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Author: Helen Nabasuta Mugambi
Title: Handcrafts, homestead exhibits, and the generation of a gendered text in Mityana women's festival songs and performances
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Handcrafts, homestead exhibits, and the generation of a gendered text in Mityana women's festival songs and performances
Helen Nabasuta Mugambi

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 7, pp. 6,9, 1994
Issue title: Institute for Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities: Texts in Objects
Author Biography: Helen Nabasuta Mugambi is an Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at California State University at Fullerton.

Handcrafts, homestead exhibits, and the generation of a gendered text in Mityana women's festival songs and performances


This paper is based on field study of songs and performances produced by Mityana women's clubs from around the districts of Kibuga, Mubende, and Mpigi, Uganda. It is an extract from a larger study of gendered texts in Kiganda songs that recall or reconfigure traditional narratives within their paradigmatic structure. Women's clubs have flourished in many rural communities in Buganda since the 1950s as a response to the gender inequalities propagated by parents' privileging of the education of boys over that of girls under the British educational system in the country. Consequently, many adult women in Buganda could neither read nor write at a time when the emergent culture was increasingly relying on the written word for communication.

Although women's clubs of Buganda were organized by religious sisters who possessed "domestic science" expertise, the clubs retained a secular status in their dedication to reinforcing leadership in the adult female community. The original objectives of the clubs were to help women acquire literacy skills and to improve their knowledge of nutrition and child care and in a sense produce literate and "better" housewives. Club members either improved or acquired skills in areas such as weaving, embroidering, baking, and other homemaking skills. Among the crafts they produced were items such as woven floor and table mats, kettle covers, baskets, and bags. Club activities also promoted excellence in song, dance and performance. Such an orientation gave the clubs the reputation of being the propagators and guardians of traditional cultural values affecting household gender roles. Over time, the clubs evolved into powerful sites for the production of both household objects and the production of verbal arts and performances.

Gender politics were, from the outset, an integral part of club activities. In order to join a club, a woman had to obtain permission from her husband. Some men would not give such permission as they looked at women's clubs with suspicion, fearing that the gathering of women outside of the home would create sites for "gossip" and have the potential for changing women's attitudes towards traditional, ascribed male authority within the household. On the other hand, those men who allowed their wives to join the clubs perceived the clubs as safe, non-threatening domestic spaces that helped to produce skilled homemakers. A study of recent songs and performances of Mityana women's clubs validates both views in that these clubs produce more effective homemakers while simultaneously providing a forum for changing key traditional attitudes about gender hierarchies and responsibilities. It is clear from studying the festival objects and activities that club members gain better homemaking expertise in rural domestic technology and, most importantly, that these clubs have also served as catalysts for women's articulation of gender relations through song and performance. Although these clubs were not at the outset referred to as development organizations, their activities show that they are actually the precursors of today's development organizations. Today, women in these clubs articulate their own indigenous ideas of self improvement or kwesitula, literally meaning "lifting themselves up" as they compose songs explaining their attempts to transform rural technology and improve their physical and cultural environment. They also articulate their function and roles within the wider sociopolitical structure in contemporary Uganda.

The Mityana clubs sometimes make their crafts and compose songs and plays around a pre-selected theme. During a three-year period that ended in July 1992, the women's activities focused on home improvement, and specifically, on the construction of an ideal homestead, including the clearing and manicuring of the compound, planting flowers, upgrading and maintaining the kitchen and the main house, building dish racks, rubbish pits, animal houses, providing safe drinking water, and maintaining kitchen gardens. Simultaneously, women were determined to start income-generating businesses which included the selling of their handcrafts.

July 1992 marked the climactic celebration of the achievements of the Mityana women's clubs' three-year phase. The women came together in a weekend camp to celebrate their domestic and communal achievements through the exhibition of handmade mats, baskets, clay pots, table cloths, foodstuffs from their gardens, "state-of-the-art" rural technology including environmentally sensitive energy-saving devices, and home-grown traditional medicinal herbs among other items, as well as through song, dance, and drama. Each club constructed a miniature version of an ideal homestead complete with houses, furnishings, gardens, and in some cases natural objects such as chickens, goats, and pigs.

As part of my on-going research on gendered texts in Kiganda songs, I recorded and studied songs and performances composed by the Mityana women and staged at their July 1992 festival.

In this paper I examine the relationship between material objects and the oral texts and performances created by the women for this festival. I demonstrate that significant meanings are attached to these material objects. These meanings are not visibly inscribed on the objects themselves but are, instead, articulated and contained in the texts of songs, plays, and dances composed and performed by the women. Furthermore, I show that in composing these texts the women reproduce a feminist consciousness generating new texts and meanings within an emergent culture of female liberation (see also Mbulelo Mzamani on gender politics, 1992). These texts and meanings, I contend, embody a dialogic relationship with the Kiganda traditional narratives whose texts prescribe woman's status in the Kiganda society.

The relationship between the objects in the exhibits and the texts dramatized on the stage was played out inside a large circular area constituting the festival site. Exhibit booths lined the bottom three quarters of the festival site while the performance stage occupied the top quarter of the arena. The main entrance led to the central space which was reserved for the audience who came to see the exhibits on display and to attend the performances. The movements of the members of the audience thus formed a bridge linking the flow of ideas emanating from the activities at the two sites.

There were approximately 18 display booths designed to exhibit the material and natural objects outlined above. Although the functions of familiar objects in the booths were not visibly inscribed on the objects themselves, they existed within the cultural consciousness of the audience. Spokeswomen at each booth created verbal texts by narrating these functions for their audience. The Mityana women also created texts about their newly invented objects. The overall intention of the women was to present a comprehensive picture of both the natural and woman-made objects essential to the making of an ideal contemporary homestead.

The following extract from a statement by a Kiganda club lady as she showed me around her club's booth exemplifies such narrations:

We devised ways of constructing this (decorative) kettle and these cups.... These here are Ziba yams; these are Kiganda yams; this is a bunch of bananas.... These are beans ... Over there we have Kiganda medicine. This herb here is known as Kiyondo. It cures morning sickness in pregnant women; you crush and mix it with water and have her drink it.... This one here is called bbombo. It cures chest pains. Now this little herb is called mubiri. It relieves vomiting in a child.... This over here is called Luwawu. It is a poison anti-dote.... [emphasis mine].

In other booths, spokeswomen drew spectators' attention to the types and functions of handcrafts in the display booths, the features of their invented energy-saving ovens, and the various types of foods that make up a balanced diet.

The songs at the performance stage, like the narrations at the booths, named and described the functions of the objects in the exhibits and, in the process, reproduced and expanded on those narrations. Additionally, the text of the songs extricated meaning in the objects neither visibly inscribed on them nor contained in the cultural consciousness of the audience.

An example of a song naming and describing the functions of the objects in the exhibits is contained in the first part of the song entitled: Entereeza Yamaka Nga Byweyandibadde, or "How the home should be organized." In this song, the women state in part:

Don't ignore making mats and baskets
They make the home aesthetically pleasing
They make the home shine....
Lady, don't ignore my words
Agriculture is the foundation of the nation
Grow maize, grow beans
Grow food for a balanced diet....

Another song, Ffe Bannakazadde Beggwanga, or "We the Mothers of the Nation," presents a comprehensive description and narration with the women on the stage acting out the spatial arrangements of each section of the homestead. The women started by declaring their intention to prescribe and demonstrate the layout and content of an ideal contemporary homestead. The song was addressed to "fellow women" and mentioned the functions and significance of practically every natural and constructed object in the exhibit area.

In many of the songs, the women referred to themselves as inventors citing their knowledge and expertise in bringing into existence objects in the exhibits such as energy-saving devices. They referred to themselves as physicians able to summon the expertise embedded in their knowledge and control of traditional medical practices and curative traditional herbal medicines.

When these songs are comprehensively analyzed, it becomes clear that these women utilize their overall achievements and skills in constructing or inventing household objects to create song texts through which they establish or legitimize female power and authority within the household. Hence the texts the women attached to the objects generated yet other texts, texts about female power, about female identity, and about women defining themselves. This process indeed moved the center of discourse from the objects on display to gender relations in the household. The above quoted song entitled Entereeza Y'amaka by Busubizi women prescribes woman's responsibility in the household, exhorting her to excel in the making of crafts as displayed in the booths. This song, like many others performed throughout the day, stressed the necessity to combine household responsibilities with money-generating activities such as selling their handcrafts. This approach to the hard work necessary to the running of a household, they asserted, would result in women achieving economic independence from their husbands and achieving overall self-reliance.

The tune and tempo of the above song abruptly changed with the following text:

(Lady) When you have done all this work
Lady when you have organized everything
Wherever you go,
What do you become?
We are the light
We are the brightness ...
We thank the Creator
For having made us female.

Another song by another group of women utilized the objects in the exhibit to claim that it is woman's labor and creativity that bring health and development to the household. They described a bachelor's household as devoid of any civilizing grace. They further stated, "Omukyala Agulumizibwe," or "May woman be exalted." Curiously, the expression agulumizibwe (exalted) is most commonly used in reference to deities and saints. This song also stated:

The ladies of Vvumba possess excellence
They excel in all their work
They invent
They are excellent professors.

It is important to acknowledge that in such songs women reconfigure traditional texts that envisage domestic work as oppressive by initiating new texts that transform their work into a liberating force. It is only then that the transformatory power of such texts is highlighted. The above song, for instance, invoked and undercut the text of matrimony in the Kiganda culture through the traditional song game Balijja, one of the most commonly performed matrimonial texts in Kiganda culture. In this game, a newly married woman who silently rebels against servitude in marriage is discarded by the husband. Balijja is a children's song game thus designed to teach young children institutionalized gendered responsibility within marriage. The game is usually performed in a circle. The children crown a king and a queen, and then sit in a circle. One of the children, acting as a bachelor, skips around the inside of the circle lamenting his destitution as a man without a wife to perform household chores for him. With the other children responding with the chorus "balijja," the selected bachelor walks around inside circle, chanting about how he trudges along like a poor little lamb of the palace forced to cook for himself and to carry out the other menial chores reserved for wives. When he arrives in front of the king he kneels down and asks the king to give him a wife. The queen looks silently on as the king gives a wife to the bachelor. The bachelor continues chanting and walking around the circle followed by his newly-wed wife who does not utter a word. By the time the husband goes around the circle and once again arrives in front of the king, the marriage has gone sour. He complains bitterly that the wife he was given refuses to cook for him and that when she does cook, the food is either half cooked or burnt. The first wife is dropped out of the circle while the man begs the king for another wife. The king points to a new woman who starts on the matrimonial journey silently following the husband. The game goes on until the king runs out of women to give away. The moral of the story here is: "Women, serve your husband or else you will get divorced." At a deeper level (generally not understood by the children performers), while the wives do not utter a word during this game, they utilize silent protest to successfully subvert the ascribed roles by refusing to perform the prescribed domestic chores.

A play by women from the Lake Wamala area further reenacted and reformulated Balijja text. Most importantly, this play moved the text from the children's game genre to an adult marriage context in the center of the village. When the play opens, the newly married woman is sitting in the center of a dirty compound in front of a poorly thatched house surrounded by high grass—the type of bachelor dwelling described in the women's songs. The man is seen spelling out to his wife the rules that will govern the household. The man orders her to clear the bush, plant food and cash crops, and give him all money generated from the work. He squanders all their money on alcohol and expects her to perform all household duties singlehandedly. A few weeks elapse and the wife, overwhelmed by the domestic work, goes on strike. A neighbor comes by and advises her to change strategy: to work hard and by example coerce her husband into joining her. At the end of the story, the man has been converted. He has built a perfect house and the homestead has all the trimmings exemplified in the display booths at the back of the performance arena. Therefore, it can be concluded that the main difference between the Balijja domestic chores text and the text articulated in this play is the addition of an income-generating component to domestic work. Women's ability to generate and control money is perceived as a transformatory tool expected to garner women's independence from men. The final stanza of the song by the Vvumba women in fact threatens husbands who prevent their wives from engaging in money generating activities. It states in part:

If you dare say
"Women will not work" (for money)
We shall divorce you ...
And leave you gazing.

In the final scene of the above mentioned play, a subtle gesture marred the otherwise picture-perfect ending. The husband had just returned from shopping and had given his wife a busuti (a traditional outfit made of a seven-yard piece of fabric and complicated to wear) while he started to put on a kanzu (a simple tunic) he had purchased for himself. When he failed to locate the sleeves to his tunic, he had to be rescued by the wife who had successfully completed putting on her busuti. The woman was clearly in control over her husband, who was made to appear clumsy and incompetent despite the fact that he was governing the household as dictated by traditional custom.

Although some songs commended cooperation between men and women, the majority tended in essence to dethrone man from his traditional seat in the household. This phenomenon was reflected in songs such as the one by Busubizi club that focused on prescribing the structuring of household objects in the homestead. This song, already referred to above, while addressing a female audience, included in its prescriptions architectural instructions for the construction of the ideal house. The song gave specific description for the type of roofing, windows, etc. This act, in a rural context, could be seen as subversive to traditional male authority vested in the husband's responsibility to provide a residence for his wife.

Furthermore, the structure of a number of the songs characteristically contained three distinctive parts in varying sequences. One part described aspects of the objects in the exhibits, another explicitly or implicitly established female identity or authority in relationship to the making and ordering of those objects, while the third part depicted men's alienation from work and consequent disintegration into powerlessness.

We can therefore say that the songs of the club women contained tactics for recreating female images in the context of their relationship to the objects they created in the household.

Abakyala Musitule Amaaso is a song that aroused angry responses from the men in the audience. It started by narrating the oppressed history of the women's foremothers and compared that history to what the women considered their own more liberated status. The song recalled, for instance, how "women of long ago" in contrast to today's women were prevented from eating chicken and eggs and were thus deprived of access to good nutrition. The last part of that song became a biting attack on what the women termed men's liberty to be indolent, greedy, and irresponsible while leaving both food and money-generating activities to the women. In addition, the song depicted the man as a drunkard who eventually drifts into nothingness. Thus, in this particular song structure, the text totally dethrones man from a position of authority in the household because of his lack of industry. The women's own industry—particularly as evidenced by the skillfully made objects on display in the booths—embodied achieved power and provided the basis for the women's texts in the songs to claim or demand authority in the household.

By attacking men's authority and power in the club songs, the women were, by implication, interrogating and rejecting the source of men's traditional power and authority over them. This source of power, according to Kiganda tradition, is traceable to the Kiganda founding myth, the story of Kintu through which the authors or interpreters of the myth ascribed power to maleness and subverted the power of the primordial mother, Nnambi. Such constructions of power in gender relations have been addressed by multiple scholars including Henrietta Moore (Feminism and Anthropology, 1988).

This story of the origins of the Baganda starts when Nnambi, daughter of Ggulu (the sky God), descends to earth to take a walk and meets Kintu, a man, and the only being on earth. Kintu is a primitive being whose diet consists only of cow dung and cow urine. Nnambi ascends back to heaven with Kintu to ask her father's permission for her to marry Kintu. After passing a series of tests ordered by Ggulu, the sky God agrees to the marriage. Ggulu orders Nnambi and Kintu to return to earth immediately while Walumbe (death), Nnambi's evil brother is absent from heaven.

On the way down to earth, Nnambi discovers that she had forgotten to take millet for her chickens with her. She disobeys her father's order not to return to heaven and coerces her husband to join her in retrieving the millet. Walumbe sees Nnambi and Kintu and insists on descending to earth with them. On earth, Kintu and Nnambi beget children whom Walumbe soon puts to death. Efforts to expel Walumbe from earth fail. Kintu resigns himself to this fate saying, "If Walumbe is determined to continue killing my children, let him do so. He will never succeed in killing them all for I will always beget more." Thus, up to this day, the Baganda actually address themselves as Bana ba Kintu, or "children of Kintu." Nnambi, on the other hand, is remembered as the one who brought death into the world by her disobedience to her father. Benjamin Ray's extensive research on this myth documents how male interpreters of the story of Kintu ascribe the authority of the primordial household to Kintu and state that women occupy an inferior position in Kiganda society solely because Nnambi is believed to have brought death into the world (Ray 1991). In addition, Nnambi's return for the chickens' millet is used to justify the Kiganda tradition of prohibiting women from eating chicken and eggs, a fact repeatedly restated in the women's festival songs. The Baganda's reliance on the Kintu narrative as a charter for gender norms presents opportunities for intertextual interpretations of the Mityana women's songs and performances.

When women singing about their demonstrated skills and knowledge of maintaining their households name themselves "founders of the nation," "mothers of the nation", "light of the world," it is very possible that they are at least subconsciously dialogizing gender ideas embodied in the Kiganda founding myth and reclaiming the positive identity lost through the culture's use of the founding myth.

Furthermore, I believe that rural women's successful participation in the recent guerrilla war that liberated Uganda from the "Obote II" dictatorship has been a powerful catalyst in the women's recent aggressive quest for gender equality. Their role in that war has been praised in radio songs and in other public media by both men and women. Women at the grassroots are now able to participate in local elections for positions in village governance. This political and social environment has sensitized the male population to the need for more significant roles for women in public affairs. This has contributed substantially to their ability to establish the level of gender discourse represented in the July 1992 Mityana Women Club's festival. Women's empowered public voices are now penetrating both their cultural and material productions. Investigations into issues of contemporary gender politics, such as Mbulelo Mzamane's Gender Politics and The Unfolding Culture of Liberation in South Africa (Mzamane 1992), are crucial to projecting the problems facing the African woman's involvement in national politics. As stated in the introduction to Sexual/Textual Politics, Elaine Showwalter implies that "effective feminist writing [is] work that offers a powerful expression of personal experience in a social framework." As demonstrated in this discussion, the Mityana women fit this conception of feminist discourse. They successfully manipulate their lived experiences and their domestic objects by utilizing space authorized by men for those objects to weave (unauthorized) feminist texts that critique patriarchy and aim at producing actual changes in the gender power structures.


Moi, Toril (1985) Sexual Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. New York: Routledge.

Moore, Henrietta L. (1988) Feminism and Anthropology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Mzamane, Mbulelo (1992) "Gender Politics and The Unfolding Culture of Liberation in South Africa." Paper presented at the Fall Workshop on South Africa: Queens University, Kingston, Canada.

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