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.