Rukirabashaija Kakwenza. PHOTO/COURTESY


Kakwenza, Dangarembga to share the 2021 PEN prize

What you need to know:

  • The annual PEN Pinter Prize was established in 2009 in memory of Nobel-Laureate playwright Harold Pinter.

Ugandan journalist and novelist, Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, who has been arrested by the Ugandan security personnel for his book, The Greedy Barbarian, has won the 2021 International Writer of Courage award.

Rukirabashaija was selected by the award-winning Zimbabwean novelist, playwright, filmmaker and activist Tsitsi Dangarembga as part of the prestigious PEN Pinter Prize, which goes to an author deemed to have fulfilled Harold Pinter’s aspiration to “define the real truth of our lives and our societies.”

This year’s PEN Pinter Prize winner, Dangarembga, chose Rukirabashaija as the International Writer of Courage, an award for an author who is active in defence of freedom of expression, often at great risk to their own safety and liberty, with whom she will share her prize.

The Greedy Barbarian, which takes on themes of high-level corruption in a fictional place called Buregyeya, was self-published in 2020.

The story revolves around Bekunda and her toddler son, Kayibanda, who cross an international border, in dire straits, and desperately need sanctuary, human kindness and divine favour. The new country gives them sanctuary, the natives show them kindness and the local spirits do the miraculous on their behalf. But can Kayibanda be as gracious to his new country as it has been to him? Can he overcome his profoundly flawed nature, which appears to be hereditary?

Rukirabashaija was arrested

According to PEN International, Rukirabashaija was arrested on April 13, 2020, and he was held under charges supposedly related to Covid-19, but interrogated about the contents of his novel. He was charged in court but, after failure of the state to appear before court to argue the case, a Chief Magistrate’s Court dismissed the case.

Rukirabashaija was arrested again on September 18, 2020 at his home in Iganga District in eastern Uganda. On September 21, 2020, he was released on a police bond, charged with the offence of ‘inciting violence and promoting sectarianism.’

He was arrested again on Tuesday and remains in custody to date.

PEN International condemns the detention of Rukirabashaija and calls for all charges against him to be dropped.

Asked how it feels to win this award, Rukirabashaija, a law student replied: “I feel oiled. Freedom of expression should never be hampered by the dictatorship since the same is recognised in domestic and foreign laws and this government cannot claim rule of law without submitting to the international law that we’re a signatory to. The pen will always win against guns and all the oppression. Rogue regimes go but pen is mightier.”

“The government, instead of honouring my literature intellectually, decided to use barbarism and draconic methods of torture as though we’re still in the Stone Age era. I expressed my opinions and frustrations using satirical revolutionary literature but all they had to do was to unleash barbarism. They are anti-knowledge since they hamper creativity,” he added.

On how he feels being selected by Dangarembga, Rukirabashaija, said, “I feel very thrilled that at least I have international recognition of my literature. So, dictator 0 and Kakwenza 5.”

Tortured in prison

When asked if he has forgiven those that tortured him in prison, Rukirabashaija replied: “I will never forgive these chamchas and their remote controller Museveni at whose expense I was almost murdered. Thank PEN international, Amnesty International and all the civil society organisations that advocated for my freedom. You see, Jesus forgave his enemies and they hanged him. If he had decided to fight them, since he was a son of God, he would have won the war against his enemies. I will never forgive these brutes and they will regret why they used draconian and archaic methods of torture against me. They do not know a monster they created; now my gloves are off.”

As to what inspired him to write The Greedy Barbarian, Rukirabashaija, said: “You see, I was mentored by the best, Kizza Besigye. He has always emphasised fighting against the status quo using whatever means possible one can manage. For me, I believe that I can open people’s eyes.”

The annual PEN Pinter Prize was established in 2009 in memory of Nobel-Laureate playwright Harold Pinter.

“I am grateful that my casting – in the words of Harold Pinter – an 'unflinching, unswerving gaze' upon my country and its society has resonated with many people across the globe and this year with the jury of the PEN Pinter Prize 2021. I believe that the positive reception of literary works like mine helps to prove that we can unite around that which is positively human,” Dangarembga said.

Dangarembga’s novel, This Mournable Body was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. She is also the author of Nervous Conditions, which she wrote at the age of 25 and for which she was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Nervous Conditions was praised by Doris Lessing as one of the most important novels of the 20th century.

Dangarembga founded the production house Nyerai Films and the International Images Film Festival for Women, as well as the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa where she works as director. She is also a poet and a dedicated activist, as well as a founding member of PEN Zimbabwe.

Rukirabashaija recently published his second book titled Banana Republic: Where Writing is Treasonous. In this book, he recounts his experience, including torture by state security agents, while detained for seven days in April 2020.

Malevolent dictators

As to where he gets the courage to take on this government with his pen, Rukirabashaija, said: “I have been criticizing Museveni for the past 21 years since 2000 when I was 12 years. I think the courage is inborn and no gun or material offer will ever whittle down my appetite for using literature to fight against the malevolent dictators.”

Adding, “After publishing my harrowing ordeal, people thought that I was crazy for writing a book about my torture when my tormentors were still in government - with power. I could not take the injustice with equanimity. That is equal to sweeping barbarism under the carpet in the name of being a coward.”

“His (Rukirabashaija’s) writing shows a lot of courage: He tells it all as bluntly as possible, shocking the reader into the realization that we have always entrusted our lambs to a leopard, a lion, a crocodile. It shows you a regime that ceased being democratic and humane a long time ago, a regime that is only democratic and humane in the public eye, but is terribly brutal and demonic in the torture dungeons stupidly called safe houses,” the Senior Lecturer, Literature Department, Makerere University, Danson Sylvester Kahyana (PhD) observes.

“For those who ever believed that President Museveni cared about good governance, Kakwenza’s book The Banana Republic shows that they have always been deceived by a fraudulent man presiding over a fraudulent regime. And for those who lost loved ones in the 1980-1986 Museveni guerrilla war, the book shows that their lives were lost in vain, for what they thought they died for (a democratically and humanely government country) is far from here yet,” Kahyana, who is also the President of PEN Uganda, adds.