Women Representation at Moshi: Gender and Voice in the Planning of a Post-Amin Future, 1979-1980

By Anatoli Lwassampijja, Department of History- Makerere University

Uganda Times, July 1979

One of the research strands of this project looks at the representation of women at the Moshi Unity conference. The conference was convened in March 1979 to bring together exiled Ugandans to plan for Uganda’s future since Amin’s regime was collapsing in the face of the Tanzanian army. Initially, this research strand aimed at examining the role/contribution of women and how they articulated their concerns at the Conference. However, I discovered that out of the ninety delegates from the different 28 groups that attended, there were no women delegates – amazingly for what was supposed to be a key event which would bring Ugandans together to discuss the national future! Therefore, my questions changed to: why were there no women? What does the apparent absence of women at Moshi tell us? Were the concerns, views and positions of women represented, or ignored, by the men present?

Uganda Times, September 1979

Traditionally in pre-colonial Uganda, it is sometimes argued that women were marginal and subordinate within decision making positions. This was entrenched by the heavily gendered colonial legacy as infused in the colonial education systems. The education provided by colonial authorities and missionaries did nothing to change and may have actually worsened the traditional relations of power based on gender. During the first quarter of the 20th century, leading girls’ schools in Uganda like Gayaza were offering a domesticity-oriented ideology of school curriculum. At this time the mission and colonial schools were male-dominated organizations run by men and women nurtured in patriarchal societies and blind to the short comings of the education they offered1 . Therefore, women’s education was constructed in order that they might become better wives, mothers, and guardians of the family and household, essential to a stable society. This kind of education system could hardly promote gender equality or competition with men; rather, it aimed at making women efficient in their domestic roles, subordinate to and separate from men.

This patriarchal authority and education for domesticity greatly affected women’s assumption of positions of leadership with the exception of a few like, Pumla Kisosonkole who was in 1956 nominated to the Legislative council, followed by Florence Lubega who in 1957 was also nominated to the Legco and  after independence became a Member of Parliament2 . Even in such cases where elite women sought to assert a public political role and actively made a contribution, their efforts have been forgotten in a double silencing and the media kept trivializing issues raised by women politicians3 .

Besides the deep history of male dominance in politics, the absence of women at Moshi is attributable to exile and liberation war politics which were especially exclusive. In some way, the many groups that emerged among exiles were all entirely male; so exile politics were even more dominated by men than national politics of the 1960s had been. When asked about the absence of women at the Moshi conference, Israel Mayengo a Ugandan exile during this era asserted that, “our aim was only to unite the liberation forces and oust Amin, the time was limited, and there was no room to debate pertinent issues on governance and equality. It was going to be so hard to think of women representation at the time of war.”4 Besides this, even prominent women at the time willingly rationalized their own subordination as necessary in a time of struggle. For instance, Rhoda Kalema remarked that, “this was a time of war all we could do was to support covertly, many women liberties had been suppressed by Amin, husbands killed and children orphaned, our only role was to support the liberation struggle and nation reconstruction as a whole in disregard of representation.”5

Similarly, Mary Okalebo, the Chairperson National Council of Women in 1979, while quoting Ferdinand E. Marcos President of the republic of commission of Filipino women said that; “we are developing a country and in all developing countries, how can womanhood rise up in hostility and in a position adversary or against that of the man, seek such exalted positions like equality when there are more important goals like freedom. When a man is fighting for the freedom of his country what position can a woman take other than stand besides him and offer her life, her talents, her courage and spirit.”6 In support of Ferdinand’s thoughts, Okalebo affirmed that, “this is the type of solidarity women and men of Uganda who struggle for democracy, justice and human rights need to declare. It is this type of solidarity that will find a concrete expression throughout and during this period of rehabilitation and reconstruction.”7 Ferdinand’s statement reveals that the subordination of women in political structure was (is) a universal phenomena and as such not entirely a Ugandan social cultural practice. At the same time Okalebo’s affirmation reflects the self defeatist mentality among the women at the time that they are less capable than men, there by rationalizing their subordination.

This notwithstanding, it is interesting to note that although women were physically absent at Moshi, not all women at the time accepted this exclusion. Some sources suggest that women, despite their limited opportunities at the time, organized and worked towards liberation and national reconstruction. In spite of their nonattendance at Moshi, women had their concerns and views of how Uganda should be governed. They had their own imagination of a future. Evidence to this is the plan by a group of women to set up an assistance programme in May 1979, through the avowedly non-political Uganda Women’s Union for Social Welfare and Reconstruction, formed in Nairobi by women exiles. The Union aimed at “helping women to reconstruct their own lives so that their children will not always be lacking.”8 On 29thMay, 1979 Rhoda Kalema, the Union’s representative in Kampala, remarked that, “the Union is to help women to be conscious of the reconstruction of the country as their counterparts in Uganda National Liberation Front are doing. This Union is not formed to fight those women’s organizations existing in the country but rather to work side by side with the existing ones.”9 The formation of such a Union in exile is emphatic evidence that indeed there were Ugandan women in exile at that time who wanted to organize fellow Ugandans to participate in the reconstruction of their country. Secondly, Rhoda’s remarks allude to the fact that women were involved in the liberation struggle through the UNLF women’s wing and it also shows that these women were aware of what was at stake; they were concerned about their country and rose to the task of rebuilding their nation. Besides, these women seem potentially to take a different stance to Okalebo- it seems that for these women, it was not enough to stand by the men who were fighting for liberation; rather they needed to articulate a distinctive agenda for women.

Uganda Times, May 1979

Documents reveal other evidence of women’s political activity at the time –despite their exclusion from Moshi. Newspapers reported a press conference of September 11, 1979 that was held by the UNLF women’s wing10 . In the presser women leaders like Mrs. Mary Nkata, Harriet Kigongo and Anne Pekke declared a week of mourning for brethren who had fallen victim to Idi Amin’s butchery during the eight year rule and the liberation war. The ceremonies were to be held at Nakivubo Stadium with a camp fire, the singing of religious songs and reciting the atrocities of Amin. They also organized prayers on Sunday at the clock tower (Kalitunsi) where several public executions had taken place during Amin’s 8 years reign of terror. Nkata, a member of UNLF women’s wing and an old hand in the politics of Uganda was now bent on mobilizing women to appraise their place as upcoming politicians. She emphasized that women should have the sense of belonging to the country rather than push everything to men.

Several other activities were planned by the women’s wing. They proposed erecting a monument for President Julius Nyerere to express gratitude for liberating them from Amin and they also planned to organize a party for women liberators to thank them for what they had done for this country. The plans to show gratitude to women liberators substantially answers the question of women participation in the liberation struggle. However, the silence about all these women’s activities merits an inquiry.

After the liberation war, elite male politicians began to advocate for women representation and participation. For instance, while addressing rallies in Kitgum and Lira towns in Northern Uganda, Dr. Kefa Ssempangi stated that “women in Uganda will take the challenge to contest for seats in Parliament when campaign season comes.”11 He further reiterated that “in a democracy of Uganda all citizens will enjoy equal treatment regardless of sex, tribe or religion”. Ssempangi’s remark is evidence that some people at the time were thinking about women’s representation.

So women were active in politics at the time – even though the dynamics of exile meetings and armed struggle tended to exclude them. Yet this seems to have been forgotten by prominent men who now recall this as a time of elite partisan politics which were all about men. Women seem to be doubly silenced (or forgotten) in the politics of 1979-80, for they were not only excluded from key meetings and institutions, but also from memory; pointing to the highly gendered politics of Uganda and Africa in general. Drawing on this background, this research strand will attempt to negotiate the place of women in the ‘Moshi Spirit’ in order to engage with wider debates on gendered political representation as well as subaltern women representation.

  1. Nakanyike B. Musisi, Colonial and Missionary Education: Women and Domesticity in Uganda 1900-1945, (Rutgers University Press, 1992) 181. []
  2. Florence Lubega was taken to England to take a short course in journalism and mothercraft. She had a task to visit all branches of women’s work and social centres as well as experiencing English home life in order to come back and set an example to the women of the colony, but Florences’ ambitions extended further and beyond the confines of the home into the political arena. In 1956 she went to Oxford to study constitutional reforms (a course which was called colonial studies by then). She became the first Ugandan woman to sit in the Legislative Council and after independence became a Member of Parliament in 1957. Between 1962 and 1966 she served as an advisor to three ministers, Kalule Setala of Community Development, Neko Nyekon of Planning and Community Development and Alex Ojera of Community Development and Labour. She was once the president of the Uganda Council of Women. []
  3. Sylvia Tamale, When Hens Begin to Crow: Gender and Parliamentary Politics in Uganda, (Westview Press, 1999) 185. []
  4. Interview with Israel Mayengo, Muyenga- Kampala,  22nd May,2021. []
  5. Interview with Rhoda Kalema, Kibuli-Kampala, 11thJune, 2021. []
  6. Mary Okalebo,Women Should Get Involved, Uganda Times, June 11th 1979. []
  7. Ibid. []
  8. Unsigned Article, Women Plan Assistance Pogramme, Uganda Times 29th May 1979. []
  9. Ibid. []
  10. Rebecca Katumba, Women declare week of mourning, Uganda Times, 12th September 1979. []
  11. “Women to contest seats”, Uganda Times, 7thJune, 1979. []

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