In this cosmic space, there is no denying that we love history. Yet history is not just about what has happened in the past, it is also what is being created now. Life stories to me are like time capsules. They are important tools through which women can record their stories in their own words, note down their realities and experiences, then make them available to the world. I always imagine future generations stumbling upon collections like Crossroads: Women Coming of Age in Today’s Uganda and through them realising that human beings have always lived simple yet complex lives.
Crossroads is a collection of fifteen life stories written by Ugandan women. Those fifteen stories cover a very wide range. These women wrote about a whole lot of things and reading the book I was constantly reminded of the phrase, “reality is stranger than fiction”. Some of them made my heart ache, others made me nod in agreement, yet others I did not agree with. That is the fun of collections, invariably some stories will be enjoyed more than others.
Reading through the first couple of stories, I wondered if there will be a queer life story in the mix. I actually paused reading to scroll down and check. I mean to me it’s not a complete representation if there is not at least one queer life story. Goodness knows I would have been disappointed in Crossroads if there wasn’t any but thankfully there was. So altogether the stories dealt with sexuality, unlawful arrest, tradition, disability, the duplicity of non-governmental organisations, religion, race, naming, culture, pre-marital pregnancy, beauty, growing up in the rural areas, sexual abuse within the family, corporal punishment…and I am sure I have not listed all the thematic areas.
I loved majority of the stories but I will talk about a few that stood out to me. “Ssengas and the Single Woman” is about one woman coming to terms with the role tradition dictates for women through the advice ssengas give. Shifa Mwesigye elaborates on the role of the ssenga from centuries ago till today where the position has been commercialised.
“By custom, ssengas are paternal aunts who assume special responsibilities much like those of godparents. But instead of being responsible for children’s religious instruction,
they guide their nieces in the ways of society. Ssengas teach young girls how to behave, show respect and deference to others, and always display quiet grace. On school holidays, girls usually are sent off to their families’ villages or to ssengas, who monitor their manners and ways around the house – including how well they can cook traditional meals, wash, and even make beds. Eventually, ssengas prepare girls for the most important role they will play in life – to be good wives.
Occasionally a ssenga will inspect girls’ knickers and beds to see how well they keep them clean. She will teach about shaving and how girls should wash their lady parts (advising, them, for instance, to use one or two fingers to clean the inside). Ssengas also teach girls
about sex – most importantly stressing that they must not engage in sex with boys. When a girl falls pregnant, it concerns not only her mother, but her ssenga, who was supposed to teach her better. Girls take their ssengas’ sex education to be gospel truth because after all, what does a young girl know?
Finally, ssengas helped make sure a girl’s marriage worked. A ssenga generally didn’t even consider whether a wife had concerns about the marriage. To her, the only issue was preserving the marriage, and for that, responsibility rested almost entirely with the wife.”
Since learning about them, I always believed that ssengas played an important role in terms of sex education. However, I was ignorant that a ssenga would advice you for example to let your husband drive your car while you take taxis or to kneel down and thank your husband when he returns home from work. Some of us in Nigeria have heard similar advice from older women and always push back against it.
Mwesigye also writes about the practice of labia elongation and how it was forced upon girls in school who were threatened with punishment if they did not pull their labia.
“So, it seems, a woman’s life of service begins with reshaping her body.”
“Wife of the Enemy” by Peace Twine reads like an espionage novel until you remember that this is collection of life stories not fiction. Twine was a student at university when she and her roommate hope were taken away from their dorm by men they thought were from Internal Affairs. Both women are first taken to the Central Police Station where they are made to wait all day before being forced to spend a night in the cell.
Next in they are picked up again and taken to an unknown location where the horror starts. In a camp guarded by armed men, Twine and her friend are tortured because they are apparently “wives or women of the enemy”. The women go through untold sufferings and for what is never revealed. They were literally picked from their university room and dropped into a living nightmare, never charged or tried for anything. Twine has two contributions to Crossroads that show different parts of her life. “Wife of the Enemy” is very harrowing. Even more so with the way the story is concluded
“I chose to stay [in Uganda]. I picked up the pieces of my life and moved on. But I carried with me a searing awareness of the suffering just beyond my everyday life – of countless
women who are raped and forgotten in war and defiled and shunned in peace, and of millions more who are brutalized by poverty and trafficked for sex, surrogacy or body parts in supposedly good times.
To me, these are no longer theoretical injustices done to unseen people. They are tangible realities that can happen anytime, anywhere and to anyone.”
Lydia Namubiru shines the spotlight on the uncomfortable truths behind non-governmental organisations in “It’s Complicated”. What is complicated here? Well, Namubiru’s feelings towards mzungus and the Western world’s involvement with Africa.
“…the experts come in droves. They drive rents in nice neighbourhoods so high that landlords start quoting them in dollars. In our fertile land where markets are brimming with fresh fruit, they demand packaged dry fruits, so our supermarkets stock up on them. They patronize coffee shops, and for this we are grateful. They demand Internet access, and it comes to town. Thanks again. But in the meantime, something pernicious happens.
We, the local staff, learn of the high western salaries, and demand more for ourselves. We get double or even triple the salaries the local capitalists around us would ever offer. So we chase NGO jobs and play interested students. We learn how to create donor-quality PowerPoint presentations, use special phone apps to book meetings, share our calendars online and draw up elaborate Excel work plans. We gain “capacity” in being organized and structured. We get psyched about the change our organizations are making in the world. In the words of one of my self-appointed NGO mentors, we come to “own the attitude.”
In reality, the money that is flowing in to prop us all up is causing inflation and creating a wealthy, but for the most part unproductive, cadre of Ugandans who feed on NGOs. I know. I was one.”
I wish I could have felt disbelief when Namubiru writes that she was asked her former American employer if she hated mzungu bosses because of her blog. Sadly, I am numb from having heard so many similar stories from friends. I have a friend who refers to NGOs as sewer rats. Namubiru attempts to reveal the inner workings and flaws of the NGO culture. She cites examples of where things could be more effectively achieved. She even draws parallels between it and colonialism writing “at least Africans could be mad about it” which implies that criticism towards NGO cultures are not welcome.
Crossroads is not only important but a great read. If I talked about more of my favourite stories this post will be overly long. I would love to see more collections like this by African women. I would like to thank Christopher Conte, the editor of Crossroads for bringing the collection to my knowledge and providing a review copy. is available on Amazon but if you are based in Nigeria and would like the book, check with Parresia.
Secret Admirer by Ronnie Ogwang