Tilling the land, an African woman’s burden, right from early childhood.

Forgive me my sisters and women friends, but this year I am not burning with passion about the International Women’s Day. Oh, yes! It is a great moment for us to celebrate and reflect on the journey travelled thus far. We have come a long way from the time when only males, born from a common womb with women, got formal western education and the opportunities that followed.

The women reading this note are living examples of the great strides made. Millions and millions of professional women, at the top of their game, inching closer and closer to pay equity, make one smile with gratitude to those who went into the trenches and fought for the rights of women. Why, my generation has witnessed women ministers in governments, including prime ministers and presidents and their deputies! You know the story – justly celebrated and held high as evidence of the change that started with those first protests a century ago.

I salute the many women who have struggled and effected change. I especially honour those of you my friends who have dedicated your lives to the struggle for the liberation of women from cultural and religious shackles that have been, and remain, the root of the oppression. Not for nothing do you toil.

Yet I don’t feel as upbeat as I ought to be. My problem is what I see every time I visit my homeland. During my recent five-week visit to Uganda, I travelled up and down the hills of Kigezi, observing, recalling and reflecting on the state of the women in my community. I did not like what I saw. They still carry a heavier burden than ever before but own little, if anything. You see, this thing called alcohol is decimating lives and ripping up families.

Silently, behind the veil of smiles and laughter, the women are hurting. They till the land, a job that has been theirs since their early childhood. They feed the country. They make the money, but do not own it. The men claim it because they are the owners, you see. The culture tells them so. The women, having made the money, must beg from their husbands. The men, many, many men, loiter the streets and the trails, with booze-filled sachets their companions.

No, I did not just hear stories about it. I saw and heard it myself. The women – many of them – freely shared their stories, peppered with laughter, as is the tradition of the African woman in pain and despair. And, as always, when challenged to explain why they must beg from their husbands, the women said: “T’ezaabo shi?” (Is it not their money?). The Stockholm Syndrome!

Perhaps it would all be “fine” if these women did not also carry the chronic burden of bodies whose wombs have carried many babies, all in a short period, and their breasts provided life to their helpless and fragile offspring. The joy of childbirth is twinned with devastation of young women’s health – chronic anaemia, malnutrition, injured birth canals and urinary tracts, post-partum depression, sleep deprivation……….. the list is long.

Two moons ago, I visited my relatives in Kahondo ka Byamarembo and shared precious moments with my female first cousins. Three marvelous sisters – K, K, and B. Beautiful women – inside and out. Brilliant women, living in the villages of southern Kigezi, a world far, far removed from yours and mine. They shared their stories with me – briefly, of course – and left me in that zone between joy and tears.

It is these women I am thinking about today. They probably do not know that it is their day. Their routine ticks along. Their private angst and pain unknown to us. They deserve better. We can make it better for them – not through legislation (there is plenty of that) – but through action. Less greed at the top. Share the resources, so that my diabetic cousin in Kahondo can access safe health care.

Even as we celebrate the achievements, there is that bothersome figure of women dying due to pregnancy and childbirth. Hasn’t changed much – at least 6,000 per year in Uganda. And that is not the worst in Africa. And it does not tell the full story of the burden of childbirth of the African woman.

Oh, yes, health care! Three years ago, our first cousin, another beautiful woman called Kyamugarika, died in her home in Kitohwa, Ndorwa, Kigyezi. She need not have died, had she had access to emergency health care. She and thousands of women who die in Africa every year, felled by treatable illnesses. They do not dream of being flown to India for treatment. Even getting to the hospitals a few miles away is often unaffordable. Some must stay home and till the land and feed the men and raise the children and die prematurely. That’s their fate in a world with unprecedented prosperity.

It starts when they are young. Unknown numbers quit school because they lack sanitary pads for their menstrual periods. Yes, a normal physiological event is a curse for many, their fate sealed in blood, even before they embark on the burdens of womanhood.

Celebrate the day, yes. But do so with humility, for the destination remains very distant. For the majority.




3 Responses to “Celebrate Women’s Day but the destination remains distant”

  1. Diana Onyango

    Truth poignantly told! Left me feeling a bit helpless not in the ‘stockholm syndrome’ way I hasten to add. I guess any meaningful intervention must target the girl child. It may be too late for their mothers but the daughters can be empowered through awareness raising and practical support. I still don’t know how or what shape this intervention would take. I guess they could tell us if asked both at primary and secondary level. And that is another thing, working in a manner that lets them tell us how they want to be helped not us pushing what we think they need. It probably should be a subject on all school curriculums so boys’ awareness is also raised.

  2. Mary Mugyenyi

    My friend Muniini, you have made correct observations in your article and we in Uganda would identify with it. Nonetheless, there are many reasons why the women of Uganda should join the rest of the women’s day. It is a time to reflect on the gains but also the work that still has to be done. It is a time to focus and sensitize the population about the issues facing women in our countries including violence against women and others. You have ably done that in this article and I thank you.
    We in Uganda have made strides in education, leadership, and many other areas but we are also aware of the burden that the ordinary Uganda woman still bears on behalf of the family and even community. We must not separate women emancipation and welfare from the level of poverty in a community they are in. The burden carried by our women is a reflection of the general poverty still existing in our communities. When we have access to affordable tractors, the women will not have to till the land with the hand hoe and so on. We are steadily moving into that direction of better technology although the speed is slow. The women’s struggle for emancipation in Uganda is not lost and we must not be discouraged but move on.

  3. Barbara Anschuetz

    Dear Muniini,

    Thank you for including me in your group of ‘women friends’. I am humbled to be one of them, and one who is constantly in awe of the achievements of so many women who struggle every day for survival, yet continue to care for their families as their first priority. If we don’t educate girls, we will not change the power differential you described. There will not be enough role models to mentor and challenge what has always been and, therefore, will always be. Young girls continue to be the hope of the future. Our work, both at this end, and in East Africa, can be our small contribution to that cause.

    I look forward to hearing from East African women who can help guide us in this direction as we strive to improve the health of mothers and children through our connections with them.



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