Tag Archives: opinion

The end of the hibernation…

The hibernation period has officially ended.

Yesterday, I submitted my thesis, the final part of my Masters in International and Community Development.  I am free. No more study for at least a few years, until the temptation of attempting a PhD becomes too much and I succumb.

For those of you who have noticed my absence from the blogging sphere of late, the above mentioned study was the core reason. Turns out moving to Africa,  setting up an NGO, working full time and undertaking a thesis was probably a little (read: a lot) too much and successfully destroyed any semblance of ‘balance’ my life had. Thus the blogging silence.

But now I’m back. I’m finished. And I feel much the wiser from my research experience, if I do say so myself! I have wanted to learn how to research for a while, specifically because it is important if we are doing innovative work (and we find something that works!)  that we can write about it well and share with others.

My thesis is titled The illusion of choice – women’s autonomy in Family planning decisions in Kamwenge. Essentially, I looked at culture and gender norms that influence and severely constrain women’s choice in Family Planning, which call into question current orthodox measurements of Family Planning which are underpinned by a belief that women DO have choice.

My research (not surprisingly) found women at a village level have very little choice. In fact, most of the time choice and decision making does not even factor into the equation. Cultural understandings of reproduction and gender expectations dictate reproductive decisions so pervasively that reproductive decisions are not really ‘made’ – they are seen as natural, as the taken for granted way of doing things. Dowry (bride price), polygamous marriage practices, prestige that comes with having children, normative decision making by men in marriage, involvement of the husbands kin (especially the Mother in law!) in marriage, religion, and the consequences of pro-FP choices amongst other factors lead to a situation where women are often unable to make empowering decisions in their lives around reproduction, even when given the ‘choice’. That’s the simplified version, anyway.

Trying to challenge something that is seen by a culture as ‘natural’ is almost impossible. Can you imagine trying to tell people in Australia that polygamy is an acceptable form of marriage? Or trying to explain that women should never work outside the home?  Or that a woman’s worth is completely tied to the number of children she has? Or that domestic violence is not only acceptable, but necessary? It would be difficult, essentially because in modern-day Australia we believe a marriage is between only 2 people, that women can do most things a man can do, that women are worth much more than the sum total of their children (thank goodness), and that DV is wrong and damaging to those involved.

Challenging the underlying structures and practices that establish these norms is incredibly difficult. What I am learning as we continue in our community development work is that structural and behaviour change is really really hard. It takes generations. It cannot be forced. Any change is met with suspicion. It is often defended and propagated even by those that suffer most from the injustices these structures create.

That is the work MH is trying to attempt at a grassroots level. It is difficult and frustrating and not very glamorous and moves very slowly.

A famous social theorist called Bourdieu named these taken-for-granted truths in a culture as the doxa – the beliefs which govern the social world and become so naturalised that they are beyond discourse and discussion. This thesis, my research of the doxa, and my work in Uganda has got me thinking about my own (Australian) culture. Being away from my countrymen for a bit has made me aware of some of these doxic beliefs that exist back in Oz – especially when I am confronted with obvious and viable alternatives to them each and every day in Uganda.

Now, I could rattle off (my perceptions) of a bunch of them but I thought instead I’d be interested to know what you think they might be  – any ideas?

Bazungu are human beings too!

Most people that come and live in east Africa for longer than a few weeks agree on one thing: being called a Muzungu [white person] all the time is frustrating. Being constantly referenced in conversation (to you or about you) by your skin colour rather than your actual name is a little tiring. Being the centre of attention relentlessly, because of your colour, is exhausting. When I arrived, even professional people would sometimes address me as Mzungu in conversation. Men would call out ‘Mzungu’ and laugh at me when I walked by in town.  The Boda Bodas [motorbike taxis] would holler for my attention ‘Mzungu we go?’ Captivated children would follow me in the street as if I was the pied piper, yelling the classic ‘Mzungu, how are you?’, daring each other to run up and touch the strange women in their midst.

When I first moved to Uganda it made me angry, because in Australia this would be considered racism.  I have adjusted a little since then. It also doesn’t happen as often in Kamwenge these days.

People are a bit more used to me, and many know me personally. Men don’t call out as much because they know I am married, and some have been seen by my husband at the MH clinic. Many of the Boda Boda’s are now my friends and greet me with ‘Hi Kim’ (or the equivalent Rukiga greeting). Our staff know it is unacceptable to use that term…

But it continues. However, now that I am a little more adjusted to the African psyche, I try not to get quite as annoyed – at least not in the village [emphasis is definitely on the trying…]. People are often just excited. I am a mystery to them, especially in a place like Kamwenge. Many haven’t had experience with someone who doesn’t have chocolate brown skin. The interesting thing is that Ugandans very commonly refer to people very frankly by their appearance, a characteristic or tribe.

“The fat one”

“The brown one” [the one with slightly lighter African skin]

“That Munyankole woman” [a tribe in west Uganda]

“The mad one” [the one with mental illness – that I will never get used to…]

I must confess that a year in Uganda has influenced me a great deal. While in Australia I will (hopefully remember to) never use these statements, in Uganda I have found myself quite regularly using similar descriptions when speaking with friends and colleagues. It is not offensive here.

The other day I attended a funeral in a very remote area of Kamwenge district. A friend of mine, someone we are working with in our community programs, lost his wife in childbirth. Devastatingly and unnecessarily. I wasn’t sure about going; I was conscious of the fact that my presence would disrupt and bring attention, and I didn’t want to be insensitive. But I’m glad I made the decision to go, as it meant a lot to the community that Bosco (a MH staff member) and I were there.

When we arrived, I went and sat on the ground with the hundreds of other women that were there, refusing the chair in the marquee where the family members and VIPs were sitting. I thought it would detract attention from me, and would be a strong unspoken message about where I see my role in the community.  So many people had not seen a muzungu before. There were many lingering looks, chuckles, whispers, and the occasional freaked out wailing child who perhaps thought I might eat them (??). Many came up and touched me. Others actually shook my hand. People wanted to know if I could speak Rukiga. All in all, there was quite a bit of fuss made.

But then there was a group of wise old village women observing all of this, not that I was aware of their presence at the time. Later, Bosco gave me a rough translation of what they had said to the younger crowd, and it made my heart soar:

“Leave this young girl alone! Don’t look at her all the time, don’t laugh at her! You are making her feel shy, look you can see she is embarrassed…

…Bazungu are human beings just like us!”

Yes, we are.

Maybe one day…

I believe that men and women were created equal.


I believe that I can’t be bought or owned.


I believe in reproductive rights for all, regardless of race, age, religion…and gender.


I even believe that myself, as a woman, deserves to be treated the same as a man in my position.


Am I a radical? I think not. Well, maybe if I lived in 1940s Australia.

Or if I lived in Kamwenge, today.

*                          *                            *

Our staff, including Michael and myself, were eating matooke and beans for lunch the other day in our newly constructed shelter. They were discussing someone’s wedding. Deep in thought, one of our staff asked innocently… ‘Dr, do you have dowry in your country? How much did you pay for Kim?’

Michael explained that we don’t have such a thing. That he visited my parents to ask for their blessing, then asked me to marry him, to which I happily agreed.

Another staff member, a woman joined the conversation. ‘What about polygamy?’

I replied that polygamy is illegal. You can be put in jail. Even when a man cheats in Australia, he can lose his house and land if the couple divorces. I explained further about women’s rights, choosing my words carefully, aware of the presence of a woman in the shelter whose husband I had learned had taken a second (younger) wife against her wishes.

There was a great pause in the midst of lunch. A moment to digest this information.

Then a young shy woman, a staff member that has grown up in the village, speaks very little English, and that I have a strong infinity for spoke up.

“That means that in your country, women are equal to men.”

*                          *                            *

I was chatting to the clinical staff about a course that one of our staff would be sent to undertake, for contraceptive and Family Planning training. Another staff was sharing her experience with family planning programmes in the village. My ears pricked up – I am currently writing my Master’s thesis on fertility choices in Kamwenge, focusing on reproductive rights and normative cultural values/expectations that constrain choice. I asked about how women in Kamwenge received the idea of contraceptive advice/counselling. Were they opposed to it? The answer devastated me.

‘Some do not want. But there are many that do. The problem we are having is that husbands do not allow their women to use contraception…

.. A few months ago, there were a big number of women in my home village that got the implanon, in secret, so they could stop producing [having children]. But the husbands got very angry. Some were thrown out of their homes, their villages. Others were beaten.’

*                          *                            *

I hadn’t even given much of a second thought to the set of values around equality that I hold, when I lived in Australia. It was part of my assumed knowledge, growing up. In my teenage years, if anyone was to treat me differently – unfairly – because I was a woman, I would have acted with indignation and disgust, and the matter would have been settled, fair and square.

I’m not trying to say that Australia is the land of milk and honey, where women have achieved complete equality with men. But we are actually doing ok. We are on to the business of more minor stuff in the big scheme of equality these days.

Uganda is doing ok in some areas. They have one of the highest percentages of female politicians in the world, with a compulsory female MP position for every electoral zone. There are lots of female managers of businesses. Plenty of middle class women who go to University.

But if you even get close to village life, you can smell the stench of inequality rising from the thatched rooves of your average family’s household.

Beyond anything else we achieve in Kamwenge over the next 10 years, beyond any goal to assist people to escape grinding poverty, beyond even saving lives at the clinic…

…what I wish more than anything deep down in the justice-craving areas of my soul, is to start a movement of village women who believe that perhaps, just maybe, they could be equal with men.

That maybe they should have control over their reproductive choices; who they have sex with, how many children they have, or where they give birth.

That maybe they have the right to equal access in health and education.

That maybe they could be in a marriage without having to be one of several wives.

That maybe they don’t deserve to be abused and trodden on, beaten and bashed

That maybe they don’t want to be defined only as mother and wife; their value attributed to the number of children they produce.

That maybe they shouldn’t have to be the bread winner for their children, dig in the garden, cook, clean, and raise their children alone.

That maybe they have the right to have control over resources, including land.

That maybe they could fight for all of this.

Maybe one day.


A crisis of categories

A very close friend of mine sent me an email a few months ago, asking me if I considered myself a missionary.

The answer to that question is filled with so much complexity that I asked if we could skype instead of trying to write my thoughts in an email.

It got me thinking again about our reasons for being here. Michael and I often have puzzling discussions about this, and consistently fail to come up with a satisfactory answer. Which box do we tick? Missionary? Volunteer/trainees? Expat? Immigrant? Which category do we fall into?

The problem with categories is that I always seem to fail to satisfy their requirements. I’m not really an ‘in the box’ type of girl…

For example:

The Missionary Findlay’s: Michael and I are driven in our choices/actions by our faith in Jesus as God and man, and the way he lived on earth. We feel strongly that God is FOR the poor and oppressed, inviting us to join him in what has been a massive adventure so far, learning how to live more like him and (sometimes, when we’re not feeling selfish) making our choices based on what we can offer this world to see it be a more just and loving place. The added bonus of following God in this way (to Africa, to set up Maranatha Health, etc) is that He has actually made us who we are so that we can do this – a perfect concoction of passion, past experience, internal wiring from birth and our individual skills + his intervention in a gazillion moments has meant we are not only able to run this Organisation but enjoy the journey (when I have a feeling many wouldn’t!). Our project is motivated, inspired and fulfilled by our faith and the faith of others around us. We also have a lot of similar desires as some missionaries – to connect with the local community, to become a part of the fabric of the place, and to live at a simpler standard than other expats*.

I am  often confused with the term missionary and its implications given that I see all followers of Jesus as having a joint ‘mission’ to represent our God of Love to humanity. Putting that aside, we are not, in my opinion, missionaries in any traditional sense. We are not here specifically to tell others about our faith – any more than I would normally share of my faith in any circumstance -, we don’t work with the church in any official sense, and we certainly have not gone to ‘bible school’ or any such institution (much to the disappointment of some Christians we know). We are not running a ‘mission hospital’; many who do this seem to have little awareness of development principles and even less ability to critique their ‘development’ work. We have set up an NGO and work in a professional capacity which is open for judgement by AusAID and the donor community, rather than a small group of churches.

The expatriate Findlay’s: In some ways we are like any other expatriates moving over here for a job opportunity in an NGO. We enjoy Uganda for the weather and the friendly people, we have professional roles that we are intensely committed to, and we love to have academic discussions about what this country needs/should have/is heading towards etc. We have friends in high places because the elite of Kampala are so interconnected and we enjoy rubbing shoulders with influential people that back home in Australia, wouldn’t even look our way. But that is about where the expatriate similarities end. Most big-shot NGO workers (who manage programs/projects) are exactly that: big shots. They drive around in vehicles worth well over $100,000, they live in Kololo (for you Adelaideans, think Burnside) in a big compound with numerous ‘house girls’, would not be spotted shopping at the local food market, if they attend churches they are full of other expatriates, they live at a higher standard than they would dream of at home because they are on western salaries, and almost their entire friendship group consists of other NGO managers, foreign diplomats, and international businessmen.

In contrast – we haven’t spent any time with foreigners (other than when our families came to visit) since we arrived. Our wage is at least a fifth of what managers with equivalent qualifications are getting (both Ugandan’s and expats) and the MH car is 22 years old (but doing amazingly well for its age apart from the suspension!).** I have never met an expatriate NGO worker in a management position that lives in a place like Kamwenge. Most live in Kampala, and at a stretch, in one of the bigger up-country cities full of other expats and all the mod-cons you could need: places like Mbarara, Mbale, Gulu and Jinja. I have been in many a meeting already, introducing myself as a manager at Maranatha Health who lives in Kamwenge, only to be met with disbelieving stares and raised eyebrows. Even Ugandan NGO managers fly in and out of Kamwenge in their big shiny white 4-wheel-drives for the day, happy not to have to even spend one night in my beloved village.

The volunteer Findlay’s: Many volunteers and Aid-workers-in-training come to Uganda. Whether it’s with a volunteer tourism organisation, a local NGO, the Peace Corps, or even something like an equivalent to Australia’s Young Ambassadors for Development (AYAD) program.  They are here for any amount of time from 2 weeks, or sometimes (as in the Peace Corps) 2 years. They often live in relatively remote settings (I think their used to be a Peace Corps volunteer living in Kamwenge) and live with locals, often in home-stay arrangements. They make a big effort to connect with the community, and often learn the language. They live simply (some of the time) and don’t get paid a massive salary (also, some of the time). In these ways, we feel quite connected to this group. We bump into people like this from time to time, and I am often encouraged by their enthusiasm, hard work  and idealism. I remember with fondness my volunteer days, when life was about learning and comparing experiences with other volunteers, finding projects to be a part of, and travelling to exotic places for long weekends.

But again, the similarities stop there. For one thing – we have a house, a place to call our own, where we have to cook and buy food from the market and do all the normal type living things that often these volunteers seem to avoid (as I did when I lived here a few years ago for 6 months in a ‘home stay’ arrangement). The other big difference is the level of responsibility. Many volunteers, when they meet us assume we are just like them – the donor who doubles as a volunteer.  But when we talk about the complexities of negotiating bureaucracy, the difficulties of cultural pressures when making management decisions, handling political issues, registrations, reporting requirements to donors, dealing with issues of theft and conflict… we look with jealously at their blank faces. When we tell them that we have built a house here and plan to raise our family in Kamwenge – most volunteers think we are joking. You can’t actually move here permanently?! This is the experience you ‘get out the way’ before your REAL life begins back at home.

But Kamwenge is our home. Which brings me to the next category:

The immigrant Findlay’s: Sometimes, it’s easiest just to define ourselves as migrants to Uganda – the answer with the least amount of subtext and baggage. We love this place. Uganda is our home, as I said. We have friends and what we consider part of our family here now. We have migrated here because we would love our children to have the kind of life that Uganda can offer- with a focus on community, relationships and away from the god of consumerism that seems to haunt our houses in the West. We like our lifestyle. We like working for Maranatha Health and we are able to have the opportunity to use our skills and expertise in a way that would be difficult to do in Australia.

The problem with defining ourselves as immigrants is that it neglects so much of the reasons why we came – the great overarching purpose of Maranatha Health and our sense of ‘calling’ (missionaries), our desire to set up an effective NGO here and have influence in the long term both inside and outside Uganda (expat NGO managers), our desire to connect with the community and our choice to live in a remote setting on a small salary (volunteer).

So I don’t know. Maybe we can be all and none of the above, depending on who we are with at that moment. If anyone has any suggestions to throw into the ring, let me know…

*I do think I have a slightly romantic notion of myself as somewhat of an anthropologist as well, and can become FACINATED at times with culture and interaction. I often find myself desperately determined to connect and become a part of this place in a way that perhaps I never will – not from lack of trying though…

**I do need to point out thought, that the fact that we HAVE a car in Kamwenge is an immense privilege that very few people have.