I remember visiting both the men’s and women’s prisons in Lira with Pastor Ogwang-Ocen (my “omara,” meaning we wedded women of the same village).
The jails in Lira were a good experience every time, particularly the ladies’ side. Some women were guilty, and others innocent – guilty murderers and also victims of wrongful blame – but they all spent time together, smiling, dancing, chatting, singing. We would sit in an open cement room together, laughing and asking each other questions. I would fumble around with Luo to talk about how I married from their tribe, and I had trouble convincing them. (Eventually I had to actually bring Suzan along with me to win the argument.)
One day a woman asked why I came to visit them, of all people. I told her I wanted to learn from the strongest people in this world: the women of Northern Uganda. The ones who have birthed and raised children without functional hospitals or schools, providing for their families despite being victimized by land theft, domestic abuse, and an infrastructure favoring only the wealthy. I told her that men work hard, but only a mother, a wife, a woman can endure suffering without losing hope. When men are accused of murder, subjected to corruption in the courts, and forced to live apart from their families, land, and livestock, no smiles are worn on their faces. But these women in the same circumstances jump with joy. Though unwillingly surrounded by walls, they know a freedom so deep and so real.
I developed this conviction about females a month prior to my visits with the inmates when I met a pregnant women (whose name will not be mentioned) through our partner agency UTOPIA in Kyenjojo District. The straw roof of her home was falling in, and her husband had recently left her mid-pregnancy when the roof had begun to leak. About to have her third child, she was too embarrassed to tell us her age because she began having children while she was very young.
Reluctantly, it seemed, she wove baskets from grass, hoping to make enough income to survive. I saw despair on her face, yes, but there was hope in her actions. While we spoke with her, she did not stop weaving. She knew the output of her work determined her capacity to survive, and to enable her children to survive. (One must understand that Ugandans focus their entire attention on visitors from the moment they set foot in the compound, often for hours or even days at a time without returning to a significant task.)
Weaving the basket meant life or death. There was no social, economic, political, or familial safety net beneath this woman – no momentary forgiveness in the system in which she lived.
Stubbornly, I had convinced myself for most of my life that I was strong. I wrestled and played other tough sports as a kid. I worked in the corporate food industry at minimum wage (and sometimes less). I got straight A’s while excelling at multiple extra-curricular activities. I built my own businesses from nothing, seemingly.
Once again, I realized how fleeting my strength was when I was challenged by the US immigration system in 2011. A mere three months unwillingly separated from my wife, and I was at the lowest point of my life: cussing at everyone on my better days and ready to die on my worse days. I remember on Thanksgiving day, it took me a full two minutes to think of one thing for which I was mildly grateful.
My only hope came from the occasional opportunity to hear Suzan’s voice on the phone, to know that she was alive and well. And she always had enthusiasm and excitement in her words. But consider her situation: she was in Nairobi, Kenya, a less welcoming part of East Africa in many ways, waiting indefinitely for her visa. The embassy was withholding her passport, not allowing her to return to her country. She was displaced, a total foreigner to her environment. When she ran out of money to stay in a $2/night room, she was homeless. Eventually, she was lucky enough to help out at a restaurant in exchange for the opportunity to sleep on its floor. When she sought temporary work, people would try to convince her to sell her body. She did not know where her next meal was, or when her documents would be processed.
How can one in such a situation possibly see the glass half full without being naive? Yet every time I spoke with Suzan, her attitude was positive. Her outlook was hopeful. I was cold, poor, and hungry too, but I can guarantee you I did not share Suzan’s perspective. Rather, I became bitter and enraged. I feel entirely justified for having felt that way, don’t get me wrong. The USCIS is a private institution which essentially legalizes corruption. That should piss me off just as much as anything else. But the point is that Suzan did not fall into despair, while I certainly did.
The resilience of the female gender is unmatched by men. This does not mean a woman’s sorrows are not significant. It means her burdens are authentically experienced, but treated with a deeply spiritual resistance that inspires a fierce striving for a better self, a better family, a better community, a better circumstance.
Here’s to women! Rightfully, humanity’s better half.