Stella Nyanzi: “Teach the nation poetry” #FreeStellaNyanzi

Stella Nyanzi

On Thursday, February 20, Ugandan queer and women’s rights feminist activist and founder of the Pads4girlscampaign Stella Nyanzi walked out of Luzira Maximum Security Prison for Women, after having served fifteen months of an eighteen-month sentence. Stella Nyanzi had a question: “Why was I in court for all these months? Why is the current regime of Uganda oppressing Ugandans who are expressing their constitutional rights? I am the voice for the opposition of Uganda. Museveni must go. Yoweri Museveni you are on notice. I give you notice, Museveni. You can do whatever you want. We are ready for you, Museveni. We are tired. Stop oppressing Ugandans. It’s important for us the opposition to find bases of unity that are going to help us in our solidarity against the current regime. Why was I in prison because I wrote a poem? Because I expressed my deep disinterests and disgust of the NRM [National Resistance Movement] regime? Is it because I told the current illegal president of Uganda that I really want him to go? Museveni is sending so many opposition activists to prisons – for what?” 

In 2017, when Stella Nyanzi spent 33 days in prison for a Facebook post, we asked “Where is the global outrage at Uganda’s abuse of Stella Nyanzi?” We continue to ask. Stella Nyanzi was able to walk out of prison because a judge ruled that her earlier trial was improper and improperly conducted, because thousands of supporters inside Uganda and some outside rallied, and because Stella Nyanzi refused to submit. While inside, she organized, protested, wrote poems, shared insights, worked towards freedom. As she did upon leaving Luzira, every day Stella Nyanzi posed the questions, and the crisis, of freedom, equality, justice, for all and in particular for women. 

Now that Stella Nyanzi is out of prison, and who knows how long that will last, now, as before, is the time for organizing. People should write to their newspapers and call in to their radio stations and make sure the word gets out and around. Those who teach should teach … teach the story and lessons and name of Stella Nyanzi. Those who read should read … read the words Stella Nyanzi has written, listen to her speeches, and share them. And those who hear and listen and read and share must (learn to) write poetry. 

While in Luzira women’s prison, Stella Nyanzi wrote poems which have been collected in a volume, entitled No Roses from My Mouth: Poems from Prison, available here. Here’s one:

TEACH THE NATION POETRY

Teach the nation poetry. 
Deployments of anti-riot police 
Cannot shoot tear-gas at rhymes 
Nor disperse the rhythm of our poems. 

Teach the nation poetry. 
Forgotten masses will pack our pain in stanzas 
That will pierce the core of the tyranny.
Raw poems hit harder than your platitudes. 

Teach the nation poetry. 
Handcuffs cannot contain the potency of poems. 
Arrest warrants cannot disappear memorised verse 
Poetry can never be detained in gaol. 

Teach the nation poetry. 
Investigating detectives and crime solvers 
Cannot decipher metaphors, similes or symbols 
Their charge sheets will never make sense. 

Teach the nation poetry. 
To write, recite and interpret it.
Poems of the oppressed will oppress the oppressor. 
Poems will transport us to freedom.

Poems of the oppressed will oppress the oppressor; poems will transport us to freedom. Teach the nation poetry … to write, recite and interpret. #FreeStellaNyanzi

(Photo Credit 1: The Guardian / Reuters) (Image Credit: Brittle Paper)

Stella Nyanzi: “I will speak to dictators even if it means speaking in the language of vaginas”

Today the Magistrate Court by Gladys Kamasanyu found Dr Stella Nyanzi guilty of cyber harassment but innocent of offensive communication. It’s been a twisted trial and the judgment was postponed to tomorrow after 2 hours of waiting for her to come to court. What gave me life is defiantly speaking Stella Nyanzi. Here are snippets which might have been edited out of your news.

“I could talk about my children because very many mothers would say, ‘Oh I have children who are minors, please don’t send me to jail’. Your honour, I will not say that. My children celebrate my virtuous action. My children are protesters I have trained them to freely express themselves. My children are taken care of by Ugandans who believe in ideals that espouse. 

“I will sacrifice motherhood to whatever altar I have to sacrifice motherhood to…I was born for this moment. I will speak to dictators even if it means speaking in the language of vaginas.

“I am disappointed that you don’t find me guilty of offending the president. I plan to offend Yoweri Museveni Kaguta because he has offended us. Find me guilty of offending the dictator. I planned to offend Yoweri Museveni Kaguta because he has offended us for 30 plus years. Find me guilty of cyber harassment, find me guilty of anything else, but please find me guilty of offensive communication against Yoweri Museveni Kaguta. Find me guilty of offending Yoweri Museveni Kaguta because that’s what series of mothers in Uganda should be doing. We are tired of the dictatorship.

“I paid for my freedom of expression. I don’t repent for anything. I celebrate that one woman was bold enough to deploy a dead woman’s vagina. Send me to Luzira if my crime is to have told a dirty delinquent dictator that he is a dictator and that Ugandans are tired. And I wish his mother’s vagina had squeezed him out.

“You say I am giving young people poison instead of food, giving them stones instead of bread, but the youth want to use their voices and speak whatever they have to speak. How do we teach young people in Uganda to remain silent, your honour?

“The internet must be protected. The public media has been silenced. How many of us can afford OTT. I use a weapon that I paid for and I will not allow the dictatorship to tell me what words to say to the dictatorship. If it is a dirty vagina that gets the attention of the dictatorship, emana ewunyawunya ejjakukola (the dirty vagina will work). I don’t beg for forgiveness. I don’t beg for lenience. I will survive.”

#FreeStellaNyanzi.

(Photo Credit:  Mail & Guardian / Reuters / James Akena )

Where is the global outrage at Uganda’s abuse of Stella Nyanzi? #FreeStellaNyanzi

On Friday, April 7, Ugandan queer and women’s rights feminist activist and founder of the Pads4girls campaign Stella Nyanzi was arrested for a Facebook post in which she referred to Uganda’s President Yoweri Muzeveni as a “pair of buttocks.” For that, Stella Nyanzi was charged with cyber harassment and infringing on the President’s freedom of speech and expression. Formally charged on April 10, Stella Nyanzi was promptly transported to Luzira Maximum Security Prison, where she awaits her trial, April 25. Stella Nyanzi’s Facebook post was part of an ongoing campaign to get the President and his Minister of Education, Janet Museveni, also the First Lady, to live up to their election campaign promises to create real budget lines for sanitary napkins for school girls. To no one’s surprise, once the election season was over, the promises disappeared into a welter of budgetary fog. The surprise was Stella Nyanzi, who decided that this was unacceptable and took up the gauntlet. Since being dumped in prison, the government has tried to force Stella Nyanzi to undergo psychiatric examinations, which she has resisted. There was no mad woman in the attic in Amherst, and there is no mad woman in that prison cell in Luzira, but there is a woman in Luzira who is righteously furious. As Ugandans have noted, Stella Nyanzi’s treatment is an abuse of everybody’s freedom and should be worrying everyone … and not only in Uganda, but does it? Where is the global outrage at Uganda’s abuse Stella Nyanzi? Somewhere just below the global outrage at the lack of concern for school going girls.

Since Stella Nyanzi’s arrest, and for weeks before, the Ugandan press has been awash with news reports, analyses, commentaries and general commentary. Beyond Uganda, however, the formal press has been fairly quiet. Usual suspects, such as Amnesty, have mobilized, and supporters have organized an on-line #FreeStellaNyanzi campaign. But the news media itself has treated the whole affair as one-off. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, the BBC, the Mail & Guardian have each, respectively, run one original article on the situation, relying on Reuters and AP for anything else. Al Jazeera has run three, mostly made up of other sources but also their own. Just today, The East African finally caught up with Stella Nyanzi.

While there is a personal drama taking place among Stella Nyanzi and Uganda’s First Family, the imprisonment and subsequent attempt at a psychiatric analysis should worry everyone. In Uganda, supporters, and even detractors, understand that the arrest and imprisonment of Stella Nyanzi threatens to criminalize speech, expression and thought. They understand that as a violation of the 1995 Constitution. The attempt to force a psychiatric examination on Stella Nyanzi was `justified’ by the Mental Treatment Act, “inherited from … colonial masters at a time where persons with mental disabilities were looked at by the law as of no value, with no place in the community. They were seen as ‘objects’ whose only place was a mental asylum where they would be subjected to perpetual suffering. Persons with mental disabilities were, at all times, considered dangerous to themselves and the community.” The application of the Mental Treatment Act against Stella Nyanzi is worrisome because it is an abuse of Stella Nyanzi’s rights and person, and, equally, because it is an attempt to return Uganda to colonial days. By applying the Mental Treatment Act to control and suppress Stella Nyanzi, the State hopes to make Uganda great again. From Uganda to the United States, the line is short and direct.

The general global news media quiet concerning Stella Nyanzi is itself disquieting. The politics of enforced silence takes many forms in many places. We should hear more from the news media concerning Stella Nyanzi, as well as the conditions of girls going to school, of women in prison, of free speech and expression, and of the right for women to be mad. What happens to Stella Nyanzi happens to all of us. For some, “Stella Nyanzi is a hero to hundreds and thousands of little girls and women who know where she is coming from, in terms of defending women’s rights to sanitary towels.” While Stella Nyanzi is both hero and champion, her circumstances are altogether ordinary, and not just in Uganda. Don’t wait until April 25 to see what happens, because it’s already happening. #FreeStellaNyanzi

(Photo Credit: Mail & Guardian / Reuters / James Akena)