UNSUNG HEROES: UGANDA'S RURAL FEMINISTS | Shua Wilmot and Patience Nitumwesiga


The word "hero" often evokes images of powerful white men, but in truth, a hero is anyone who serves a community. The women in this gallery may not traditionally be seen as heroes, but if you take the time to read their stories, you may find there are seldom few more deserving of the title. These women represent three different regions of Uganda, bringing healing to their communities through social and political activism, through providing food for their families and neighbors, through the gifts of art and dance, through parenthood and more. They do what they do simply because they love the people around them, not because their actions give them luxuries, social media attention, or any other type of reward. These acts of selflessly serving one’s community are highly unusual in a nation where the decades-long dictator models corruption, male dominance, and the use of fear and force to control others.

We asked each woman featured in this gallery to describe herself and what she does. These women speak for themselves and present themselves to the world the way they want to be seen. In their portraits, many are looking directly into the camera, acknowledging the audience, taking the story into their own hands, and telling it the way they want it to be told.

It is our hope to raise funds for a documentary that will further extend the reach of these women and their inspiring actions within their communities. All of us on the creative team for this project strive to amplify the reach of their voices, knowing the world can learn from their wisdom. We need their stories to be told for our sake, not for theirs. Each of these women is an influencer in her community; may they inspire us to be heroes within our communities as well.

If you see the value in the stories of these women and would like to help further their reach when crowdfunding for the documentary becomes available, contact Executive Producer Shua Wilmot at shuawilmot@gmail.com.

Adongo.Unsung.Heroes.jpg

Adongo, 52

“I’ve been taken to police twice but they just wanted to shut me up. But you can’t shut me up. You can’t do this work if you don’t love the community...”

“Mother of 4 biological and 2 adopted children. Widow for 18 years. Bakes samosa, mandazi, cookies, etc. Roasts and fries soybeans. Activist for 13 years on issues of violence against women, gender equality, governance, gender and violence, and anti-corruption. Most famously known around her constituency for starting citizen parliament—neighborhood assembly—where people gather to discuss issues affecting them and decide whether they can solve them as a community or need to call the authorities to do their job. She is proud to have addressed issues of male dominance and violence (which was excessive in her community) and girl-child education (which was neglected). “It’s a powerful gathering!”

Also carries out civic education and teaches her people about the constitution, their rights and responsibilities, taxation in Kumi (her district), and demanding for services. Has addressed poor performance in schools, public health, poor roads, etc. Has advocated for improvement of numerous sectors and become a “pain in the ass” for politicians and local authorities. She monitors service delivery by government agencies.

‘Those policemen don’t like me. When they see me entering the station, they say ‘this terrible woman has come.’ But I use the constitution and quote acts they don’t even know and yet they’re police officers. Even when I go on radio, I quote the constitution and prove I’m not doing anything wrong. I’ve been taken to police twice but they just wanted to shut me up. But you can’t shut me up. You can’t do this work if you don’t love the community... I refused to enter the cells and asked them to prepare a file for me and make me write a statement because I told them I had acted within my rights. You must have facts and do evidence-based actions. They just say ‘this old woman is big headed.’”

 
Ayebazibwe.Unsung.Heroes.jpg

Ayebazibwe, 30

“You have to be yourself. You don’t just go with the crowd. You have to believe in you and then get advice from the right people.”

“Single mother of 2, recently widowed.

School director; Rukararwe partnership manager; supports environmental protection, women’s groups, youth and widows’ rights; aids others with traditional medicine.

Studied management at Kyambogo university and started working at Rukararwe where she was one of two women on staff. She was the youngest but was in top management.

Married in 2014 and lost her husband in 2017. He left her with a 2-year-old school and she’s had to do aggressive marketing to maintain the school. She doubled enrollment within one year after losing her husband. Her biggest challenge is men (old friends of her husband, relatives, etc.) who think she can’t lead and want to take over. But when her husband was around, they did everything together. She did not inherit anything from him; they acquired all their achievements as a team.

‘You have to be yourself. You don’t just go with the crowd. You have to believe in you and then get advice from the right people.’”

 
teddy.unsung.heroes.

Teddy, 49

Single mother of 8, farmer. Brews local beer.
Was tortured and imprisoned for protests against grabbing their land. Participated in a protest where they stripped naked, a cultural omen that deterred their oppressors. Their crops, houses, etc. were bulldozed and this forced her to become an activist.

 
Justina.Unsung.Heroes.jpg

Justina, 58

“You have to let people be, because they’ll always want to insult you. I’m a man and a woman. I’m not a destitute widow...”

Omutambi, part of Abatambi, traditional healers, at Rukararwe. Specializes in traditional medicine for children. Mother of 8. Widowed in 2000 when her first child had just finished secondary school. Had nothing; no land, no house. Her husband had been an alcoholic. She had to lead the family alone, educate her 8 children, and be the best at what she does, trekking forests and hills, looking for traditional medicine for children.

“You have to let people be, because they’ll always want to insult you. I’m a man and a woman. I’m not a destitute widow.”

 
Alunya.unsung.heroes.jpg

Alunya, 53

“We wanted to sensitize people nationally with our songs…We decided to use our voices to express our anger against our oppressors.”

Mother of 9, pre-marital counselor. Helps brides-to-be to prepare for marriage. Teaches women and children songs about social and political change. She has taught people over 60 songs that she wrote. Also teaches people traditional instruments like the thumb piano. She’s the chairperson of Awei Women’s Network Against Land Grabbing.

“We wanted to sensitize people nationally with our songs. So we started the group. We realised we could get support to do the things we believe in… we decided to use our voices to express our anger against our oppressors.”



 
shuawilmot.patiencenitumwesiga

SHUA WILMOT & PATIENCE NITUMWESIGA

Patience Nitumwesiga, the director of a feminist art company based in Uganda, is the photographer of this gallery. All her life she has lived in Uganda where she has been utilizing art to create social change. Shua Wilmot, the gallery editor, is also a social activist and former Lancaster City resident.



CHANGE

Callahan, Henry. “Camera Movement of Street Lights.” 1942.

Callahan, Henry. “Camera Movement of Street Lights.” 1942.

1.
Stalks of incense,
once lit,
continue burning
even if blown out.

They can’t stop.
The burning is on the inside.

The ember
races to the base
of the stem,
irreversible, no brakes.

2.
And you don’t
— can’t —
launch yourself away,
tumbling to a stop
once you leave the moving object
because

what’s moving is
you.


3.
Hurtling toward
that goal floating
in the distance,
you can’t tell until
you’re closer
and the air clears -
was it really what you
wanted?

This poem came out of a season when I was contemplating a couple major life changes but hadn't "flicked the match" yet. Having gone through yet another season of change since then, and now settling into the results of it, I am struck again by all that is set in motion when we make a decision to try, whether that's trying something new, re-trying something old, or just trying something different.

The results can almost never be predicted, yet we still must decide if we want to go forward with it. Do we choose the unsatisfactory known, or the complete unknown? Do we choose into a mystery that may be better than what we have? Or do we settle in? What might Jesus be calling us to? Surely he is with us in either direction, but is one better? I believe both the choice to change and the choice not to change can be made from integrity; change might not always be worth it, and change for the sake of change is inevitably exhausting.

4.
And what you know
now is this;

a pebble starts a landslide but
you have to make a move
because there’s the burning of
movement
or there’s the burning of
a slow suffocation
without change.

5.
flick the match.

In this season, soon after the change of the year, we’ve probably all thought recently about what changes we want to make in the new year. I might plan to slowly make an adjustment, but my most satisfying and successful changes have been more like throwing myself down a hill. So my advice? If you decide you want change in your life, make your change like a stick of incense; set something on fire and don't turn back. Give yourself to the changes you want to make and see what happens.

ALL I'VE LEARNED TO SAY

Kaar, Virginia. “January"." 1935/42.

Kaar, Virginia. “January"." 1935/42.

i did it.
i quit that job,
mumbled through
an explanation
of the thread exiting my chest,
pulling me somewhere else,
thrusting me forward.
toward what?
all I could say about it
at the time
was
“i just feel like there’s something
inside me chanting steadily:
create.
create.
make something.”

and to find out who and what and why
i have to obey, to try
to make something beautiful
to say something worth saying.”

so far i think
all i’ve really learned to say is
“pay attention!”
in one hundred and forty three
different ways.
but I think even that
does bear repeating
until we do it
until we look
until we see what’s around us
and sing
and fall to our knees.


Pouring my tea in near dark, I pour blindly, waiting for the glint of light on water which means I’ve filled my cup to the brim. This is how the dark pours into the winter day, until it’s full to the brim at the end of a long twilight. The stars dance, and the world turns its shadowed face around to meet the next day’s sun. Both are experiences best lived paying close attention. Yet it’s also one of the hardest times to pay attention, these glimpses of sun buried in long nights. The sun is in no hurry at this time of year, the beginning of January, the cycle rolled back round toward lengthening, but still brief, days. We lull and luxuriate in these long nights, sleepy and slow to rise. It’s easy to let our eyelids droop when it seems not much is happening in the world outside. Paying attention is hard in the dark; we are forced to turn inward.

Open eyes, internal or external, always get you far; but to stay awake during this season we must stoke the imagination, which is needed for hope to keep alive. We must imagine: seeds resting underground, their fertility preserved and preparing for spring -- animal friends going torpid, living off of stockpiled food and fat -- burrows in the snow and fluffed feathers -- and finally we must imagine the year ahead, arcing forward with all its joys and woes, our mental image frayed at the edges, where inevitably the unimaginable will occur.

As we pour blindly into the cup of 2019, let us live the experience of this year paying close attention, watching for the glint on the water. May we let ourselves rest in the cradle of the long nights, while staying internally aware, feeding our imaginations from our stockpile, living alive in each moment and also dreaming for what is to come.

#WILD: SO THAT WE MAY KNOW

 
Photo: K. Dagen

Photo: K. Dagen

 

do you send out
the ones you choose
into the wilderness -
like john, like us,
searching for zion -
so that we may know
what it’s like to be fiercely alone
(sometimes in a sea of faces)
and feel desperately lost
(sometimes in dark and crowded spaces)
like your son, like jesus?

for the world and
full of love,
but so alone,
your only son.

i love you that
you sent a child
to rescue all these
hearts gone wild.

sometimes i fear
my heart’s gone wild.