'You are all my people': building disabled community in Uganda's microentrepreneur economy

Change log

In 1995 Uganda adopted a new Constitution mandating parliament and local councils to include disabled members, elected by registered disabled people in each community. Consequently, Uganda has an unusually institutionalised disability movement, with over 45,000 disabled councillors and, theoretically, disabled people’s organisations in every village. The political position of ‘disabled person’ is closely tied to Uganda’s governing party, the NRM, as a structural client, encouraging a form of ‘quiet politics’ aimed at fostering relationships to bring about future opportunities rather than approaching government or NGOs as citizens demanding rights. This thesis uses an ethnographic study (based on eighteen months of fieldwork) of a disabled women’s organisation called DWG to investigate the effects in disabled people’s lives. With a focus on the social determinants of obligation, it expands critically on anthropological literature treating dependence as a mode of political action. DWG is based in a peri-urban market in Bunyoro, where the core members run small retail businesses. Members receive grants from government and NGO small business programmes, which form the overwhelming majority of support available to disabled people in Uganda. Through analysing the distribution of one grant, I detail the disciplinary effects produced: the programmes establish an idealised model of newly empowered (post-1995) disabled people as independent and self-sufficient. This advantages an elite group who present the desired financial behaviour, including some members of DWG. Disabled people who do not fit the behavioural expectations (particularly people living with mental health problems or intellectual disability) do not benefit. However, DWG's operations are not fully determined by powerful infrastructure or actors. While entitlement to business funding is judged on economic performance, obligations accruing to relationships within the group are based on long-term togetherness, especially co-residence, giving the group a gendered historico-spatial specificity. Chapters 4-6 look at elements of DWG sociality that exceed the model of self-sufficient businesspeople. Even the most financially successful members rely on long-term relationships providing care and (for deaf members) communication assistance based on linguistic community, repurposing disability movement-derived resources to foster them. In this space, obligations turn on what I call ‘claims in relationship,’ a concept that blends theoretical work on dependence, clientelism, and obligation. My interlocutors use two diverging discourses. One, characterised by the word ‘obulema’ [disability] is closely associated with legal structures; its usage is largely restricted to the political disability community. The other, using the term ‘abaceke’ [weak people], is more widely used, forming part of a moral system of provisioning in which people who live together accrue mutual obligations in misfortune. In chapters 6 and 7 I look at the differential distribution of these discourses. The second can be more inclusive, allowing partial identification with those excluded from mainstream disability sociality (especially ‘mad’ people). However, because it relies on non-systematic personal connection, this group's challenges are not thereby fed into the infrastructure or funded activities of the disability movement. Chapter 7 looks at problematic interactions between the discourses, which impact on the most excluded during land disputes, in the context of industrial sugar farming.

Englund, Harri
Disability, Uganda, Sign Language, Deaf Studies, Gender, Land, Entrepreneurship, Microfinance, Local politics, NRM, Obligation, Dependence, Claim-making, Care
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
ESRC (1517393)
The Snowdon Trust; Cambridge Home Scholarship Scheme; Wyse bursary; British Federation of Women Graduates