|WHERE DOES ONE BEGIN reviewing Africa, and the place of black people in the world, over the last few days? Perhaps we should begin in East Africa.
To Uganda, then. Members of the Parliamentary Committee on Defence were outraged to learn that prisons in some parts of the country were so congested that female inmates share cells, bathrooms, and other facilities with their male counterparts. The consequences are so disturbing, it’s inappropriate to go into details.
In what must, surely, be the understatement of the month, Judith Franca Okello, the MP who brought the scandal to light, said: “There is need to separate women from men before it is too late”.
However, one doesn’t have to be in prison, or in Africa to endure such depravities. Nor do they have to come in such crude forms to be damaging.
A case in point was reported in The Observer, in the heart of the House of Commons in the UK, which is held up to be the beacon of democracy.
Only two black women, and not a single Asian one, have ever become MPs in the UK. Two of them are current members and one, Dawn Butler, speaks of shocking instances of facing frequent racism from politicians of all parties.
In an essay, Butler describes how a former Conservative minister, David Heathcote-Amory, confronted her as she went to sit in the Members’ section on the terrace: “What are you doing here? This is for Members only”, he said.
He then asked Butler; “Are you a Member?”
She replied; “Yes I am, are you?”
At that point, Heathcote-Amory turned to his colleague and said; “They’re letting in everybody nowadays.”
She made an official complaint and, yes you guessed right, the Conservative party chief whip and Speaker of the House told her there was nothing they could do about it.
In the same UK, two weeks ago, a Nigerian sister took a more militant line than Butler. Mercy Guobatia, remarkably just 22 years old, is one of many women held at the Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre in Bedford, awaiting deportation.
Guobatia, the mother of two daughters, six months and a two-year-old, has been held at the centre with several others for months with their children. She says since arriving at the centre, her children have been consistently sick. They want better treatment for the little ones.
So what did Guobatia do? She led about 15 other women to a place outside the staff office, and stripped naked in protest. According to The Independent, the last time they heard of Guotabia, she had been taken off to solitary confinement.
TO KENYANS, THIS METHOD OF protest must ring a bell. However, if you were too young then, we are glad to report that in the late 1980s and early 1990s during President Moi’s administration, hundreds of people agitating for multiparty democracy were arrested.
In March 1992, mothers of the political prisoners organised a hunger strike. The women, most of them in their 60s and 70s, marched to Uhuru Park, where they remained, demanding that their sons be released. On the fifth day of the strike, police attacked, firing tear gas and beating the women.
In response, some of the women stripped naked. The incident became world-famous, in part because for a mother or elderly woman to expose herself is a taboo, and in most of Africa, many people believe that it brings on a curse and all manner of bad luck.
Wonderful to see that fighters like Guotabia are drawing inspiration from “back home” in their struggles, and deploying weapons that have stood the test of time.
Inevitably, we must end with Comrade Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Mugabe, it turns out, is a very complex chap, according to several profiles of the man in international newspapers.
A particularly insightful, but also unforgiving, piece appeared in The Guardian by Heide Holland, the last western journalist to interview Mugabe at length in December 2007, and author of a new book, Dinner with Mugabe.
She writes: “There has been little space for play in Mugabe’s life. Taking time out only to listen to smuggled Elvis Presley records, he studied so hard during his 11 years of imprisonment — in an attempt to suppress the accumulated rage we see escaping from his every pore today — that he earned six university degrees.
“He still rises every morning to perform yoga, eats sparingly, and avoids alcohol… He talked a lot in the interview with me about his ‘suffering and sacrifices’, clearly seeing himself as something of a martyr.
“Accepting defeat is an emotional hurdle Mugabe has not had to negotiate in a long time. His addiction to power and the bombastic, cruel way he exercises it reflects weakness rather than strength, and is probably due to his failure to develop a strong inner core in his deprived youth.
‘‘The lonely child with long-buried grievances is still crouching inside Mugabe’s old body, ever ready to take offence and inflict revenge.
“His reliance on outward shows of strength is a cover for the hollow, shivering person underneath…”