by Sharon Walling
The first time I saw a Ugandan woman in her traditional garb, Lord Byron’s verse “She walks in beauty, like the night,” flashed in my mind. The women of Uganda are pictures of grace. They are stately and quiet.
When I was a little girl, my mother used to tell me to improve my posture. She would make me practice walking with a book on my head. The women of Uganda walk with a myriad of things on their heads: crates of eggs, bags of grasshoppers, baskets of bananas, and even water jugs, often while holding a wriggling child with one hand and with a baby strapped to their back.
Perhaps this strength they possess comes from their straight backs. No matter what the women are doing — picking vegetables, planting a garden, or washing clothes in their little plastic basins — they do so while maintaining perfect posture. They appear to be hinged at the waist, as they bend with a flat back, not curved or arched in any way. They work for hours on end, bent over, in the sun.
Often in town, we see a very short woman, whom we’ve been told is over eighty years old. That’s nearly a miracle in Uganda. Her advancing years aside, she walks daily to her bore hole, and her stance is poker-straight.
Even the women who can afford to ride a boda-boda, a motorcycle taxi, sit side saddle, head high, back straight, as the motorcycle drivers zig zag in and out of traffic. The passenger will hold on to her purse with one hand, and the small “seat” with the other.
Prior to the elections, the cities and villages had many visits from the president as part of his campaign for another term. Local authorities wanted their streets and villages to look clean and welcoming. They hired only women to be the road cleanup crew. Female citizens lined the streets in Kampala wearing official orange vests, and they swept the roads and edges of the highways with handmade brooms. Despite the difficult and extensive task, their flat backs never lost their perfect form during all those hours of labor, which would undoubtedly make them the envy of any choreographer catching a glimpse of the spectacle.
At around five o’clock, the majority of the women in cities and villages gather their children and their plastic jerry cans to make the mile or more journey to the bore hole so they can get their water for the next day or so. Most have a jug on their heads, as well as one in each hand. The children carry smaller jugs to fill.
The bore hole is the equivalent of the office water cooler — lots of conversation, even gossip and laughter. There will be dozens of families waiting to get their turn at the pump.
The pump looks like the old farm house water pumps. The handle is low to the ground. The women place their containers beneath the pump and bend down with their flat backs to pump the water. It takes over five minutes of pumping to fill one five-gallon can. But they are happy to do so, and even happier to tread their mile(s) back to the village after waiting and working the pump. The children never complain about their role, either. It’s part of their life. It’s never even questioned. I can’t imagine telling a five or six-year-old American child to walk two miles to stand in the sun and pump water so it can be brought back to the house, only to do it all again in two days.
The women work hard and do many things to add to the family income. They make their own charcoal so they can cook their meals. They then sell the excess charcoal. They make their own brooms to sweep their dirty porches and floors, then provide them to local shops. Catching and roasting grasshoppers to sell on the streets is seasonal work. (If you’re curious, they taste like beef jerky, but the texture is a bit flakey.)
The babies of Ugandan women are all living miracles. There are no hospitals. Small medical centers are available, but a patient in labor must provide all their own essentials — clean sheets, a pan for the placenta, bandages, pads, and flashlights in case the power goes out. Indeed, many babies are lost in childbirth. In addition to poor medical facilities, one child dies every twenty minutes from malaria. In spite of major net campaigns, malaria flourishes. For older children and adults, its prevalence is accepted as readily as Western cultures accept the common flu.
Ugandan women are very attentive mothers. The babies who survive are loved and treasured.
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