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Re-Thinking ‘Feminist Rhetoric’ on Uganda


“Beatings (of women) were routine and increasing in the 1920s as an important tool of Chiefs’ administration of order and cotton cultivation. None of this was traditional. The chiefs, their courts, and the regional divisions they administered were all twentieth century innovations, based on Ganda (Buganda) models ... With Teso reporting that at least 926 women had been whipped by courts over the previous two years. All of this was illegal as courts lacked statutory authority for corporal sentences on women.”

This is an extract from an article by Carol Summers that is titled: “Whips and Women: Forcing Change in Eastern Uganda during the 1920s.”

I am among those Iteso (the people of the firth largest first nation of Uganda) who had internalised the view that Iteso men from time immemorial are inherent women beaters. Yes, I was ashamed of what I ignorantly accepted as a part of Iteso heritage – our men as women beaters. And yes, I was tolerant of the kind of ‘feminist rhetoric’ that categorises Iteso men and by extension Ugandan men and by extension black African men as inherent barbaric women beaters.

Summers gives me a glimpse into Teso (the region) pre-colonisation. I like what I see.  I am proud of our genuine Iteso heritage. Our men were not women beaters pre-colonisation. Summers clearly indicates that pre-colonisation, agriculture in Teso was principally oriented toward subsistence (food and nutrition security) rather than export. The significant and central role of women maintaining their families’ subsistence was celebrated.

Iteso ensured women had land that was allocated to them (woman land) to farm and to control the produce from that land for the purpose of providing for their families. This kind of organisation – allocating woman land to women - is the highest of what I consider civilised. A situation where women and by extension their families have full control of the factors of production that ensure their food and nutrition security.

Sadly, an ethnocide of Iteso civilisation was effectively orchestrated by those foreigners who colonised Teso, including Christian missionaries. They did so, moreover, in the name of civilisation, modernisation, progress, and all those concepts and terms that are continuously used in vague and abstract ways; and yet in reality they are but just a smoke scream for gross human rights violations.

It is they who colonised Teso that triggered processes that led to the disempowerment of Iteso women – reallocation of ‘woman land’ to production of cash crops, starting with cotton during the colonial period and now in the case of ‘modern crops’ such as Epuripur  sorghum for brewing bottled beer.

Not only, did ‘colonial civilisation interventions’ facilitate disenfranchisement of women of their land use rights, they ensured that women became purely labourers on the land that men controlled; which land was not for the purpose of producing food for domestic consumption but rather for production of cash crops, such as cotton for the benefit of the colonialists; and whose sales income the men controlled.

Yes, folklore, as told by my aunts and by my grandmas (RIP), reveals that my paternal grandpa, Ejakait Yosia Engatunyun, the Lion, (RIP), was such a chief who enforced the colonial innovation of “wives as agricultural workers” for production of cash crops for the ultimate benefit of the colonialists. Thus, he was a part of the collaborators who facilitated the introduction and justification of wife beating for the “matrimonial offence of refusal to cultivate cotton for their husbands.”

I am intensely shaken by the revelation to me that my grandpa, a man that many revere, including me, was an effective enforcer of the colonialists’ version of ‘civilisation’. A version of civilisation which was pretty much that which is now categorised among that which is considered war crimes.

Sadly, those colonialists will never be tried and will never be brought to book to account for their inhumanity and inhumane actions against women of Teso, women of Ugandan and women of Africa.

Summers conclusively demonstrates how the colonial government “officials, missions, and elite cotton-growing Africans regarded women as too powerful and independent, threatening their progress agenda. They therefore saw official violence not as traditional or part of a defence of customary law, but as an innovative and progressive way of dealing with women who were central to the farming economy and far too independent for men’s comfort.”

What a profound effect Summers’ work has had on me. Oh my, oh my! No doubt, reading of Summers’ article will inspire in you as it has done in me the need to unpack development, progress, civilisation, modernisation, and other such concepts that we take as a given, in order that we may appreciate the depth and width of the human rights violations and the negative consequences – poverty and disempowerment - that those concepts seemingly represent.

The text of Summers’ full article is available here.

Photo Credit: Ms. Owaraga (in the middle) at the Karamoja Cultural Association stall during an exhibition in Kampalain 2017.

This view point is written by Ms.Owaraga, CPAR Uganda Ltd Managing Director (April 2012 to date). Read more about her here. Please note that her views expressed herein are not necessarily those of CPAR Uganda Ltd