Male Identity and Female Space in the Fiction of Ugandan Women Writers

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Abstract

This article focuses on the voices of protest by Uganda women writers against age-old discriminative habits, and on the rebuttal made by women on questions of social and political power. The article particularly assesses the way women writers approach generally assumed positions on the power relations between men and women, a theme that runs through all the writing by Ugandan women. As part of the discussion, the paper inevitably pays particular attention to the presentation of male characters, and on the prominence given to issues of male dominance, injustice and discrimination against women, which take place at several levels of society. All women writers, including Barbara Kimenye who writes in the mid-1960s, deal directly or indirectly with these questions. Predictably, Kimenye's tone in the earlier works is quite moderate, but it is unequivocal. The more recent writers on the other hand, deal more explicitly with questions of male-female relations in the home and in society. They also tackle the subject of sex in a manner that would have been quite shocking at the time when Kimenye wrote her first works. While an attempt is made to draw in other female writers, this discussion mainly focuses on the work of Kimenye, Okurut, Kyomuhendo and Barungi, all of whom have written at least two substantial works of fiction. The article investigates in depth the presentation in the fiction by Ugandan women writers of questions of male brutality and female vulnerability, female silence as enforced by the social system, the emergence of the unconventional Female and the inevitable clash with the intransigent male, and the role of art in the process of psychologically empowering women.

Keywords: gender, Ugandan fiction, male identity

Introduction

In 1999, Sylvia Tamale, the outspoken feminist activist and Makerere University Professor of Law published a book curiously entitled When Hens Begin to Crow, and introduced it with the following words:

Female chickens normally do not crow. At least popular mythology claims they cannot. Hence, in many African cultures a crowing hen is considered an omen of bad tidings that must be expiated through the immediate slaughter of the offending bird (Tamale 1999:1).

The subject of Tamale's book is "Gender and Parliamentary Politics in Uganda", and she reviews the impact made on Uganda's politics by the women who dared to tread where only men were initially allowed to tread. Her work is fascinating because of the way it details the impact that has been made in the arena of politics by those women who have chosen to step forward and speak up or begin to crow. (1)

Because of Uganda's multiple legacies--colonial, cultural, social, educational etc.--the lists of Ugandan writers have mainly been dominated by men. They have traditionally had more access to the country's English-based educational system than women, and they have consequently had more opportunities to express themselves in creative writing. A few women writers, such as Barbara Kimenye, Elvania Zirimu, Jane Jaggers Bakaluba and Grace Akelo, have been quite outstanding, but they have always been clearly outnumbered. (2) To compound the problem, women rarely feature as significant characters in men's writing. With the exception Lawino in Okot P'Bitek's Song of Lawino, there is no memorable female character in Ugandan literature in English by men. In the writings of male writers like Robert Serumaga, David Rubadiri, Peter Nazareth, Davis Sebukima and Godfrey Kalimugogo for example, women are assigned peripheral roles. There are even some embarrassing cases in which some novels (by male writers) do not have a single female character. (3) Consequently, women have had little opportunity to "crow" in Ugandan literature, and the images that have been used to present society in this literature have been unfortunate replicas of those in the oral literature of the various Ugandan societies. …