Women Considered a Tourist Attraction in Uganda


Uganda’s main source of tourism stems from its wildlife and nature reserves. Foreigners travel to Uganda to see the giraffes of Mburo National Park, the Mountains of the Moon at Rwenzori, the waterfalls at Queen Elizabeth, or the infamous crocodiles from the Source of the Nile: Lake Victoria.

Photo: "   Ugandan women celebrate”    by     Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade         is licensed under    CC BY 2.0

Photo: "Ugandan women celebrate” by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is licensed under CC BY 2.0

And now, “curvy women” has been added to this list, according to the Minister of Tourism, Godfrey Kiwanda, in a press statement this February (2019). 

Kiwanda stated that the beauty pageant Ms. Curvy Africa (June 2019) should signal the start of a campaign to, “make this [curvy women] a product to be marketed.'' 

Ms. Curvy Africa is a pageant that celebrates the curves of the African female body. This year’s pageant aimed to “enhance the visibility and appreciation of curvaceous ladies as they walk the runway” (taken from the pageant's website). 

Undoing the common perceptions of feminine beauty, the pageant seeks to celebrate what it truly means to be an African woman: strength and resilience are highlighted in her curves.  

These are progressive aphorisms to go by, but the pageant has now come under fire as a result of comments from Uganda’s Tourism Minister. Mr. Kiwanda has explicitly said that curvaceous women should be an exhibition and attraction, offering an insight into Ugandan culture. He concluded, “Tourism is not just about animals; it's about our food, the way we walk, the way we were created, our curves.”

Yet, Mr. Kiwanda does not speak of his own curves, suggesting that as Minister of Tourism he is in possession of body parts that define the Ugandan woman. This is a state-sponsored objectification of Ugandan women: a campaign that has already seen massive backlash and mixed feelings from the international community, women political groups, and locals alike.

Mr. Kiwanda is proposing Uganda’s animals and food (both popular tourist attractions) be equated with Ugandan women.

Tourist attractions imply a set of materials that offer insight into a country’s culture, history, or nature, often providing leisure and amusement to visitors. Let’s make a parallel: In 1906, Ota Benga was the “caged pygmy”, brought to New York to be gawked at for his “otherness”. Benga became a tourist attraction that is now remembered as a source of immense shame, much like colonialism is today. “Otherness” has a long history of intense objectification, reducing the personalities of the marginalised into bodies. 

Ota Benga was roped into performing in a “monkey cage” at a zoo, and this has since raised the moral conviction that people should never be attractions, tourist or otherwise.

Reducing the female body to a tourist attraction is, in a similar parallel to Benga’s story, wrong to its very core. To see body over personality is how harassment and rape is sanctioned around the world.

Uganda has a long history of toppled military dictatorships, and some argue that the iron fist of intolerant totalitarianism is still being upheld by President Yoweri Musevini, now in power since 1986 and refusing to step down. Ugandan society thus echoes these political oscillations, with class-disparities, economic uncertainty, and unflinchingly high crime rates.

For Ugandan women, there is the added tension of tradition and Church. 84% of the population practices Christianity, with Islam practiced at 14%. These religions are often practiced in such a traditional way as to deny females the same rights enjoyed by her counterparts across the world; arranged marriages, household isolation, and in the worst cases - but practiced prolifically - unreported domestic violence and sexual assault.

For most, there is the fundamental desire to break free from oppressive traditions. More and more women are becoming involved in politics, female community leaders exercise autonomy in rural villages, and economic growth activities by NGOs are narrowing their focus to empower women. More than this, according to a 2018 study by Mastercard Index, Ugandan women are the most entrepreneurial in the world.

The personalities of Ugandan women therefore demonstrate resilience, they have headstrong spirits, and competitive business attitudes. 

But with the Minister of Tourism’s comment that women should be a tourist attraction and be gawked at, there suggests a deep-seated imbalance in gender rights that leaks from politics down to popular culture.

“We have naturally-endowed, nice-looking women that are amazing to look at,” Mr. Kiwanda repeated at a press conference. 

To be a “nice to look at” is to propagate the fetishised male-gaze by reducing women to what they are “endowed with”. In this case, that so happens to be the bountiful curves that differentiate the African female figure from the rest of the world, not their fighting spirit or underlying strength which they are also naturally endowed with. Curves, a unique physical attribute that symbolises more than beauty should be cultivated as a source of national pride. To suggest curves are a tourist attraction eschews what national pride should resemble: this is an echo of the patriarchy that Ugandan women are trying to break from.

In all progressive political states, it’s obvious that these kinds of repressive remarks and misogynistic campaign structures should not be backed by anyone at the top-level. There is  a fundamental flaw in Ugandan society when top ministers are propagating sexism.

To Mr. Kiwanda, we say that Ugandan women should not be a “strategy to promote” a tourism industry. They should not be reduced to the synecdoche of “bum” or “chest”. They should not be demeaned as sex objects.  

Entrepreneur Primrose Nyonyozi Murungi, along with other social media influencers, has since retaliated, launching an online petition to stop the campaign. Commenting on her petition she says, “In a country where women are grabbed by men while walking on the streets, now they have legalised it by making them tourist attractions”.

However, despite the obvious backlash on social media and international news outlets, Mr. Kiwanda has yet to apologise, or even give a clear halt to the supposed campaign.

Beauty pageants have evolved into a space where a woman's personality and talent are respected and celebrated by judges and fans alike. A pageant is not a place to fetishise the female body, which is a repetition of oppressive structures unfit for the 21st century.

Whether the campaign will continue, or whether there will be even an apology remains to be seen.

Uganda suffers from a President who refuses to budge and relinquish his power, albeit being 75 years of age. Corruption remains rampant across Kampala’s elite, police, and politicians. Police brutality and censorship reflects how far Uganda’s political regime has to come before welcoming democracy.

Is this unsteady and damaging tradition reflected in how the minister of tourism is allowed to treat women?

Maybe so.

In any event, a statement or campaign that seeks to place women at the forefront of tourist attractions will be a dangerous “go-ahead” for men on the street to view the female body as a part of a whole, and not a person. If this campaign goes ahead, tourists will come to the country with the incorrect view that Ugandan women are but a sum of their parts.

The reality is that curves are beautiful and symbolic, and Uganda celebrates this through the beauty pageant. Mr. Kiwanda needs to recognise this, apologise, reform, and get ahead of the curve.