Archive for January, 2014

Constance R. Nabwire of Uganda: The Impact on Future Pulitzer Prize Winner Alice Walker and on “Everyday Use”

January 28, 2014

Social worker and home economist Constance R. Nabwire is best known for her heavily illustrated books on African cooking and recipes and the cultural connections. During the early 1960’s, after her high school education in her native Uganda, Nabwire traveled to Spelman College in Georgia where she would eventually earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology and psychology. Her studies and upkeep were funded by the  African Student Program for American Universities. Thereafter she moved on to the University of Minnesota where she graduated with a master’s degree in social work.

By chance, Constance Nabwire was placed to room with future Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner (1983) and National Book Award winner (1983) Alice Malsenior Walker at the black historically prestigious Spelman College in Atlanta. They would become close friends, would become so intrigued and impressed with each other, and they would forever change each other. Evelyn C. White writes on their relationship and academic interaction.

“That Alice could craft a commanding essay on Russia’s literary giants did not surprise…Nabwire. Born in Uganda and educated at…her country’s prestigious…schools, Nabwire…among…talented African students…in the early 1960’s offered scholarships…by…Negro College Fund. Nabwire said…unlike most..students at Spelman who…have few interests ‘beyond…Friday night dates,’ Alice made…efforts to befriend Africa students and was well versed in foreign affairs. ‘Alice was informed, politically…had an international perspective rare at Spelman,’ remembered Nabwire. ‘…we were thrown together…made…difference…to room with someone…intellectually stimulating…engaged with the world.'” (White: 73-74).

Walker and Nabwire were so close that they shared items like clothing, and they together went to intriguing places and other settings to practically experience for themselves. An incident illustrative of racism and discrimination in the white church, shocked Nabwire to tears and to other forms of psychological restlessness. White airs Walker’s view on the whites who attended church in Eatonton in Georgia where she was born in 1944, and on Nabwire’s reaction when the two were denied entrance to a white church in Atlanta.

“…the ‘faithful’ whites in Eatonton…kept each (segregated) Sabbath with the Lord. …during…Spelman…Alice (wearing the vaunted pink faille dress [purchased by Nabwire]) ventured with…Nabwire to services at a church in Atlanta. ‘The white…missionaries had come to Uganda and taught..it was important to worship God…read bible…pray,’ Nabwire said. ‘When Alice and I tried to enter…church…door was slammed in our faces. I didn’t understand. …months, I did nothing but cry'” (White: 161) .

Nabwire and Walker shared the pink dress, which Walker described as “divine” (White: 76).

Walker, together with all of her women’s council and Nabwire would intimately and emotionally venture to pay respect and to take flowers the newly grave of an ancestral Walker. Nabwire’s impact on Walker was so profound, that she would visit Uganda. Alice also recounted the incident of the grave as she spoke at the Organization of African Writers, a conference held at New York University in 2004.

“…I went because…someone in Georgia just discovered the grave of my great, great grandmother, Sally Montgomery Walker. …born in 1861…died in 1900. …I went back to pay…respects…take flowers…I was lucky…to be able to get my…roommate…wonderful woman from Uganda who made me care deeply about Africans and African women. …I went to Uganda…to understand how Constance had been…produced by…country which before Idi Amin was very beautiful…tranquil…green. …Constance and I and my…women’s council…went to visit this grave. …We sat there…Constance…friend Belvee…so many of us with…histories…so painful. …a long time of crying…. We watered those graves with our tears. …happy to do it” (Goodman 2004).
 
Intrigued by Nabwire, Walker would venture more into understanding African culture and society, and to read more into the writings of renowned African writers. Passages on her website offers her opinions, reactions, and readings on Africa; and also comparisons with black America. The passages are part Walker’s speech of September 13th 2010 delivered as the 11th Annual Steve Biko Lecture at the University of Cape Town.

“It…propelled me into…curiosities about who Africans might…be. …in the deeply racist…States of the Forties and Fifties…Africa was shrouded in…profound mists of distortion, racially motivated misperceptions, gross exploitation, and lies” (Walker 2014).

“Africans…cheerfully despised. Considered…savages. Certainly. …When I…went…to college…that song, “Nkosi Sikeleli’Afrika”…that sound of so much humility, love, devotion and trust…led me to the most important friendship…during my student years…with…Nabwire….”  (Walker 2014).

“…that friendship…understanding that Constance and I were sisters, developed my deep interest…concern for Africa…its peoples…animals…rainforests…diverse cultures. Through the writing of Africans…I began to encounter an intellectual and moral thoughtfulness that bordered on…often embodied the most astonishing profundity. I remember reading The Concubine by Elechi Amadi and The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye…and just being stunned. I would…read Ama Ata Aidoo, Buchi Emecheta…Bessie Head…Okot p’ Bitek…Ngugi wa Thiong’o…Two Thousand Seasons [by] Ayi Kwei Armah….”  (Walker 2014).

Melanie L. Harris also mentions the depth and influence of the friendship between Nabwire and Walker that continued after Walker had transferred from Spelman to the more mainstream Saint Lawrence College in New York.

“…the deep admiration of compassion…care expressed by…people of Uganda…drew Walker to Africa. …witnessed…this depth of caring through…Nabwire whom she kept in touch with while at Sarah Lawrence…. However, the depths of poverty and impact of colonialism made Walker’s pilgrimage…[to Africa] hard to endure” (Harris 2010: 34)

It was in 1974, during the early years of the dictatorial regime of General Idi Amin that young Alice Walker fulfilled her dream of visiting the land of Constance Nabwire.

“…not…surprising that as soon as I found a way…[at] twenty, I made my way to…land of…Nabwire…to discover…what made her…a wonderful person…wise and gentle beyond her years and…of most of the other girls at…school. I…encountered a Uganda that bears little resemblance to the one we see today” (Walker 2014).

“Uganda…referred to by Winston Churchill as…’Japan’ of Africa, because of…people’s courtesy…kindliness. This…a colonialist view, but…it was also a land of…greenest hills and valleys…there…a palpable feeling of peace and patience with the stranger” (Walker 2014).

The names of the people in the Uganda family where Alice Walker lodged are not mentioned, but they lived near Kampala the capital.

“I was taken in…by a Ugandan family who sheltered…cared for me…dispelling…any sense I…had that I would not be recognized as one of Africa’s children” (Walker 2014).

The renowned and academically debated short story, “Everyday Use,” is part of the collection of short stories written by Walker. The collection entitled “In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women” was first  published in 1973. “Everyday Use” references the Deep South of the United States, the black family and the societal transformation, and Uganda.

In the story, the beautiful Dee who is older than her bodily disfigured and shy sister Maggie who has remained in the deep southern tradition with their mother Mama Johnson visits home after a lengthy stay in an urban setting. The introverted and audacious Dee views herself as a transformed woman now embracing modernism and black radicalism. At the beginning of her visit home with a stocky fellow Hakim, Dee utters the greeting, “Wa.su.zo.Tean.o!” This is apparently Walker adapting to writing the “Wasuz’otya nno/ Wasuze otya nno?” which in Luganda means “How did you sleep?” In Buganda it is the most commonly used morning phrase that equates to, “How did you sleep,” “How was your night,” or “Good morning.” Sometimes the greeting is shortened to “Wasuz’otya/ Wasuze otya?” While in Uganda, Alice Walker must often have encountered the native morning greeting. Also, the greeting carries a question mark, other than the exclamation mark that is attached to it in the short story.

In “Everyday Use,” Dee also declares that she is no longer Dee, and has Africanized her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. In Luganda, “Wangero” can be a personal or place name, and it means “the one (or the place) of stories.” In some of Walker’s recounts, her friend Constance Nabwire is referred to as Constance Wangero. Is this an error or was Nabwire also known as “Wangero?”

The closest African name to “Leewanika,” is Lubosi Lewanika who was the king or paramount chief of Barotseland which is the western part of present-day Zambia. Lewanika reigned from 1878 to 1916, and he was deceived in 1890 by Cecil Rhodes into ceding the land to British protection through the British South Africa Company. Still, Lewanika would visit London in 1902 where he was embraced and attended the coronation of King Edward the 7th.

“Kemanjo” may well be an African name, or adaptation of one.

Works Cited

 

Goodman, Amy. “Alice Walker on the ‘Toxic Culture’ of Globalization.” Democracy Now! October 2004.

Harris, Melanie L. Gifts of Virtue, Alice Walker, and Womanist Ethics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Walker, Alice. “Coming to See You Since I Was Five Years Old: An American Poet’s Connection to the South African Soul;” 11th Annual Steve Biko Lecture. September 2010:

http://alicewalkersgarden.com/

White, Evelyn, C. Alice Walker: A Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.

Jonathan Musere