- “Our Voice of Africa”: It Is Less Than Our Voice Without a Woman’s Voice
In her poem Our Voice (Chipasula and Chipasula 1995: 166–67) Noémia de Sousa (1926–2002) speaks about “our voice of Africa” as that voice that is liberative; that voice which opens “up new ways” and “lights up remorse … and burns glimmers of hope in the dark souls of desperate people” who cry out for emancipation from “slavery.” That voice which creates new possibilities by awakening a “cyclone of knowledge.” That voice which can persistently and effectively represent the aspirations of “millions of voices that shout, shout and shout!” for freedom and self-actualization.
Implicit in Noémia’s poem is the contention that there is a particular kind of voice which situates Africans1 into “speaking positions” (Simbao et al. 2017: 12) from which they collectively generate knowledge, challenge hegemonic exploitation, and resist oppression. This is the voice that can overcome the power structures laid by the north against the south; structures that have for decades muted our collective voice as Africans.
However, for this voice to remain fresh (like Noémia’s “due of the bush”) and rise above patriarchal interests (based on Noémia’s “selfishness of men”) it must include the voices of women. Women constitute over half of both world and African populations; Uganda’s population is 50.26% women and 49.74% men (National Planning Authority 2015). Women provide the labor that sustains the continent’s agricultural economy. Yet, although through affirmative action programs many women are enjoying better lives, the majority of women in the developing world still face challenges of access to information, reproductive and maternal health, and education (Erken 2017); “female poverty” affects many women in sub-Saharan Africa.
As such, there is a need for a voice that represents this complex constituency of women. For this purpose, the nonliberative voice seen in, among others, Shakuntala Hawoldar’s poem To Be a Woman (Chipasula and Chipasula 1995: 134) is less than productive. This is because for Hawoldar to “be a woman, [is to be] a shadow without form. Wombing meaningless men in the endless chain of need; [t]o be worn on rainy days, like colorless old shoes.” Such a voice would (re)produce women’s subjectivities that are irredeemably grounded in the essentialized position of women as victims of an all-powerful, omniscient, and omnipresent patriarchy that regulates their mobility and choices. Trapped in this (mainly domestic) space, the kind of voice women would contribute to the collective African voice would be an expression of agony, continuous abuse, and exploitation.2
The better voice, in my view, is that produced by the woman in Amina Saïd’s My Woman’s Transparence (Chipasula and Chipasula 1995: 33–34). Her subjectivity is not confined; she is situated in a world of unlimited possibilities (cast against “the whole sea as its mirror”) from which she can influence tastes and decisions and advocate for unity3 using her powerful voice, which “plays echo to its thunder and to its murmurs.”
Such a voice would allow women to address the wider issues affecting Africans. By taking such a stance women like President Ellen Johnson Serleaf of Liberia and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Mutha Maathai (1940–2011) of Kenya have made significant contributions to their countries. They participated in the shaping of their nation-states (Tripp 2015); they took a stand for not just their rights but those of others as well (including the environment, in the case of Maathai). In Uganda, Stella Nyanzi is embroiled in a bitter fight with Makerere University and the government of Uganda. She has, however, gone beyond fighting for personal privileges (including career development and office space)4 to raise governance questions (Kakande 2017). She has used graphic language to challenge Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, and his wife and minister for education Janet Kataaha Museveni, on their inability to honor a 2016 campaign promise to give sanitary pads to school-going girls.5 As a result Nyanzi joined a global conversation on women’s reproductive rights through an activist campaign dubbed “conscious menstruation”6 for which she has...