Mpanga uses pen and paper to champion women rights

Sunday December 1 2019

Memoir. The book cover. The books is a clear

Memoir. The book cover. The books is a clear testimony of her resolve, industry and resilience in face of the toughest challenges life can visit upon someone. COURTESY PHOTO  

By Gaaki Kigambo

The title comes directly from a lament by her maternal grandfather, where she spent the first five years of her life, that her natural brilliance and industry should not have been bestowed upon a girl.

Whereas Mpanga does not say how she felt about it at the time, the remark is presented as the recurrent source of motivation to be everything she could be. The reason, ostensibly, was to prove to her grandfather that a girl-child could be just as productive and useful to her family and community, if not more than the boy-child for whom it was all but a given.

This is the point of the memoir’s last chapter, which lists a few of Mpanga’s achievements in life she wishes her grandfather were still alive to see with his very own eyes.

Although she might not have intended it as such, the chapter is by any measure a dig at the old man regardless of how loving and kind-hearted the granddaughter tries to present him. Even to a less discerning reader, it is impossible to miss Mpanga’s anticlimactic feeling out of the fact that he did not live long enough to swallow his words.

As with most chronologically ordered accounts, Mpanga’s memoir sets off from when, where and to whom she was born.

A granddaughter of a county chief in Buganda Kingdom when it still wielded executive power, Mpanga was born Masembe into an aristocratic family in January 1933. She was delivered in a church-run maternity centre, which was neither adequately lit (as she recalls, it was powered by a dim hurricane lamp) nor had a doctor – conditions eerily similar to those in some health centres across the country today.

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She did not become a Mpanga until 32 years later when she tied the knot with Andrew Frederick Mpanga in a high-powered ceremony that reflected her parents’ 34 years back. Mr Mpanga was a very close confidant of Frederick Mutesa II, Buganda’s last powerful king and Uganda’s first Head of State, who graced the wedding.

By then, the bride had, among many things, attained the best education from Gayaza High School and Makerere University – part of the most prestigious educational institutions in Uganda then and now – and held a couple of good jobs by dint of her efforts, but also station in life. Such was her family’s stature, the marriage of Mpanga’s parents was announced in one of the leading newspapers of the day as both very colourful and attended by a throng of people from near and afar!

As a member of her society’s wealthy and privileged class, Mpanga recounts a loving, fulfilling upbringing on sprawling estates populated by “large shambas of cotton, coffee and all sorts of food” where she was doted on by her grandfather and father alike. He, too, rose through the ranks to become a roving county chief because of his hard work, dependability and ultra-loyalty to the Buganda crown that he died defending in the Mengo Crisis of 1966.

In that tumultuous year, Uganda’s executive prime minister Apollo Milton Obote ordered an attack on the main palace of Mutesa II at Mengo and effectively ended the centuries-long opulent monarchical era as its core beneficiaries knew it. The violence and carnage that attended the attack marked the height of a troubled decade some historians like the venerable Phares Mukasa Mutibwa have noted Uganda has never quite recovered from.

The origins, build-ups and eventual sparks of this era-turning crisis have preoccupied both professional historians and lay men alike, and not without sharp disagreements. Thus, unsurprisingly, Mpanga too offers her two cents. And why not? She, more than most, is eminently qualified to do so as a direct victim and close associate of a number of its principal actors.

Moreover, every well-crafted memoir is also a personal history of the momentous events its author lives through. Unfortunately, she does so very lightly and quickly she forfeits the opportunity to enrich the view from inside Mengo regarding the crisis and its far-reaching effects at both individual and collective level. How, for instance, might life have turned out had she and her family not been forced into exile? Or, alternatively, how did exile reshape or impact her outlook to life, politics, society, et al?

Sadly, this tiptoeing is not reserved to just that one event. Rather, it runs through every major political crisis Mpanga lived through; from the dreadful Idi Amin years, the chaos between 1979 and 1980, where Uganda had four presidents in under two years, which easily gave way to the return of Obote, her and Buganda’s enemy number one, and the Museveni-led five-year devastating armed resistance that immediately followed in which she was involved.

As a seasoned female politician and senior citizen, it would have been thrilling to read from her an incisive commentary on these episodes that have unevenly shaped and at times stagnated Uganda. After all, it is indisputable men and women share little similarities in their assessment of issues. That she does not is left to the reader’s guess.

Satisfying read
That said, though, you cannot take nothing away from Mpanga. Her memoirs are a clear testimony of her resolve, industry and resilience in face of the toughest challenges life can visit upon someone. This shines brightest in Chapters 9-13 in which she recounts how she firmly held her family together, when she barely had the grips to, through a long season of turbulences whose full nature and extent she delicately comments on. Bar her strength of character, her story would not be dissimilar to many for whom their privilege has also been their bane.

Historic

Women champion. Mpanga’s life story is one of successfully upending assumptions that one’s gender is a hindrance in ways that are noteworthy for Uganda.
For instance, she contributed to efforts to formulate a gender-sensitive constitution that protected women, allowed them greater and more direct participation in Uganda’s political processes, and revised the laws to allow Ugandans to define their citizenship by their mothers.

About Mpanga

Born: 1934
Education: Gayaza High School
• B.A. in History from the UK
• Master of Science in Education from Indiana University, Bloomington.
Career: • Chairperson, Uganda Council of Women (1986-1988), • Women MP, Mubende District (1996-2001)
• Minister of State for Women and Development (1987),
• Minister of State for Primary Education (1989 to 1992).

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