In Carole Boyce Davies’ study of the political activism of the Black Communist, Claudia Jones, Davies writes that “[Jones’] was a poetry written by an activist who uses the space of incarceration and the time of detention to reflect on the conditions of being incarcerated itself, the political conditions of the state, and on the nature of the human condition.” Stella Nyanzi’s No Roses From My Mouth includes 158 poems written in 2019 and 2020 from Luzira Women’s Prison in Kampala, Uganda during a trial and serving time for cyber-harassing and offending the President of Uganda, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni in a poem where she uses his dead mother’s vagina as an image to comment on her son’s “oppression, suppression and repression” of Ugandans. This poetry collection like Claudia Jones’ poetry, includes poems “written by an activist who uses the space of incarceration and the time of detention to reflect on the conditions of being incarcerated itself”, the position of the woman in society, and the political conditions of the Ugandan state.
Within academic and LGBTIQAP+ activist circles, Stella Nyanzi is more renowned for her stellar scholarship on sexualities as a medical anthropologist and is a leading authority in African Queer Studies, or Queer African Studies. In April 2016, when she staged a naked protest against the director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), Nyanzi located herself within a tradition of radical African protest that utilises the body and custom to condemn injustice and oppression. Her naked protest at MISR premises was live-streamed on her Facebook page, showing the centrality of the social media platform to Nyanzi’s activism.
In 2017, Nyanzi criticised Museveni, his wife and their family rule for reneging on a campaign promise to provide sanitary pads to menstruating girls so that they could remain in school. When she was summoned to the Police to answer questions about her Facebook criticism of the government, she launched a campaign: #Pads4GirlsUg. She was banned from traveling while under investigation, but no one can stop Nyanzi. She went to schools and taught girls about menstruation. She sang them educational songs about menstruation. She talked to various people and raised money and pads to distribute. She went to many parts of the country with the campaign. Then the Kampala Metropolitan Rotary Club invited her to speak to them about the campaign. She went. And she was arrested that Friday night. She was betrayed. Her comrades online and offline started the #FreeStellaNyanzi campaign right away.
When she was presented in court, the prosecution didn’t charge her for hurting the President’s wife’s feelings as was expected. They picked another Facebook post in which she described Museveni’s speech celebrating so many years of staying in power, in which he said that he is not anybody’s servant, as Lutako. Lutako as the language of matako. Lutako as the jiggling of buttocks. Nyanzi called Museveni a pair of buttocks. It made for punny headlines worldover. Online and other activists agitated for her release. It came after 33 days. She received bail, as the trial couldn’t continue because the prosecution had wanted to subject her to a compulsory mental health examination and she petitioned the constitutional court to challenge the law under which they were proceeding.
Once free, Nyanzi picked up the struggle from where she had left it, when she recovered after the 33 day jail stint. Nyanzi’s Facebook timeline brims with commentary and language that brings meaning for many lives. Nyanzi is the voice of many. Her Facebook is the voice of many. She speaks for so many, and eloquently. She shows up for many causes. Her work in the period she has spent on suspension from Makerere University, imposed over her naked protest and subsequent criticism of Museveni’s wife has been unsalaried activism online and offline. Nyanzi became a fulltime liberation worker since 2016, applying her creativity, her training, her knowledge and connections to the cause of freedom in Uganda. Mr. Museveni, his wife, and their handlers fear Nyanzi’s Facebook timeline. They don’t want her Facebooking.
In 2018, the spate of killings and kidnappings of women in Uganda didn’t escape Nyanzi’s eye and heart for freedom and justice. She convened a Women’s Protest Working Group purposely to address the involvement or mishandling of the killings and kidnappings of women by Museveni’s military government. She carried empty coffins to protest. She was arrested, with her comrades too many times, her car vandalized as she protested. She called for a one million march to protest the killings and kidnappings. The police shockingly cooperated at the last minute despite suggesting that they would foil the planned march. Over 300 people, some from outside countries, including ambassadors of foreign countries, sex workers, relatives of deceased women, professional activists from NGOs, political activists, journalists, LGBTIQAP+ activists and private individuals, students, etc showed up for the march. Nyanzi is a force. She is the embodiment of a political resistance movement in a social media era.
When the musician turned opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi alias Bobi Wine was brutally arrested in Arua, with fellow Members of Parliament Zaake Francis, Karuhanga Gerald, and others, the parliamentary candidate who eventually won the bi-election, Kassiano Wadri, the local woman politician Night Asaro and others, Nyanzi was there to mobilize support for them. That was around mid September of 2018, the time Museveni chose for his birthday whose exact date he says, nobody knows. Nyanzi had an idea. She wrote a poem to celebrate Museveni’s birthday. Life continued. Hell didn’t break loose. The heavens didn’t fall. But Museveni and his handlers’ feelings were hurt. Nyanzi continued with her life, her commentary, with her online and offline activism.
On November 2, 2018, she went to the police to get security to accompany her as she peacefully marched to her office at Makerere since the university staff tribunal had cleared her of all charges and ordered her reinstatement. It was not to be. The police arrested her. The second round of the #FreeStellaNyanzi campaign started. When they presented her in court, they charged her with cyber harassing and offending Museveni and his dead mother in the birthday poem for referring to the vagina from which Museveni was born. She has been in jail since November 2, 2018 to the date of publishing this collection.
The first batch of the poems was released on her 45th birthday on June 16, 2019 celebrated while she was in jail. Various comrades living in various countries shared the poems on their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram timelines and pages among other social media platforms under the hashtag #45Poems4Freedom. Some of them already appear on some blogs. These poems appear as Volume I in this collection. The poems in Volume II were written after the birthday. The poems in Volume III were first written in the last days of 2019 and first days of 2020 but were confiscated in the process of their being sneaked out of jail. Nyanzi rewrote them from memory and using some haphazard notes. They were later successfully sneaked out of jail. The three volumes categorise the poems according to a surface level reading of their thematic concerns. The poems we read as dealing with prison life come first, followed by those which present feminist concerns, and the last category, poems broadly about Uganda.
In presenting these poems, we remind readers of the conditions of their writing, and publishing. To borrow Frantz Fanon’s formulation, Nyanzi is resolutely a poet of her time. The context in which these poems were written, the context in which these poems are being published must be brought front and centre in reading and discussing them. We recognise that Nyanzi is not the first writer to produce work under prison conditions. Next door in Kenya, Ngugi Wa Thiongó wrote the novel Caitaani Mutharaba-ini (English translation: Devil on the Cross) on toilet paper in his prison cell. He was jailed for the play he had co-written with Ngugi wa Miiri about the continued exploitation and oppression of native peasants by Western monopoly capital in cohorts with native elites. His memoir of the prison experience, Detained (new edition Wrestling with the Devil) was written and published once he was released. The Black Communist activist and organiser, Claudia Jones wrote poetry while in jail. Some of it appears in the posthumously published collection titled Beyond Containment, bringing together various essays, speeches, and poems by the activist.
Other writers who have been imprisoned for their writing and activism and indeed continued to write while in jail include the Ogoni writer and environmental rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nobel Prize for Literature Winner Wole Soyinka, and the Egyptian writer Nawal El-Saadawi. The Malawian Jack Mapanje was jailed for writing critically about the Kamuzu Banda regime in Malawi. The South African, Caesarina Kona Makhoere writes about her experience in jail during the apartheid era. Nyanzi is not only one of the many writers jailed for the political nature of their work, but she also belongs to the class of prison-writers who despite the fact of imprisonment continue to write behind bars, and with the publication of this collection makes a mark as having successfully published prison-writing while still behind bars.
The conditions of the prison affect one’s writing while in prison. Some of Nyanzi’s poetry was confiscated and so has not made it to this collection. The prison censorious eye that forced Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci to omit the name of Marx and the word “class” in his famous prison notebooks is still a reality for prison literature in the social media era. To publish prison literature while the political prisoner is still in jail is to hide in plain sight. It is to pose a risk of “disciplinary” sanction against the prisoner. It is to raise a big middle finger to the system of repression, oppression and suppression. It is to declare that our minds are free, our imaginations are free from the prison warder, the prison walls, and the judges’ sentence.
Nyanzi’s work on her Facebook timeline alternates between prose commentary and poetry. Her prison-writing however is predominantly in the poetry form because as Audre Lorde reminds us:
Yet even the form our creativity takes is a class issue. Of all the art forms, poetry is the most economical. It is the one which is the most secret, which requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper.” – Audre Lorde, Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference
As a prisoner, Nyanzi is no longer just the “ivory tower” researcher, with several high impact publications. She has no time for bourgeois literary aesthetic standards. She writes that she “penned [her] pieces on the prison floors.” That [her] “sounding boards were suspected vagabonds … Druggies and junkies offered some rhymes … Idle and disorderly suspects approved the rhythm.” Her comrades, her intellectual community is no longer that of the PhD-holding, Professor title-bearing, jet-setting from conference to symposium type. Her aesthetic standards are created and approved by the lumpenproletariat with whom she shares space in jail. She adds:
Convicts of common nuisance passed the meter
Sex workers and fraudsters approved lines.
Impersonators and thieves approved lines.
Suspects of murder and assault gave symbols
Suspects of manslaughter advised on ideas
Political prisoners cried at some stanzas.
Prison wardresses confiscated some poems.
Prisoners hid and protected my writings.
Emphasising the purpose of her writing, the activist raison d’etre of her poetry and activism, she asks: “Would beautiful poems dethrone a tyrant?” Hacking back to the class character of her community, creative and intellectual process, she asks a doctor of English whether prisoners would sit and listen to them. In a way, Nyanzi’s spending fourteen months and counting in jail (including spending time in jail on remand by choice) was an act of the class suicide the Guinean revolutionary, Amilcar Cabral encouraged the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie to commit, “in order to be reborn as revolutionary workers, completely identified with the deepest aspirations of the people to which they belong.”
Museveni’s regime sycophants and their allies like the PhD in English holding bourgeois aestheticians would like to discredit Nyanzi’s poetry, they criminalise it, and would like it erased. In her judgement convicting Nyanzi of cyber-harassing Museveni and his dead mother, the magistrate, Ms. Kamasanyu Gladys Musenze states that:
An average person applying contemporary standards would find that the whole post (sic) lacks literally (sic) artistic, political, educational or scientific value. It does not in any way communicate any message. The post cannot be discussed openly in any contemporary community in this country. No parent can share it with their children or youth in the manner in which it is packaged. It is so shameful. To the young generation, it corrupts their minds. The post goes against morality. It is vulgar. It did not matter who the post referred to. It was offensive. It would offend any reasonable person. It is not acceptable in any form of society. The post is so disgusting. It is obscene, indecent, lewd and lascivious. The suggestions or proposals in the post could only be made by an immoral person hence one that was not properly brought up.
The stern punishment of Nyanzi’s poetry only proves its radical edge, its effect on power and those who wield it. Like Toni Morrison reminds us in her 1993 Nobel Prize Lecture, “who does not know of literature banned because it is interrogative; discredited because it is critical; erased because alternate?”
It gives us great pleasure to introduce No Roses From My Mouth, given the contemporary moment that Nyanzi continues to shape with her activism, through her poetry, prose and actions. We are proud to associate with the freedom vision that Nyanzi’s poetry and activism represent. Like other members of the Push for Stella Nyanzi campaign whose 11-point platform appears after the poems in this collection, and like Nyanzi herself, we stand for Fairness, Feminism and Freedom. Stella Nyanzi was acquitted of cyber harassment on February 20, 2020 and freed from jail. She had spent 475 days in jail!
Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire is an academic, activist, lawyer, organiser, publisher, and writer. He cofounded the Centre for African Cultural Excellence which runs various projects including Nyanja Football Club, Abateebana Cultural Troupe, Ubuntu Reading Group, the Art Managers and Literary Activists (AMLA) Network, and the Writivism Literary Initiative.
Esther Mirembe is a writer. They are the Managing Editor of Writivism, and a 2020 Centre for Art, Design and Social Research fellow.