By Julie Etra
Last February, just as COVID 19 was showing its lumpy, spherical, and toxic configuration in the United States, we left Huatulco for a month on a trip to Africa. One component of the trip was a visit to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda; the park is home to a population of the dwindling mountain gorillas. This park is just a few hours north of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Uganda, located on the African equator, is much poorer than neighboring Rwanda, and is currently governed by the apparently self-appointed President for Life Yoweri Museveni.
Geopolitical details aside, we were very anxious and excited to closely observe these special vegetarians in their native habitat, high in the equatorial cloud forest. The tours are extremely well organized, with a maximum of seven visitors, led by a guide and flanked in the front and back with minimally armed guards to scare off the jungle elephants. We were also offered the services of a porter, for an additional price, to help carry our packs, etc., and to hold our gear as we approached the gorillas and avoid making unnecessary noise.
After an arduous four-hour hike deep into the forest, our trackers had indeed located a silverback and two of his offspring, male and female, about two to three years old. We were allowed an hour of wonder, well worth the planning, the expense and the journey. Porters, as it turned out, were indispensable, the least of which was to help us carry our gear. The hike through the cloud forest was difficult, often steep, slippery and muddy. When I saw the guides were all wearing rubber boots, I thought to myself: hmmm I have the wrong boots. My porter helped me negotiate the mud and rocks, pointing out where to place my feet and helping me to maintain my balance.
After our magical hour with the silverback and his kids, we were told by our guides hey, no worries, we will take the short cut back, a less arduous route. NOT, at least not for me! The final river crossing was very difficult, as my sense of balance is not great, but I was additionally assisted by another strong young porter, with whom I became friends, Abaho Jason. After the last haul up a muddy steep slope, we obtained our certificates, and loaded into the Land Cruisers. Abaho approached me through the open window in the back, and asked for my WhatsApp address. Why not? I said to myself. Can’t hurt.
I heard from him in March 2020, and frankly I was confused since I thought he was my original porter, Ngabirano Justus, but sorting through photos and with his clarification, I recognized him as the last porter from the last crossing and again at the Land Cruiser. Of course, we all realized a bit later that COVID19 would have a huge impact on ecotourism, and that these communities depend on tourist dollars for both their own and the gorillas’ survival (other than the gorillas, sounds like Huatulco) and it was obvious that he and his village, Rubuguri, Uganda, would need help. I sent the first wire for the purchase of corn porridge for the village (first connection with Mexico!) and received photos and messages of gratitude. This evolved to the establishment of big cabbage and potato gardens.
I continue to get reliable correspondence, all in English, not in Rukiga, the common language of the region, which comes from Bantu roots. He indicated he needed to do something different and wanted to raise chickens, in addition to the new gardens. So next we helped him with resources to build a hen house, after which he would purchase hens and a rooster. Then the camera on his phone died, oh no! – and I really wanted to see the hens and the rooster, so the new phone was next.
Ten hens, and now we circle back to women, females, hens. I asked Abaho if I could name the hens, and he said, sure! Although there are barriers to women’s participation in Ugandan politics and the situation is culturally complex (as it is everywhere!), there would certainly be enough well-known women to name all the hens. The Right Honorable Rebecca Alitwala Kadaga, for example, is Speaker of the Parliament, the first woman to be elected to the position – the third highest position in Uganda’s national leadership (she was Deputy Speaker for a decade before that).
When Abajo said sure, I could name the hens, he added, “But please – in English,” so I took the opportunity to teach a little US history, and about current and recent very strong and smart women in government. Accomplished, fearless, compelling life stories, and diverse backgrounds. I also had in mind that the US is a nation of immigrants, and my friend lives in a community where his people have lived for thousands of years, and it presented an opportunity for me to learn a little more about women I admire, and to share that admiration, albeit perhaps not resonating with Abaho, with more important things to do. So here they are, in no particular order, and if you are not from the US I have added a few sentences about each “womhen.”
Kamala for Kamala Harris. Current Vice President, former senator and Attorney General for the State of California, graduate of Howard University and the University of California School of Law, and of Asian and African American descent.
Ruth for Ruth Bader Ginsberg, recently deceased Supreme Court Justice, graduate of Cornell and Columbia Law School, brilliant scholar, and pioneer for gender equality and of Jewish descent (Russian and Polish immigrants).
Amy for Amy Klobuchar, senator from the State of Minnesota and ex Presidential candidate. She is an attorney and graduate of Yale University and the University of Chicago and is of Swiss and Slovenian ancestry.
Elizabeth, for Elizabeth Warren. She is a senator from Massachusetts, a graduate of the University of Houston and of Rutgers Law School, and is a well-known progressive with particular focus on consumer protection and equal economic opportunity. Like everyone in the USA she is from immigrant roots, but not recent. Her great, great, great, grandmother was part native American, not unusual for families that have been in the US for generations.
Stacy, for Stacy Abrams. This African American woman, although she narrowly lost the last race for governor of the state of Georgia in 2018, was largely responsible for increasing voter turnout and changing the state from red (Republican) to blue (Democratic) with the election of a Democratic president and two Democratic senators, thus shifting power in the United States Senate. Educated as a lawyer, she is a representative in the Georgia House and holds degrees from Spelman College, University of Texas, and Yale.
Nancy, for Nancy Pelosi. She is currently Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and has represented the state of California since 1987; she is the only woman in U.S. history to serve as Speaker and, until Kamala Harris came along, the highest-ranking female elected official in United States history. She is the daughter of an Italian immigrant mother and Italian American father, and a graduate of Trinity College.
Hillary, for Hillary Clinton. Clinton has long served in public office as the former Secretary of State and the first female senator from the State of New York. Of English, Welsh, Scottish, Dutch, and French descent (we call this Heinz 57), she graduated from Wellesley College and the Yale School of Law. As the former First Lady, she advocated for health care reform and universal coverage.
Elena, for Elena Kagan. She is a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, obviously an attorney by training. Of Russian Jewish ancestry, she holds degrees from Princeton, Oxford, and the Harvard School of Law.
Sonia, for Sonia Sotomayor. She is also a Supreme Court justice, holds degrees from Princeton and Yale School of Law, and is of Puerto Rican descent. She reflected in 1998: “I was going to college and I was going to become an attorney, and I knew that when I was ten.”
Michelle for Michelle Obama, the first African American First Lady and outspoken advocate for poverty awareness, education, nutrition, physical activity, and healthy diets. Trained as an attorney, she graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law School.
We can’t forget the rooster, Barack Obama! No explanation needed here. He will be very busy.
I can’t comment on women and empowerment in government in Uganda, since that is not why I was there, and would not have had an opportunity or reason to broach the subject with the few women I encountered in our brief stay. A revival of US based Evangelical religious activity in the county supports “traditional” women’s roles as homemakers, but existing and changing roles of women in the household and community are undoubtedly more complex than can be adequately discussed here.
As of this writing, Amy had succumbed to a parasite, despite expensive medication, but Ruth and Stacy have laid eggs, and Ruth’s clutch should hatch soon. I am happy that Abaho has found an alternative “career,” that the girls for the most part are doing well and that our friendship continues. There is always more to learn on both sides of the planet, and who knows, maybe I will be there when the hens come home to roost.