Social worker and home economist Constance R. Nabwire is best known for her highly illustrated books on African cooking, recipes, and cultural connections. “Nabwire” is a female name of ethnic origin from south-eastern Uganda and south-west Kenya and is traditionally associated with someone who was born at night. “Bwire” is the male version.
In the early 1960s, after her secondary education in her native Uganda in Buddo (Budo), Constance Nabwire traveled to Spelman College for student girls in Georgia, where she eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and psychology. Studies of it and maintenance of it were funded by the African Student Program for American Universities. Subsequently, she transferred to the University of Minnesota, where she 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 Award winner (1983) Alice Malsenior Walker at the historically prestigious black Spelman College in Atlanta. They would become close friends, they would be so intrigued and impressed with each other, and they would be forever changed.
Evelyn C. White writes about their academic relationship and interaction. The talented academic Nabwire noted, but was not surprised that Alice skillfully wrote a top essay on renowned Russian literary authors. It was also important 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 went to great lengths to befriend the African students, and didn’t dwell too much on “Friday night dates” as the other students. In fact, Nabwire felt so privileged and enriched to have been placed with Alice, whom she considered 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 locations and other settings to experience them practically for themselves. An illustrative incident of racism and discrimination in the white church, moved Nabwire to tears and other forms of psychological unrest. White conveys Walker’s views on white churchgoers in Eatonton, Georgia, where she was born in 1944, and on Nabwire’s reaction when the two were denied entry to a white church in Atlanta. Alice remembered that white churchgoers in Eatonton were segregated. The day that Alice, in the vaunted pink frilly dress (purchased by Nabwire), ventured with Nabwire to church services at a church in Atlanta, would be worrying enough. Evelyn White would notice Nabwire’s reaction.
‘The…white missionaries had come to Uganda and taught…it was important to worship God…read the Bible…pray.’… ‘When Alice and I tried to get into…the church … they closed the door in our faces. I didn’t understand… months, I just cried’” (Blanco: 161).
Nabwire and Walker shared “the pink dress”, which Walker described as “divine” (White: 76).
Walker, along with her entire council of women and Nabwire, would intimately and emotionally venture out to pay their respects and bring flowers to the uncovered grave of a Walker ancestor. 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…most of the other girls at…the school” (Walker 2010). Alice also recounted the tomb incident while she was speaking at the Organization of 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 formally pay her respects, Walker returned to the grave with flowers and among those who accompanied 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…quiet…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 stories of pain and suffering. At the graves they wept, and the poetic Walker summed it up: “We watered those graves with our tears… glad to do so” (Goodman 2004).
Intrigued by Nabwire, Walker ventured further into understanding African culture and society, reading more into the writings of renowned African writers. Passages on his website offer his views, reactions and readings on Africa; and also comparisons with black America. The excerpts are part of Walker’s September 13, 2010 speech delivered as the 11th Annual Steve Biko Lecture at the University of Cape Town. Walker had realized comparatively that while racism ran deep in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s, he delved with intense curiosity into what Africanness was, given that “Africa was shrouded in…deep mists.” of distortion, racially motivated”. misperceptions, flagrant exploitation and lies” (Walker 2010).
Alice noted that Africans were “gaily despised, considered savages”. Also at Spelman College, reinforcing her important friendship with Nabwire, whom she cherished like a sister, Alice admired the African song “Nkosi Sikeleli’Afrika” which emanated “that sound of such humility, love, devotion and trust” (Walker 2010). Beyond people, countries and culture, Walker’s interest in Africa encompassed the environment, so she 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 that bordered on [and] often embodied the most astonishing depth” (Walker 2010).
On her visit to Uganda in 1964, Alice Walker was struck by the courtesy, peace, friendliness, greenery, reception, and patience.
“Uganda…referred to by Winston Churchill as…Africa’s ‘Japan’, because of…the courtesy of the people…kindness. This…a colonialist view, but…also it was 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 in 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 took me in… cared for me… dispelling… any feelings I… had that I would not be recognized as one of Africa’s children” (Walker 2010) .
But as Melanie L. Harris explains, although 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 the impact of colonialism made Walker a pilgrimage … [to Africa] hard to bear” (Harris 2010: 34).
The renowned and academically debated short story, “Everyday Use,” is part of Walker’s collection of short stories. The collection titled “In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women” was first published in 1973. “Everyday Use” references the American Deep South, the black family and social transformation, and Uganda.
In the story, the beautiful Dee, who is older than her shy and disfigured sister Maggie, who has kept in the deep southern tradition with her mother, Mama Johnson, visits their home after a long stay in an urban setting. The introverted and bold Dee sees herself as a transformed woman who now embraces modernism and black radicalism. At the beginning of her visit to her house with a burly companion Hakim, Dee utters the greeting “Wa.su.zo.Tean.o!” Apparently, this is Walker adjusting to writing “Wasuz’otya nno/ Wasuze otya nno?” which in Luganda means “How did you sleep?” In Buganda, it is the most used morning phrase that equates to “How did you sleep?”, “How was your night?” or “Good morning.” Sometimes the greeting is abbreviated as “Wasuz’otya/ Wasuze otya?” While in Uganda, Alice Walker must have often encountered her native morning greeting. In addition, the greeting carries a question mark, in addition to the exclamation point attached to the 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, and means “the one (or the place) of the stories”. In some of Walker’s accounts, her friend Constance Nabwire is referred to as Constance Wangero. Is it a typo or was Nabwire also known as “Wangero”? Also, Wangero Hill is in Buganda, so Walker may have visited or known about the place or name and then used it in her 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 was tricked in 1890 by Cecil Rhodes into ceding land to British protection via the British South Africa Company. Still, Lewanika would visit London in 1902, where he was embraced 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”) just 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.
Good man, Amy. “Alice Walker on the ‘toxic culture’ of globalization”. Democracy Now! October 2004.
Harris, Melanie L. Gifts of Virtue, Alice Walker, and the Ethics of Women. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Walker, Alice. “Coming To See You Since He 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: A Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.