Dr. Stella Nyanzi is the epitome of unbridled feminine energy. Just like her published work she (re)ignites discussion, incites debate, and invokes dissent at every turn. She is an avid practitioner of ‘radical rudeness’, an anti-colonial resistance tactic where rebels were deliberately rude, disorderly, intemperate, and obnoxious, as a way of disrupting existing social rituals and systems to mobilise for change.
Because of the restrictions in her home country, activists still cannot engage in active state-building in the present and must deploy other tactics, in this case historically successful ones. Digitally, in her books and her rhetoric, Dr. Nyanzi performs a rude, publicly celebrated strategy of insults, scandal-mongering, disruption, and disorderliness to outline and make public the damaging dealings of the current regime.
“Radical activism is constitutional,” Dr. Nyanzi has insisted in the past, “because freedom of expression is a constitutional right, and we must not allow ourselves to be deceived by those who think that freedom of expression is a crime. It can be seen as immoral, but that is merely a value judgement. Dictators can criminalise our constitutional rights, and many of us who are not critical enough just swallow this from them.”
Her first major controversy happened during her tenure at Makerere University. A dispute arose between Dr. Nyanzi and Professor Mahmood Mamdani, a leading Ugandan scholar and the head of the Makerere Institute of Social Research, when the latter put a padlock on the door of her office claiming she declined to fulfil a non-contractual obligation. In response, Dr. Nyanzi stripped live in front of cameras from major national television networks. This strong and old form of protest is used by mature women across Africa to shame and punish male adversaries.
But her imprisonment and intimidation started in 2015, when First lady and Education minister Janet Museveni announced that the President would be reneging on his promise to provide sanitary pads to school girls across the country. After the announcement, Dr. Nyanzi launched an online campaign (#Pads4girlsUg) to raise funds, published a scathing Facebook post, in which she referred to the president as a “pair of buttocks” and a poem where she described the first lady as “empty-brained.”
“When buttocks shake and jiggle, while the legs are walking, do you hear other body parts complaining? When buttocks produce shit, while the brain is thinking, is anyone shocked? When buttocks fart, are we surprised? That is what buttocks do. They shake, jiggle, shit and fart. Museveni is just another pair of buttocks. Rather than being shocked by what the matako said in Masindi, Ugandans should be shocked that we allowed these buttocks to continue leading our country.”
She was later arrested and charged with “cyber harassment” and “offensive communication.” Of the charges, she told the press at the time, “Offensive communication? Who is offended? How long are Ugandans going to be silent because of fear … I am an academic, poet. A writer. I use my writing metaphorically. I have called the president impotent, a rapist, a pathetic pair of buttocks. He lied to voters that he would provide pads and Ugandans are offended that he is such a dishonorable man. It is we who are offended, not him.”
Her activism rages on, with her last encounter ending in an 18-month sentence for insulting the Ugandan president, again. It is during this sentence that she penned the collection of poems titled, ‘No Roses from My Mouth: Poems from Prison’. The book won her the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression.
She told the Oxford Student, “When the authorities found out that my poems were being smuggled out of prison, they tried to stop me. My diary and my book of poems were taken away and burnt.”
Don’t Come In my Mouth: poems that rattled Uganda
The racy title is very characteristic of Dr. Nyanzi’s writing style. She says of her new book, “Many of these poems were written in criticism of the political elite in Uganda, some of whom belong to both her political party and mine.”
This seminal collection from a true revolutionary of our time, especially considering how unavoidably vocal and voluptuous her work usually is, is a vibrant and freeing read.
The human, women, and queer rights activist is already working on her next project, “Undressing Luzira Women Prison: 305 Poems for 305 Days in Prison.” She began the poetry collection on the anniversary of her release from prison. Her first poem is aptly titled “I stole a maximum security prison uniform”.
She narrated the ordeal behind the poem to DW saying, “I stole this uniform from prison and I celebrate that because the prison took away from me my baby. Prison wardresses beat me up, they tortured me, they traumatized me… when I showed them the blood between my legs they said to me that is tomato sauce… My child beaten out of my womb was put on a rubbish pit with gloves and syringes and medicines. I was not allowed to bury my child.”