A profile of radical poet, writer and activist, Dr Stella Nyanzi, accompanied by three poems.July 15, 2020
Scottish PEN is supporting the #AmplifyBlackVoices campaign by publishing a series of posts through July-August 2020. We will be highlighting black writers we work with, sharing the work of black writers at risk of imprisonment internationally, and reflecting on how the fight for racial justice ties with writers’ right to freedom of expression. Read Jane Archer’s introductory post here.
Dr Stella Nyanzi is a fierce public critic of Uganda’s president and a practitioner of “radical rudeness”, a traditional Ugandan strategy for unsettling the powerful through the tactical use of public insult. Her poems, which she writes mostly on social media, are laden with metaphor, often colourful and sometimes shocking.
An outspoken activist, academic, and poet, Dr. Nyanzi was arrested in November 2018 after she posted a poem on her Facebook page that implied Uganda would be better off if the president had died at birth. She was remanded into custody in Luzira women’s prison in November 2018 where she remained until her release. On 1 August 2019, she was convicted of cyber harassment, and acquitted of the charge of offensive communication. She was sentenced on 2 August to 18 months in prison. The state later appealed against her acquittal on the charge of offensive communication.
The American Bar Association Center for Human Rights, which monitored the trial, concluded that the proceedings were marred by fair trial violations, in particular, the failure to provide the defense with adequate time to call and present witnesses.
On 16th of January this year, she was awarded the Oxfam, Novib/Pen International Award. This is an extract from her acceptance speech.
“It’s a great a great honour to write this award speech, although I am writing while seated on the floor of Ward Two of Luzira Women’s Prison – the open maximum security facility for women imprisoned in Uganda. It is 2:06am here. The mosquitoes fly and sing with such liberty. The lice and bed bugs bite deeply. Most of the prison-wardmates are deep asleep in their prison uniforms. Some are nude. Some snore. Some fart. Two women prisoners hold the beads of their rosaries and whisper their prayers to God.
Tonight, there are seventy-two women prisoners in this heavily congested prison ward. We have only five beds in the entire ward. Three ward leaders, one foreigner and one long-term inmate occupy the beds. The rest of us squeeze on the floor. Over the last fourteen months, I have honed the skill of writing in the night in this prison. I refuse to stop writing.”Dr Stella Nyanzi
In February 2020, The High Court overturned DR Nyanzi’s conviction and sentence. At a hearing at the High Court in Kololo on 20 February 2020, High Court judge Henry Peter Adonyo called for her immediate release on the basis that the lower court did not have jurisdiction to try the case against her, and due to fair trial violations in relation to her right to a defense. The court also dismissed the state’s appeal on Dr. Nyanzi’s acquittal on charges of offensive communication. Dr. Nyanzi was released the same day after she returned to Luzira prison to sign official release papers.
You can read a Guardian interview with Dr Nyanzi, published weeks after her release here.
In May 2020, several people including Dr Stella Nyanzi were arrested in Kampala for demonstrating against the slow distribution of government relief food to vulnerable people affected by the COVID-19 induced lockdown. Dr Nyanzi was scheduled to feature in the June 2020 edition of PENning magazine, but this was rescheduled to December 2020.
In June 2020, Dr Nyanzi has announced her intention to run for parliament, as a member of the Forum of Democratic Change (FDC) opposition party. Find out more here.
For the Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2019, author and Scottish PEN member Kirsty Logan wrote a letter of solidarity to imprisoned Ugandan academic and writer, Dr Stella Nyanzi.
Kirsty Logan’s letter to Dr Stella Nyanzi
Women shall no longer wait for absent men
To drive these poisonous snakes out of houses
We pick up your machetes rusting away
And chop the venomous snakes into many pieces
Women shall no longer wait for castrated men
To carry the coffins of kin killed by the state
We wear your trousers and your kanzus
And lift the caskets to the graves dug by ourselves
Women shall no longer wait for timid men
To fight for the liberation of Uganda
We pack missiles in our own pens and grenades in our mouths
And shoot our truths at the dictatorship
Women shall no longer wait for blinded men
To drive us to the beautiful promised land
We thicken the muscles of our legs
And ride ourselves to freedom on bicycles and cars
Women shall no longer wait for faceless men
To woo, love or pleasure us
We wear dildos dipped in oil
And inseminate ourselves with strongest sperm
Seriously, the joke is on us
We no longer quiz our everyday contradictions
In Uganda there are no fountains
But alas, more shockingly;
The fountain of honour is dry
For this crisis, the masses cry.
A thin bush-war soldier and his rag-tag army
Come shooting loud guns and draining blood.
He stormed Kampala with his coup d’etat.
He grabbed the throne of power.
He flung a bible at the sky.
His take-over speech was lie after lie.
Our bellies are full with the illusion of freedom
We are captives in a military democracy
Our liberation was always a still-birth.
Our constitution was his to defil.
When he jokes, the masses sigh.
With each breath we take with him, we die.
Feminists in high heels
Stick their noses in the air
And sniff at my dust-covered sneakers.
They point their tight breasts at patriarchy
And smirks at my saggy bust
They push their bottoms outwards
As if they never shit.
They deem my activism too grounded…
‘She’s too dirty to be one of us!’
Feminists in power suits
Shake their pony-tails
And ridicule my three-piece Kitengi
They cling onto their briefcases
And shun my papyrus kikapu
They stretch forward their manicured hands
And sneer at my short-trimmed fingernails
They deem my advocacy too radical…
‘She’s too hot to be one of us!’
Feminist drunk with religion.
Roll their judgemental eyes heavenward
And shandaramana at my brazenness.
They finger their leather-bound scriptures
And distance themselves from my activism.
They pray and praise and tithe
But keep away from the trenches.
They deem my praise to immoral…
‘She’s too worldy to be one of us!’