From the Rift Valley and Savannah to the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains, Uganda is arguably one of the most diverse places on earth. However, it is not uncommon to find a woman kneeling for a man in the streets of Jinja Town, muddying her 'compulsory' long skirt in dust; nor is it widely accepted for a woman to use her education for anything but reading bedtime stories to her children. Ugandan diversity still has space to blossom in the stakes of gender equality. Having said this, spending three months volunteering for Restless Development in rural Uganda showed me that it houses some of the most tenacious and strong-minded women I've had the pleasure to meet. Gender inequality is a masquerade, but many Ugandan women are bored of the ball, whilst some have already hailed a taxi home. From a neighbour who wore pedal pushers and cocktail dresses amidst the signing of the Anti-Pornography Bill, which punishes women for any 'sexual' interpretation of their outfit, to a savvy student who would inspire discussion in her school about HIV testing and counselling, there is more than enough fire to put to bed the ashes of gender inequality. The ladies in this article are just three of those women.
Mary was my soda saviour in Uganda, selling me a cold coca-cola every time I looked ready to fall down under the beating equator sunshine. I learned very quickly that Mary does not suffer fools gladly, as her firm 'where are my empties?' on a Monday morning reminded me, but Mary is also a woman with a heart fit to burst. By the end of the three months, Mary and I would set up camp behind her shop counter and eat popcorn on her wicker mat, whilst laughing over the ludicrous lines in terrible double-dubbed soap operas. As I got to know Mary, I discovered that she was a woman of steel determination, who had no intention to kneel to men, or to any condescension to her gender. You can meet Mary here;
Aside from working full time in her brother's shop, Mary was the Director of a local school and orphanage in Mbiko, just outside of Jinja Town. On visiting God's Infant School with other volunteers, I discovered that Mary had pretty much single-handedly set up and funded this school for children living in an area rife with poverty and prostitution, whilst managing to recruit some marvellous teachers along the way. When Mary told me
"Directors usually are men in Uganda, but I tried, I said no, let me also be like a man"
I struggled not to knock the camera over and shake her hand in jubilation, so thankfully I was in England and unable to take Mary down in a rugby tackle hug when I received this email from her, explaining the significance of her parting gift to me, a black blouse;
"In front of that blouse, there is the bird standing on the branch of the tree, this means two countries are together, UK and Uganda, that's you and me. Next, the yellow colour means sunshine, so our friendship is going to shine all over the world. I mean we are going to be the most powerful women in this world, let's work together I know we can make it".
For a woman living in a tiny rural village to speak with such empowerment properly merits the use of the word inspiring. A local male youth once told me that it "cannot be possible" for a man to stay home whilst a woman works and that it is "exactly!" right that a "man is higher than a woman". He's a lovely guy who happens to have inherently different cultural beliefs to those we are fighting for; but to think that Mary is living her assertive lifestyle just doors away from him, gives me confidence that one day he will dare to punctuate his ideas with question, rather than exclamation, marks.
Next, comes star student Esther. In our very first school session, our team of 3 volunteers were thrown in front of 150 students; amidst the trainee teacher terror, awkward language barrier and sheer volume of rowdy kids, the thing that saved us was Esther's assertive presentation on the risks of drug abuse. Esther made it clear that she could give private school debating champs a run for their money, but Esther wasn't just any student, she was one with a child. In Uganda, it is all too rare for a girl to return to school after falling pregnant, but Esther is now 20 years old and considering running for Head Girl. Listen to her tell her story here, it's nothing short of incredible;
By standing in front of her class, Esther discredits the belief that a girl should look timidly away from those she speaks to and mutter words quietly and respectfully; she swaps silence for swagger, and is well on her way to her dream of becoming a secondary school teacher as a result. Although the girls in her class might jeer at Esther for speaking up now, by standing in front of them and quashing stereotypes such as 'women say the opposite of what they mean when it comes to sex', they will be grateful for the audibility of her words later in life. Even the controversial young man I interviewed agreed that women can make good teachers, and as one of Esther's closest friends, he will have good reason to put harmful beliefs on the back burner and allow Esther to be his tangible experience of why women are more than wives.
Finally, there is Zeridah, a local woman who is part of the Women's Center For Job Creation Project in Uganda. The project brings together circles of women who contribute a small amount of money to qualify for loans, should they need them, as well as cattle which they breed and share together. The project, which Zeridah promotes in the area, gives women access to milk, biomass for biogas, meat and, perhaps most importantly, income to start their own small businesses. Here, Zeridah talks about the importance of women having financial independence;
These women all live within a 2 mile radius of one another, so just think what potential the entire country of Uganda has. It takes small steps with joint hands, like Mary told us, to show people that a lady who wears minis, modest skirts, or whatever she picks up in the morning, still qualifies as a 'real woman', so long as her voice box remains exposed.
For more information on volunteering with the International Citizen Service, visit http://www.volunteerics.org/