Stella Nyanzi is celebrated across Africa. She is a heroine to sex workers and unemployed youth as much as she is to progressives scattered throughout the halls of universities and parliaments. The fierce Ugandan activist and academic known for her vulgar critiques of Uganda’s dictatorship recently completed a 16-month sentence at Luzira Prison, a notorious recurrent home for political dissidents.
When I last saw her in September, we were both harassed by prison authorities who wouldn’t let me in to visit. Her punishment for shouting at the guards was much worse than mine — physical torture and days added on to her sentence. As someone who puts in countless hours planning strategically for action with fellow comrades, I admire her solo improvisation when confronted with injustice. It has an actively poetic quality and prophetic power that I’m not able to bring to my work.
Nyanzi’s activist resume includes a sanitary pad drive to expose the dictatorship’s kleptocratic neglect of schoolgirls, various campaigns for LGBTQ rights, and countless social media insults of dictator Yoweri Museveni and his family and cadres. Surprisingly, it was the latter that landed her in prison — not her nude protest against patriarchy and institutional rot at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, where she has been employed for many years.
Nyanzi, also a proud mother, has the largest social media following of any Ugandan, and she works professionally as a medical anthropologist and scholar of public health and sexuality. She received the 2020 Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression, as well as Solidarity Uganda’s 2018 Activist of the Year Award. While in prison, Nyanzi secretly released a collection of poems, “No Roses from My Mouth: Poems from Prison.”
Following her Feb. 20 release, I finally had a chance to speak to Nyanzi without prison guards interfering. Although our conversation occurred amidst the growing COVID-19 pandemic, the first Ugandan case of the outbreak and subsequent quarantines were still weeks away. As a result, Nyanzi kept the focus of our conversation on her own niche in Uganda’s growing anti-authoritarian struggle. Since then, however, she has reached out to say that the government’s “failings and blunders” with coronavirus only offer more “fertile ground” for her to “publicly criticize and critique the dictatorship.”
Were you surprised that — of all the things you’ve done — a Facebook post landed you in jail for two years? Were you prepared for this?
Because I had been arrested for a 2017 Facebook post calling Museveni a “pair of buttocks,” the second arrest [which was the result of a graphic 2018 post] felt like a big joke. I didn’t think there’d be another magistrate willing to engage with me as a defendant. I was shocked when the police would not accompany me to be reinstated at Makerere Institute of Social Research. I was shocked that the president wrote an order that resulted in taking me through a sham trial with so much malpractice.
I was surprised by the sense of community within jail among convicted murderers and thieves. Even without their families around, there are structures of support.
But maybe I shouldn’t have been shocked to be convicted for a Facebook post, because so many people had warned me not to be rude to the so-called fountain of honor [a common title for Uganda’s president]. I was shocked at the extent of my sentence. But this was not about a person writing a Facebook post. No, it was a culmination of so many things in this moment of widespread cyber harassment. I should not have been shocked knowing how far Museveni’s regime has come. Even high court judges should have way higher standards than the magistrate who tried me, but so many were scared to preside over my matter.
What images of your time in prison stand out in your mind? Did anything surprise you?
In 2017, I was imprisoned for 33 days or thereabouts. Having stayed later for more than a year, there are many things that still surprise me today. I still don’t understand how prison staff who are paid as public servants to ensure our safe custody are abusing their brown uniform, their duty of protection. Wardresses were caning women just for asking questions. I was beaten, punched and kicked for showing up at the gate to see you when you came to visit me. I was always asking why we didn’t have breakfast or water; I would be punished for this, including solitary confinement and the beating of my body. If you can do this to me, how much more can you do it to those without many visitors or the cover of the media?
The levels of congestion in prisons have increased dramatically in recent times. Lack of medicine, the number of miscarriages, women prisoners dying — I was surprised. We had cases of escapees, which was also surprising in a maximum security prison. I was also surprised by the sense of community within jail among convicted murderers and thieves. Even without their families around, there are structures of support. I was “Ssenga” [paternal auntie] or “Mama” Stella. Other times I was “Bitch Boss.” The re-creation of family was impressive, full of love, laughter, jokes, dancing, singing and religious conversions.
You’re known, at least publicly, for being vulgar and relentless. Is this personality something that arose naturally out of your experience, or is it tactical and politically deliberate?
Often I have to rehearse, and look for words, especially when I’m doing this ad-lib character. I have to look for these words from people who use them. One of my go-to places for information is Facebook. I have access to boda boda [motorcycle taxi] guys and sex workers who know how obscene words are best used. The idea that people say “she’s losing her African values and cursing like a colonized white woman” is wrong because in Buganda [a region within central Uganda], a Nalongo [or mother of twins] has certain powers in her speech, body language and actions.
The Victorian era did a lot of damage in terms of culture. Perhaps my scholarship around sexuality gave me access to the power of sexualities. Because sexuality is taboo for women, the woman has to enter that tirade boldly, in a way that demands attention. I learned early when a woman says “vagina” or “penis,” people are forced to stop and listen. People are bored with talking about politics!
I learned early in Facebooking that if I threw in metaphors of intercourse, there is a larger response. Often there are those who are daring enough to explore the deeper language of sexual metaphors. I want to know who can get what I’m saying at the second or third level of meaning. I’ve crafted a particular woman who is bold and brazen in interestingly political ways, using my “clean African woman mouth” to speak dirty politics. People may not take the offense as offensive as it is. Some may laugh at it, knowing its political value. I’d rather make the point vulgarly even if I lose a few people along the way. If the sexual currency makes the point polite conversation can’t, so be it.
Some encourage you to pursue formal politics, either as an MP or as president. Do you have such ambitions?
I think that I am an ideas person. What makes me tick is when I’m working with and shaping ideas. Scholarship is where my heart is at. The activist-academic is a concept I was struggling with for a while, and when I was doing queer activism around the anti-homosexuality bill, I realized one cannot simply live within the ivory tower. There was no way I could only produce knowledge when people could be killed. This has influenced how I do activism. The anti-homosexuality bill beckoned me to come and do something. I would make Stella an academic in the university, but since the dictator kicked me out, the street and Facebook have become my playing field.
As I await my job at Makerere — because I’m in court to get my job back — I want to keep poking the leopard’s anus, and to do politics hardcore. The coming 2021 elections are an opportunity one must not miss. Parliament? Why not? Perhaps a woman may come on board among the big boys going for the presidency, but I don’t know how serious I am when I say that. If it’s an opportunity for in-your-face competition for the dictator, perhaps I will.
I have been invited by various people to stand as Woman MP for the Central Kampala constituency where Nabilah Naggayi Sempala came in. There are increasing rumors that she has been a sellout, or at least inactive, which I can’t yet verify because I have been behind bars in Luzira. The persons who are going to contest for any post should not do so lightly. It is important to reclaim the constitution and transform our laws. Do I want to run? Yes, but because of what I can get away with as a candidate. It affords some space to say the things that must be said. In other words, running for Parliament shouldn’t be mainly about getting to Parliament.
Uganda’s opposition is fragmented, which you have sometimes attributed to male ego. What must it do to get the dictator out of power?
The way I understood people power [which fueled the Togikwatako campaign against authoritarian constitutional reform] was that it was a movement to build opposition capacity to resist. It was supposed to be a unifying platform for the liberation struggle. That may have been my own naïve and simplistic understanding of people power, but I think it should’ve been that way.
In terms of movement building, the women’s movements have done many great things, but in terms of exclusions … those with high heels sit up on thrones and those with sandals sit at their feet.
I am disappointed that that simple unity idea seems difficult to achieve among the leaders. Away from the opposition leaders, I suspect that many of us are very aware that we cannot uproot Museveni through our own homogenous circles alone, but patronage politics is keeping Museveni in power, and people don’t want to give up those privileges. This makes uniting difficult.
Suppose the opposition won’t unite. We have seen it before — old men take a slice of the cake and wait until the next electoral season. Can Ugandans coerce them into cooperating, if they won’t do it willingly?
Parties are male dominated and will not give up their power to each other, so we need to build a new coalition that unites various opposition party players. We need to transform and reorganize opposition party work. How do we unite? In Sudan, it was about bread. Bread united us. Maybe we need something to unite us, perhaps blood. The question of insecurity may be a platform for all of us who don’t want to fear for our lives daily while crime and murders rise in Uganda. We are still struggling and still insecure. Even a person who loves the ruling party can have their brains blown apart.
Much as politics in Uganda is patriarchal, you’ve also criticized Kampala’s women’s movement. Your poetry speaks of “feminists in high heels.” What do you mean by this, and if the women’s movement is to build more power, what must it do differently?
“Feminists in high heels” is my own language about the classism and elitism and separation and exclusion within the feminist and women’s movements in Uganda. There is something happening around our long history of the women’s movement in Uganda. In terms of movement building, decentralization, etc., the women’s movements have done many great things, but in terms of exclusions — decisionmaking, its agenda, gatekeeping — those with high heels sit up on thrones and those with sandals sit at their feet.
We need a common campaign that unites us first as humans. In Sudan it was bread; in Nigeria, it was oil. In Uganda it could be land issues that unite us as a people.
We have to be honest with ourselves. The funding for “women’s movement-ing” emphasizes divisions because we are competing for a small cake against each other and must report back to donors. We are no longer allies but competitors. First of all, we have to think about how we all matter, no matter the size of the cake. All our work is important and should be allowed to flourish, even if the funds are little. We must be critical and look inward to ourselves, as opposed to the reports we give to auditors, NGOs, donors. We must look at ourselves as political actors and assess to what extent the things we are doing are empowering to grassroots women — and accountable firstly to the women we claim to speak and act for.
Intersectionality is difficult, and one must always be conscious that all of our work is intersectional. I don’t know why we reproduce hierarchies of abuse and oppression, especially within feminist spaces. I don’t know if humans are just wired this way or not. How do we do things differently? So many resources are spent, but we are not evaluating our achievements, doing a cost-benefit analysis, or asking how we can reshape and refashion our strategies as much and as often as we need to.
Uganda is incredibly diverse and heterogeneous. There are many languages and cultural barriers making mass mobilization and political coordination very difficult. You have been one of the unifying inspirations for Ugandans nationwide. What advice do you give to people around the world struggling with the difficulties of organizing within very diverse contexts?
I want to reaffirm what you’re saying. Uganda is a collage, like when you make a quilt out of kitenge [African cloth] bits. We are very diverse. The odd colonial creation called “Uganda” is a collage. Opposition leaders Kizza Besigye or Bobi Wine can appeal to the entire nation, which is surprising and inspiring. People from all walks of life come to them like the way bees go to honey. In spite of all the language, religious, class and other barriers, we are united in our oppression. This should be a uniting force despite our differences.
Every human knows about menstruation. This is why we needed a common campaign that unites us first as humans. In Sudan it was bread; in Nigeria, it was oil. In Uganda it could be land issues that unite us as a people. Whether I’m a farmer or a Mercedes Benz driver, land is a currency of importance in Uganda. We must identify one or two unifying issues and do a power analysis around those issues to understand how the oppressor is using them to consolidate his power. There is a commonality running through all of us. Abuse of power, nepotism and lack of jobs resonate with everyone.
I don’t strategize and structure very well. I just do ‘I am angry and enraged and we must do something.’
They united a people to the cause of a naked woman. Not all of the people brought into the campaign loved my methods and the idea of my naked body, but they were attracted to the cause by a contract that was broken and that affected me. They understood what it means to be a Ugandan living under the normalization of employers violating contracts.
Academia is severely crumbling in Uganda and around the world. How can we think about academia in a new way?
I feel very cheated as a person who belongs to the university to see how much theory is being made on the streets and away from academics and board rooms. People are doing knowledge production on resistance. The story of Ugandans is being told by ghetto gurus who lack political science or anthropology credentials. It’s sad that we don’t have enough students, scholars and thinkers working with the various opposition fronts, like the feminists, queers and land right advocates. Not enough is going back to the university to enrich the existing knowledge we already have. The gap between the ivory tower and the struggling masses is growing bigger and bigger. Many Makerere students would love to sit down, watch and participate in protests and social actions.
The bubbles are bubbling up — and may finally come together as a massive bubble big enough to take the dictator out. Why are academics sitting down and treating this moment as business as usual? Punishment has deterred critical thinking. Students asking tough questions are being penalized, expelled and punished. There are rewards, conversely, for being silent and dormant. There are punishments for those of us employing critique.
Why aren’t more professors and PhD candidates joining at the frontlines? I was told “That isn’t what academics do; they write papers and go to conferences.” I think “No, academics would be enriched where the action and knowledge production is happening: at the mines, in the kitchens, on the streets.” Among the first things Museveni did was to shut up the minds and mouths of those who could criticize the establishment. The president himself is the one facilitating negotiations for Makerere faculty salary increments. Because we depend on the state for our bread, we have not held fast to the ability to think for ourselves. This is a dictatorial military state. A dictator would not want us to question his power.
Are there any other thoughts you would like to add?
I don’t strategize and structure very well. I just do “I am angry and enraged and we must do something.” I’m in the moment. I just know that we have to challenge power. I am excited to know there are now people building movements with thought and critique and structure. The refining is happening as we go along.