DotIW 2019: Dr Stella Nyanzi (Uganda)

For the Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2019, Kirsty Logan has written a letter of solidarity to imprisoned Ugandan academic and writer, Dr Stella Nyanzi

November 13, 2019

Profile

  • Genre: Writer, academic, feminist activist and campaigner for LGBTQI rights
  • Country: Uganda
  • World Press Freedom Index ranking: 125 (out of 180)
  • Status: Imprisoned

Writer, academic, feminist activist and campaigner for LGBTQI rights, Dr. Stella Nyanzi, was arrested on 2 November 2018 and charged with “cyber harassment” and “offensive communication”. This followed messages she posted on Facebook in September 2018 about President Yoweri Museveni’s mother.

Dr. Nyanzi, a fierce, public critic of President Museveni, is a practitioner of “radical rudeness,” a traditional Ugandan strategy for unsettling the powerful through the tactical use of public insult. Her use of language is often colourful and sometimes shocking: some of the messages she allegedly posted on Facebook imply that Uganda would have been better off if the president had died at birth and include strong, graphic descriptions of Museveni’s mother’s birth canal.

Dr. Nyanzi has suffered a series of health problems whilst in detention: in 2017, after she was first placed in Luzira Women’s Prison, the authorities tried to force her to undergo a psychiatric examination; around the same time, she also contracted malaria. In late 2018, after her second arrest, Dr. Nyanzi says she suffered a miscarriage in jail.

A court convicted Dr. Nyanzi on 1 August 2019, of ‘cyber harassment’, but acquitted her of the charge of ‘offensive communication.’ However, the Ugandan state has appealed the acquittal and the appeal is ongoing. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison. 


For the Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2019, writer, Kirsty Logan has written a letter of solidarity to Dr Stella Nyanzi


Dear Dr. Nyanzi,

I would like to say ‘Dear Stella’, but I haven’t earned that informality. I don’t know you and you don’t know me. So rather than ignore that we’re strangers, I’ll spend a moment on it: I’m finding it hard to get around the impossibility of writing something intimate and personal directly to a stranger. Even more impossible, writing it knowing that it will be read by many other strangers. That perhaps the whole point is for those other strangers to read it. A performative eavesdropping.

I have also been a stranger eavesdropping on your words. I read your poem on the birthday of Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni – the poem for which you’re currently spending 18 months in prison. The poem amused and disgusted me. It delighted and devastated me. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what I think as the poem isn’t aimed at me, I know.

But here we have something in common: I have often written about cunts. Usually not for political reasons and usually not hoping for them to be diseased. I have written about cunts used in pleasure, used in display, used in work, used as threat, used as a doorway for new life, used as a doorway for recent death. I had never before considered the use of a cunt for political means. I appreciate the opportunity to know this new use of cunts.

I don’t use this word as an attempt to shock and offend, though I know that some do find it offensive. I appreciate and admire the value and boldness of your use of ‘radical rudeness’. But that is not my intent here. I simply want to say things as they are. I won’t sugar-coat a cunt, because I don’t see the point, and more importantly I don’t need to. I can use the word cunt wherever and whenever I want, and the worst thing that will happen is that I may be considered crude or inappropriate. That said, I have not written a poem about the genitals of the political leaders who control my world (or the genitals of their mothers). But I could try. I imagine that if I wrote about the genitals of, for example, Charlotte Johnson Wahl, the mother of the current UK prime minister Boris Johnson, not much would happen. Some people would be amused or disgusted. They might even be delighted or devastated – but that seems unlikely, as I wouldn’t be able to pack as much vitriol, humour and complexity into the poem as you did. Perhaps I am not angry enough. Perhaps I am not wronged enough. Perhaps it is too easy for me to feel safe.

I appreciate and admire the value and boldness of your use of ‘radical rudeness’

I don’t know if you imagined the same for yourself, or if you knew exactly what the consequences could be, and you wrote the poem anyway. Admiration and respect don’t seem enough for me to express, but they’re all I have to give at such a distance – geographically, culturally, politically, personally.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the phrase ‘they go low, we go high’. It’s nice to go high. I like it. I like to feel smug. It’s a pleasant feeling to have the moral high ground. But while I (and others around me) are up on our perches, the people with power are grubbing around on the low ground, digging up our foundations, shaping the landscape to suit themselves. The ground is getting unsteady and so our high perches are getting rather shaky – and when we topple off, it’ll be into a world shaped by people who don’t give the slightest shit what’s good for me, or for you, or for that person over there, or for anyone, really, who isn’t rich and white and heterosexual and old and male. If they’re getting everything they want by going low, what use it is for us to go high?

I’m currently in Sweden, over 6,000 miles away from you in Uganda. We’re separated by more than just geography, but I think the important things we have in common are that we are women, that we believe in the fight for LGBTQI rights, and that we are writers. Beyond that, things are very different. I’m here to finish a novel, set in the medieval north, about witch trials and methods used to silence women. It would be nice to say that it’s pure fantasy. It would be nice to say that things are different now. But many women still do experience these things; many women are still silenced for saying the things that they’re told not to say.

I’m here to finish a novel, set in the medieval north, about witch trials and methods used to silence women. It would be nice to say that it’s pure fantasy. It would be nice to say that things are different now. But many women still do experience these things; many women are still silenced for saying the things that they’re told not to say.

My favourite reclaimed phrase of late is ‘nasty woman’, said by then-candidate for the US presidential election, Donald Trump, to his opponent Hillary Clinton during a debate. He said it because he disliked something she said about him – a mild, and many would say justified, barb about his intelligence. He wanted to shut her up; she would not shut up. The phrase now appears on t-shirts, pin badges and coffee mugs. It’s titled songs and theatre shows and books. It’s a card game. It’s a hashtag. A phrase initially meant to silence and shame is now shouted out loud, celebrated with pride.

You show us all that women do not always have to go high. Women do not have to be polite and sweet. Women do not have to use only approved language. Women can be brave and crude and rude. Women can be nasty. Women can say whatever they like in order to gain, for themselves and for others, the freedoms that should be beyond debate. Women can talk about cunts – and they don’t have to be clean.

Please know that we see you and we hear you.

Please know that you have challenged and enriched the world with your work.

Please know that it matters.

With much respect and nastiness,

Kirsty Logan


Kirsty Logan is a professional daydreamer. She is the author of novels, short story collections, a memoir, a flash fiction chapbook, and several collaborative works. Her sixth book, Things We Say in the Dark, is a collection of feminist horror stories. She lives in Glasgow with her wife and their rescue dog.