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Nyanzi collapses as she receives Freedom of Expression Award

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THE OBSERVER 27 FEB 2020

Former Makerere University research fellow and scholar, Dr Stella Nyanzi collapsed on Thursday while receiving the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression for 2020.  
The ceremony was organised by the Ugandan PEN, a subsidiary of the PEN International, a global association of writers at the Uganda Museum library. Nyanzi explained that while in prison something happened to her, saying she was undergoing a traumatic experience and wanted to recover.    

“I have a weak body but my mind is strong. I was boxed while in prison,” said Nyanzi as she was gathered by her lawyer, Isaac Ssemakadde and feminist activist, Annet Namata alias Nalongo Nana. Dr Danson Sylvester Kahyana, the president Ugandan PEN, said Nyanzi’s continued lapses were “the cost of freedom and part of the damage she acquired.”     When she was being acquitted of cyber harassment last week, Nyanzi collapsed as Uganda Prisons Service officials battled with her supporters who were blocking her forceful return to prison to formally sign out of Luzira prison. 

Nyanzi has widely published on themes of gender and sexualities, cultural development, health, and law. Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award is given to writers and journalists annually in recognition of their significant contribution to freedom of expression despite the danger to their own lives.   Although Nyanzi was awarded in absentia on January 18 at a ceremony held as part of the opening night of Writers Unlimited Festival at The Hague, Netherlands, an empty chair was used to represent her. 

When Kahyana who is also a senior literature lecturer at Makerere read to Nyanzi the speech by Carles Torner, the director of PEN International that was sent in on Wednesday, February 26, she broke down, reminiscing her life in the cells.     “I don’t have to agree with Stella. Personally, there are many things that I don’t agree with, but I have to support her to say those things because it is my duty as a Ugandan to uphold the Constitution. My supporting Stella Nyanzi is not just because I am a member of PEN, it’s also because I am a Ugandan who must uphold the Constitution and it says freedom of speech is something we must have,” Kahyana said.

The teary Nyanzi kept on seeking solace from her daughter Barack. She said; “When Danson was in Luzira to break the news to me about the award, I remember I was seated on the floor and he was telling me I was given an award on an empty chair.”   “In Luzira, women prisoners get beaten for sitting on chairs, so when I received a letter that I was awarded on an empty chair, I felt sad,” she added.

According to Nyanzi, she was supposed to write her acceptance speech but every time she wrote, the chits got stolen and others confiscated by the prison authorities.   

“I wrote against difficult odds. The surveillance there was hyper. The snitches were numerous. The punishment for exercising my freedom to write was severe,” says Nyanzi. She however says she sneaked it out inside a piece of bread during one of the days she came to court. 

“I celebrate Oxfam Novib and PEN International for nominating and awarding me this honourable award. Who am I to receive The Freedom to Write Award of 2020? I am a convicted prisoner who writes graffiti on prison walls, writes poems to be sneaked out of prison gates, and writes an award speech denied permission by the prison leadership. I am deeply grateful for the award,” reads Nyanzi’s award acceptance speech. She says her last fourteen months of incarceration are a confirmation of the degeneration of freedom of expression in Uganda. “These days I no longer take for granted the freedom to write. Writing is one form of expression…Freedom to write is a priceless component of a free society. I have been horrified that democracy in my country has degenerated so dangerously. That one can be arrested, charged, prosecuted, sentenced to a maximum prison…If anyone doubted that Uganda is a repressive regime my last 14 months of detention confirm that I live in a repressive dictatorship. Can one believe that am locked up in prison for simply writing a poem?” said Nyanzi.    

Isaac Ssemakadde, said representing Nyanzi was his, “greatest honor of being a lawyer.” He said they had opened a website “Be Bold like Nyanzi” in celebration of her stand against injustice.  

Nyanzi’s life in prison  

Nyanzi has despite our efforts to secure her interview on her life in prison declined on grounds that she is still unstable as she is still on treatment and recovering from prison trauma. Nevertheless, Nyanzi shared some of the memories including when she was put in solitary confinement. 

She says she was denied visitors in prison for extended periods and some of her regular visitors were banned from returning to the maximum-security prison, where she was confined for nearly 15 months. Nyanzi was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in jail for cyber-harassment by the Buganda Road court Grade One magistrate, Gladys Kamasanyu.  This was after she wrote a birthday poem about, President Yoweri Museveni’s mother criticising his nearly 35-year rule. 

The poem was published on her Facebook page, in 2017. While in prison, Nyanzi says, “I was been beaten, punched, kicked and bruised by prison staff. My remission was reduced to ten days. I was even locked up in solitary confinement while handcuffed and nude for five days. And yet I kept on writing most nights I spent in this prison.”  

She says she used the handcuffs binding her hands together to scratch huge indelible writings into the three walls of the scary cell of solitary confinement in the “condemned” section of Luzira Women Prison. 

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