Notes from Kampala: Reflections of a gendered walk

Photo: PC035354 (Dec 3, 2006) by Stefan Gara. CC BY-NC-ND via Flickr.
Photo: PC035354 (Dec 3, 2006) by Stefan Gara. CC BY-NC-ND via Flickr.

I was out walking the dog this morning. It was a particularly hot morning as the rains haven’t quite taken force. It was lovely and quiet with very few people around. Kampala is always quiet on weekend mornings.

Snoopy is 15 years old, so for an Mzee (old man) of 105 dog years the walk can be a bit of a drag, especially given that Kampala is built on a series of hills.

Snoopy is deaf and partially blind, so he loves to get out of the garden and take in the various smells of the neighbourhood. If something particular appeals to him, he sits refusing to be moved while he traces the smell. Normally, this irritates me and I try to encourage him to move on. This morning though, I was distracted by one of the women who regularly clean the streets for Kampala City Council.

For anyone who has lived or spent time in an African country, this is nothing new. There are thousands of women who clean the trash and dust off the city roads, often risking their lives from speeding traffic or boda bodas (motorbike taxis) that have questionable roadworthiness credentials and no appreciation for space boundaries when ‘passing’ these women.

This morning though, I was surprised to see the woman on a Saturday.

Whilst waiting for Snoopy to sniff out some other dog, I watched as the woman bent over double sweeping, clearing and dusting, and the dust sweeping back into her face. I thought of the futility of such a task and the hardship it entailed for just €20 a month. This woman fit perfectly into the gendered stereotype that all of my academic and practice history has engrained. At this moment, this woman epitomised the inequality of the world.

What happened next fuelled this stereotype and ignited my feminist consciousness.

A man walked up the street, carrying a small, screaming baby. He hands this small child to the woman and walks away, leaving her to breastfeed the child as she continued to work.

Again, this is nothing new. I have seen this so many times over so many years. It’s in most of the books, magazines, NGO publicity materials, websites, etc. We’ve all ‘seen’ it before.

I watched the man as he continued to walk down the street and I felt really quite angry. Here is this woman, working in the blistering heat on the side of the road on a Saturday morning for less than we’d throw at the chipper. A victim of her gender, and he as we are conditioned, the perpetrator of her misery. The statistics back this up. But as the wonderful Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie teaches us, there is danger in a single story.

The dog finally finds the strength to move his arthritic hind legs and we can move on to the next pit stop. This time, he stops outside a house where I notice the man I’d written off as having gone home to live out his stereotype, was there working in someone’s garden surrounded by two more young children.

I then hear tapping in the distance. As I approach the shell of a desperately large building site, the tapping becomes a hammering. Ahead of me there are what looks like hundreds of men working on this giant building site.

Nothing new here either. In recent years, the city of Kampala has expanded ferociously.  The World Bank calls it “a city on the rise” and based on the number of tall apartment blocks being built, that would be ‘high’ rise!

Even Google found Uganda on its Google maps and decided it was a great place to “bring faster, more reliable Internet to the places and people that need it,” since it is a “modern city ready to connect on a bigger level.”

Everything here is big and getting bigger it seems – including income inequality and poverty.

Yet what catches my attention, despite having seen this many times, are the dismal working conditions that these men are forced  to endure. The support structures that secures the giant slabs of concrete ceilings are spindly looking strips of wood. The external ‘scaffolding’ is also made of wood spindles and are located in just two corners. There are no safety hats, no work uniforms, no boots, no shoes, no rope… you get the picture.

These men, like the KCC woman, earn very little.

They show up for work each day, 7 days a week, but not all are selected for work that day. Competition for these poorly paid, high risk jobs is fierce, as is the familial and societal expectations on these men. Most are working with little, if any food. Water is scarce.

Building sites in Uganda, the second highest employer in the country after agriculture, according to national safety inspector reporting, are among the “most dangerous industries” based on the number of accidents which happen at “alarming frequency.”

As someone who spent her formative development lens focused specifically on women and women’s issues, to now looking at life from a male perspective, I realise that I am now looking at the world through ‘gendered’ glasses, looking through two lenses and seeing both sides. That is how I imagine the shift from Women to Gender had anticipated all those years ago.

As I listen to the BBC Worldservice more than 5,000 kilometres away from the ‘migration crisis’ hotspots, I ‘see’ some of the debates that describe ‘migrants’ as ‘mostly men’ fleeing for economic purposes.

Then I am struck by a fundraising campaign that raised over $100,000 for a man caught on camera holding his daughter and selling ‘Bic’ pens. This story made the headlines because it was a man with a child, and we are so used to seeing women with their children selling or begging on the streets.

There are many such images of men and their children fleeing the war – yes war, not economics – all over social media. Why are we so surprised that men care?

As the current hysteria that has saturated all media coverage in Europe escalates with the anticipated response of border closures, I urge you to consider the wise and encompassing words of Chimamanda. See the situation from both sides – because there is never just one story.

I also urge you to put on a pair of glasses with ‘gendered’ lenses and see that this is also not a single story. People are fleeing for their lives. The journey into the unknown is perilous and traditional male roles demand that men go forth to find a better life and provide for their families.