HomeNews‘I’m free at last’: Uganda’s rudest poet on prison, protest and finding a new voice in Germany
‘I’m free at last’: Uganda’s rudest poet on prison, protest and finding a new voice in Germany
January 27, 2022
The first few days of Stella Nyanzi’s new life in Germany have not been without their challenges, from navigating the TV and internet in a different language to finding the right school for her three teenagers. On the second day, the family went shopping for clothes – “thick jackets, mittens and scarves” – to see them through the fierce Bavarian winter. For her 14-year-old twins, who have lived their whole lives in sub-Saharan Africa and who insisted on wearing Crocs with no socks on the flight over, the sub-zero temperatures were a rude awakening.
At the centre of it all, however, has been deep sense of relief. Nyanzi, a 47-year-old outspoken scholar, poet and human rights advocate whose irreverent writing about Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, has seen her jailed twice, decided enough was enough. She has been accepted on a writers-in-exile programme run by PEN Germany, and has no intention of returning to Uganda while the 77-year-old Museveni is in power. And while there are many concerns about how she and her children are going to settle into Munich life, the sense of freedom is powering her on.
“Because I’m very much a free-thinking, loud-mouthed, crass woman who boldly speaks her mind, I think one of the greatest joys is to be able to criticise Museveni’s dictatorship and not fear for my life,” she says.
“To not have thick-voiced men breathing down my telephone. And to be threatened online, but to know that the threats won’t reach me, is really relieving. I know it’s going to be difficult [with regards to] the practicalities. But, Jesus, the sense of freedom! The freedom from fear of retribution and reprisal and punishment, simply because one refuses to only praise the dictatorship, is to die for.
“I can suffer the winter and the cold and the hard language – and the food is a bit different. But it’s freedom. You know: I am free at least. My children don’t have to fear that they’ll have more nights with mama in prison or locked up in a police cell simply because I wrote a Facebook post or I wrote too harshly about a dictator who is begging to be written harshly about. So that’s freedom from fear, much more than freedom to do. Freedom to be is, like, immediate relief.”
This week, the international spotlight has been on another critic of Uganda’s president, novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, whose book The Greedy Barbarian was seen as a satire of Museveni’s Uganda. Rukirabashaija, 33, was charged earlier this month with “offensive communication” over tweets about the six-term president and his son. For two weeks, he was held in detention in an undisclosed location before he was released on bail. His lawyer says he was tortured.
Rukirabashaija’s case is not unfamiliar to Nyanzi. The former university lecturer went to prison for a month in 2017 after referring to Museveni as “a pair of buttocks”, and for nearly 16 months the year after, for writing a poem that described his mother’s vagina in a variety of grotesque ways. (“Yoweri, they say it was your birthday yesterday./ How painfully ugly a day!/ I wish the lice-filled bush of dirty pubic hair overgrown all over Esiteri’s unwashed chuchu had strangled you at birth./ Strangled you just like the long tentacles of corruption you sowed and watered into our bleeding economy.”)
Nyanzi had tried to leave Uganda for Kenya in January 2021, after losing her bid to be elected as Kampala’s women’s representative. But, stymied by red tape, she returned home within months, trying to keep a low profile. Then, at the end of December, Rukirabashaija was detained, the doors of his home broken down by gunmen who whisked him away.
“And I thought: fuck the silence,” Nyanzi says, speaking by telephone from Munich. “We cannot keep quiet in the face of such brutality. And I began to agitate again.” In response, she says, the threats and intimidating messages started to return.
For anyone who has seen her bare her breasts in protest at a jail sentence or exit that jail clad in a tiara and sash declaring “FUCK OPPRESSION”, it is hard to imagine Nyanzi ever not being a political activist. But, she says, it was only in recent years that she found her cause. Her first show of dissent was a naked protest at university. From then she embraced the anti-colonial Ugandan tradition of “radical rudeness” as a tool against oppression. It is, she says, highly effective, particularly from an otherwise respectable mother and university academic.
“People have said to me: perhaps radical rudeness will not oust Museveni. And I say: perhaps the intention is not to use rude poetry and big breasts in public to oust Museveni; perhaps the idea is to invite others to be able to poke holes in this huge over-glorification of a mighty, untouchable demigod and, if many of us are poking small holes, perhaps the mighty trunk of the tree will fall. I don’t know.”
She adds: “Many do not approve. But I’m not looking for approval.”
When she went to Kenya in 2021, there was a backlash from fellow opposition critics who accused her of “leaving the battlefield” before the fight was won, and she anticipates similar censure now. But, after years of vigorous participation in the struggle, she thinks it is time for her to prioritise her children. Moreover, she feels freer to criticise Museveni from the safety of Germany. For the president, then, there is unlikely to be any letup. “Now that I’m out of the country, there’s a bigger onus on me … to write and speak out and use my voice,” she says.
The Writers in Exile programme, funded by the German government, runs for up to three years. Some – but by no means all – of its participants go on to claim political asylum in the country. Does Nyanzi believe she will ever go back? “Uganda is my home. I have booked to be buried beside my father in our village,” she says. “We have a beautiful equatorial sun; we don’t have winter and snow. We have sweet pineapples and sweet bananas; we don’t have frozen foods. We pick mangoes from the trees and eat them. I’d like to go back to that and live like that, but I also don’t want my children to sleep on their own at night because their mother is in a prison cell simply because she writes a poem about Museveni.”
She adds: “I hope to return because I have work to do in Uganda … I want to make a change, contribute towards building the new Uganda post-Museveni. However, I do not want to go and live in fear simply because I’m being myself … I don’t want to kill the voice inside of me. As long as it’s dangerous to speak out, as long as it’s dangerous to write freely, I don’t want to be in Uganda.”
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