Everyday Use, Alice Malsenior Walker, and the Influence of Constance Nabwire of Uganda

Social worker and home economist Constance R. Nabwire is best known for her heavily illustrated books on African cuisine and recipes, as well as the cultural connections. “Nabwire” is a female name of southeastern Ugandan and southwestern Kenyan ethnic origin, traditionally associated with someone born at night. “Bwire” is the male version.

In the early 1960s, after completing her high school education in her native Uganda in Buddo (Budo), Constance Nabwire traveled to the all-girls student Spelman College in Georgia, where she eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and psychology. Her studies and upkeep were funded by the African Student Program for American Universities. She then transferred to the University of Minnesota, where she earned a master’s degree in social work.

By chance, Constance Nabwire was paired with future Pulitzer Prize-winning Fiction Prizewinner (1983) and National Book Award winner (1983) Alice Malsenior Walker at the black, historically-renowned Spelman College in Atlanta. They would become close friends, would be so fascinated and impressed with each other and they would be changed forever.

Evelyn C. White writes about their relationship and academic interaction. The academically talented Nabwire noted, but was not surprised, that Alice would deftly write a superior essay on renowned Russian literary authors. It was also significant to Nabwire that Alice was different from the other students at Spelman in many ways. Nabwire recounts that Alice was fairly knowledgeable about foreign policy, her perspective on international affairs was a rarity at Spelman, she worked hard to make friends with African students, and didn’t get overly involved with “Friday night dates” like the other students. In fact, Nabwire felt so privileged and enriched to be housed with Alice, who cherished her as intellectually stimulating and connected to the world (White: 73-74).

Walker and Nabwire were so close that they shared items such as clothing and visited fascinating locations and other environments together to practically experience them for themselves. An incident that illustrates racism and discrimination in the white church shocked Nabwire to tears and other forms of mental turmoil. White broadcasts Walker’s view of white people attending church in Eatonton, Georgia, where she was born in 1944, and Nabwire’s reaction when the two were denied entry to a white church in Atlanta. Alice remembered that the church-going white people in Eatonton were segregated. The day Alice, wearing the vaunted pink faille dress (purchased from Nabwire), ventured to church with Nabwire at an Atlanta church was going to be quite unsettling. Evelyn White would notice Nabwire’s reaction.

“The white… missionaries had come to Uganda and were teaching… it was important to worship God… to read the Bible… to pray.” … “When Alice and I tried … to enter the church … The door was slammed in our faces. I did not understand … months I did nothing but cry'” (White: 161) .

Nabwire and Walker shared “the pink dress,” which Walker described as “divine” (White: 76).

Walker, along with her entire women’s council and Nabwire, ventured out in an intimate and emotional way to pay respect and bring flowers to the discovered grave of an ancestral Walker. Nabwire’s influence on Walker was so profound that she would later visit Uganda. Alice describes Nabwire as “…a wonderful person…wise and gentle beyond her years and…from most other girls on…the school” (Walker 2010). Alice also recounted the grave incident while speaking at the Organizing African Writers, a conference held at New York University in 2004.

The ancestral grave recently discovered in Georgia was that of Alice’s great-great-grandmother, Sally Montgomery Walker (1861-1900). To pay her official respects, Walker returned to the grave with flowers, and among those accompanying her was Constance, “a wonderful woman who made me care deeply about Africans and African women” (Goodman 2004 ). Amy Goodman recorded more of Walker’s speech on her visit to Uganda in the mid-1960s: “…I went to Uganda…to understand how Constance…was produced by…a country that predated Idi Amin very was beautiful … calm … green” (2004).

Also among those accompanying Alice to Sally Walker’s grave were her entire women’s council and another friend, Belvee, most of whom had histories of pain and sorrow. At the graves they wept, and Walker summed it up poetically: “We have watered these graves with our tears… happy to do so” (Goodman 2004).

Fascinated by Nabwire, Walker ventured more into understanding African culture and society, reading more into the writings of renowned African writers. Passages on her website offer her opinions, reactions and readings on Africa; and also comparisons with black America. The passages are part of Walker’s September 13, 2010 speech given as the 11th Annual Steve Biko Lecture at the University of Cape Town. Walker had come to the comparative realization that while racism in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s was pervasive, it concerned itself with intense curiosity about what Afrikanity was, since “Africa was shrouded in…pervasive fogs of distortion, racially motivated misjudgments, gross exploitation and lies” (Walker 2010).

Alice noted that Africans were “joyfully despised, looked upon as savages”. Also at Spelman College, Alice admired the African song “Nkosi Sikeleli’Afrika,” which reaffirmed her important friendship with Nabwire, whom she cherished as sisterly, who emanated “that sound of so much humility, love, devotion, and trust” (Walker 2010). . Beyond people, countries and culture, Walker’s interest in Africa was environmental, which also led her to be interested in other aspects such as the rainforest and animals. Through the works of African literary giants such as Elechi Amadi, Camara Laye, Ama Ata Aidoo, Buchi Emecheta, Bessie Head, Okot p’ Bitek, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ayi Kwei Armah, Walker revealed that she “was beginning to encounter an intellectual and moral Thoughtfulness bordering on [and] often embodies the most amazing profundity” (Walker 2010).

On her visit to Uganda in 1964, Alice Walker was amazed at the courtesy, peace, kindness, greenery, welcome and patience.

“Uganda… referred to by Winston Churchill as… the ‘Japan’ of Africa because of… the politeness… the friendliness of the people. That…is a colonialist view, but…it was also a land of…greenest hills and valleys…there…a palpable sense of peace and patience with the stranger” (Walker 2010).

The names of members of the Ugandan family where Alice Walker lived are not mentioned, but they lived near the capital, Kampala.

“I was taken in… by a Ugandan family who protected me… cared for me… dispelled any feeling… I had… that I wasn’t recognized as one of Africa’s children” (Walker 2010).

But as Melanie L. Harris explains, although Walker admired Ugandans for their compassion and caring and remained in touch with Nabwire after transferring to Sarah Lawrence College, “the depths of poverty and the impact of colonialism made Walker’s pilgrimage… [to Africa] hard to bear” (Harris 2010: 34).

The acclaimed and academically debated short story Everyday Use is part of the collection of short stories written by Walker. Titled In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women, the collection was first published in 1973. Everyday Use refers to the deep south of the United States, black family and societal change, and Uganda.

In the story, the beautiful Dee, older than her disfigured and shy sister Maggie, who has stayed in the deep Southern tradition with her mother, Mama Johnson, visits home after a long stay in an urban setting. Introverted and bold, Dee sees herself as a changed woman, now embracing modernism and black radicalism. Beginning her home visit with a burly hakim, Dee greets, “Wa.su.zo.Tean.o!” This is apparently Walker adapting to writing the “Wasuz’otya nno/ Wasuze otya nno?”. which in Luganda means “How did you sleep?” In Buganda it is the most commonly used morning phrase, equivalent to “How did you sleep”, “How was your night” or “Good morning”. Sometimes the greeting is abbreviated to “Wasuz’otya/ Wasuze otya?”. During her stay in Uganda, Alice Walker must have encountered the native morning greeting many times. Also, the greeting carries a question mark, unlike the exclamation point attached to it in the short story.

In “Everyday Use”, Dee also states that she is no longer Dee and has Africanized her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. In Luganda, “Wangero” can be a personal or place name, meaning “the one (or place) of stories”. In some of Walker’s tales, her friend Constance Nabwire is referred to as Constance Wangero. Is that a typo or was Nabwire also known as “Wangero”? Also, Wangero Hill is in Buganda, so Walker may have visited or knew the location or name and used it in her short story.

The African name closest to “Leewanika” is Lubosi Lewanika, who was the king or supreme chief of Barotseland, the western part of present-day Zambia. Lewanika ruled from 1878 to 1916 and was persuaded by Cecil Rhodes in 1890 to cede the country under British protection through the British South Africa Company. Nonetheless, Lewanika visited London in 1902, where he was embraced and attended the coronation of King Edward 7th. Named after the aggressive and notorious colonialist Rhodes, Rhodesia was later renamed Zimbabwe (after the legendary ‘Great Zimbabwe’) within weeks before Robert Mugabe became the country’s first black prime minister in 1980.

“Kemanjo” may well be an African name or an adaptation of it.

Works Cited

Gutman, Amy. “Alice Walker on the ‘toxic culture’ of globalization.” democracy now! October 2004.

Harris, Melanie L. Gifts of Virtue, Alice Walker, and Womanist Ethics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Wanderer, Alice. “I’ve Come to You Since I Was Five: An American Poet’s Connection to the South African Soul” 11th Annual Steve Biko Lecture. September 2010: http://alicewalkersgarden.com/

White, Evelyn, C. Alice Walker: One Life. New York: WW Norton & Company, 2004.

#Everyday #Alice #Malsenior #Walker #Influence #Constance #Nabwire #Uganda

Thanks to Jonathan Musere

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