Over the past two summers I have had the privilege of visiting Uganda, in East Africa, where this summer saw an extended period of time staying in Kampala. A team of 10 of us from Oasis College of Higher Education took the long journey (it really was long – flight delays made it 36 hours!), to work in a number of schools and community projects across the region. We saw many incredible sights, where children would sing joyfully with hope in the face of poverty, and the infamous traffic, which is a fascinating mosaic of mayhem. We also saw many disturbing things, from malnourished babies to ‘homes’ for families of ten with no roof or front door. But the thing that struck me the most profoundly on both visits, is the gender roles of men and women in Ugandan society, particularly in the more rural communities and the consequences that this stark division has on Ugandan society.
Women are the labourers! Kampala’s streets are filled with physically strong women, carrying water, grown produce and livestock, often with more than one child on their back. Their hands and feet are rough from tough manual labour, walking for miles to access food for their families. Due to the devastating impact of HIV, they are often parenting alone, looking after eight or more children in devastating poverty. The Oasis Kawempe Project we visited is seeking to help women develop business skills, so that they could work from home to look after their children. They were really proud of this new and innovative way of working, which kept them close to home. However, candle making and necklace making often did not bring in enough money for them to feed their large families. I will never forget the warm embrace given to me, as a lady said I was a blessing from God, having given her my last two cereal bars that were at the bottom of my handbag. This would be a whole meal for her and her six children.
Mentally, the women are tough. Talking to them about their lives they continually point to God who has provided for them. They are not weak because of Him. They don’t cry, in fact they show very little emotion. They are resilient, and have ambition for their children to always achieve more than what they have been able to. They are practically minded, and creative in the way that they use the little resources that they have. Those who are unable to afford to send their children to school, which is the majority, teach their children. Designated ‘Auntie’s’ are confidents who teenage girls look to in their teenage years for mentors and role models figures. Women are faithful to one another. They are generous, kind, and ensure that those around them do not go without.
Men are on the outside. Familiar sights on the streets of Kampala are clusters of men sitting on the dusty edge of the road on motorbikes, doing nothing. They don’t talk to one another; show little emotion, they are simply ‘being’, staring into space. They are not present in the family home, and many drink heavily. They are not perceived to be role models, and have little to do with their children. Many do not stay in one area for long, as HIV causes them to run from their families having been banished from their communities. They are difficult to build relationships with, and in my communications with them, struggle with self-esteem and self worth.
This is disturbing. There is little to celebrate. Morale is low. This lack of partnership and clear division between the genders creates little understanding for the next generation of how to overcome challenges in Ugandan society – poverty, political corruption, mental and physical lack of health and family breakdown. It’s clear that education provides a way for children to understand the concept of positive relationships, and the importance of working well together with the opposite sex. Organisations like Fields of Life and Oasis Global are committed to providing pathways through education to empower men and women together to raise the next generation to be one that has hope and opportunity. One of the highlights of the last trip was facilitating a training session with a group of male and female teachers together, highlighting the ways in which they are able to build positive relationships with their students. What might seem obvious for many in a Western educated culture was groundbreaking for them.
There is much to be done. I, for one, am committed to seeing change from the ground upwards, to enable men and women to work better together, in partnership with one another. I have seen glimpses of this possibility. But I hope in decades to come that we will be able to celebrate Ugandan men and women in partnership and equal status working positively together for the benefit of their children, their relationships, communities, and society.
Ali Simpson is Partnership Manager and Senior Fieldwork Tutor at Oasis College of Higher Education, London and Secretary for the Sophia Network. She is passionate about seeing potential released in people, loves travelling, asking questions, and is getting married in 2014