Doing History in Uganda: A Personal Perspective
Author's Note: During the academic year 2002–03, I was a visiting professor in the Department of Women and Gender Studies at Makerere University in Uganda. In addition to teaching, I collaborated with an anthropologist to do research on the history and present situation of women and their work in Uganda. It was a wonderful year. My eyes were opened to new cultural, social, and intellectual patterns, and I worked with excellent colleagues and made close friends. I have also come back to the United States with a different perspective on the period I normally teach and study—late medieval and early modern England. Because there are many hundreds of colleges and universities throughout the world that would welcome North American visitors, I am writing this note to encourage other historians to explore the possibility of spending a year away from familiar territory—in terms of both geographical and intellectual terrains. One can contribute to institutions that are seeking to offer a good education, often in the face of severe challenges, and the personal rewards are also significant.
Founded by the British in 1922, Makerere University was the first university in East Africa and for many years the best. Its attractive campus sits on a hill in the city of Kampala, on the north side of Lake Victoria. During the regime of Idi Amin, the university, like many of Uganda's institutions, fell on hard times. Its library was looted by soldiers and its top administrators killed. But the university is now rebuilding and growing rapidly, through a combination of government support, the fees paid by those students who do not qualify for scholarships, and grants from development agencies and foundations in Europe and North America. My academic home, the first department of women studies in sub-Saharan Africa, was created in 1992 thanks to pressure from Uganda's effective women's activists. The department is an intellectually lively and energetic center for teaching and research. Most of its faculty members are women, generally in their 30s or 40s. It achieved international visibility when it hosted Women's Worlds 2002, one in a series of international congresses held every three years in various parts of the world.
My primary teaching assignment was to introduce a historical component into the MA program in gender and development, which was previously limited to anthropological, economic, and literary/cultural ingredients. This meant a considerable stretch from my normal academic pursuits, but I had some useful background knowledge: my MA was in African history, and my current comparative research project includes Nigeria and Uganda as well as England. I went to Makerere expecting to offer a course on African women's history, for which I had brought along a number of books and articles. When I arrived, however, I learned that the curriculum had just been changed. Instead of a separate course, I was asked to team-teach in several other classes, adding historical material to each. I therefore developed units on the history of feminist thought and on the interaction between indigenous forms of patriarchy in Africa and the introduced patterns of capitalism, Christianity and Islam, and colonialism. In addition I participated in both semesters of the research methodologies course, covering oral history and feminist research methods and helping the students gain basic skills in qualitative and quantitative analysis.
Ugandans who study history—in high school or even at the college level—acquire a narrow view of the past. What matters is what male political or military leaders did and what economic system was in place. I was therefore eager to help the MA students extend their focus to include ordinary women and men and a wider range of issues. At the end of the month in which we had been discussing oral history techniques in one class and the patriarchy/capitalism/Christianity/colonialism nexus in the other, I asked the students to go to the village from which their family came and interview an old woman about her life. They then wrote papers in which they tried to disentangle and describe the relative impact of the various factors we had discussed in the classroom upon that woman's experiences. The students found it interesting to talk to an old person in these terms, and they were struck by the persistence of deeply rooted cultural patterns despite massive changes in the country's economic, religious, and political structures.
I also supervised graduate research, mainly the theses of second-year MA students. These covered such topics as gender factors in access to forest resources in a mountainous region along the Ugandan/Rwandan border, and the nutritional consequences of using food crops (consumed by everyone in the family) for alcohol brewing (consumed only by men) in villages on the slopes of Mount Elgon.
The research project I undertook with Grace Bantebya Kyomuhendo, the head of the women and gender studies department, was fascinating. Together we talked with a number of women leaders to gain a broad overview. Grace took the lead in training graduate assistants to interview 120 local women in diverse regions of the country. I focused on the archival aspects of the project. In addition to using British colonial materials in the Uganda National Archives, I went through church records; materials held by hospitals, schools, and government agencies; Makerere dissertations; and unpublished anthropological and economic research done in Uganda between 1950 and 1970, stored in the university library or the Makerere Institute for Social Research. Our research assistants gathered information about women and attitudes towards them from old newspapers, in local languages and English, some extending back into the 1920s. We are now writing a jointly authored book about what we learned.
The year included many other interesting features, some of them associated with my department's outreach activities. I gave presentations to community groups, promoting the importance of getting the life experiences of older people recorded on tape or in writing. We set up a tape archive at the Women and Gender Studies Library where researchers can deposit recordings of interviews, for use by future historians. I was asked to organize a series of research presentations by my colleagues and others; at the end of the year I edited the papers for publication as a special issue of a local journal. This was worthwhile, for Makerere faculty are now evaluated in part on the basis of their research productivity, but—like many African scholars—they find it difficult to get their work published. We got a grant to set up a sex education service in the department for the use of all Makerere students, staffed by a highly trained but welcoming young nurse from the Medical School. We spearheaded the formation of the Uganda Women Leaders Forum, where 25 to 30 of the country's top women gather each month to discuss common interests and formulate a shared agenda. I spent time in an isolated village where older patterns remained strong but the women's representative on the district council rode a bicycle (normally not allowed for women) to reach her constituents.
It should be said that my experience may have been atypically positive. I did not have to lecture in a foreign language, for English is the language of education in Uganda (as it is in many former British colonies). Had I been teaching undergraduates, I would have had 300–400 students in the introductory classes and might have been asked to teach in both the day and evening programs. Had I been in the history department at Makerere or most other African universities, many of my colleagues would have been older men and the curriculum far more conservative. Had I not been in a new building at Makerere, with a gasoline-powered backup generator, the frequent power outages would have been more disruptive. But in a wide range of institutions in many countries, I would still have learned an enormous amount and could probably have left with the feeling that I had made some kind of a useful contribution.
The Ugandan year has also changed the way I look at earlier periods of European history. Living in a culture that is very different from both premodern England and contemporary United States has taught me a great deal about topics I had previously not questioned or had assumed I understood. I have a better sense of why draft animals have such a big impact on agriculture and household relations, as opposed to relying on human—especially female—labor. Because I am now more fully aware of the diverse ways through which male dominance is created and expressed, I realize the difficulties of trying to understand how patriarchy worked in historical contexts where we have written evidence but cannot observe physical behavior or hear the nuances of people's speech. I have seen the power of Bourdieu's habitus in a stable setting but also observed the creativity of people forced to adapt to altered circumstances. My own perceptions of the past have thus been modified by experiencing difference in the present. Other historians too might find that looking through a new lens enriches their life and work.
— Marjorie K. McIntosh is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.