Monday, March 07, 2011

My Grand Parents Embraced this year's Women's Day Theme over 50 years ago!

Hello World,

Happy 100th Women's day!!

This year's 100th anniversary will be uniquely marked by women uniting on bridges in many cities. I look forward to being at London's Millennium Bridge with my classmates and wonder if Ugandan ladies will celebrate on Jinja, Pakwach or Karuma bridge, all on the river Nile.

The theme for International Women's Day this year is "Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women".

My grandparents put this theme into practice over 50 years ago, against all odds. That was obviously long before think-tanks, researchers and top policy makers zeroed in on it. My grandad, as the household head, saw to that. He is one reason I believe that elders need to be consulted more in development and men are our best allies and assets in advancing the cause of women. Ignoring men or 'hating on men' is a recipe for disaster.

If you are a girl or a woman and are reading this blog, the fact that you can read (online moreover), is a BIG, BIG DEAL. Sadly, many women and girls are still shut out of the world of words and information and the opportunities they bring.

My late maternal grandmother, one of the most astute, loyal and strong women I have ever known, went to school only until primary 2 (second year of elementary school). The fact that when she was a girl loooong ago, she went to school a bit, is no mean feat. In fact, in society's eyes back then, that was not only bordering luxury but also an outright wastage of resources and time. We often joke that she 'stole' the rare opportunity to go to school not to study but simply to see what goes on in school, since school was not for little girls in her time. I actually still can't believe how she got away with attending school for a bit. Well, didn't I just describe her as having been 'astute'!?

Like many societies world over, in my late grand mom's village, a woman's ultimate career was to become a wife and mother. Nothing more, nothing less. Although that is noble in itself, women were robbed of choice and school was not seen to contribute to the aforementioned roles. Nonetheless, my grand mom's brief stint at school made a big difference in her life. It made it easier for her to then teach herself how to write the basics and she was able to read the Bible and hymn books -that was just about all that was published in Lugbara-ti otherwise I'm sure she would have read newspapers as well!

Anyway, despite the fact that six soldiers thought she would make a fantastic wife (soldiers were a BIG catch), she said "no" to them and chose to marry a geometry and carpentry teacher who later become a Reverend. That was my grandad, Baba. He was an orphan boy who worked day and night to pay his school fees and walked miles for education. No surprise that to date, he still deeply values education. Together, they made a power couple.

When my maternal grand-parents eventually had children, they had five girls in a raw. OMG!!! That was literally a nightmare, in a time, place and society where boy children are considered 'more valuable', due to the patriarchal nature of inheritance and societal leadership structure. The logic is that a girl marries and gets a new family. Her children belong to her husband's clan - just like she does too. That is why some families consider (ed) investment in girls as investment into another family and preferred to invest in the boys who will stay put and perpetuate the family and clan.

However, my grandad was one of the few exceptions; a man well beyond his era. Despite calls for him to get another wife who can give him boys, he stuck to the woman he loved -my grand mom and his girls. Moreover, the scientific information that shows that it is actually a man who determines the sex of a baby was not known in the village by then.

It is no wonder that over 50 years ago, he and Aya, had already embraced this year's Women's Day theme to the fullest, regardless of the fact that it was against social norms. There was no Universal Primary Education then so as he sometimes tells me when I ask questions about his youth, 'My wife and I sacrificed everything to take our children to school'.

Baba also told me that people in the village would scorn him and go on and on about how he was wasting his money by taking girls to school. He did not let that bog him down - neither did my late mom and her sisters. If anything, it made them more determined to excel. They not only went to primary school but they excelled and were offered admission at the prestigious missionary-founded, colonial secondary schools in central Uganda, like Gayaza High school, where my late mom and aunt Jane and aunt Lillian attended (I went Gayaza as well). Aunt Grace went to Nabisunsa Girls School. They went on to University as well and became shining examples of women's contribution to society.

I'll share one example that people haven't stopped talking about... We're such an oral culture btw! Anyway, during the turbulent 1980s, when people were fleeing civil unrest in many parts of Uganda many people could not till their land. Because the communities largely depended on subsistance farming, despite the fertile land and adequate rain, that spelled a food crisis. My late mom was employed by the United Nations in a major relief operation in the West Nile region - her home area, to respond to that unfolding humanitarian disaster. Her degree-level education, experience with the UN in South Sudan and knowledge 3 local languages in addition to English enabled her to take up a top position that made those who had earlier scorned girl child education take back their words and almost choke in the process.

According to the women villagers, mommy was literally in-charge of the relief aid and the humanitarian relief effort was a success. To this day, women still stop me, comment about how much I resemble my mom (oh, I'm so proud of that!!!), how much weight i have gained or lost (and urge me to big-en up even if it is a gain because big is beautiful) then add how if it had not been for my mom, their families would have died of hunger during the crisis.
Of course, they do not give me a chance to explain that it was not mommy who single-handedly made the UN descend upon West Nile but if they believe that, what can I do? They are convinced that they benefited because of her. They were proud to see her at the forefront. It was quite a sight to see her occasionally driving a green hard body UN Land-Rover. Anyway, mommy was evidence that girls too can be 'useful' beyond the household level. Thankfully nowadays, girl-child education is more popular although many girls and boys are still missing out not just in terms of enrollment but quality.

Research shows that when you educate a woman, the ripple effect can be mind-bogglingly amazing. Educated women are more like to have fully immunised children and there is a positive correlation between maternal education and child survival - that means that children of educated women are less likely die before the age of 5. Furthermore, educated mothers are also more likely to attend ante-natal clinics and give birth assisted by a skilled birth attendant - a factor that significantly reduces infant and maternal mortality. Therefore, by simply educating a girl child or woman, almost all the MDGs can be guaranteed in one go!

My grand dad and grand mom realised this long ago and educated their girls, and thus improving their lives and the family's fortune. That also had a ripple effect on the extended family and there were even bigger benefits for the third generation. My cousins and I will certainly not let the standards slip when the fourth generation comes through.

One late afternoon last year in Arua, I sat under a tree with with my grandad for a long chat as usual. I asked him a question that has been perturbing me for long.

"Baba, what made you send your girls to school at that time despite knowing that people would laugh at you?" I asked.

"I was looking ahead to the future; I knew it would be important," he replied.

Maybe, I should get a hold on him and let him predict what will be the next big thing. We could patent it, you know! Oh, in case my uncles feel left out, my grandparents went on to have 3 boys.

Whenever I call Baba, he always assures me of his prayers and urges me to study hard and get a PhD. Baba, I don't know about that PhD but I do know that you are a hero. The world needs more men like you, who can spot the gold in little girls and women and give them the opportunity, push and encouragement to bloom.

Happy Women's day to all you princesses and kudos to the men out there who support us!!


Lauri said...

A very touching story and yes your grandparents were heroes!

Jackline Amaguru Olanya said...

Oh... thanks Lauri,:)
I hope you have had a lovely women's day?
You're a hero too!!

~ gnuts ~ said...

I enjoyed reading this. Nice.

Jackline Amaguru Olanya said...

THanks Gnuts :)