Social worker and home economist Constance R. Nabwire is best known for her highly illustrated books on African cooking and recipes and cultural connections. “Nabwire” is a feminine name that is of ethnic origin from southeastern Uganda and southwestern Kenya and is traditionally associated with someone who was born at night. “Bwire” is the male version.
In the early 1960s, after her high school education in her native Uganda at Buddo (Budo), Constance Nabwire traveled to Spelman College in Georgia, where she would eventually earn a BA in sociology and psychology. His studies and maintenance were funded by the African Students Program for American Universities. He subsequently transferred to the University of Minnesota, where he graduated with a master’s degree in social work.
By chance, Constance Nabwire was placed in the room with future Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction (1983) and National Book Prize winner (1983) Alice Malsenior Walker at the historic and prestigious Spelman College in Atlanta. They would become close friends, they would be so intrigued and impressed with each other, and they would change each other forever.
Evelyn C. White writes about their academic relationship and interaction. The talented academic Nabwire pointed out, but was not surprised that Alice deftly wrote a superior essay on renowned Russian literary authors. It was also important to Nabwire that Alice was quite different from the other Spelman students in many ways. Nabwire reports that Alice was very well versed in foreign affairs, her outlook on international affairs was a rarity at Spelman, she worked hard to befriend African students, and didn’t dwell too much on “Friday night dates” like the other students. In fact, Nabwire felt so privileged and enriched to have been placed with Alice, whom she championed as someone who was intellectually stimulating and engaged with the world (White: 73-74).
Walker and Nabwire were so close that they shared items like clothing, and together they went to intriguing places and other settings to practically experiment for themselves. An incident illustrating racism and discrimination in the white church shocked Nabwire to tears and other forms of psychological unease. White tunes in on Walker’s take on whites attending church in Eatonton in Georgia, where he was born in 1944, and on Nabwire’s reaction when the two were denied entry to a white church in Atlanta. Alice remembered that the whites who went to church in Eatonton were separated. The day Alice, in the much-acclaimed pink faille dress (purchased by Nabwire), ventured with Nabwire to church services in Atlanta would be quite troubling. Evelyn White would notice Nabwire’s reaction.
“The whites … missionaries had come to Uganda and taught … that it was important to worship God … read the Bible … pray ‘…’ When Alice and I tried to get into … church. .. they closed the door 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 his entire council of women and Nabwire would intimately and emotionally venture to pay respect and bring flowers to the uncovered grave of an ancient Walker. Nabwire’s impact on Walker was so profound that he would later visit Uganda. Alice describes Nabwire as, “… a wonderful person … wise and gentle beyond her age and … most of the other girls at … school” (Walker 2010). Alice also related the tomb incident while speaking at the Organization of African Writers, a conference held at New York University in 2004.
The recently discovered ancestral grave in Georgia was that of Alice’s great-great-grandmother, Sally Montgomery Walker (1861-1900). To formally show respect, 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 had been … produced by … a country that before Idi Amin was very beautiful … calm … green “(2004).
Those who accompanied Alice to Sally Walker’s grave also included her entire council of women and another friend Belvee, most of whom had a history of pain and suffering. At the graves they wept, and the poetic Walker summed it up: “We watered those graves with our tears … happy to do so” (Goodman 2004).
Intrigued by Nabwire, Walker would venture further into understanding African culture and society and reading more about the writings of renowned African writers. The passages on his website offer his opinions, reactions and readings on Africa; and also comparisons with black America. The passages are part of Walker’s September 13, 2010 speech delivered as Steve Biko’s 11th Annual Lecture at the University of Cape Town. Walker had achieved the comparative understanding that while racism ran deep in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s, he delved with intense curiosity into what Africanity was, given that “Africa was shrouded in … deep mists of distortion, motivated by racial misperceptions, gross exploitation and lies “(Walker 2010).
Alice noted that Africans were “gleefully despised, considered savages.” Also at Spelman College, reinforcing her important friendship with Nabwire, whom she held dear as a sister, 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 spanned the environment, so he became interested in other aspects such as rainforests 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 “began to find a intellectual and moral consideration bordering [and] he often embodied the most amazing depth “(Walker 2010).
On her visit to Uganda in 1964, Alice Walker was amazed by the courtesy, the peace, the friendliness, the greenery, the welcome, and the patience.
“Uganda … referred to by Winston Churchill as … ‘Japan’ of Africa, because of … the courtesy … the kindness of the people. This … a colonialist vision, but … it was also a land of … greener hills and valleys … there … a palpable feeling of peace and patience with the stranger “(Walker 2010).
The names of the people of the Ugandan family where Alice Walker stayed are not mentioned, but they lived near Kampala, the capital.
“I was taken in … by a Ugandan family who protected me … cared for me … dispelling … any feeling … I had that I would not be recognized as one of the children of Africa” (Walker 2010 ).
But as Melanie L. Harris explains, while Walker admired Ugandans for their compassion and care, and remained in contact with Nabwire after transferring to Sarah Lawrence College, “the depths of poverty and the impact of colonialism made Walker a pilgrimage. … [to Africa] hard to bear “(Harris 2010: 34).
The famous and debated scholarly short story, “Everyday Use,” is part of Walker’s collection of short stories. The collection entitled “In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women” was first published in 1973. “Everyday Use” refers to the deep south of the United States, the black family and social transformation, and Uganda.
In the story, the beautiful Dee, older than her shy and disfigured sister Maggie, who has upheld deep southern tradition with her mother, Mama Johnson, visits their home after a long stay in an urban setting. The introverted and fearless Dee sees herself as a transformed woman who now embraces modernism and black radicalism. At the beginning of her home visit with a burly fellow Hakim, Dee says the greeting: “Wa.su.zo.Tean.o!” This apparently is 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 used morning phrase that is equivalent 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 have often encountered the native morning greeting. In addition, the greeting carries a question mark, in addition to the exclamation point attributed to it in the 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 means “the one (or the place) of stories”. In some of Walker’s stories, her friend Constance Nabwire is referred to as Constance Wangero. Is this a typo 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 used it in his tale.
The closest African name to “Leewanika” is Lubosi Lewanika, who was the king or overlord of Barotseland, which is the western part of present-day Zambia. Lewanika reigned from 1878 to 1916, and was tricked by Cecil Rhodes in 1890 into giving the land to British protection through the British South Africa Company. Still, Lewanika would visit London in 1902, where he was hugged and attended the coronation of King Edward VII. Rhodesia was named after the aggressive and notorious colonialist Rhodes, and would later be renamed Zimbabwe (after the legendary “Great Zimbabwe”) a few weeks before Robert Mugabi became the country’s first black prime minister in 1980.
“Kemanjo” may well be an African name, or an 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”; XI Annual Steve Biko Conference. September 2010: http://alicewalkersgarden.com/
White, Evelyn, C. Alice Walker: A Life. New York: WW Norton & Company, 2004.