Dr Stella Nyanzi talks about exile, prison life and poetry

Dr Stella Nyanzi

What you need to know:

  • President Museveni’s critic, Dr Stella Nyanzi, fled to Kenya soon after the January general election. Nyanzi, who stood under the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) ticket for the Kampala Women MP race, came third. She talked to Bamuturaki Musinguzi before she fled to Kenya where she is seeking political asylum.

Dr Stella Nyanzi fled Uganda in February with her three teenage children -- a daughter and two twin sons -- after her partner, David Musiri, was allegedly abducted and tortured by security personnel a week after the 2021 general election in January.  

Nyanzi has released a three-minute poem titled Exile on YouTube. The poem is about the ongoing situation in Uganda and how being away feels better than being at home.  

“Exile away from home/ Fleeing political prosecution/ Fleeing with my children on my back/ My two sons on one shoulder each, and my daughter on my back/ Fleeing from the murderers/ Fleeing from the abductors/ Fleeing from those who kidnap women and men simply because we are in the Opposition…,” the poem reads in part.    
She recites in the poem that exile is a place to breathe without fear of death and arrest, and a place to dream.

“…Exile, is a place to think about the dictators that have forced me to flee away, just as my mother and father were forced to flee when I was a child…/ They call me an exile/ They call me an asylum seeker/ They call me someone waiting for refugee status determination/ They call me someone who ran away from home…”  
“…I am dreaming of a day when I will return home/ Not as an exile, but a Uganda living in Uganda/…I refuse your name as an exile/ My name is Stella Nyanzi,” the poem ends.  

She is a practitioner of “radical rudeness,” a traditional Ugandan strategy for unsettling the powerful through the tactical use of public insult, which has cultivated her huge following on social media.
In 2016, she staged a naked protest against the director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) who had effectively dismissed her from her job as a Research Fellow.

Poetry collection
Dr Nyanzi has been arrested numerous times and imprisoned for criticising President Museveni and members of his family.
While incarcerated in Luzira Maximum Security Prison in Kampala, she penned her poetry collection released under the title No Roses from My Mouth.

These poems were written in 2019, and 45 of them were shared on her Facebook and Twitter accounts to celebrate her 45th birthday. The rest are being published for the first time in this collection.

Some of her poems that were confiscated by prison warders did not make it to this collection. She wrote the poems on exercise books she received as gifts in prison. The poems were smuggled out from prison. She dedicates these poems to all women locked up in prisons in Uganda and the world over. Published in 2020 by Ubuntu Reading Group in Kampala, the 191-page poetry collection contains 157 poems divided into three volumes.

The poems tackle the subjects of love, loneliness and poor hygiene, sanitary and congestion in prisons in Uganda, the challenges of the epileptic and disabled persons in prison, corruption, nepotism, delayed justice and poor dispensation of justice, feminism, suffocation of press freedom, dictatorship and poor governance, the rigging of elections, and the poor who are imprisoned for failure to pay court fines, among others.

In the poetry collection she gives insights into prison life and her own personal tragedies, trauma, and how she became a skilful weaver of mats and baskets inside the dark walls of Luzira prison; how prisoners with deep pockets have better meals; how women give birth in prison without the accompanying necessities, medication and midwifery expertise; how mandazi and menstrual pads are used as currencies in the women’s wards, and how prison wardresses steal the male lovers and husbands who visit women prisoners, among others.

In the poem No Roses from My Mouth, Nyanzi cautions her readers not to expect honey, perfume and orgasm from her mouth, but words that knockout our oppressors, blow up the tyrants and destroy our hearts.

“There will be no roses/Falling out of my mouth/Who brings fleeting beauty to war?/Instead there are razor blades and axes/Chainsaws, knives and machetes/Daggers, swords and bayonets/My words cut up our enemies…,” the poem reads in part.

Two of Dr Nyanzi’s poems in the collection Ode to Truth and After Supper won her the converted Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award 2020.  

Run-ins with NRM regime

Do you regret writing the poem on Facebook in September 2018 that criticised President Museveni and his mother Esiteri Kokundeka?
What poem? I have written thousands of poems over the years. I have no regrets at all about writing any one of these poems.

Do you regret writing that poem and the campaign for the provision of sanitary pads that landed in prison?
No. I celebrate my audacity and ability to challenge Museveni who, in fact, failed to fulfil a promise he publicly gave to poor Ugandans. I exposed him using his very own words and failings. Ending up in prison both times was confirmation that Uganda is a repressive society in which critical free speech and dissent are penalised.
What was your prison life like?  
It was like s**t - difficult, disgusting and unpleasant, but also an absolute necessity. It had its good and bad. I made new friends for life. I rested from my activism in society. Other comrades took on my activism while I was in prison. I got time to reflect on my life and on my contribution to the liberation of my world from all forms of authoritarianism.

The difficult parts of prison were extreme - specifically routine torture of prisoners by prison staff who abused their power and abused their office, the lack of medicines and equipment in the prison sickbay, lack of hygiene and sanitation products, congestion, forced hard labour and unjust punishment of prisoners meted out by malicious prison staff.

Did you miss your young children?
I missed my children very much. However, they visited me when they were in their school holidays. Also, I was always comforted by the fact that my unjust separation from my children was a confirmation of the repressive dictatorship.
How best would you describe the state of the prison service in Uganda?
Colonial, archaic, overwhelmed, understaffed, unhygienic, unjust, congested, punitive even for mere suspects, a violator of human rights of inmates, site of torture, highly politicised, corrupt, phallocentric, et cetera.
Why do you hate President Museveni?
Hate? Hate Museveni? Huh! Don’t flatter the dictator. I have neither time nor energy for that. For starters, I do not know this person called Yoweri Museveni.
However, I experience the oppression, repression, suppression, subjugation, lawlessness and total violation of my constitutional rights that his dictatorship inflicts on Ugandans in the Opposition. This indignity and debasement is what I hate and resist with a vehemence. I hate the dictator, not the person.

When will stop your criticism of the regime?
I don’t plan to stop either my criticism or my activism against this military dictatorship. I will stop either when the oppression and corruption stop, or when I die. But even in my death, I hope that my legacy will continue to taunt and torment those who oppress Ugandans.