Stella Nyanzi, the poet who fights with stinging words

Stella Nyanzi

Ugandan poet, academic ad political activist Stella Nyanzi during an interview in Nairobi on September 23, 2022.

Photo credit: Jeff Angote | Nation Media Group

 There are many ways to describe Stella Nyanzi. If you are talking about activism, she is an activist. If it’s about rebellion, she is that. She is also a politician, poet, teacher and mother. 

And everything she does is anchored on motherhood. 

“It’s a responsibility. To fight for a better future for my children,” she says.

On the streets of Uganda and social media platforms, Nyanzi is one of Uganda President Yoweri Museveni’s harshest critics. Her words are blunt, accusatory and profane. For a woman that stands short, her words speak taller.

But the protest against Museveni and the government is a dangerous pursuit. She has been jailed many times, tortured and declared “mad”. 

Many parts of her body, she says, bear the brunt of her activism, but it’s her womb that has suffered the most. 

“In 2019, I was tortured in prison and lost my unborn baby,” she says.

Nyanzi currently lives in Germany with her three teenage children where she spends most of her time writing and in research. 

The author of No Roses from my Mouth, Don’t Come in my Mouth and Eulogies from my Mouth is a recipient of the Writer-in-Exile grant of the German PEN Centre, which advocates on behalf of persecuted authors. 

As a recipient, she cannot go back to Uganda until the end of the three-year programme. And even if she could, she cannot openly read her poetry books, which embrace radical activism or sell them there.

Stella Nyanzi

Stella Nyanzi (centre) is arrested by police officers as she organised a protest for more food distribution by the government to people who has been financially struggling by the nationwide lockdown imposed to curb the spread of the COVID-19 in Kampala, on May 18, 2020. 

Photo credit: Sumy Sadurni | AFP

“Kenyans are more welcoming, democratic and even though some quarters don’t agree with my approach, they still welcome me into their spaces and listen,” she says.

When she left Germany for Kenya a few weeks ago, she had three items on her agenda—meet her sister and friends from Uganda, test the political climate in Kenya and mourn.

In January this year, the 48-year-old contested a woman representative seat with the opposition in Kampala and lost.  

“After I failed to clinch the seat, there were all these emotions that needed to be let out. I also wanted to listen to Baba’s (Mr Raila Odinga’s) supporters and comfort them,” she says.

Like her past experiences in Kenya, she hoped that this would be a great trip until she fell into the hands of a con man.

“I was brought up in Lang’ata, Kenya during my formative years. Then, my parents fled President Idi Amin Dada’s regime. I used to hear stories of trickery but I never witnessed one. During my many stays in Kenya, including when I sought asylum, stories of fraud would be narrated to me in all forms—jokes, questions and statements. I would sigh and respond that I had not experienced them. Until I did,” she said.

For her book tour, she travelled to Kisumu and Machakos, and read her books in the heart of Kibera and at an arts centre in Kariobangi, among other places. Readings in Mombasa were the only ones remaining.

“One of my great fans had offered us a car and a driver and that is what we partly used to cross counties. Unfortunately, the vehicle was involved in an accident while travelling to Kisumu and we had to go by public means and then started looking for a vehicle for the Mombasa trip. This was on the advice of a friend who disparaged SGR seats as ‘mabati’,” she says. 

Nyanzi, who has a PhD in medical anthropology, was in the company of her sister, photographer and a friend.

“Our driver knew someone who could lease a car to us for the three days we had planned to stay in Mombasa. That’s how we got connected to a man named David,” she says.

Stella Nyanzi

Stella Nyanzi makes beats as she organised a protest for more food distribution by the government to people who has been financially struggling by the nationwide lockdown imposed to curb the spread of the Covid-19 in Kampala, on May 18, 2020. 

Photo credit: Sumy Sadurni | AFP

On her Facebook post, she lamented to her more than 300,000 followers about the con that left her in shock.

“On Wednesday last week, we left for Mombasa by dawn with Paul on the wheels. The cost of hiring the car was Sh19,600, money that I had given to Paul so he could pay to David. There was no agreement on paper. When we got to Makindu, about 171km from Nairobi, the vehicle, a Voxy model, stalled. The mechanics we asked for help concluded that it had been stopped remotely and added that it was common on that route,” she stated.

Frantic, frustrated and irate, Paul called David who acted as shocked as they were.

 “He didn’t take long to get there and he promised to bring us another vehicle from Nairobi.” At David’s request, they removed their valuables and waited. And waited.

“He did not show up, his phone was switched off and that is when I realised that I had been robbed of my money,” she says.

Stella Nyanzi

Stella Nyanzi.

Photo credit: Courtesy

When the Nation tried reaching David, he was offline for about two days. When he finally answered, he said: “I don’t want to talk about the story. It has ruined my reputation,” and hung up.

A search revealed that the car registration number KDC 618J is co-owned by NCBA and Lawrence Ouma Juma. Efforts to reach Mr Ouma for comment were futile.

“It was such a bad experience for me. And it was largely not about the money but the inconvenience it caused me and the people that were eagerly waiting to hear me read or get signed copies of my books. Still, I will be back soon. Kenya is my home,” she says.