Home for the Holidays

December 18, 2015

The Uganda girls are home for the Christmas holidays; it is the first time this year that they have returned to their village, Kaplegep. Understandably, they were overjoyed when the holiday began.

A beautiful, lush green land, tucked away in the furthest corner of South East Uganda, Kaplegep is a hilly countryside covered with fronds of banana plants, maize gardens and the tendrils of bean plants. In the mornings, the air is thick with mist, and in the evenings, smoke from household hearths fills the air with the fragrance of burning wood.

This is the life our girls were born into, which has shaped most of their experiences of the world. It is a simple life: there is no electricity and no indoor plumbing, therefore no TV, refrigerators, microwaves or other devices humming in the background. In fact, at night, the silence is almost absolute – broken only by the occasional animal howl.

Their homes are simply furnished, and centered around the cooking hearth where family meals are prepared. The fire also provides warmth in the biting cold of this mountainous region. Most of the girls are part of large families, extended families, with several generations living in close vicinity. With frequent inter-marriages, and polygamous unions most families in the area are related and in-laws are considered to be very important connections.

A woman’s household duties may extend to her in-laws, the family she has married into. Her in-laws have a huge influence on her life; often taking over her household. Men occupy the highest echelons of society; women may sit on the ground in their presence and they may certainly refrain from speaking unless spoken to. It is not uncommon for women to remain utterly silent in gatherings where men, or their in-laws, are present. There are many aspects of this culture which point at a challenging state of affairs for women, not least of which is the practice of FGM. This, not surprisingly, attracts the most censure, international condemnation and a legal ban on the ritual as well as various efforts to protect girls from the cruel cut.

From the outside looking in, it is easy to judge and perhaps condemn the seemingly complicated state of gender relations. This however, is the way things have been for time immemorial; the culture has been molded thus over centuries even and any real change would certainly take time. Yet who decides what needs to change? Arguably, a change from within is more sustainable than one enforced and policed by ‘outsiders’.

At VF, we see our girls as agents of change. Even as they enjoy the poignant simplicity of their rural lives this holiday – one that will probably be soon overtaken by the hectic demands of modern ‘civilization’ and its amenities- their life experience has been enriched by a high school education and exposure to cultures other than their own. Their world view is being shaped by many forces other than the green hills they roamed as children, oblivious to the hardships of their mothers.

As young women, they will soon be required to take their lowly place in Sabiny society. They may choose instead to define a new place for the women of their tribe, one free from enforced silence, solitude and FGM.

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