Disclaimer: The following is a truth that I have created. It is not a set of objective facts. Do not let my truths dictate your truths.
You know that uncomfortable feeling you get when you are forced to wear clothing that does not really fit your body? We’ve all been there. Those who identify as “female” sometimes wear uncomfortable shoes that force their toes into another dimension. No “male” that I have talked to enjoys the constricting feeling he gets when he does up the top button on his dress shirt. Yet, despite the discomfort we experience when we put on these clothes, many of us still wear them every single day. Why? Because we all agree that a dress with high heels or a suit with a tie are socially acceptable types of clothing. Sure they are ill-fitting and completely ignore the way our bodies are naturally shaped – but hey, most of us would rather wear clothing that does not match our body type than go against what everybody else is doing.
In my view, Uganda has been forced into clothing that does not match its body type. Before I go further, I would like to be perfectly clear about a few things. Body types do change; they constantly grow, shrink, and adapt to their environments. However, change should not be externally imposed. Just like no “female” wants to wear a dress that is 4 sizes too small, no culture wants to be forced into a way of life that doesn’t match its history. And Ugandans have been given a lot of ill-fitting clothes by people from far off lands: namely the idea of the European nation state and a Universalist, Christian ethic. These factors in concert create an incoherent, mismatched outfit that – in my subjective opinion – ultimately alienates many Ugandans from themselves, each other, and the rest of the world.
Firstly, the Westphalian nation state is an idea that should have remained with primitive European nationalists. A monolithic state structure might work for unsophisticated European cultures that take a millennium of bloodshed before they learn to get along with each other, but it does not work for the highly sophisticated and inherently complex cultures that exist throughout Africa.
Allow me to back up a smidge.
After about 1000 years of primitive tribal warfare, Europeans finally realized that they could not get along with each other and decided that something needed to be done. So, in 1648 the (almost) enlightened minds of Europe got together and figured out a way to institutionalize and oversimplify their misunderstanding for one another. Their goal: create a simple system to maintain peace among power hungry rulers. Their solution: the Treaty of Westphalia, 1648. The Treaty of Westphalia was the precursor to two concepts that inform almost every element of our day-to-day lives in the West (and everywhere around the world, for that matter).
The first concept is the “nation state”. The idea of the nation state is quite simple, perhaps too simple. A nation is a group of self-determining people. People in the same nation usually share a religion, language, culture, and way of life. A state, on the other hand, is a political structure that is characterized by its laws, territory, and political institutions.
As a side, a state should not be conflated with a government. For example, in Canada, our state structure is the Crown. Our Head of State is the Queen of England (Liz) and her representative is the Governor General. In Canada, our government consists of less than 40 Cabinet Members. The Head of Government is the Prime Minister. In our Constitutional Monarchy, the Head of Government can (and must) change after every 5 years. The Head of State cannot change. Canada’s Head of State will always be the Queen or King of England unless we decide to become a republic.
Anyway, according to the late Pierre Trudeau, a nation is a sociological reality whereas a state is a political reality. Trudeau believed that the nation and the state should remain separate realities. So do I. Unfortunately, the savage-like brains of our European ancestors disagreed with me and Trudeau. They decided that the sociological reality of a nation and the political reality of a state should be married. Consequently, all of the Europeans who belonged to a French speaking tribe were given a territory called France, if you were in an Italian tribe then you went to Italy, if you were German then you were confined to Prussia, and if you were Russian then you went to Russia. Easy peasy. Nation meet state; state meet nation.
The second concept is called “sovereignty”. The Westphilian understanding of sovereignty is quite simple, perhaps too simple. Sovereignty is the doctrine that says one state cannot interfere in the internal affairs of another state. The basic, European meaning of sovereignty is this: “You stay out of my way and I will stay out of your way”. Kind of a primitive concept, don’t you think? In my view, sovereignty (in the European meaning of the word) does not address the root of conflict, but rather gives states an excuse to oversimplify inherently complex relationships. That is, instead of states attempting to holistically understand one another through a constant process of negotiation, they employ school-yard tactics to undermine other states: “If I can’t see you then you can’t see me!” The result is paradoxically more conflict. Classic International Relations issues like the Security Dilemma, for example, are only made worse when negotiation is replaced by non-interference – by European notions of sovereignty.
Regrettably, the primitive tribes of Europe took their savage-like ways with them when they decided to colonize Africa. The simple-minded idea of the nation state was superimposed on a complex body of African kingdoms and tribes at the Berlin Conference, 1884. In retrospect, the Berlin Conference formalized one of the most primitive, savage, simple-minded, idiotic, hateful, racist, and underdeveloped things that humans have ever undertaken: colonialism.
In 1884, a guy named Otto von Bismarck called on European tribal powers to discuss the “Africa” problem. You see, nation states were fighting over which pieces of land they could colonize so something needed to be done. The solution: divide Africa into bite-sized nation states. The European powers went on to literally draw arbitrary borders around chunks of African land – all notwithstanding previously existing tribal territory. Talk about a constricting cocktail dress!
The present day result: a place with political borders that do not reflect the complex nature of its history. In Uganda alone, entire Kingdoms with distinct sociological and political realities were forced by colonial powers to live under one state structure, administered by one government, and ruled by one set of laws. The logic at the time was that European culture was superior to African culture; therefore, the idea of a monolithic, sovereign nation state was superior to a complex web of kingdoms, tribes, clans, and villages.
However, in my view, a European-style nation state does not fit very well a polymorphic web of tribes and kingdoms. For instance, within Uganda there are no less than 5 kingdoms, and within each kingdom exist tens of tribes. Each kingdom, by all intents and purposes, contains a distinct People with a unique language, set of cultural practices, and mode of governance. Conversely, because all of these kingdoms and tribes exist in a singular political body – i.e., present day Uganda – several Peoples must adhere to the same set of laws, use the same political institutions, and speak the same language. Even worse, thanks to the arbitrary borders drawn at the Berlin Conference, a lot of these tribes are spread out over a number of African countries.
To be clear, I am not suggesting a reactionary return to a bygone pre-colonial era. That is both unrealistic and disrespectful to those who have worked to build a unified Uganda. Ugandans have struggled for years to create a national identity and simultaneously maintain a series of sociological realities. Heck, in its current form, Uganda is a great place – but in my opinion it is largely constricted by an externally imposed state structure.
In a sense, the imposition of the Westphalian nation state has presented both Canada and Uganda with a similar conundrum: how can we live together in a political reality that does not match the complex nature of our society? Both Canada and Uganda have been forced into high heeled shoes. The only difference is that the British Crown gave us Canadians far more blister cream than our Ugandan counterparts.
Next, a tension arises when a Universalist, Christian ethic is superimposed on a swath of humanity that does not have a European history… or rather should not have a European history. This tension can be boiled down to cultural relativism versus universal human rights. Cultural relativism is a doctrine which holds that (at least some) variations in cultural practice are exempt from legitimate criticism by outsiders. According to Aaron Ettinger, the idea of cultural relativism is supported by the intrinsic values of communal identity, autonomy, and self-determination. That is, we cannot reduce moral decision making to an abstract individual in some hypothetical state of nature. Sorry, Hobbes.
For instance, Muslim people fast during Ramadan. From a purely Universalist perspective, the act of fasting violates one’s human right to bodily autonomy. Even still, those who are not Muslim recognize that fasting is an important part of a Muslim’s cultural identity and thus do not criticize it as a violation of human rights.
Cultural relativism is an important component of Ugandan life. Like I said before, Uganda consists of several Peoples, all with distinct cultural practices and beliefs. In the pre-colonial period, the cultural practices in these kingdoms largely existed notwithstanding other cultures. That is not to say that these kingdoms were watertight compartments that did not constantly adapt their practices. I am simply arguing that a universal human rights ethic was (and is still) not practical due to pronounced cultural variations within and between kingdoms.
By contrast, universalism holds that human rights exist regardless of variations in culture. Under the doctrine of universalism, human rights have existed since the beginning of time and have simply been discovered by “reasonable” humans. The tradition of universalism finds its roots in a Christian ethic: everybody was created by a Christian “God” and therefore everybody must adhere to the same set of moral principles.
The Universalist, Christian ethic is deeply embedded in Western political thought. In fact the American Declaration of Independence explicitly states that human rights such as equality and liberty are self-evident and apply to everyone:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” (emphasis added)
An obvious criticism of universal human rights is that it is really just another form of cultural relativism that hides under the auspices of a liberal world order. In other words, a Christian ethic is just as valid as a Zulu ethic or a Buganda ethic – the only difference is that those who adhere to the Christian ethic believe that it is the only game in town.
The harm of latter assumption materializes when universal human rights are used as a yard stick to judge the validity of Ugandan cultural practices. For instance, due to pressure from the international community, the practice of paying a bride price has been outlawed in Uganda. On the surface, bride price is a human rights violation because it commodifies women: a man gives a woman’s father gifts and in return the woman’s father allows his daughter to marry the man. In many cases, the man believes that he owns his wife once he pays the bride price and thus feels entitled to mistreat his wife.
Now, to eradicate any ambiguity, I do not endorse bride prices and do not condone the commodification of women. However, after a lengthy conversation with a close female friend, I do have an appreciation for the view that some Ugandans share with regards to bride price. My friend is a university educated Ugandan women who holds a degree in International Development Studies. She works for a prominent NGO that places emphasis on gender equity and the empowerment of women. More, her take on bride price is much more nuanced than the Universalist perspective. Instead of holding that a bride price in all of its forms is inherently degrading to women, my friend believes that the practice of a prospective husband bringing a gift to a woman’s father marks a sign of respect.
Our conversation went something like this:
I immediately snapped when my friend explained this to me. “BUT YOU ARE STILL BEING COMODIFIED! Don’t you feel like you are being bought!?” Through gritted teeth, my friend responded in the negative: “I love my culture and it makes me sick that people think they can come in and try to change it. In my Kingdom [central Uganda], if a man does not bring my father a gift, then he does not respect my family – he does not respect me. The rest of the world calls these gifts a bride price, but I call it a sign of respect.”
My response: “Okay, I get that. But I still do not understand why a commodity has to be exchanged in order for a man to marry a woman”… my friend interrupts: “and people from my culture do not understand how you can marry a woman without bringing her father a gift. We do things differently here, and people from other parts of the world need to understand that. Your culture is not superior to ours, it is just different. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in women’s empowerment, it is just that we have different definitions of empowerment. Yes, I agree that the men in the North [another kingdom] should not make their wives have 15 children because they paid a bride price, but we are not talking about them. They are a different People.”
I still do not agree with my friend, but I realize that my unwillingness to accept her arguments arises from culturally-informed ideas about gender equity and empowerment – not a self-evident code of universal human rights. In reality, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle: human rights are, as Jack Donnelly argues, “relatively universal”. That is, there are some human rights that hold true across time and space, but the interpretations of these rights are culturally informed and thus carry with them a high degree of variation.
The debate around bride price (and countless other areas of human rights) becomes more complicated when you add colonialism to the mix. The reality is that the Christian ethic that was brought to tribes in East Africa runs in tension to a pre-colonial ethic of cultural relativism. It is my belief that the tensions between these ethical codes alienate some Ugandans from themselves. For instance, a Ugandan might go church and be told that marriage means a holy union between one male and one female. The next day he might go to his village and be told that polygamy has been part of his culture for centuries. If a Ugandan gets sick, the West tells her to take a pill while her witch doctor tells her to fast.
I could go on, but for the sake of time I will just say that (once again, in MY view) these competing ethics create tension, incoherence, and alienation. Granted, a number of Ugandans have synthesized Christianity with their pre-colonial religious practices. And I do not take issue with this. All cultures are in constant flux. All cultures adapt, negotiate, and renegotiate according to historical pressures. My issue lies in the Universalist assumption that one culture must die at the expense of the other; that an externally imposed Christian ethic is the sole dictator of cultural evolution in Uganda; that Uganda is forced to wear clothes that do not fit Her natural body type.
The European-style nation state does not fit Uganda’s curves. Yes, Uganda looks beautiful in her tight, one piece cocktail dress, but you can tell she feels constricted. Uganda would look far more stunning in a long, flowing dress that gives the natural shape of her body room to adapt to her environment. A Universalist ethic might be appropriate footwear in other parts of the world; however, in Uganda it is not practical. Uganda needs a pair of shoes that allow her to stand tall and maintain circulation in her toes. She needs clothing that is versatile, adaptable, and most importantly, not imported from other parts of the world. Uganda needs an outfit that she can proudly call her own.
Well, by now you are probably either asleep or sufficiently offended so I will stop for today.