My Muzungu Man
We entered the wooden hut that served as the meeting room for Rubaga Women’s Group, desperate for some respite from the Kampala sunshine. It was much cooler inside, despite the absence of windows and surprisingly, the thin gaps between the planks of wood let in a cool breeze. So we sat down and were grateful that the women were able to make enough room for us to squash between them. Our sense of personal space has been altered since we came to Uganda and we no longer feel uncomfortable to be pressed up against smiling strangers on buses, in queues at the check out counter in the supermarket, or anywhere really.
There were ten or so women, ranging in age from mid twenties to late forties. When you consider that the average life expectancy for a Ugandan is 51, you realize that the older women were actually senior citizens. Not that anyone acted or looked old. There was so much teasing and laughing that it could have been a group of school girls. They were all mothers, many of eight or so children. And the woman who had only one child, was scolded light-heartedly that she should be working on having more. Incidentally, she was also the one with the largest and most successful business. But more on the link between family planning and economic advancement another time.
As we worked our way through the list of names and interviewed these lovely women, a pattern emerged. It’s a familiar story here. A woman has several children with one man – who is often her husband but sometimes not. He leaves her for a younger woman, and the responsibility for childrearing falls entirely on the woman’s shoulders. A variation of this theme is that the man dies, often of AIDS, leaving her with several children to raise on her own. Add to this, the fact that many also take in orphans, nieces and nephews whose parents have died of AIDS. So we seemed to be in a nation of incredibly hard-working, resilient women who are bringing up the next generation single-handedly in the harshest circumstances.
But you wouldn’t guess that life was so very hard. There were infectious smiles and laughter and sense of dignity and pride that was inspiring. But we were sweating in that wooden hut, still recovering from the dusty journey to this part of town. So Adam offered to buy some sodas – for me, and after half a second’s thought, for all the other women here. It’s a small gesture, but it was much appreciated by all. Especially the one whose shop it was where Adam where made this bulk purchase. We could see how this sale would be helpful, when many of the clients have told us they make the equivalent of five dollars a day.
When Adam left the meeting hut to buy the drinks, the women all turned to me to chat –the way women chat with each other when there are no men around. They all said “Look how lucky you are. You Muzungus, your men stay with you and help you. Ugandan men have babies with us and leave us for younger chicks. Or they die and leave us alone”. We went around the table and counted the number of widows and single mothers. They were by far the majority. So this is why the women were so touched by Adam’s gesture. Not only did he offer to buy drinks, but he also got up from his seat, walked out into the heat of the day and fetched them for us all.
Our visit had shown these women something that was so foreign to them. We were a couple who spend all our time together (neither of us are planning to leave anytime soon!) and a man who is kind and generous and willing to get up and do something for his wife and the other women around him. But I just couldn’t feel smug. My blessing felt merely bitter sweet. It seems so unfair that my experience of marriage is something these women can only dream about.
So I guess we can add that to the long list of inequalities in this world…