An African view on decolonisation

Lina Zedriga Waru, an opposition politician from Uganda, shows that the German debate on colonialism, identity and women lacks an African perspective.

Dr. Lina Zedriga Waru, women's and human rights activist from Uganda.
Dr. Lina Zedriga Waru, women's and human rights activist from Uganda.Berliner Zeitung/Sabine Gudath

Berlin-Decolonise language, street names, culture - one's own behaviour. These belong to the demands of German decolonise activists. But the discourse is often dominated by Eurocentric, postcolonial navel-gazing. African perspectives rarely play a role. Dr. Lina Zedriga Waru, 60, an African politician experienced in anti-colonial struggles, has surprising answers to questions about racism, identity, discrimination and justice.

Dr Lina Zedriga, you are wearing a dress with African embroidery. May I, a white European woman, wear it too?

I also show myself as a strong African woman through my clothes. And if you, as a white person, go along with that and feel comfortable with it, that's perfectly fine. As a judicial officer in court in the former British colony of Uganda, I had to wear a black suit. We were supposed to look like the British. Mirjam Blaak, Uganda's ambassador to the EU, is a white woman, and she dresses African with pride. Many of my students - who come from the US, Canada, Europe - also love to dress in an African way. Everyone should decide that for themselves.

Some western activists would call that cultural appropriation and say that the culture of other countries is being stolen.

Why should anyone have the right to attack you for what you wear and how you look? I don't find that acceptable.

White men and women are criticised for braiding their hair into cornrows or braids....

Who comes up with such ideas?

The decolonise scene....

Of course, the decolonise scene has the right to be critical. But equally, everyone should have the right to freely decide on their hairstyle. Some African women straighten their hair and bleach their skin because they might find it beautiful. Political correctness should not restrict personal freedom.

Africa's largest lake is called Lake Victoria. After the British Queen. Is there talk about changing the name?

Yes, absolutely. But we tend to discuss far more absurd stories: Take John Hanning Speke, a Briton who declared that he discovered the sources of the Nile in 1857. People have lived on the Nile for thousands of years. And then a Briton comes along and discovers the Nile springs! That's worth a debate! To this day, nonsense like that is in the textbooks. (Laughs.)

And? Are there any renamings, for example of streets?

In many African countries, including Uganda, a way is being sought to find local names. But the current names also tell of people who - positively or negatively - have influenced the realities of the continent and Uganda. Much more important, however, is the land question: 9,000 square miles of Ugandan land still belong to the British Crown, one tenth of Uganda. The difficult structures of land ownership inherited from colonial times still hamper Uganda today.

Does the public in Uganda debate such issues?

The history books say that Europeans found us Africans naked, afraid, wild. We have been given a fixed interpretative grid, a "framing". This includes honouring and celebrating our "discoverers", naming schools after them. Therefore, the answer is no. I have never known people to discuss such things. Maybe a few academics, isolated cases.

How can we succeed in decolonising society - what must be done?

Defining one's own identity - especially on a personal and family level, because the imposed colonial structure and our culture differ greatly, especially with regard to the definition of family and marriage. In colonial times, it was said: African marriage is not a real marriage. The only real one was the one made by a British judge. We have to deconstruct that. The colonial definition of marriage is: one man and one woman unite; all others are irrelevant. But in African culture, the two clans join. Two families become one. That is a big difference.

Infobox image
Photo: Sabine Gudath
Lina Zedriga Waru was born on 8 September 1961 in Arua in northern Uganda. After her education at a missionary school, she took degrees in law, peace and conflict studies and teaches at Victoria/Makerere University in Uganda. The lawyer campaigns for human and women's rights, fights against violence and corruption. She is the vice president of the Ugandan opposition party National Unity Platform. During the election campaign, she worked alongside presidential candidate Boby Wine - for which she was imprisoned in November 2020.

But that is only one social area ...

... another is the form of government. Who governs, and how? One must know: Traditionally, the elders rule in our society; the young are mainly responsible for security. The legal system inherited from colonial times provides for conflicts to be settled publicly by taking them to court. We call the process "the knife" - there is only right or wrong. We settle conflicts traditionally by talking. If wife and husband, mother and child quarrel, then the family decides. All those concerned are brought together. It is about overcoming individual goals and turning towards common ones, about establishing or restoring dignity. The colonial way looks like this: Who pays the best lawyer? Who has the best connections? (Laughs out loud.) It's not about win-win, it's about: You lost. Pay up! Or go to jail.

Is there a middle way between the traditional and the European?

Yes. Very often. An example from Arua in northern Uganda. It was about a water source: two children, the girl eight, the boy fourteen years old, were jostling at the tap. The stronger boy pushed the younger one away, hitting her. She died. Her clan took up bows and arrows and set out to burn the boy's village to the ground. The people were arrested. Our law is British, after all. I got the case on my desk as a lawyer and felt that was no solution. At my suggestion, the elders met on a football field next to the police station, negotiated and agreed - in the traditional way - on compensation. This is illegal under colonial law, but it settled the dispute.

How does your political movement People Power Movement deal with this discrepancy between (colonial) law and tradition?

We are striving for a gradual change. Because the official law does not correspond to the lived practice. Let's take the bride price. Paying a bride price is common in our country - but it is illegal. In my daughter's case, the groom's family came and paid the bride price. You can't just override the cultural practice. So let's call it a bride gift. It fits.

Europeans would object that law and order must apply.

But we can find an African way. Our lives are about collectivity. We are happier together. Ubuntu is what we call it: community. I am because you are. As long as you are, I am too.

Don't African women suffer under the old, patriarchal structures?

Ha! Many feminists think that African women are the most oppressed. No! Not all traditions are negative. However, colonialism eroded the position of women. Women were strong. They had the power because they ruled over food - food, livelihood. My mother had absolute control over the kitchen. We have lost that power centre. Now men find access to pantries everywhere. This gives them freedom. They go out, drink, can have laundry done somewhere. They don't need the clan for that anymore.

Do Europe and Africa encounter one another eye-to-eye?

No, no. It's not even like the relationship with a big brother. It is a relationship of dependence. It is always about setting everything up for the benefit of the former colonial countries. Everything is based on that - even who governs in our countries, who becomes president. It's as if the mother always wants to know what the married daughter has in the pot and decides: Today you don't cook meat! This has a very negative effect on the democratic process.

How do you assess the so-called development aid that we currently call development cooperation?

(Lina Zedriga shakes with laughter.)

Do you think it's just cosmetic?

Yes! No matter what you call it. The dependency remains. You pay a kind of ransom. But it's actually about protecting ruling interests. Europe or the US - whoever - gives so-called aid, but they dictate how it is to be used: Who makes the decisions, who gets the computers, the cars, etc.

But Germany maintains good contacts with Uganda, doesn't it?

Yes, recently the German ambassador visited the son of dictator Museveni, the head of the military and security services - those who kidnap and kill our people from the opposition movement and throw those like me in prison. You talked about military development aid. Last year, German development aid provided the Ugandan police with cameras, motorbikes, cars. I was arrested and beaten during the election campaign. The military vehicle that took me away came from development aid. It was labelled PRDP, Peace and Recovery Development Plan, largely financed by the EU and USAID. It was broad daylight, I could see that.

The government of Yoveri Museveni, who has been president for 35 years, uses aid to oppress its own citizens?

Just look at the presidential election campaign at the end of 2020: that was a disgrace, so much violence, more than 50 dead. Human rights were violated, the whole election process was militarised. People were thrown into the Nile, beaten with stones. Women were raped. During the election campaign, our presidential candidate Bobi Wine had to wear a bullet-proof vest and helmet. Supposedly Museveni won with just over 50 per cent. When I heard this, I was shocked. This result is fake, wrong, unacceptable. We are going to the East African Court to prove that we won.

How should the West react?

It should condemn Museveni. Instead, they congratulate him on his obviously rigged re-election, his seventh term. First the Italian president sent congratulations, now even Angela Merkel. My heart is breaking.

When development aid keeps dictators in power - should it be stopped?

Yes, for now. And then the whole procedure has to be changed. As long as only a few people are involved in this kind of colonial transfer, it does not serve the general public. The alternative is better consultation with the people. So far, people are not asked what they really need.

Can you give an example?

Let's take a place in Karamoja, in eastern Uganda, very remote. There, women have to walk miles to fetch water. Then aid workers came and said: The people need a well, and they drilled one. The village was outraged. Instead of celebrating the gift of water from the colonial partnership, they destroyed the borehole at night. The people said: Instead of talking to us, they are destroying our way of life. The women said: when we go to the water together, that is our most beautiful time of the day. That's not how it works - just saying, oh, the women are so miserable. No, they are happy! There is a lack of cultural sensitivity.

What role does "race" play in Uganda?

Race is not so much an issue, but the procedure from above is. Race comes into play when political spaces become polarised and a lot of propaganda divides the population of a country. In Uganda, this mainly concerns the conflicts between the northern and southern regions.

So when I talk about racism, you don't first think of black and white, but of tribes?

Yes. The black-white level does not matter at all. Racism manifests itself in Africa in the form of differences between people from different regions and tribes.

What should European countries do to find a fairer attitude towards Africa?

Firstly, Africans and African countries are not a single block. Secondly, one should not approach it thinking "What can we do for them." No. Do it with us. We need to reboot and rethink. Today it is all about hardware, hardware, hardware: i.e. roads, high-rise buildings, etc. But it is high time to work on the software - on the people, their education.

How do you feel about terms like People of Colour?

It's so unimportant. I am black. Even when I order coffee, I say please make the coffee as black as I am. I love my black skin colour. I have many white friends. When I meet them, skin colour is not our topic. Whether togetherness works or not does not depend on the colour of the skin.

If I met you at a party, could I ask where you were from?

Of course. Ask about my roots, my identity! I am proud of it.

In Germany, some PoC don't like being asked about their roots.

Oh, what a misfortune. Then there is an uncertainty about their identity. But I think these are personal problems that move a small minority.

This interview was conducted by Maritta Tkalec.

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