Crossroads: Women Coming of Age in Today’s Uganda, ed. Christopher Conte. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2015.
Summary: Narratives of fourteen Ugandan women on various aspects of growing up in a Ugandan society in the midst of political upheaval, the intersection of traditional and modern ways, between repression and reform.
I’ve written in the past about the need to read diverse books, to listen to diverse voices, and not simply western White voices of my own political and religious persuasion. Among the voices I’ve wanted to listen to are women’s voices. I’m also aware that as Americans, we have not often listened to African voices, at least I haven’t. So when the editor of this collection of narratives, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor, contacted me about possibly reviewing this book, I made an exception to my usual rule of saying no to these kind of review requests. It was worth it.
You can’t really argue with narratives. You either listen and learn, or shut your ears and eyes. The narratives of these women capture the incredible beauty of a culture where people take time for relationships, where a village really does raise (or did raise) a child, and the wisdom of elder women, and village herbalists. The narratives also capture a great deal of pain of a conflict-ridden society in the midst of rapid social change.
The opening essay describes how people are “pigeon-holed” into religious categories by names, and the difficulty of adopting a traditional African name when the two categories are “Christian” or “Muslim”. Other essays describe the clashes of traditional and modern culture around things like sex education and gender roles, including the difficulty a woman who loves sports has until a movement of women athletes in various sports gains traction. There is the transition from traditional forms of discipline like caning to more enlightened forms. One essay explores the labyrinthine organization and ineffectiveness of western NGOs working in the country.
An underlying theme in several essays is the syncretistic religious beliefs of many of these women, and the impact of modernity upon them. It is apparent that for many, whatever Christianity they experienced was more rules and ritual than a theology or a worldview that informed those rules and ritual. Often it was a pastiche of traditional beliefs in spirits and demons mixed in with Christian or Muslim practices. Often it was interwoven with social structures that were repressive of women, permitting severe abuse, incest, rape, spousal violence, and polygamous marriages when woman did not bear sons. One essay describes the struggle of being lesbian in a society where this could lead to rape or murder. Little wonder that as a number encountered university education, that they threw off much of their religious backgrounds, in particular the parts that weren’t African, or were most repressive.
Some of the most disturbing narratives are those written about the personal effects of political disruption and guerrilla warfare in the post-Idi Amin years. One essay describes the arrest, imprisonment, and torture of two women unaware of the charges for which they were undergoing this torment, resulting in the death of one of them. Another tells of fleeing to the jungle each night to escape the forces of Joseph Kony, and slaughter or abduction, returning to the village each day.
I found myself with nothing but admiration for the resilience of these women, who experienced so much and live in the hope of a better Uganda. As a Christian, I was troubled by the portrayals of Christianity in these essays. Again, you cannot argue with the narrative, but only listen and learn, and it was clear there are lessons for the church, both in Africa, and the West, if we will listen.
I also wondered if these are the only narratives. Were other women finding liberation, not from, but within religious communities, seeing the teachings of those communities provide the basis for deep social reform in a changing country, rather than colonialist repression, affirming both the best of what is African, and the justice, mercy, truth and beauty that are at the core of Christian faith? I know of such movements within African societies, but you would not know of them from this collection of essays, which I cannot help but wonder came from a particular circle of women writers.
Still, it is important to listen to these voices if we would understand both the injustices women here, and elsewhere in the world, face, as well as the aspirations of such women for a better world for their children, more opportunities in every sphere of life, equal partnerships with those they love and form families with, the chance to have their own name. And they help us understand the struggles of so many African societies to negotiate the paths between village and clan traditions and outside influences of faith, commerce, and learning.
But will we listen?
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”