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A Gift From God


Friends and neighbours; Alice (left) and Lona share a quiet moment.
A gift from god

Women have had to take on new roles and tackle different tasks from those
they were used to in Sudan. Alice, the Women’s Representative in Ikafe,
and Lona, her neighbour, explain how things have changed
and the effect this has had on their own lives.

Alice Abau Elia?’ we asked an old man sitting in the shade of his doorway. ‘That way,’ he gestured. A small boy was more specific: ‘She lives at the end of the village. Just keep going.’ So we pushed our bikes between tukuls until finally we arrived at Alice’s house.

She greeted us enthusiastically but seemed a bit distracted. I got the impression that she was busy doing something else, though she was far too polite to say so. We waited for some time while she disappeared inside her kitchen. A little girl of about eight, Alice’s eldest daughter, Beatrice, came and greeted us.

An hour or so later Alice re-appeared with some tea and groundnuts and sat down with us in the shade of the one tree in her courtyard. I realized that what seemed a simple snack had involved a lot of hard work, collecting the wood to make the fire, heating up the water, using some of her precious tea and equally precious sugar and maybe even getting the groundnuts from somewhere else. I noticed that the tea was only for Theodor and me. Alice and Lona, her neighbour who had joined us, ate and drank nothing.

The place seemed strangely silent and I wondered why. Alice explained that there were few people around:

‘The rations arrived yesterday. So my sister’s boys have taken the maize to the grinding mill and everyone is very busy. Please, drink your tea. Have some sugar.’

Alice is the Women’s Representative on Ikafe’s Refugee Council and I had come to talk to her about women in Sudanese society and in the settlement. How had things changed since coming to Ikafe? We had been laughing and joking but suddenly Alice grew serious and leaned towards me:

‘There are many women here with no husbands. Some had to flee alone or only with their children. Many men have been killed. Even me, I am alone. My husband died of natural sickness before we came here. Since 1991 I have been managing by myself with the help of my mother.’

She pointed proudly to the roof of a nearby tukul. ‘See, my mother built this roof! In Sudan this would never happen. The men do the building, the woman’s duty is only to provide grass. But here, conditions are different. We cannot rely on men to do things. We must do them ourselves, join together and do them with our own hands. Women on their own have to work in the fields and do leja-leja for the Ugandans. And we are crying for other jobs to earn money.’

Alice’s explanation of how things had changed for her since coming to Uganda were confirmed for me often in the following days. I met many other women doing ‘men’s work’ – digging the fields, planting trees, building houses – in addition to what was traditionally considered ‘women’s work’: preparing food and cooking, fetching water, washing, caring for children.

This was a major change in their lives since they had become refugees. And it was forcing men in Ikafe to revise their attitudes towards women, giving them more freedom as refugees than they’d had in Sudan. It also meant that men, more than women, had lost their traditional roles as breadwinners and providers, with all the psychological effects that this entailed.

We had been talking a lot about the different roles played by men and women in Sudan and in Ikafe. I asked Alice and Lona about attitudes towards boys and girls: ‘People say that if you have a girl she will leave you to marry. But if you have a boy, he will stay and bring his wife to live with you. So they mostly prefer boys,’ said Lona, matter-of-factly. Lona is a community midwife.

Daily routine for Kakwa, Pujulu and Kuku women, Ikafe 1995.

Women's daily routine


Daily routine for Kakwa, Pujulu and Kuku men, Ikafe 1995.

Men's daily routine

In Sudan it is the man who has to pay the dowry. And men are expected to have more than one wife, so marriage can be an expensive business. ‘A big chief in Sudan is supposed to have four wives, while an ordinary man will have two,’ Lona explained. ‘And if he is a bit rich he can have three. Whether rich or not, he must pay a dowry for each wife.’ In Ikafe the going rate for a wife is 30-40,000 Ugandan shillings (about $30 to $40). But in Sudan, according to Alice, it was much more – up to 60,000 Ugandan shillings ($60) or six head of cattle.

‘Still, things have changed,’ said Lona. ‘For example, in the 1970s it was the parents who chose the husband for the girl. Now she is allowed to choose herself.’

Alice agreed: ‘Yes, with me and Clement it was like that. It starts with the boy courting the girl. He will write her a letter and even if she likes him she will not reply automatically. She will keep his letter and the next and the next. Meanwhile she will talk to her trusted friend and ask her to find out about the boy – to make sure he understands his parents, that he would be a good person to get married to and that he is not going with other girls. The boy will be finding out more about the girl as well. The parents only find out when the girl has decided to write back to the boy and then the boy and the girl will ask the parents for permission to marry. He can then start to come and visit. What matters is that you love each other.’

‘Yes,’ said Lona, ‘but also that you have children once you are married.’

Alice nodded and suddenly launched into a flood of words: ‘Life became very difficult for me when I did not have a baby at once. People insulted me and urged my husband to take another wife immediately.

‘After one year I made a promise to my husband and myself. I said: “I know I don’t have problems with you and you don’t have problems with me. But if after five years we still have no child then I will leave our home”.

‘So we waited one year, two years, three years, four years – and still no baby. Then, suddenly, the fifth year, Beatrice was born! We called her Beatrice Minallah Clement; ‘Minallah’ meaning ‘from God’ because she was a gift from God. People were very surprised and Clement and I were very happy.

‘Soon after I gave permission for my husband to take a co-wife. She and I got on well, we were like sisters...’

Polygamy is the rule rather than the exception both in Sudan and Uganda. Nearly all the men I met had more than one wife and nearly all the women had co-wives. The corollary of this was that attitudes to mothers living alone with their children were far more lenient than they are in the West. If you share a husband you are not going to be with him all the time and responsibility for your children rests with you. (On the other hand, if you divorce the father will get the children and give them to another wife or relative to look after.)

Women without children, rather than single mothers, bear the brunt of society’s disapproval, as Alice explained:

‘Two years later Clement died, leaving my co-wife also without children. My relatives started to blame me, saying “This girl made our Clement die without a child.” They didn’t consider Beatrice as a real child because she is a girl and girls they said are always useless. They told me I had killed my husband and that I was the one who should die.

‘My in-laws said I should marry one of my husband’s relatives as is our custom, but I had loved my late husband so much and I knew this would not be the same with anyone else. And so I decided to leave. I took Beatrice and eventually came here. I didn’t want to marry in case the same thing happened again and I could not conceive. But God is great and I came to love a friend and unexpectedly my little Josephine was born.’

At this point Alice broke into uproarious and joyous giggles. ‘Even my in-laws, who now also live in Ikafe, were happy that I had had another child. They called my baby ‘dear’ and said that I should have more children, a brother for my two girls. I looked at them and said: “In this situation? I don’t think so.” ’

As I got up to say good-bye, there was much whispering between the two women. Lona dashed off and came back again with something tied in a cloth in her hands. ‘Nikki,’ said Alice, ‘We are sorry that we cannot give you more food. If we were in our own country we would cook you a proper meal. But please accept these eggs as a gift from us, as an offering from Lona, to thank you for sitting with us and listening to us.’

Despite my worries about taking food from those who had so little, it was an offer I knew I could not refuse.

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