Powerful Africa Perspectives on Modern Culture

Christopher Conte grew up in Washington State, the northwest corner of the continental US. He graduated from Harvard College, and spent the first 22 years of his career as a newspaper man, learning his trade in the state of Vermont, whose green hills and lush valleys are reminiscent of Uganda. He covered the US Congress for Congressional Quarterly, and then spent 15 years as a reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal, covering economics, the White House, labor, domestic policy and international affairs. In 1996, he became a staff correspondent for Governing Magazine, where he reported on a wide range of domestic US social policy issues. He also reported on telecommunications for the Benton Foundation, public health for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and international development for the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation. The latter job led him to travel extensively in Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. He worked as a Knight International Health Journalism Fellow in Uganda from 2008 to 2010, and in 2011 he moved to New Delhi, India, where he helped establish a post-graduate journalism training program. Since then, he was worked as an international journalism educator for the International Center for Journalists and as a freelance editor and consultant.

In 2008, not long after I began a stint as a journalist in Uganda, a Kam­pala-based newspaper reporter named Lydia Namubiru regaled me with stories about her life. I was spellbound by the richness of her memories, the sophistication of her observations, and the wisdom she showed in making sense of her life. Our conversation became a running dialogue, and being journalists, we ultimately decided to collect stories like hers and publish them. Others joined the project along the way, and the result is the book, “Crossroads: Women Coming of Age in Today’s Uganda.”

Our goal was to illuminate a culture through autobiography. I had no interest in producing yet another travelogue in which an outsider would dissect Africa, and the authors wanted no part in any attempt to fit African stories to stereotypes that depict the con­tinent as either long suffering and helpless (and hence in need of rescue) or as somehow noble and attached to nature (and hence the envy of some people in the “developed” world). Instead, we hoped that stories by “ordinary” people, told in the straight-for­ward manner of journalism, would offer readers more authentic glimpses into one small corner of a huge and diverse continent that is neither as pitiful nor as romantic as the stereotypes suggest.

The stories definitely shattered stereotypes. The authors brought a fresh perspective to topics ranging from religion and politics to sports and health. They described highly varied efforts to understand and define women’s identities and changing social roles, but they also examined such concerns as the rule of law, education and the pervasive influence of western culture. There was nothing abstract or theoretical about these essays, though; in profoundly personal and heart-felt ways, the authors showed how these issues played out in their daily lives.

Westerners may find some of the stories at times surprising because they are not surprising; from the mother who frets about her children’s schooling to the older woman who nostalgically remembers the good old days, these women seem remarkably like their sisters in America or Europe. But the differences are significant, too. Some, especially a horrifying story of being picked up by secret police and tortured, are horrifying. Some, like a rich satire on how girls are trained to fulfill women’s traditional roles, are delightfully funny and irreverent. And most, like one writer’s courageous and ultimately triumphant story about battling a childhood affliction, are inspiring. All are told with loving insight and demonstrate a profoundly poetic – some might say spiritual – approach to life.

In the process, these stories challenge outsiders to exam­ine their own attitudes and customs with similar objectivity, and they raise important questions about our headlong embrace of “modern ways” to the detriment of enduring human values.

The book has been well received in Uganda. By shining a light on their own culture, the authors have advanced the kind of conversation that any people must have about how to preserve valuable traditions while adjusting to changing times.

I am now working with a new group of writers on a new book that would dig deeper into similar issues. This time, the authors will include both men and women, and we will make a concerted effort to seek out grassroots story-tellers. When we go to print, I expect readers will learn from a poet about his grandmother, who used to keep villagers spellbound by telling richly metaphorical stories about spirits and her own religious calling; from a journalist who describes informal communication networks whose roots go back to precolonial times; from a rural journalist whose birthplace is torn apart by a struggle between traditional healers, modern quacks, and a government trying to impose science-based regulation; from a woman who celebrates feminism but misses the decline in the institution of marriage; from a psychiatrist whose mother was a traditional healer and much, much more.

Stay tuned. There are many more stories to tell.



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