I was born Woman


An African Woman's Story from Kampala, Uganda

I was born woman!

Her story is reflective of the story of many Ugandan women

Irene had come toI was born Woman see me for help. I had met her at the airport and we had spoken as she served me some samosas at a restaurant while I was waiting for a flight to Kigali, Rwanda. People were always interested in the kind of work I did and often wanted to stay in touch about a job or help for a relative. Here was a person who had come to see me because she needed help, had come to the end of herself and felt that maybe I would know what to do. Tears were streaming down her face as she told me that the manager where she worked had asked her to have sex with him in order to keep her job as a waitress at the restaurant. Her salary was only 50 dollars a month but even that was more than most people made who had to yield a shovel all day long.

As she told me her story she said something that touched my heart profoundly, "My problem is, I was born woman." There was such a sadness in her voice, I could tell she was speaking from the depth of her being. It was the cry of her heart, her frustration, her inner war of values; she wanted to be someone of significance who could simply hold a job on the basis of quality work given.

She was not the only one who had told me of such trials and tribulations. Every other woman had been told the same things and it was not unusual what I was hearing, it simply reflected the ongoing practices and was one of the many reasons AIDS had impacted Uganda and other parts of Africa as much as it had. (One woman told me that her husband had confessed to 50 affairs during the period of 12 months)

Africa and women; on the one hand they are the matriarchs of society, simply because they outlive men, on the other hand on their way to getting to be the matriarch, the journey is strewn with pain, tears, sweat, abuse, shame based communication and so much more.

It begins during the formative years as often the boys receive schooling and not the girls, since after all they are meant to work around the house, tend the gardens, wash, clean and wait on the men. Women and girls also make the local home-brew (a beer like substance) and often the local gin or other hard liquor like "Lira Lira" in the north of Uganda.

Most often girls do not receive any schooling beyond primary education though slowly that is changing as families have more money, or government legislation is helping as in Uganda, there it is only the first four children of a family and leaves out many children. Aid organizations a times help, but there are not enough of them to cover all the children of Africa.

When a girl reaches puberty she is often violated by a relative or a neighbor and the stories of incest abound reflecting one of the hidden sins of African life. This goes along with the fact that women are seen as sexual objects and though AIDS education has taken root in Uganda there is still the idea that women are simple objects of enjoyment. This is in a nation that has made much progress for Africa; a woman is the Vice-president of Uganda and she is a very outspoken woman who in 1997 told the parliament to practice personal hygiene and wash their socks, but that is an exception and not the norm. (Rwanda has a minister of "Promotion of Femininity and Family"

Many young girls in the country go through the rite of womanhood that consists of female circumcision. It is said that 35% of African women are still circumcised, while in countries like Somalia it is almost 100%. If you went to a young girl and tried to talk her out of it she would become angry since she would not understand. To her female circumcision is a rite of passage into womanhood, something she wanted to become in the same manner as her mother, her grandmothers, and friends. To her it was sacred, to someone like us, mutilation. An older woman who is the tribal circumcision person often carries out the actual act in a very crude manner.

A woman entering the job market faces some overwhelming challenges, some of which are faced by both men and women while others are unique to women. In Africa one just does not get a job as in the West by applying via a resume' and maybe demonstrating the skills one has. There one has to know someone that works in the business or organization they are applying with. One has to have a relative, a friend, a member of the same tribe or otherwise one does not even get into the door. I had a friend who graduated from Makerere University with a degree in Ecology and wound up as a dishwasher in a local casino because he was from the wrong tribe.

When Africans read about affirmative action programs for groups or gender they laugh. They cannot believe such things even exist, since discrimination based on gender or tribe is a daily occurrence in most of African society. This is in spite of President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda bringing together people of many tribes into his government. The reality is that one simply does not change overnight what has always existed.

If you do know someone in the business you are applying with, you still might have to come up with step two of your job search, something extra for the one who will be hiring you. A woman who has not earned a salary will have a hard time coming up with some money. Money is what is asked for most often, not just a one-time bribe, but a percentage of the ongoing salary. The third way is by having sex with the one who is hiring.

Women have to fight to get good jobs, often they might get a good position but the pay is not the same as for men. Some women own businesses but often they inherited them. Women do use some of their entrepreneurial skills and open up small shops where they stay from early morning until late at night selling their wares such as newspapers, cigarettes, food items and produce.

Some women venture into the arena of prostitution and sell themselves in order to keep their brothers and sisters in school, their family supplied with basic food, shelter and clothing. The result often is abuse, or even worst HIV positive and death.

I came to my office one morning and there standing amongst the typically dressed Ugandan ladies was a young woman in tight jeans, a halter top with midriff showing. I could see that all those around her were avoiding her. I asked her if she was being helped, and she informed me that she had brought her sister to the school that was part of the agency I worked with. She opened up freely and said that she did not want her sister to wind up like her, not reading nor writing and unable to hold a normal job. She brought her sister so that she would have the future that she had been unable to have.

One would think that marriage would solve all problems for a woman, but it certainly does not. Just a few years back the parliament in Kenya voted down a law that would have made it illegal to beat one's wife. Infidelity is very common for men and often results in the wife and children yet to be born being infected with HIV. (according a Church of Uganda Bishop in a report in the Monitor Newspaper-86% of men who are married or in a live in relationship have illicit affairs resulting in increase of HIV transmission)

In spite of it all the African family would not exist without women carrying on the traditions of family and tribe. In most cases men die much sooner than women and the women become the matriarch of the family honored by all, being sought for advice and counsel. It takes a while but at the end of the day, the woman rules the roost, but what a rough journey to get there.

Irene was still crying, wishing she had not been born woman in a society that favored men, belittled women unless they outlived their husbands. She asked me, "What should I do? What can I do? How can I survive and keep my honor? She is not the only African woman asking such questions....jon 

An African Woman writes:

The following letter is from a friend who helped me in Africa work with an orphanage. She has come to America and wrote me this letter just recently after reading this page.

Hi Jon

Yes, I am woman!!!! Coming from the "wrong tribe" ( the Kikuyu) and being a woman worked against me in trying to get a job. Worse still, I was viewed as being too independent, too confident and intimidating, those were certainly not the sought after criteria when looking for a job. However, I did not let that dampen my ambitious self. I decided that pursuing my career academically was a right move despite what "others" said or thought. I found my way to the USA, " the land of the free?!?!? and....."

Here in the land of the "free" and with all the affirmative actions, I was still subjected to the same rules and barriers I had confronted while in Nairobi, BECAUSE I WAS WOMAN. But worse still I was/am a minority....something I did not have to deal with in Africa. Most who tried to be honest with me talked of "networking". I figured that was a great path after all with the move to globalization, networking is what it's all about. One year later is when it became clear that "networking" meant who you knew...who would pull the strings for you. So it is no different from where I come from....it's only that they use fancy words. I saw this all the more while in "corporate America". You only gave in your resume to fulfill an official purpose and cover your behind...but really what counts is who you know in the company or organization.

It's going to be a hard trek to get to where I want to go....there will be tears, laughter, disappointments, joys, barriers and breakthroughs. However, I cannot afford to concentrate on these barricades...my focus is on my goal...and every time I hit a snag I think of it as a challenge to be overcome. There is One who watches over me and gives me strength to overcome as I focus on my goal.

I speak for African women, striving to fulfill their dreams in this gender and race discriminating world...whether it is demonstrated overtly or in a subtle way.

I am and will always be WOMAN!!!



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I was born woman - an African Woman's story in Uganda

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