Following on from Ryan’s glowing review of Crossroads: Women Coming of Age in Today’s Uganda, I spoke to Lydia Namubiru, just one of the talented writers involved in the book.
Meet Lydia Namubiru, a Ugandan journalist and writer. She lived in Uganda all her life, before moving to New York 7 months ago to gain her masters degree in journalism at Columbia University.She started working as a journalist/writer for Uganda’s biggest media house, The New Vision, and later went into the development/aid sector, where she worked for Grameen Foundation and Marie Stopes Uganda as an evaluation specialist. She then returned to journalism, to start a data journalism training program at the African Centre for Media Excellence in Kampala. She has a 9 year old daughter, Hailey, who she calls her shot of moonlight.
I wanted to know more about Lydia’s writing, and what inspired her to begin. Lydia wrote two essays for the book: Of Gods and Ghosts and It’s Complicated. Both explore Lydia’s conflicted feelings: In the first, the conflicted feelings are about African religious practice, which she is drawn to, but scared of at the same time, due to the systematic way in which the more powerful imported religions, Christianity in particular, perpetuated a rhetoric that demonises it. In the second, the conflicted feelings are about the Western world. Like many Ugandans, Lydia admires a lot of things about it: its cultural freedoms, its economic productivity, the gravitas it carries in intellectual spaces, and so on. But she is also angry about its historical and current relationship with my own part of the world. Historically, she is angry about colonialism and its related enterprises. Currently, she is angry about the paternalistic and often racist conduct of its development organisations, and the expatriates who work for them.
Both of my parents are writers, so home was the proverbial ‘forest of books’ that legendary Ugandan poet Okot P’Bitek once described. There were books everywhere in my parents’ house, even under the beds. I became a compulsive reader. By the time I was 12, I had read Song of Lawino, (from which I am picking the above description), a text that my mother was reading for her literature classes at university. By the time I was 20, I felt I had read so many books that I turned to my roommate and said, “I think I can write a book myself.” So I started writing a novel, which I quickly abandoned. The same fate has befallen all my other attempts at novels. But, after university, where I studied library and information science, I was desperate for work, and so I agreed to write a society column for about my college friends and the drunken misadventures we had had. That’s how I started writing. I wasn’t inspired to write, per se. I just started doing it because David Mukholi, the editor of Sunday Vision at the time, thought I could do it, and I needed the money. I am really grateful though, that after meeting me just once, he saw her far more into my talents than I did at the time.
About six months after I started writing the column, Ernest Bazanye, the society editor then (now dear friend), advised me to apply for a full time job with the paper. “You will get health insurance,” was his wise advice. So I did, and from that point on became a journalist, officially. Chris Conte, (now editor of Crossroads) got me really interested in writing about population issues, because Uganda was and still is in the midst of a population boom. Covering population issues naturally led into reproductive health issues and therefore women’s reproductive and other rights. A lot of my journalism has revolved around that cycle.
My professional work made a feminist out of me. In many ways, I am not a typical Ugandan woman. I have been very privileged, as you probably can tell from my career trajectory. Initially, my feminism was more personal than political – in a society that still likes to remind women that a good woman is a dignified one, I broke out writing about my wildly liberal private life, for the column and on a blog. But working on population issues opened my eyes to far wider injustices that society forces upon women; negligence of maternal health services, silence about domestic violence, state overreach into women’s bodily autonomy, refusal to enact equality laws around marriage and divorce… The list is long. Nearly endless, sadly. So yes, I am a feminist – both personally and politically, if the two can be separated.Ideologically, I don’t think my feminism is different from that of Western feminists’, but coming from different cultures makes our feminist frontiers different. For example, coming from a place where women still routinely die in childbirth means that Lena Dunham’s self-affirmative war on body shaming is largely too futuristic for me to be emotionally invested in.
I am reading a book on race and the incorporation of white, Arab and black African immigrants into US society. It is very academic, so I’m going to recommend a different one. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was UN secretary-general when it failed to respond to the Rwandan genocide, just died. Read Linda Melvern’s book: A People Betrayed. In there, the recently deceased diplomat has a cameo role brokering a $26m arms deal for Egypt with the Rwandan government that was soon after executing the genocide. Umm, I am not one to let people rest in peace.
To be born a woman is to born into the thick of things – political stands, social prescriptions, family intricacies, pretty intense biology. So to me, living as a woman is an everyday exercise in pulling bits of me out of the thick of things. Hopefully, by the time I die, I will be satisfied that enough of me was returned to me, away from the thick of things. And, hopefully, by the time my daughter is my age, being a woman will be light enough that she can build her own thick of things, without giving gender much thought.
I am working on getting my master’s degree – nothing terribly exciting to anyone but me, and perhaps my mother.