In her poem Our Voice (Chipasula and Chipasula 1995: 166–67) Noémia de Sousa (1926–2002) speaks about “our voice of Africa” as that voice that is liberative; that voice which opens “up new ways” and “lights up remorse … and burns glimmers of hope in the dark souls of desperate people” who cry out for emancipation from “slavery.” That voice which creates new possibilities by awakening a “cyclone of knowledge.” That voice which can persistently and effectively represent the aspirations of “millions of voices that shout, shout and shout!” for freedom and self-actualization.
Implicit in Noémia's poem is the contention that there is a particular kind of voice which situates Africans1 into “speaking positions” (Simbao et al. 2017: 12) from which they collectively generate knowledge, challenge hegemonic exploitation, and resist oppression. This is the voice that can overcome the power structures laid by the north against the south; structures that have for decades muted our collective voice as Africans.
However, for this voice to remain fresh (like Noémia's “due of the bush”) and rise above patriarchal interests (based on Noémia's “selfishness of men”) it must include the voices of women. Women constitute over half of both world and African populations; Uganda's population is 50.26% women and 49.74% men (National Planning Authority 2015). Women provide the labor that sustains the continent's agricultural economy. Yet, although through affirmative action programs many women are enjoying better lives, the majority of women in the developing world still face challenges of access to information, reproductive and maternal health, and education (Erken 2017); “female poverty” affects many women in sub-Saharan Africa.
As such, there is a need for a voice that represents this complex constituency of women. For this purpose, the nonliberative voice seen in, among others, Shakuntala Hawoldar's poem To Be a Woman (Chipasula and Chipasula 1995: 134) is less than productive. This is because for Hawoldar to “be a woman, [is to be] a shadow without form. Wombing meaningless men in the endless chain of need; [t]o be worn on rainy days, like colorless old shoes.” Such a voice would (re)produce women's subjectivities that are irredeemably grounded in the essentialized position of women as victims of an all-powerful, omniscient, and omnipresent patriarchy that regulates their mobility and choices. Trapped in this (mainly domestic) space, the kind of voice women would contribute to the collective African voice would be an expression of agony, continuous abuse, and exploitation.2
The better voice, in my view, is that produced by the woman in Amina Saïd's My Woman's Transparence (Chipasula and Chipasula 1995: 33–34). Her subjectivity is not confined; she is situated in a world of unlimited possibilities (cast against “the whole sea as its mirror”) from which she can influence tastes and decisions and advocate for unity3 cusing her powerful voice, which “plays echo to its thunder and to its murmurs.”
Such a voice would allow women to address the wider issues affecting Africans. By taking such a stance women like President Ellen Johnson Serleaf of Liberia and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Mutha Maathai (1940–2011) of Kenya have made significant contributions to their countries. They participated in the shaping of their nation-states (Tripp 2015); they took a stand for not just their rights but those of others as well (including the environment, in the case of Maathai). In Uganda, Stella Nyanzi is embroiled in a bitter fight with Makerere University and the government of Uganda. She has, however, gone beyond fighting for personal privileges (including career development and office space)4 to raise governance questions (Kakande 2017). She has used graphic language to challenge Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, and his wife and minister for education Janet Kataaha Museveni, on their inability to honor a 2016 campaign promise to give sanitary pads to school-going girls.5 As a result Nyanzi joined a global conversation on women's reproductive rights through an activist campaign dubbed “conscious menstruation”6 for which she has been jailed. She is currently in court battling a state-sponsored attempt to declare her insane and thus permanently silence her, using an outdated colonial law.7
Lilian Nabulime is a female contemporary Ugandan artist. She has used art to situate and speak about women's experiences shaped by HIV/AIDs. She recently returned to these experiences in her exhibition Dreams and Consequences: Makerere Campus Girls’ Views of Womanhood and HIV/AIDS (2017) hosted at the Institute of Heritage Conservation and Research at Makerere University. The exhibition coincided with the debate, in the print and electronic media, on Stella Nyanzi's activism and the government's highhanded reactions to it. Of particular interest to Nabulime was that, while in the middle of her ordeal, Nyanzi remained steadfast, making a case that went beyond her personal interests to demand action on things that affect the lives of many women and girls in Uganda. In the process Nyanzi was “liberating herself and also liberating others.”8
Paying homage to Stella Nyanzi's liberative voice, Nabulime produced her sculpture Feminist (Fig. 1). Stella Nyanzi, Wangari Mutha Maathai, and Ellen Johnson Serleaf, among other elite women activists, have adopted a dress code based on textiles printed with “African” motifs, matching headgears, and locs to assert themselves as African, feminist activists. In Feminist Nabulime refers to this self-identification and the self-actualization that comes with it. She literally turned a coffee stump upside down to benefit from the natural arrangement of its roots, which she preserves in an interlocking coiffure. The inversion, however, was also metaphorical. It fitted well with her strategy to invert the patriarchal power economy that dominates women in Uganda. She argues that she made the work to celebrate women like Stella Nyanzi who “place the woman's voice beyond the narrow confines set around women's lives by the patriarchal society.”9
In sum, Africa needs a collective voice to speak about exploitation, challenge marginalization, and resist oppression. However, if this voice is to service a common good and qualify as truly “our voice of Africa,” then its tone has to be modified to accommodate liberative voices of women. Short of this, our voice of Africa will continue to reflect the same old noises made by Noémia's “criminals” and selfish men, especially the power-hungry political male elite who have ruled many African states since independence.
Here I am not limiting African-ness to an essentialized racial category.
The voice in Katrina Rungano's The Woman can be cited here as an example. Rungano produced a young woman who had lost sense of pride; her “body was weary and [her] heart tired” because of the gender-based violence and exploitation she faced (Chipasula and Chipasula 1995: 212).
On the point of unity, Saïd writes that: “we were; as one sea-swell; when we strode; toward land; we joined hands” (Chipasula and Chipasula 1995: 34). This articulation of unity seems to reflect Plato's political thought. In his Republic Plato gives insights on the benefits of unity (especially political unity), arguing that unity is about sharing pleasures and pains; it is the greatest good for a polis.
The argument that Nyanzi was fighting for personal privilege has been emphasized in Bezabeh, Ossome, and Mamdani (2017). It is, however, not agreed. For example, Sylvia Tamale argues that Nyanzi was appropriating culture to express dissent. She did not offend any written law; her rights need to be protected (Tamale 2016).
Controversy surrounds the issue of menstruation in Uganda; it is shrouded with taboos and stigma. Consequently, the education of some girls is affected because they have to spend a number of days every month at home during menstruation. Some have abandoned school altogether.
Sofia Sandari defines this notion as the “profound awakening that is possible when we embrace our monthly bleeding with deep awareness and self-love.” See her posts on How to Make the Most Out of Your Menstruation:http://sofiasundari.com/the-power-of-conscious-menstruation/
Called The Mental Health Treatment Act, enacted in 1938, this law allows the state to compulsorily arrest, detain, and try any person for being insane. Once proved guilty, the affected person is committed to an institution for treatment. However, this law has been abused; the state uses it to silence critiques (Kakaire 2017).
Lilian Nabulime, interview with the author, Makerere University, 20 November 2017.
Lilian Nabulime, interview with the author, Makerere University, 20 November 2017.