Project Uganda: Blood Tears of Acholi Land

Roles for Ugandan women differ sharply from those in West

By Travis and Kaitlin Curtice

Jessica, a paid cook, teaches Kaitlin Curtice  how to make samosas.
Jessica, a paid cook, teaches Kaitlin Curtice
how to make samosas.

When I walked through the door of the HUB, Connect Africa’s resource center in Migade, I saw a table of food prepared and two Ugandan women ushering us to our seats. At that moment, and in the days following, I began to see and understand the roles between Ugandan men and women. Alice and Jessica, our two paid cooks, spent the day inside the building preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner for fifteen people and cleaning in between each meal. Outside the men worked on construction projects from morning until nightfall and rarely entered the building.

One day I asked Jessica if she enjoyed cooking and serving everyone. “I like it very much,” she replied with a smile. The roles in Southern Uganda, such as large cities like Kampala, are similar to the conservative Western social-role mindset: the women stay home to cook, clean, and care for the children while the men go and work to provide.

The roles in the war-torn North, however, are not only flipped, but show the complete destruction of societies such as Atiak, a small village near the Sudan border. Along the road, you see small plastic bags once full of gin, vodka, and other hard liquors. In the downtown area, or the “Center,” the men — young and old — hold down the seats of the small bars and drink all day long. In contrast, the road leading into the city is lined with strong Acholi women, babies strapped to their backs, hoe in hand, muscles bulging from the work of their arms. Some carry cassava or maize on their heads in huge bundles, others large jerry-cans. Girls as young as five are seen with the plastic containers, filled to the brim with water from a nearby borehole or well.

In such areas, war has destroyed their homes, their crops, and their source of hope. As the government has attempted to usher these nomads back to their original homes, they must shrug their shoulders and say, “What home? There is nothing left.” As a result, the former roles of the household have broken down. Daniel, a pastor from the South, explained how the war has affected the men of these small communities:

“These men may have three or four wives, each in a different hut with their own children. The women work, then they feed the husband. After that, if there is food left, they feed the kids. The men sit around, get money from the work of the women, and go buy alcohol with the earnings instead of caring for their families.”

There are also high rates of pregnancy and child-bearing in this area. Girls as young as thirteen may have a toddler on their hips, breastfeeding the second the child as it cries out in frustration or need. Some of these children are the result of abuse, others a lack of appropriate birth control. The rest of the world could easily see this as a problem of eventual over-population, but for the Ugandans, it is their role to reproduce, especially within the realm of marriage.

woman farms in Alero.
A woman farms in Alero.

While working in Atiak, a middle-aged woman from the South asked me, “Do you have children yet?” My quick, negative response triggered more questions in her mind, as she continued to inquire about the reason women in the United States don’t have children like the women in Uganda. To my few reasons, she replied, “We get married, we have children. We raise them, send them off, and then we do our work, our mission. That is our role when we are married.”

In contrast, our younger friends from the wealthy South commented on how positive it is that many women in the United States use birth control instead of constantly having children. Alice stated, “We have too many children here. If you go into the villages, there are so many children, and not enough adults to take care of them. They are too many.”

As this mindset continues to stretch across the younger generations of Uganda, the fruit resembles a Western society in which women are free to choose whether they stay home with children (if they even have children), work full time, or even get married. The North, however, has not grasped this, as there is little work but farming to bring women any business. The women of the North are hard workers, who have full-time responsibility, as demonstrated by the children strapped to their backs. They are both stay at home mothers and harvesters of the field, and those roles combined make their lives both unique and extremely challenging.