Monday, November 25, 2013

The thing about abortion

She walked into the clinic obviously furious. She didn’t sit in the queue waiting for her turn. Instead, she cut across the room to the desk where the in-charge sat. So someone so obviously furious, it was remarkable how low she managed to keep her voice as she antagonised the in-charge.  She was obviously saying some truly uncharitable things and saying them in a rapid rap. Yet, I didn’t hear a thing even though I was seated just a few metres away.  After several minutes, the clinic in-charge stood up, took her hand and nudged her to the back. There, voices were raised. Alas, they were speaking Acholi and even though I was now standing stealthily at a corner trying to listen in, I didn’t understand a thing! Ah, you’d have to be a journalist to understand the frustration of listening to a row that you can’t make heads or tails of.

But then again, when you are a journalist, you’ll know how to know the juicy details. When the nurse came back into the clinic, I pulled on my most sincere looking of fake sympathetic looks and asked, “hey, what’s wrong?”  Still flustered and defensive, she pointed to the back of the clinic and said, “she came here for an implant (contraceptive) three weeks ago. I think she was already pregnant but we didn’t do a pregnancy test because the lab technician was on leave.  Now she thinks she got pregnant on our implant.” Auuch! This wasn’t going to end well. I was now genuinely sympathetic with both of them.  I also wished I hadn’t gotten into it because a) I wasn’t on a reporting trip and b) I didn’t have any wisdom to add to the situation.  I just sat down with a sheepish look. But the nurse pinched a little more of my skin into the game.  “She already has five children and her husband beat for the last one.  She wants me to remove the pregnancy.”

 “Remove the pregnancy? It’s not exactly equal to a piece of meat stuck between her teeth that you might remove a tooth pick!” I wanted to say something like that but I recognized it would be inappropriate and redundant. So instead, we sat in silence for a really long time. I wished fervently that the driver I was waiting for would come and take me away. By then, I was the only other person left at the facility. Perhaps if I went away, they would have this whole conversation over again and break the impasse. The driver took his sweet time. So, we sat some more. I worked hard at keeping my eyes away from either of them. The nurse eventually went back to her desk and busied herself leafing through a register.  The patient sat just outside to the back of the clinic, angry eyes trained on the nurse, feet planted firmly on the ground. She looked like she would murder that nurse before she walked out of that place with that pregnancy. 

By 1 pm, three hours after I had asked this nurse if I could sit at her clinic and wait, my driver was still a no-show. Things happen on a really stretchy timeline when one is doing field work! Eventually, my journalistic impulses got the better of me once again. I gingerly walked over to the nurse’s desk and awkwardly asked, “do you know how to remove a pregnancy?” She nodded without expression. “Will you remove her pregnancy?”  This time with just a hint of irritation she said to me, “It is her choice. Let me go and counsel her.  If that’s what she wants, that’s what she wants.” She abruptly got up and started to briskly walk towards the woman outside. As if she recalled midway that counseling is supposed to be a kind act, she halted briefly, visibly relaxed her back and went on to the woman.

They didn’t go off to a special and safe counseling room somewhere. This wasn’t the movies. The nurse didn’t comfortingly pat the patient’s hand to re-assure her she would be fine. This definitely wasn’t the movies. The patient didn’t break down and cry on her counselor’s shoulder. Definitely, definitely not the movies. I couldn’t see the nurse’s face. She had her back to me. But through the doorless exit to the back of the clinic, I could see the patient’s face – an unchanging mask painted with one unwavering emotion – rage. Hell’s fury. Whatever the nurse might have been saying, it sure didn’t look like it was working any wonders. Indeed, it was the very definition of futility. Finally, my driver showed up. I walked over to the doorless opening, thanked the nurse for letting me wait at her premises I clumsily scampered out of the place in a daze of emotions and thoughts. 

I had been pro-choice for a long time. And in my naivety up to that point, I had thought that stance mattered to women with crisis pregnancies. In my mind’s eye, I had always seen myself as some sort of quiet minor warrior for women being allowed the right of choosing whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term. But that day, I finally understood why they call choice a right. You see, like all other rights, it is inalienable. You don’t have to allow a pregnant woman the right to remove a pregnancy. She just has it. I could have somersaulted in protest at that angry woman’s decision that day. Or I could have mounted a parade and hang banners in solidarity with her. Either way, I still would have been an unregistered part of her background. I had seen the look in her eyes. That unwavering fury at the unwanted thing that was growing inside her. The thing that if left unchecked would fetch her yet another round of beatings. The thing that would be yet another mouth whose needs would break her back in the garden all the days of its life. The things she referred to as the clinic’s pregnancy. All the tantrums in the world wouldn’t have stopped her from wanting it out. And something told me all the laws in the world were not going to stop her from trying it get it out. In the same vein, all the pro-choice anthems in the world would not have made her any less furious at everything. Inalienable right, indeed.

I started to think that maybe pro-choice and pro-life are but meaningless badges. That’s like saying you are pro-breathing. If your stand on the matter will affect whether or not the next person breathes, what’s the meaning of the badge?  So maybe pro-choice people aren’t the little warriors of women’s right to choice. Like it or not, a pregnant woman has that choice. And when she has to exercise it, she won’t care who is on which side of the fence.  Maybe pro-choice people are merely the people who choose to be helpful rather than stand across the road throwing tantrums about a thing they can’t affect. They still are my kind of people anyway. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Ugandans Adopt. Do you want to?

So, have I told you that ‘they’ made a YouTube video of me just because I am thinking of having a baby? Well, they did. Here. ‘They’ is Ugandans Adopt, a campaign that is reaching out to Ugandans interested in adopting babies. Aidah Agwang, runs the campaign. Basically, she is the person to call in case you are a Ugandan who is interested in adoption (be it as a volunteer or prospective parent). She's visiting this blog today to tell you more about that. 

 “Ugandans Adopt was founded on the belief that all children deserve to grow up with a loving family, instead of in institutional care. During my interview for this role, I remember being asked what I thought about adoption in Uganda.  I told the interview panel that I believed, while it is a relatively new concept in Uganda, all we had to do was put the word out. My task as Communications Officer is to run our Ugandans Adopt multi media campaign promoting adoption in Uganda, supported by the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development.  11 months later we have discovered the huge appetite that Ugandans’ have for adoption and have shattered the myth that Ugandans’ aren’t interested in adoption.

At our emergency care centre, Malaika Babies’ Home, we provide short-term care for babies until we can find them a family. I’m usually based at our small offices at Malaika and every day brings something new. Seeing a little one go home to a loving family and how they blossom thereafter, are some of the special moments that I never tire of.

There have been times after I have accompanied our Social Work Team to collect a child who has been abandoned when I could almost breakdown but, fortunately, this is always short lived. In our care, the babies are so quick to thrive and, above all, love again.

To date we have 28 Ugandan families and individuals who have adopted children from Malaika and another 35 who are on a waiting list to adopt.  Our social workers are currently assessing even more people who are interested in adopting, too. Our Ugandans Adopt Facebook page has 3,345 followers to date and growing every day. The Ugandan media has embraced our campaign and we have been able to appear on major media outlets like The Sunday Vision. I think it’s safe to say Ugandans’ are definitely more than just interested in adoption.
What makes my job so worthwhile is not just seeing a child go home but knowing, after our social workers conduct follow up visits, how truly happy they are. It always brings a smile to my face. It is why I do what I do. At Ugandans Adopt we strongly believe that every child belongs in a family – and we couldn’t achieve this without our supporters. Thank you so much from all the team at Ugandans Adopt for helping us make families instead of orphans.”

To find out more about our Ugandans Adopt Campaign, call Aidah on 0776110304 or send an email to You can also visit our website @ , find us on Facebook or follow us on twitter.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Let's Precede the Sex Thing with Some Romantic Ritual Pleeaaaseee!

While working with communities in South Sudan, Aisha, my best friend, a conflict resolution specialist, had an interesting experience. One of the locals fell head over heels in love with her. Suddenly! Love at first sight! The works.

Deng was every stereotypical characterization that you might have about a random village guy who comes to collect perdiem from a conflict resolution meeting that is being held to address the fact that his village somewhere in the Equatorial state of South Sudan is fighting with the next one over a water spring. And now, there he was, in sudden love with a Kampala city babe who had been flown by an international NGO. Chances that his love would be requited were below zero from start. But that didn't stop him from putting his best foot forward.

The evening after he fell in love, Deng went back to his village and hired someone he thought could write English to pen a sonnet to the object of his love. Turns out the guy couldn’t write much more than a few disjointed words of English but none the wiser, Deng paid for the service, slotted the epistle into a white envelope and set about delivering it.

To deliver it, Deng washed his bicycle, took a bath, lathered up with Cussons Imperial soap and donned his only suit. Then he got onto his bicycle and with two escorts rode into the camp where Aisha the expatriate was residing. There, he handed over the letter accompanying it with a vernacular rant so agitated that it led Aisha to believe he might commit suicide or even murder her if she didn’t take the letter from his hands. Indeed, in the torturous English that had been thrown onto that paper, Aisha read enough to know that the subject was; love that hang dangerously close to motivating suicide should it be denied. We may sadly assume that Deng is dead because his proclamation of love was denied indeed.

As absurd as Deng’s audacity might seem, I have a certain admiration for his execution. Quite frankly, I wish men who propositioned me put at least half as much thought into it as Deng. Contrast Deng’s effort with the kind of clumsy and crass poking that a modern girl gets on the Kampala dating scene.

Example: I first met him on a Friday night at a company dinner. We didn't talk. He was too far down the table from me. Sometime after that dinner, it was established that we lived on the same side of town and someone asked me to give him a lift home. He agreed not to get in the way of the bar hopping plans I already had in mind but tag along until I was ready to drop him. In the course of the night, we established he was married with kids. Good. He was also sorta good company - with all that airy academic analysis of feminism that he had going. Grown, educated. I assumed 'respectful'would follow. Haha! Before the night was out, he was asking me to check into a lodge with him! Are you fucking kidding me?!?!?!

Like seriously people!...!!!....!!! When did we ban those little romantic rituals that used to precede a request for sex? You know, the now officially extinct tradition of telling me about your feelings before hand, giving me a few weeks to process the information, wearing a suit on the day you are going to hear my response (yes, wearing a suit!) et cetera et cetera? Okay, I know dinner and dates are a foreign tradition but if you insist on keeping it local, perhaps you should go ask my father for my hand in marriage first! Even what used to be booty calls have now decidedly degenerated into booty texts. 

I am gonna set a guy on fire one of these days. Too annoyed!  

Monday, September 23, 2013

Give Me Better Death

It used to take armies
Big battalions of men
Armored like Goliath
It used to take armies
To hold a people ransom

It used to take heroes
Men in service to country
Involved with the heroes across
Each true to own patriotism
Each true to own dame back home

Now it takes bandits
Cowards, sociopaths, insane
They that kill for the heck of it
Too short on courage or imagination
To fight like heroes across a trench

Lord, I know, die I must
But pray give me better death
Not death at a coward's hand
A hand too small for a square fist fight
That's much too small a death

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

“I am sorry because I aborted the third born!”

Months ago, I was part of a community workshop which was discussing how to avail family planning services in rural Uganda. At the workshop, we had about 16 members of the health ministry’s village health team network. They had come to the workshop both in their capacities as primary health care givers as well as micro-entreprenuers. These men and women wanted to buy small bulks of USAID family planning vouchers (at Sh1000 a piece) and resell at sh2000 each to their community members. On its part, the USAID and its partner NGO – Marie Stopes Uganda, would freely give every woman who showed up with the voucher any family planning they wanted even if it would have cost the woman as much as sh50,000 on the open market.

As part of the usual workshop introductions, everyone in the room was to stand up, tell us their name and a bit about their family. It all was boringly ordinary until one woman who I later learnt was 40 yrs (she looked no more than 30 to me) stood up. The said her name and that she had 7 children. But she didn’t sit down as would have been expected. Instead, she said again, “I have 7 children but only 6 of them are alive.” We all murmured our awkward condolences. Still she didn’t sit down. She went on, “Only six of them are alive and I am sorry madame!” She looked pointedly at me when she said this. I was leading the workshop so it made sense that she would be addressing me but avoided her pointed look. She crowned my awkwardness with, “I am sorry because I aborted the third born.”

Huh! What do you say to that? She had aborted? She was saying it in a room full of people. She was looking pointedly at me and saying she was sorry. What was I supposed to say? First of all, I realized, she wasn’t addressing me just because I was the leader of the workshop. She was actually APOLOGIZING TO ME! But why me? Did she assume that being a representative of a medical service project I was a medical person who has had to deal with the mess that people who abort show up with? Did she assume that being educated, I was the kind of woman who has probably always known how to avoid an unwanted pregnancy and therefore would judge those that have abortions? The later assumption would really hurt me because it wouldn’t be the first time I am typified that way. Once, when the daughter of my mother’s laundry lady dropped out of school with a pregnancy, she reacted to my inquiry about it with pure hatred in my eyes saying, “That wouldn’t happen to you. You have already been taught how to have sex without getting pregnant.”  I was 15 years old and 5 years away from my first sexual encounter but I didn’t even as much as argue with her. Keen to avoid a similar scene, I said I was sorry that had happened and quickly called on the next person to introduce himself.

Yet, after the session, this woman still walked up to me, brought the subject up again and once again pointedly apologized to me. I told her she didn’t have to apologise for anything and certainly not to me but she didn’t drop the subject even then. Instead, she explained to me that she knows that what she did was wrong and she had nearly lost her life for it. She told me about lying in her blood on a bed in the local health centre II were the nurse only had a sponge dipped in water to care for her with. Where she might have needed a blood transfusion, the nurse ordered her to relentlessly suck on the wet sponge for rehydration. After a few days, she could eat & drink so relatives brought her food believed to help with blood supply – mostly red dodo.

Somehow she survived to tell the story. And because she told me the story, there are few causes quite as close to my heart as providing contraceptives to women. So, here is to organisations like Marie Stopes Uganda, UHMG, USAID, Reproductive Health Uganda  and DFID which I know try. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Book Review: A Good African Story

When you are a reader of books on the macro level socio-economic or socio-political state of the African continent, your options usually come with titles like; ‘Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles’, ‘Dead Aid’, ‘What Went Wrong with Africa’, ‘Africa is in a Mess: What went wrong and what should be done’, ‘The White Man’s Burden…’. Even when you are not a denier of the troubles on this continent, these bleak invocations eventually get you angry and defensive. Mr Rugasira’s book came with the happy title; ‘A Good African Story’. To borrow Dorothy Boyd’s famous line; he had me at hello. That definitely was a title I was bound to buy.

It is a good African story. Good, because a man builds a business from idea to considerable success right in the space of less than 10 years. It is African because most obviously, the main characters and events are African but also in the nuanced drama of it all. On his very first exploratory meeting with coffee farmers, Mr Rugasira is playfully threatened with circumcision as an acceptance ritual in Mbale. Later on in Kasese, he is threateningly stared down by a woman who caricatures his intentions in the image of the impotent aid projects that litter the life story of an African farmer. Over in the west, Mr Rugasira has the misfortune of coming off as a black man pulling sham-swag when he gets to sleep in one of New York’s best hotels thanks to a family & friends discount from his brother in-law who works there. The same nuanced drama follows him into western boardrooms where people to whom he makes serious business proposals sometimes treat him like a mere impressive African boy. For example; by giving him a pat of the back before shooing him out of their boardrooms without any real feedback on the business proposed.

This book attempts to strike a balance between being a business biography of Mr Rugasira or Good African Limited and a discussion of the macro-level issues that impede Africa’s involvement in international trade. I would have had tilt more to one of the two than balance the act. In particular I would have had it be more a biography of the man because there is no shortage of literature analyzing Africa’s issues. Infact, Mr Rugasira’s own discussion of the issues is more of a systematic analysis of this existing literature than his own opinion. Plus, telling a personal story can be a really powerful way to highlight the issues in a reader friendly manner. Having read quite a bit of the existing analysis of African’s issues, I found the first three chapters slow going, only picking up pace in places where Mr Rugasira talks about his own family history and at the brief part where he delves into his own opinion on what impact the expulsion of Asian population may or may not have had on the Ugandan economy at the time.   

Speaking of his opinion, I wish there was more of it in the book. I enjoyed his whipping of Fair Trade for instance but for the most part, Rugasira guards against being too hotly opinionated instead referring to other publications where he might have been more so – like his 2007 piece for the Guardian. But why shouldn’t he be hotly opinionated? He is smart, intellectual and has in his very own African skin experienced the global market place. Andrew Mwenda has only the first two (less qualifying) of the mentioned attributes and without bridle speaks a bucketful on the subject. I am willing to bet that off the record, Rugasira says so much more than he did in the book. In my humble opinion, that is a damn shame!

You may not mind it but I regretted that the book offered rather little on the personal drama side of things. I have two lasting images of this from the book. One of Rugasira bursting into Sudhir's office to offer his  own house in lieu of loan repayments because he had had it with Crane bank creditors hounding him. Another stars him audaciously but with quiet fear intruding on the central bank governor (at home) in a desperate attempts to get his company approved for the loan facility that later landed him in hot soup with Sudhir’s bank. Why isn’t there more of this kind of scene? Surely, the machinations of getting an international business from idea to success in less than 10 years must have offered much more fodder than this. Another argument for why the book should have been more deeply autobiographical.

All that said, I think the book is well worth a read. If this review reads kind of jumpy and ill at transition, live with it. The book itself sort of reads the same but look, you got to the end of this so you will get to the end of the book too. Albeit with the same feelings as you now feel about the review - that you should take an editing hand at it but are happy to have read it. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

‘Ole ‘Ole to the Loud Annoying Feminists Out There

I just read yet another piece celebrating the quiet feminist. The privately strong woman who fixes her light bulbs, changes her car tires and achieves her own but doesn’t disturb the peace with all that agitation about women’s rights, equality and all that other brass stuff. Lately, I have read so much about this kind of feminist that I was beginning to feel a little ashamed of my own taste in feminists. I have always favoured the loud, disruptive Tamales and Kimbugwes over my next door privately independent woman. Then, on a facebook thread debating the current marriage and divorce bill, a woman arrogantly proclaimed, “I am not a feminist and I will never be.” That statement just made me snap. Really?! How far are we going to rescind before we are back to square zero thanking our husbands for loving us enough to beat us?
So this hear, is to say, I am done and tired of apologetic feminism. This is to sing a loud bellowing ‘ole ‘ole to that loud, disruptive feminist who earned my equality and other freedoms. This is to send a resounding slap across the face of that quietly independent woman. Get off your ass and help a girl become what someone else earned for you.

Yes, there are strong and wonderfully independent women in the world whose children should sing their praises. I like to think I am one of them. But does being an independent woman necessarily earn one the right to be decorated feminist? I think not. Unless we are willing to equate a repaired shoe to the cobbler who mended it, that quietly independent woman is a product of feminism but not a feminist herself. Unless of course she does something that actually reduces the disadvantage at which women in her society stand.
You see, we trivialize feminism when we interpret it as being merely about our individual lifestyles and self-esteem. “Oh, see I am a feminist. I fix my own light bulbs. I can change a tire.” If that was what feminism was about, we would have shored ages ago considering how easy it is to change a bulb. But it isn’t about you and yourself esteem. Instead, feminism is up again some major obstacles that litter our systems and laws. Things that actually kill women. Forget about dirtying your designer blouse as you change tires.  These are things that we cannot put to an end simply by having a high self-esteem. Consider that upto 100 women in this country are murdered by their spouses each year. Now, how does the slactivism of plugging your own plumbing change that?

The thing that most saddens me when I read about this sweet humble feminist is that invariably she is compared to the disruptive system warrior. Apparently she deserves as much praise as Sylivia Tamale or Miria Matembe. Are you kidding me? To change the reality of women she will never even meet, Tamale puts in all the law and research hours it requires. Matembe takes all the public ridicule to her femininity that it takes. FIDA lawyers publically shed tears over the delay a domestic relations bill they probably don’t need themselves. In so doing, they change national policy and perspective and thereby shift the meter for women’s wellbeing.  Do you really think that is the equivalent of your mother raising you? Well my dear, unless your mama’s quite strength has the charisma and circumstance of Mahatma Gandhi’s it is unlikely to change much for anyone except you. Meanwhile, another 40,000 women will die this year procuring an unsafe abortion because a government dominated by men and privileged women continues to de-prioritise contraceptive care.

So fix all the light bulbs you want but in my book, you are not a feminist until you are doing something to better the lives of women beyond you.