Stella Nyanzi: My political activism comes from a place of grief and pain

Tuesday September 29 2020
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Stella Nyanzi was sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment on controversial charges of cyber-harassing President Yoweri Museveni. She was released in February 2020. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI | NMG

By The East African

The Ugandan academic cum political activist is now one of President Yoweri Museveni’s fiercest critics. Amina Wako caught up with her in Nairobi where she came to mark “Democracy Week”.

Who is Stella Nyanzi?

I am a woman and a mother of three children. I am aching for the world I live in to become a better place for my children. A lot of what I do is really related to my position in the world as a woman for whom a lot of things don't come easy. Public health services don't work, the education doesn't work for my children, we struggle a lot and that's why I do what I do.

Do you credit your activism to your area of study?

I have a PhD in Human Sexuality, Sexual Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights. I did a lot of activism due to my work as an academic. I am an anthropologist and that means I sit in communities and work with them. I observe them, live with them and then write about them. The anthropological work I was doing demanded that I stop being just academic producing knowledge. I realised I could do a lot in the world of activism with my field of study.

What drives you?

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My father, who was a medical doctor, died after serving our country for more than 45 years. He suffered a heart attack one day after retirement and needed a vial of medicine. Unlike most Ugandans he did not need a prescription, he knew what he needed to stay alive. However, there was no medicine in the nearby hospitals, and unfortunately, he died just as they entered the hospital gate.

A year later, as we marked the first anniversary of my father's death, my mother died after collapsing. I called a nearby hospital but they said they didn't have an ambulance. When I finally found a hospital with an ambulance, there was no driver and no fuel. She died on a hospital bed eight minutes away from her home.

My journey to being an opposition activist comes from a place of pain and grief. I am looking for my mother; I am looking for my father. I keep thinking that if I had started articulating these issues earlier, holding the government accountable, maybe my parents would still be alive.

The end game is liberating Uganda.

How far are you willing to push your activism?

The ultimate prize in the fight for freedom for my country is death. Many have been murdered. Many have disappeared and we don't know where they are. So the ultimate prize is death.

What has been the personal cost of what you do?

I lost my baby when I was in prison. I suffered a miscarriage and so many people have told me that I am a bad mother. Motherhood is important for me because everything I do is about creating a better legacy for my children.

I lost my baby at 45 years of age, I was also on the no-fly list and could not leave the country. I lost my job and have six pending court cases. The biggest cost is that my children have been traumatised by police raids that don't end. I receive threatening e-mails, threats of rape, and involuntary mental exams.

Why is nudity part of your activism?

I use nudity because it's a weapon of the weak and the poor. The cost to pay is called shame, but I think I'm not ashamed of my body. It's a beautiful big mama body, and I am glad to deploy it for war. When I put my nipples on the frontline, I learnt they fight harder than any bazookas. Men don't know how to deal with that. Men with guns can’t shoot at nipples.

Who inspires you?

I love opposition leaders who insist on being in the opposition and not being compromised. They made me understand that politics does not need to be dirty. I am inspired by Millie Odhiambo because she has used her body just like I have used mine. I also get a lot of motivation from my children because if I didn't have children, I would not need to change the world.

Who do you think should fear you and why?

I hope President Yoweri Museveni is afraid of me. I hope he gets nightmares and is unable to sleep when he thinks of Stella Nyanzi. I hope that those who practice lawlessness and rape our constitution every day are afraid of me.

But what they should fear is the idea of Stella Nyanzi and how she is inspiring many more ordinary Ugandans to know they can make a difference. The idea is not to instill fear but to encourage change.

Would you go back to Makerere University? And if you did, in what position?

I left the University of London to come to Makerere University because I wanted to make an impact, to influence knowledge generation in my country and I have the qualifications. Right now, I don’t think I will have my freedom as an academic in Uganda when President Museveni is still in power, so let's get him out and then we can get back to being academic scholars.

Maybe I will be the Vice-Chancellor, maybe the Dean in my college. I could even replace Mahmood Mamdani as the Director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research.

What elective office are you running for, and for what political party?

I'm running for Kampala Woman Member of Parliament. I'm using my privilege to help me get into parliament to extend the liberation struggle and to be in the face of the dictator. I am vying on a Forum for Democratic Change party ticket. The party’s ideology, practices and tactics of non-violent protests are in sync with mine. My heart beats around civil disobedience.

Have you thought about seeking asylum?

Asylum is an attractive option especially when I was given a travel ban. However, because my family were refugees when we were children, I prefer not to go back to exile. I want to stay in Uganda and make it better because I feel we are almost at the tail end of the liberation struggle. What would be the point of leaving?

Right now, I am too invested in Uganda's liberation to leave.

What does your family say about your activism? Are they supportive?

My family has been supportive of my activism. The night before I stripped naked, they chose the panties I should wear. I made sure they saw my body because I did not want them to see it for the first time on TV. My children have protected, defended and explained why I do what I do.

Why are you in Kenya?

Kenya is a place of safety for me. When my father's house was bombed by the Idi Amin army in my country, he ran here for exile. I grew up in Nairobi for a while. I am here to celebrate with Kenyans “Democracy Week”. We don't have a Democracy Week in Uganda.

Any final message for your future constituents?

I won't have money to pay for their votes. I won't rent their support. I have been crying for freedom, justice and liberty in Uganda. I have been a victim of bad legislation and I want to change it. I want to make legislation that's for the people. I hope I get to parliament, but if I don't, it is victory enough to contest in the same year I was released from prison.

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