A Letter from Kampala
By Kalundi Serumaga
‘I want to talk to mummy.’
With those words, the edifice of a commitment to the emancipation of Uganda’s women should have come crashing down. It did not, but its inherent hollowness was certainly confirmed in my mind.
The words were spoken by one Miria Matembe, a Ugandan feminist icon and media magnet. A lawyer, former government minister and former parliamentarian of long-standing, Matembe was being kept waiting on the end of a phone line to Uganda’s first lady, Mrs Janet Museveni. It was an election year. Matembe had recently learned that her long-uncontested seat in parliament was to be challenged.
Janet Museveni is the patron and leader of The Uganda Women’s Effort to Save the Orphans, a pillar of her church, a dutiful wife, a graduate in education from the national university; a government minister; an elected member of parliament; and, seemingly, a model of African womanhood and of gender representation in politics.
Nowithstanding, in March 2009, the Uganda-based Independent Magazine published a feature that listed no fewer than 30 persons employed in senior positions in the government and army who were said to be related to the Museveni family, mainly through the first lady; some years before, the Observer Magazine ran a story about how the president and the first lady contributed to cronyism and corruption in the Uganda police force; in November last year, a former health minister, in the dock for embezzling roughly US$100,000, submitted documentation to back up a convoluted story as to how he had actually passed all the cash to the first lady (in her capacity as a minister) through one of her minions; and rumours abound about how Janet Museveni acquired her degree in education.
This is where Miria Matembe – today an outspoken critic of government who condemns theft and corruption at every turn – becomes relevant. Matembe cut her teeth building a civil society body working on gender issues. She served on the board of the Uganda chapter of FIDA, the global feminist advocacy body; for many years she captured the public imagination as a member of parliament, during which she called for the castration of child-rapists and stronger laws for work-based sexual harassment.
Matembe was the model of the liberated – and liberating – Ugandan woman that feminism had been waiting for. And yet here she was referring to the wife of a dictator as “mummy”. Was this an attempt to feminise patriarchal power or to celebrate positive matriarchal power? As with the African dictators, intellectual excuse-making has for too long mollycoddled persons who wear ill-fitting clothing of political virtue.
Janet Museveni’s husband runs one of Africa’s longer-running dictatorships. For more than a quarter-century, it has orchestrated the economic ruin of Ugandan society through full-throated adherence to the economic policies as per the Washington Consensus and backed up by brute military force. What relief is offered in the form of socio-economic donor aid has been gobbled up by a vast network of cronies. All this is offset by the great donor-driven gender programme, which has ensured affirmative action on elected positions and university entrance points, the creation of special parliamentary seats and the appointment of Uganda’s first woman vice-president.
Although Museveni cannot be held responsible for her husband’s actions and omissions, we can ask ourselves why ardent feminists such as Matembe find themselves in need of a person who keeps such company.
This story features in Chronic 1, April 2013 – an edition featuring writing, art and photography inflected by the workings of innovation, creativity and resistance.
Stories range from investigations into the business of moving corpses to the rhetoric of land theft and loss; from latent tensions between Africa’s most powerful nations to the soft power of the biggest satellite television provider; and from the unspoken history of Rushdie’s “word crimes” to the unwritten history of PAGAD. It also investigates crime writing in Nigeria, Kenya and India, takes score of the media’s muted response to the ‘artistry’ of the World’s No1 Test batsman, rocks to the new sound of Zambia’s Copper Belt and tells the story of one man’s mission to take down colonialisms monumental history.
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