Interview with Christopher Conte, Author of Crossroads : Women Coming of Age in Today’s Uganda

Q. Please tell us something about your background.

A. I am a journalist. After spending 25 years both as a newspaper reporter and editor and freelance writer, I launched a new career 10 years ago as a trainer and mentor for young journalists from various countries in the so-called “developing” world. That work included three years living and teaching full time in Uganda. It was an experience that changed my life. I found a people whose sophistication and good humor was infectious, and who helped me understand both my own culture and their own. I wanted to help capture some of their stories, which made me appreciate the importance of preserving cultural traditions in this time of cultural homogenization.

Q. What specifically inspired “Crossroads”?

A. It grew out of some informal conversations I had with a number of Ugandan women journalists when I worked there. I was struck by their sophistication and by the graceful and poetic way they reconciled their very cosmopolitan perspectives with the traditional values of an older, rural Uganda. We became convinced that telling personal stories in a straightforward journalistic style would be a good way to illuminate cultural issues. We called the essays “coming of age” stories because the authors describe how culture shaped them when they were young – and how they, in turn, hope both to preserve and modify it now that they have grown up. While the stories are quite personal, they also reflect the fact that women have come into their own as a leading force in Ugandan society.

Q. Why did you present work just by women authors?

A. Mainly because women came forward to write these stories. Maybe women are more attuned to the issues explored in this book because their own roles are changing so rapidly in traditional societies like Uganda. Also, women seem to draw fewer lines between the public and personal spheres, so they may be more sensitive to the impact of social change on private lives.

Q. Are the authors of Crossroads representative of their whole society?

A. They are part of the educated, urban middle class, so that sets them apart in ways from many Ugandan women. But even if they are a minority, they are an increasingly influential and growing one. Caroline Ariba, whose story gave the book its title, reflects in her essay on what distinguishes her, as a university-educated urbanite, from poor women who spend their lives toiling in the fields. She concludes that they aren’t so different. Her nuanced observations and those of other writers, depict a culture in motion – or, as Caroline puts it, at a “crossroads.”

Q. Where is Ugandan cultural going?

A. That is what people like the authors of “Crossroads” are deciding. In the West, we tend to see development as a uniform process that knows no physical or cultural boundaries. But does that have to be the case? Whether the issue is sex roles, religion, sports or politics, these writers are constantly weighing their own traditions against so-called “modern” values, accepting and rejecting aspects of each. In the process, they are constantly redefining themselves. In the opening essay in “Crossroads,” Nakisanze Segawa makes this point explicitly, explaining how she gave herself a new name to demonstrate her decision to chart a new course for herself while honoring tradition. The tension between tradition and modern ways comes up repeatedly in the book, including Sophie Bamwoyeraki’s reflections on what she gained and what she lost in moving from the simple village where she grew up to a life as a professional in Kampala, Lydia Namubiru’s explanation for how she became a “non-practicing pagan” and her biting observations about what she likes about Western culture and dislikes about the role westerners play in her society, Hilda Twongyeirwe’s account of her experiences with western-trained doctors and traditional healers in search of a cure for a mysterious childhood affliction, and many other stories.

Q. Why should non-Ugandans care about this book?

A. While Crossroads is written in the context of Africa, the issues explored by the women are universal. We live in a time when economic forces increasingly are promoting materialism above other social values. For Ugandans, such influences are still relatively new, and they demonstrate how the forces shaping global culture still can be evaluated on human terms, not just economic ones. In a sense, their struggle is the struggle of all people who want to live meaningful lives.

A. What challenges did you face as a non-Ugandan editing stories by Ugandans?

A. At times, I felt self-conscious about my role. Many Africans believe western journalists and researchers unfairly appropriate African stories for their own profit and professional advancement. They also object to stereotypes of Africa – many derived in the West but some perpetuated by fellow Africans – that either depict the continent as desperately backward or romanticize it as somehow more in touch with nature than the “civilized” West. I sympathize with such concerns. By producing true, personal stories, I think we avoided the hackneyed stereotypes. And as editor, I saw my role as helping the authors tell their stories, not telling them what to say. They, in turn, were poetic in describing what they find good about their society but brutally honest in discussing its shortcomings. Working with them was one of the most satisfying experiences of my professional life.

Q. Would the book have come out differently if it had a Ugandan editor?

A. Judging from how my Ugandan friends communicate with each other on Facebook, yes. There would be many more phrases in local languages. There undoubtedly would be allusions to people and events I do not know. But being an outsider had some advantages. By asking Ugandan writers to explain things that a fellow Ugandan wouldn’t question, I’d like to think I helped them make the issues more intelligible to a non-Ugandan reader. And I hope that by laying bare assumptions Ugandans may take for granted, the stories encourage constructive self-examination among Ugandans as well. In many ways, this kind of cross-cultural dialogue is the story for our times. Cultures increasingly are being shaped in a global discourse. Nothing can stop that. The important thing is to approach cross-cultural dialogue with an open mind, respect and empathy.

Q. What is next for you?

A. Since publishing Crossroads, I have had many conversations with Ugandans – including men who objected to being left out the first time. So I am now working with a new group of writers – male and female – on a book that will delve even more deeply into Uganda’s traditions. The new book again will have a group of outstanding writers, but it also will feature people whose perspectives are rarely heard. In one chapter, a poet will introduce his grandmother, whose remarkable, magical stories hold her entire village spellbound; she then will tell one such story, and he will explain how it inspires his own writing. In another, a journalist will discuss a battle raging in his home district between traditional healers, modern quacks, government regulators, evangelical Christians and journalists over the role of traditional medicine in modern society. Others will look at the corrupting influence of money; informal social networks dating back to pre-colonial times that rival modern media as a source of information; changing attitudes about marriage; the reasons for rapid urbanization throughout Africa; the decline of social life in rural areas; the continuing appeal of traditional royalty; and the struggle of some groups to defy the homogenizing effects of western culture.

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