LOS ANGELES BOOK REVIEWS 5 APR 2020
IN UGANDA, there is a history of deploying intentionally coarse language to shame the leadership, the imagery so graphic and memorable the ruler is never truly able to escape the humiliation. Carol Summers, a historian at the University of Richmond, calls the practice “radical rudeness.”
The decolonizing activists of the 1950s saw the mannered British rituals of teas and dinners, steeped in politeness, as a means not just of tamping down radicalism but as a locus of decision-making that excluded the vast majority of Ugandans. So they cursed, hollered, and ridiculed.
A creatively foul-mouthed medical anthropologist and single mother of three named Stella Nyanzi is their heir. During his repressive 34-year reign, President Yoweri Museveni has largely tried to keep a lid on any form of criticism, but particularly this traditional political trolling. So it therefore came as a surprise in February that Nyanzi won an early release from captivity. She had been charged with cyber harassment and “offensive communication” in November 2018 for a poem she posted on Facebook to mark Museveni’s birthday. In six graphic stanzas, it bemoans that his mother, Esteri, did not miscarry him:
Yoweri, they say it was your birthday yesterday!
How morbidly grave a day!
I wish that Esiteri’s cursed genitals had pushed out a monstrously greenish-bluish still-birth.
You should have died at birth, you dirty delinquent dictator …
You should have died in birth, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni.
Given an opportunity to plead for leniency, she was defiant: “I used a dead woman’s vagina and I spoke truth to power.” She received an 18-month sentence.
Nyanzi’s threat emerges from her vulgar condemnations of Museveni. It extends, though, to how she wields the language to confront Ugandans with their passivity toward a state dedicated solely to its own perpetuation. In prison, she stole opportunities to write. Her friends smuggled some of the scribblings out and published a cache on her 45th birthday last June, including one where she lets loose her frustration that “we no longer quiz our everyday contradictions” under Museveni’s regime:
Our bellies are full of the illusion of freedom.
We are free captives in a military democracy
Our liberation was always a still-birth
Our constitution was his to defile.
When he jokes, the masses sigh.
With each breath we take with him, we die.
I met Nyanzi twice in the weeks ahead of her release, once at the maximum-security prison where she was held and again in judicial cells ahead of a court hearing. Online and in her public appearances Nyanzi is pure resolve, but in person she is coy and puckish, using her outsized features to exaggerative effect. She was also radically open, which her friends say is her essential characteristic.
After graduating Makerere University, Uganda’s flagship institution, with a degree in mass communication and literature in 1997, her first real work was entering data for a South African anthropologist conducting HIV research in Uganda. She arrived at the job “empty headed, loud mouthed, and ambitious,” to find a boss who solicited her viewpoint. She also discovered an unexpected interest in ethnographic research, where she could interrogate the experiences of people who were traditionally ignored. “Perhaps that’s how I learned to write,” she told me. “Listening to the voices of people who weren’t included.” She rose quickly from data entry to research.
She completed a doctoral program at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in 2009. Her thesis, on the sexuality of young people in Gambia, is interwoven with surprisingly personal details, including her own experience of finding love and becoming a mother in the midst of her research, but also of recognizing herself as an Africanist and a feminist. “This transformation meant that rather than consuming and replicating all ‘received knowledge’ about the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, I became sold out to offering re-definitions of context specific phenomena in a critical, participatory and reflexive way,” she writes.
The doctorate completed and her marriage failing, she returned to Uganda, eventually landing a job at the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) in Kampala. She joined MISR, originally founded in 1948, in the midst of a renaissance; the leadership had lured the renowned political scientist Mahmood Mamdani from Columbia University to head the institution in 2010. The next year Mamdani recruited Nyanzi as a research fellow with, according to her, the promise that she would be unfettered by teaching obligations.
She settled in to research Uganda’s queer community — a brazen choice in a country whose parliament regularly tables legislation that would punish gay sex with the death penalty. That work would become collateral in her battle with Mamdani, which began when he introduced a taught doctoral program in 2012 and insisted Nyanzi contribute. She refused. They fought for years over her obligations until an early April morning in 2016 when Nyanzi, frustrated and frightened she might lose her position, chained herself to the gate outside her office, stripped naked, and set Kampala alight.
In her inaugural professorial lecture at Makerere’s School of Law later that year, Sylvia Tamale connected Nyanzi’s protest to a regional tradition of women “pushed to the edge of the cliff,” deploying their naked bodies as a final weapon — both to draw attention to their persecution and to shame their opponents. Tamale calls it a form that “undermines the foundations of the hegemony of repressive regimes.”
Nyanzi told me she regards the nude protest as a failure, both because it ended in her suspension and by how it was misunderstood, as people fixated on her stripping and the mindset that drove her to it, instead of grappling with the symbolism of the action. Her subsequent protests have been rooted in written and spoken language. She did not want to be misinterpreted again.
The protest did offer one reward, though. Suddenly people across Uganda were interested in what Stella Nyanzi had to say.
As the situation at MISR deteriorated, Nyanzi had begun to lean on a coterie of students and acolytes for support. The price of admission to the parties and dinners they hosted was radical honesty, about themselves and their political conditions.
Sabatho Nyamsenda, then a student in MISR’s doctoral program, said they were mapping the struggles of different communities and linking oppressions to a common source: the Museveni regime that harasses opposition politicians and LGBT citizens alike. That has delivered only marginal improvements in basic social services, while the vast number of Ugandans remain poor, hungry, and sick. Museveni has mowed down all constraints, including internal rivals and constitutional term limits, even as the country has slid down Freedom House’s annual assessment of political rights and civil liberties, officially arriving at “not free” in 2019.
“There are so many marginalized communities, but they don’t align their demands,” Nyamsenda said. “They are persecuted and oppressed by the same state.” Within the group, there was a recognition that the “best person to articulate and join these demands would be Stella.” Nyanzi, who had been embedded as a researcher in many of these groups, was emboldened by her own sense of mistreatment to serve as their mouthpiece.
During a conversation at the height of her activism years later, her friend Nana Mwafrika Mbarikiwa remembers asking Nyanzi why she had decided to challenge Museveni. Turning serious, Nyanzi told her, “I want to piss Museveni off as bad as he’s pissed off Ugandans.”
She was reaching into history for inspiration. Searching for “a new radicalism, a politics that would truly challenge the ordinary way of doing politics,” as Summers described it, by the late 1940s activists had launched a largely uncoordinated assault on these conventions. One of the chief perpetrators, Semakula Mulumba, delighted in writing abusive letters to officials, which were read aloud at public meetings. He called the colonizers “white swine” and wrote that “the dung in which you wallow is our wealth which you stole.”
There is also a tradition of Ugandan writers, journalists, and academics assuming the responsibility of naming authoritarianism as it emerges, particularly under the despotic Idi Amin. Most have done so from exile. Byron Kawadwa stayed and attempted to restage his own play about Catholic martyrs amid Amin’s mounting campaign of religious persecution. He was dragged from Kampala’s National Theatre and executed.
Nyanzi’s lawyer, Isaac Semakadde, said she is a student of these strategies. She grew up attending schools that still taught “high political literature,” including the works of Kawadwa. She posted Summers’s article admiringly on her Facebook wall. There are echoes of Mulumba in her attacks on Museveni. But she also draws on her own experiences as a woman and a mother, something her male forebears could not. To celebrate the 2018 International Day of the Girl Child, she posted a Facebook poem that began:
The snake hissed its promise of sanitary pads.
Our poor parents gave it their votes.
Years after the unfulfilled promise,
We still miss school on days of our periods.
Our poor parents have no money for bread;
Let alone money for sanitary pads or knickers.
As her provocations mounted, people flocked to her page to take offense, but also to spar. She proved a master at keeping the conversation going and at winning converts. “Try getting yourself into a trending hashtag,” she chided one commenter. “It takes superior wordsmithing.”
“The things Stella says are the exact things that millions of Ugandans want to say, if they could,” Mbarikiwa said. “That’s why she would put one post and within an hour, it would have a thousand comments. Because a thousand people feel like her.”
Nyanzi told me she came to recognize Facebook and not her academic work as “my way to communicate a big, big idea.” At the center of her provocations is a particular occupation with the manipulation of shame. The Museveni administration has long deployed shame to its own advantage, relying on its media organs to humiliate and discredit anyone, but particularly women, who stray from strict, traditional conventions. In deeply religious Uganda, the message is reinforced by the calls to humility and subservience issued each week from the country’s churches, mosques, and cathedrals. Shame has been central the regime’s efforts to insulate itself from criticism.
Nyanzi has attempted to demonstrate its artificiality, while directing people to focus on the actual disgrace: the contempt with which the regime treats its citizens. Eighteen months for writing a poem has done more than anything to bolster her argument. Only her most ardent critics on Facebook see justice in that sentence.
My first visit with her in prison came days after she won the 2020 Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award for freedom of expression. While she was personally delighted to win the kind of recognition she thought “normally goes to Russians,” the real value of the award in her eyes was that “it’s another shame on this country.”
She used her work as an organizer to emphasize the regime’s failings. Nyanzi began to coordinate relief efforts following natural disasters. In 2017, Janet Museveni, the education minister and first lady, backtracked on her husband’s campaign promise the previous year to provide free sanitary pads to schoolgirls, pleading a lack of state funds. Nyanzi started a fundraiser to buy the pads herself. Her first arrest followed an April 2017 talk she gave to a Rotary Club meeting about the campaign.
The 2018 women’s march offered the real measure of her influence. Over several months in 2017, more than 20 women were murdered around Kampala, their bodies often mutilated. The victims were mainly shopkeepers, students, or sex workers, and it has never been established if their murders were linked. Activists grew frustrated with the slow pace of investigations, tracing it to a broader unconcern with violence committed against the poor — and particularly poor women.
Nyanzi decided to organize a march, both to honor the victims and to shame the state. Hundreds of people took to the streets of Kampala, including the US ambassador, bearing signs with the victims’ faces and demanding justice for their murders. “She doesn’t just criticize the government but mobilizes around a cause and proves the people can do what the government can’t do,” Nyamsenda said.
The regime reacted as it is trained to do when its power is challenged. It arrested Nyanzi to silence her and then backfilled that arrest with an excuse. “There was no other way it would go,” said Noosim Naimasiah, who became friends with Nyanzi during her studies at MISR. “Museveni’s not a benign dictator.”
Following her first arrest in 2017 for calling Museveni a “pair of buttocks” on Facebook, state attorneys tried to force Nyanzi to undergo a psychiatric examination, attempting to delegitimize her actions as the work of an “unsound mind.” She fought the examination and was released on bail, but only after spending 33 days in a maximum-security prison. Seventeen months later, after her second arrest for sharing the poem about Museveni’s mother, the state convicted her of cyber harassment under the 2011 Computer Misuse Act, which criminalizes “obscene lewd, lascivious or indecent” online. It does not define any of those terms. In a report on Nyanzi’s second trial, released in February, the American Bar Association concluded the act’s imprecision allowed the judiciary to indiscriminately jail people, which “will undoubtedly chill public debate and criticism.”
Susan Namata’s case is instructive. In late August 2018, the opposition parliamentarian Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, popularly known as the musician Bobi Wine, was detained in northern Uganda and #FreeBobiWine dominated Ugandan Twitter. From a beach near the town of Entebbe, a friend of Namata recorded a video where she used a local expression threatening to push her vagina in President Museveni’s face if he didn’t release Wine. Namata smiles in the background.
As the video went viral, Namata’s friend lost her job and then slipped away to Kenya to escape additional repercussions. Security forces came for Namata, instead. She was detained on August 27 and spent three months being shuttled between detention facilities. When she pleaded to be allowed to contact her mother, she remembers an officer warning her, “You abused the president, so you will see what happens to you.”
She was finally brought to court in late October and charged with cyber harassment and offensive communication — the same charges Nyanzi faced. She accepted bail and for 15 months returned to court almost every other week, only to have her hearing delayed after key witnesses, lawyers, and sometimes even the judge failed to appear. She was unable to get a job or return to school, because the court had retained her national ID.
In January 2020, after at least 25 court appearances by her estimate, Namata’s case was dismissed. She is not sure the goal was ever to actually convict her. “They wanted to show people an example for anyone who abuses the president, what she can go through,” she said. The ordeal “pisses me off, but still you can’t do anything about it. Who are you? You are nothing.”
Now she is going to look for a job, save for school, and avoid talking about politics. “I think we just leave this man to rule,” she said of Museveni. “It’s sad, but you just have to survive.”
Nyanzi is bargaining everything she has on convincing Ugandans they can demand more than just enough to survive.
What escapes most local press coverage is that Nyanzi did not have to be in prison. She was given several opportunities to post bail, including in the midst of her ongoing appeal, but rejected them. The calculation was that her imprisonment would make the regime look not just foolish, but cruel. She may have blasphemed the president’s mother, but the state wanted to separate her from her own children for 18 months.
Ahead of her sentencing in August, she delivered an exhortation. “My children do not deserve a mother who is silent. I refuse to be silent in the face of oppression. I will sacrifice motherhood to whatever altar I have to sacrifice motherhood to … so my children are allowed to raise their voices against dictators.”
In winning the appeal, she claimed a significant pelt. Her legal team’s argument hinged on demonstrating that the state didn’t even manage to meet the basic demands of justice. A High Court judge agreed, ruling that the magistrate who sentenced Nyanzi denied her right to identify, prepare, and call defense witnesses. “They thought they had license to do as they please and there will be no consequences,” Semakadde said. He frames the victory as “the shield that Stella needs the next time the campaign of judicial harassment is started against her.”
Naimasiah places it in a broader context. “Stella has already occupied a space in the pages of history. To be able to protest against Museveni, even in court, is unprecedented.”
That does not diminish the cost. There was the separation, both from her children and her work, and the daily humiliation of imprisonment, where the toilets were so dirty, she contracted regular urinary tract infections. Still, she appears eager to rejoin the fray. After her conviction was overturned, she emerged from the courtroom wearing the red lipstick that is her trademark, a tiara, and a sash that read, “Fuck oppression.”
In the days ahead of her appeal hearing, she told me her specific focus remains on changing the discourse in Uganda with radical rudeness her primary weapon. In the immediate aftermath of her release, her supporters launched the campaign #boldlikenyanzi. On the website, under a photo of Nyanzi with a raised fist, it offers causes that emerge from her experiences, including challenging the 1938 Mental Treatment Act the state tried to use to discredit her mental fitness following her first arrest.
Attuned to the lessons of history, including Kawadwa’s chilling example, she is aware the cost of her provocations may grow more dear. And she cannot always crowd out doubts that her efforts are futile against a regime practiced in cowing its citizens and suppressing its opponents. In a Facebook post weeks after her first arrest, she wrote, “Who will grieve for me when I die? Who will remember how I positively impacted their lives? Who will testify about my goodness when the story of my death is publicized?”
The day after Nyanzi’s 2017 arrest, Gertrude Tumusiime Uwitware, a health journalist, was walking to work along a busy Kampala road. A car pulled up alongside her and she was forced inside at gunpoint, blindfolded, and driven for hours around the city. Days before, Uwitware had written admiringly on Facebook of Nyanzi and at one point her abductors forced her to delete the post.
Though they have never met in person, Uwitware said that Nyanzi had awakened in her a feeling that her reporting was overlooking the daily struggle of life under Museveni. Instead of falling silent after the abduction, she has continued to speak out against the regime.
“You feel that power in you that tells you this is your moment, this is what you should do,” she told me. “There’s this moment and it’s very ecstatic, when you stop thinking about yourself and your safety and the people that care about you and you start thinking about your country. Nyanzi is there.”