Social worker and home economist Constance R. Nabwire is best known for her heavily illustrated books on African cooking and recipes and the cultural connections. “Nabwire” is a feminine name that is of southeastern Ugandan and southwestern Kenyan ethnic origin and is traditionally associated with one who was born at night. “Bwire” is the male version.
During the early 1960’s, after her high school education in her native Uganda at Buddo (Budo), Constance Nabwire traveled to girl-student Spelman College in Georgia where she would eventually earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology and psychology. Her studies and upkeep were funded by the African Student Program for American Universities. Thereafter she moved on to the University of Minnesota where she graduated with a master’s degree in social work.
By chance, Constance Nabwire was placed to room with future Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner (1983) and National Book Award winner (1983) Alice Malsenior Walker at the black historically prestigious Spelman College in Atlanta. They would become close friends, would become so intrigued and impressed with each other, and they would forever change each other.
Evelyn C. White writes on their relationship and academic interaction. Academically talented Nabwire noted, but was not surprised that Alice would adeptly write a superior essay on renowned Russian literary authors. It was also of significance to Nabwire that Alice was quite different in many ways from the other students at Spelman. Nabwire recounts that Alice was quite well versed in foreign affairs, her perspective on international affairs was a rarity at Spelman, she worked hard to befriend African students, and she did not overly dwell on “Friday night dates” like the other students. Indeed Nabwire felt so privileged and enriched to have been placed with Alice whom she upheld as one who was intellectually stimulating and was engaged with the world (White: 73-74).
Walker and Nabwire were so close that they shared items like clothing, and they together went to intriguing places and other settings to practically experience for themselves. An incident illustrative of racism and discrimination in the white church, shocked Nabwire to tears and to other forms of psychological restlessness. White airs Walker’s view on the whites who attended church in Eatonton in Georgia where she was born in 1944, and on Nabwire’s reaction when the two were denied entrance to a white church in Atlanta. Alice recalled that the church-going whites in Eatonton were segregated. The day Alice, wearing the vaunted pink faille dress (purchased by Nabwire), ventured with Nabwire to church services at a church in Atlanta, would be quite troubling. Evelyn White would note Nabwire’s reaction.
“The white… missionaries had come to Uganda and taught..it was important to worship God… read bible… pray.’… ‘When Alice and I tried to enter… church… door was slammed in our faces. I didn’t understand… months, I did nothing but cry'” (White: 161).
Nabwire and Walker shared “the pink dress,” which Walker described as “divine” (White: 76).
Walker, together with all of her women’s council and Nabwire would intimately and emotionally venture to pay respect and to take flowers to the discovered grave of an ancestral Walker. Nabwire’s impact 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… of most of the other girls at… school” (Walker 2010). Alice also recounted the incident of the grave as she spoke at the Organization of African Writers, a conference held at New York University in 2004.
The ancestral grave that had recently been discovered in Georgia was that of Alice’s great, great grandmother Sally Montgomery Walker (1861-1900). To formally pay respect, Walker returned to the grave with flowers and among those with her was Constance “wonderful woman..who made me care deeply about Africans and African women” (Goodman 2004). Amy Goodman recorded more of Walker’s speech regarding her visit to Uganda in the mid-1960’s: “… I went to Uganda… to understand how Constance had been… produced by… country which before Idi Amin was very beautiful… tranquil… green” (2004).
Those who accompanied Alice to the grave of Sally Walker also included all of her women’s council and another friend Belvee, most of who whom had histories of pain and suffering. At the graves they wept, and poetic Walker summed it up: “We watered those graves with our tears… happy to do it” (Goodman 2004).
Intrigued by Nabwire, Walker would venture more into understanding African culture and society, and to read 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 Walker’s speech of September 13th 2010 delivered as the 11th Annual Steve Biko Lecture at the University of Cape Town. Walker had achieved the comparative realization that while racism was profound in the United States during the 1940’s and 1950’s, she delved with intense curiosity into what African-ness was, given that “Africa was shrouded in… profound mists of distortion, racially motivated misperceptions, gross exploitation, and lies” (Walker 2010).
Alice noted that Africans were “cheerfully despised, considered savages.” Also at Spelman College, reinforcing her important friendship with Nabwire which she cherished as sisterly, Alice admired the African song, “Nkosi Sikeleli’Afrika” which exuded “that sound of so much humility, love, devotion and trust” (Walker 2010). Beyond people, countries, and culture, Walker’s interest in Africa was environmentally encompassing whereby she became interested in other aspects like the rainforests and the animals. through the works of African literary giants like 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 “began to encounter an intellectual and moral thoughtfulness that bordered on [and] often embodied the most astonishing profundity” (Walker 2010).
On her visit to Uganda in 1964, Alice Walker she was amazed at the courtesy, the peace the kindness, the greenery, the reception, and the patience.
“Uganda… referred to by Winston Churchill as… ‘Japan’ of Africa, because of… people’s courtesy… kindliness. This… a colonialist view, but… it was also a land of… greenest hills and valleys… there… a palpable feeling of peace and patience with the stranger” (Walker 2010).
The names of the people in the Uganda family where Alice Walker lodged are not mentioned, but they lived near Kampala the capital.
“I was taken in… by a Ugandan family who sheltered… cared for me… dispelling… any sense I… had that I would not be recognized as one of Africa’s children” (Walker 2010).
But as Melanie L. Harris explains, though Walker admired Ugandans for their compassion and care, and kept in touch with Nabwire after transferring to Sarah Lawrence College, “the depths of poverty and impact of colonialism made Walker’s pilgrimage… [to Africa] hard to endure” (Harris 2010: 34).
The renowned and academically debated short story, “Everyday Use,” is part of the collection of short stories written by Walker. The collection entitled “In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women” was first published in 1973. “Everyday Use” references the Deep South of the United States, the black family and the societal transformation, and Uganda.
In the story, the beautiful Dee who is older than her bodily disfigured and shy sister Maggie who has remained in the deep southern tradition with their mother Mama Johnson visits home after a lengthy stay in an urban setting. The introverted and audacious Dee views herself as a transformed woman now embracing modernism and black radicalism. At the beginning of her visit home with a stocky fellow Hakim, Dee utters the greeting, “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 that equates to, “How did you sleep,” “How was your night,” or “Good morning.” Sometimes the greeting is shortened to “Wasuz’otya/ Wasuze otya?” While in Uganda, Alice Walker must often have encountered the native morning greeting. Also, the greeting carries a question mark, other than the exclamation mark that is attached to it in the short story.
In “Everyday Use,” Dee also declares 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, and it means “the one (or the place) of stories.” In some of Walker’s recounts, her friend Constance Nabwire is referred to as Constance Wangero. Is this a typographical error or was Nabwire also known as “Wangero?” Also Wangero Hill is in Buganda, so Walker may have visited or known the place or name and went on to use it in her short story.
The closest African name to “Leewanika,” is Lubosi Lewanika who was the king or paramount chief of Barotseland which is the western part of present-day Zambia. Lewanika reigned from 1878 to 1916, and he was deceived in 1890 by Cecil Rhodes into ceding the land to British protection through the British South Africa Company. Still, Lewanika would visit London in 1902 where he was embraced and attended the coronation of King Edward the 7th. Rhodesia was named after aggressive and notorious colonialist Rhodes, and would later be renamed Zimbabwe (after the legendary “Great Zimbabwe”) within weeks before Robert Mugabi became the country’s first black Prime Minister in 1980.
“Kemanjo” may well be an African name, or adaptation of one.
Goodman, 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.
Walker, Alice. “Coming to See You Since I Was Five Years Old: 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: A Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.