bring into discussion the complexities and change in social participation that take place as they carry out their pregnancies.
The character Cassandra in Barungi’s novel is a young successful woman who works at an international publishing company. Cassandra is determined and independent. She becomes romantically and sexually involved with an older man, Raymond, who is married and has a son.
Raymond’s brother, Bevis, also pursues Cassandra, and they end up spending a night together. Cassandra learns she is pregnant, but is unsure if the father is Bevis or Raymond. The novel ends with a marriage to the father of the child.
This story reveals how Cassandra’s determination to be focused and successful in her work is compromised when she becomes pregnant, and is involved with a man who has another family. While she marries in the end of the story, Cassandra negotiates single parenthood and her movement from the public sphere of work to the domestic sphere of motherhood. This story is valuable because it voices elements of experience, complexity and choices.
Memoirs of a Mother
In Wangusa’s novel, a young woman named Sera, becomes pregnant while enrolled at University and faces rejection from her boyfriend, family and school. She manages to convince the headmistress to let her finish her final semester, even though it is against school policy to allow pregnant women to continue their studies. When the semester finishes, Sera is forced to find both a job and a home, as she has no family to support her.
Sera conceals her pregnancy in order to get a job, and works there until she gives birth. Eventually, Sera meets a man whom she wants to marry for economic and social security, but he only agrees to marry if she will agree to give her daughter Mercy up for adoption. Sera sacrifices her relationship with her daughter only to find out eventually, after giving birth to a son, that her husband has had a daughter with another woman.
This situation brings tension into their home as Sera’s husband expects her to look after his child too. When she refuses, he acts out with physical violence, and at this point, Sera leaves him and takes her son.
Sera has never told Mercy who her father is, until at the daughter’s engagement party, Sera meets the fiancé’s family and finds out her daughter is about to marry a relative of Mercy’s father. This cultural taboo destroys the potential marriage, and estranges Sera and her daughter.
This story also follows the life of a young girl as she negotiates her social participation within the context of an unexpected pregnancy. Her story highlights the restrictions that come up for university and work, and how these structures try to reject her because of her pregnancy.
The story details her emotional experience of this rejection and illuminates her anger, hurt and fear. It also points to where society fails to support Sera within the complex situations that she must deal with on her own.
Abortion or not?
The stories of Cassandra and Sera both bring up abortion as something that is considered but also rejected. Personal choice is given as the main reason to reject abortion, but there is also the implication that because they are both already under social scrutiny for their pregnancies, there will be further pressures if they choose abortion.
Social and cultural expectations and judgments both reject their choices to have the children and also impact their decisions to reject abortion.
Gendered taboos and issues of sexuality are repeated through these stores, and offer a glimpse into the experience of some of these issues. There are many more contemporary women writers in Uganda than have been presented here, and each piece of fiction has a new perspective and experience.
As Ugandan women’s fiction becomes better incorporated into existing literary circles, this writing will be available to add to other circles of research and discussion.
The value of using fiction in the research of East Africa is important for development in both the inclusion of women’s voices in discussion, and to illuminate the innuendos gendered experience. Fiction can address, challenge and discuss sexuality.
When women’s writing talks about sexuality, its accomplishment is twofold: it works at breaking down the silence around sexual taboos, as well as revealing ways in which women both lack and execute power within sexual and gendered experiences.
I encourage you to continue to seek out writing by women from Uganda and enjoy the rich stories that they offer.
A Canadian, Jessica Veaudry completed a Master’s research project on how women’s writing from Uganda fits into development research. She currently lives and works in Montreal, Quebec and has spent two years in East Africa between Uganda, Burundi and surrounding countries.
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Stone-Mediatore, Shari. 2003. Reading Across Borders: Storytelling and Knowledges of Resistance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Stratton, Florence. 1994. Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender. New York: Routledge.
Tamale, Sylvia. 2003. “Out of the Closet: Unveiling Sexuality Discourses in Uganda.” Feminist Africa 2(Changing Cultures): Introduction. http://www.feministafrica.org/index.php/out-of-the-closet
Tamale, Sylvia. 2004. “Gender Trauma in Africa: Enhancing Women’s Links to Resources.” Journal of African Law 48(01): 50-61. http://www.codesria.org/IMG/pdf/TAMALE.pdf
Now, Startjournal.org would like to hear from the readers:
What else can stories like this contribute to community, academics and/or policy and politics, apart from topics about domesticity and sexual taboos?
Alternatively, what is left out, or disregarded, when taking perspectives from a fictional standpoint?
Please join the discussion below!