Conte, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, collects 15 autobiographical essays by Ugandan women that question stereotypes of African femininity.
This anthology will introduce myriad new voices, some from Uganda’s women writers’ association, FEMRITE, to Western readers. All share an interest in reconciling traditional and Western practices. The opener, “My Name” by Nakisanze Segawa, uses names as cogent symbols of Christian and African values; she tells of how a hospital cashier refused to register her because she abandoned her “Christian” name in homage to Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. In another essay, Lydia Namubiru, who was raised Catholic, tells of how she feared demons ever since she witnessed an exorcism as a child: “There are no standards for balancing our imported faiths with our ancestral ones,” she notes. “Most people…straddle the fence.” The title piece by Caroline Ariba beautifully explores the gulf between educated, working women like herself and village women who bear many children, desperate for a son and heir. One of the responsibilities of ssengas, or paternal aunts, is to initiate girls into marriage and motherhood rites, and in Shifa Mwesigye’s “Ssengas and the Single Woman,” the collection’s standout, a bridal shower provides the occasion for a witty yet incisive dissection of gender roles. In it, a ssenga advocates total deference to one’s husband: kneeling, feeding him first, and washing him after sex. Although her friends laugh at this old-fashioned advice, Mwesigye recognizes that careful evaluation of traditional customs is healthier than knee-jerk rejection and that lessons on caring and service are valuable no matter their source. Two pieces on tomboy-hood seem repetitive, but most of the essays reveal fresh facets of African experience. For example, Peace Twine, in “Wife of the Enemy,” tells of enduring false arrest and months in a maximum security prison. In “No Time for Pain,” Harriet Anena artfully displaces the trauma of years in refugee camps using second-person narration, while haunting anonymous essays disclose sexual abuse and lesbian identity. “Change comes slowly,” Laura Walusimbi laments in her concluding piece on corporal punishment, later adding, “There are so many new challenges and no easy answers.”
A strong collection of memoiristic writing that illuminates African womanhood while blending diverse styles and experiences.