Stella Nyanzi stands up for oppressed women

Makerere University research fellow Dr Stella Nyanzi. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

Stella had been harassed and suspended from Makerere University for disagreeing with the director of Makerere Institute for Social and Economic Research, and protesting naked.

The name Stella Nyanzi excites very many people on social media. She splits opinion on her unending troubles with Makerere University and the government of Uganda.

Those in her corner see her as a mkombozi against the tyranny of an academy that no longer promotes freedom of thought, speech and debate; as well as the vanguard in the struggle against a government that is increasingly becoming intolerant. Those in the other corner argue that she is a belligerent feminist who does not respect others and authority.

But one imagines that both corners would agree that Stella Nyanzi is a voice of conscience in Uganda and a symbol of resistance to the oppression of women and intellectuals.


Stella Nyanzi was, until last week, incarcerated at Luzira Women Prison, Kampala. Stella Nyanzi had been charged and jailed on November 2, 2018 for ‘cyber harassing and offending President Museveni and his dead mother’ in a poem that unkindly referred to the president’s mother.

Stella had been harassed and suspended from Makerere University for disagreeing with the director of Makerere Institute for Social and Economic Research, and protesting naked.

When the courts ordered that she be reinstated by the university, the management did not do so. But Stella Nyanzi’s protests took on a broader subject: that of oppression and violence against women.

Stella Nyanzi argued that women expected the state to protect them yet it seemed that government agents were the perpetrators of the violence against women.

Her protests took a turn when she challenged President Yoweri Museveni on his promise during election campaigns to provide sanitary pads to girls, a promise which was not delivered.

Even when in prison, Stella continued to speak out against tyranny. And she chose poetry — or should we say poetry — as her medium.


No Roses from My Mouth (Ubuntu Reading Group, 2020) is Stella Nyanzi’s address to all and sundry. She speaks to authority. She addresses the ordinary woman and man.

She talks to the educated and knowing class. She excoriates against the injustices of the state against poor women trying to make a living, who end up in prison charged with trading without a licence.

She riles against the elite for keeping silent when the majority are disenfranchised, violated and repressed. Stella deliberately uses impolite language. In some poems — and her previous comments — she tends towards the vulgar.

Why? Because if one considers the language of power well, it is probably more violent than Stella Nyanzi’s. Power can be vulgar. Power decrees that poor people can be arrested for being poor.

It violates the ordinary by speaking of vagrancy, loitering, indecent dressing, bad language etc. How does one contest such seemingly harmless words — which can easily be transformed into terrifying actions such as arrests, beating, killing etc — innocently?

Reading the poems in No Roses from My Mouth, one meets a woman who has suffered too much for speaking her mind. Because of questioning authority, she lost her job at the university, lost a pregnancy, lost her freedom and was incarcerated.


This is why she sees her suffering as political. She declares, “I am a political prisoner/I am a prisoner of conscience”, and follows it up with a defiant declaration: “No amount of trumped up charges deter me/If my poetry offend the dictator, fine!/If my written truth chokes the tyrant, fine.”

Because she is no longer terrorised just as Stella Nyanzi, she speaks on behalf of many other women who fall afoul of the government. She reminds the reader of how easy it is to be arrested for being poor in the poem ‘Poverty is a Crime in Kampala City’, when she writes, “The prisons are full unnecessarily/Hardworking citizens arrested and charged for poverty/Women selling baskets of mangoes and bananas by the roadside/Girls hawking roasted groundnuts, steamed maize and sweetened simsim balls/More girl-hawkers of mukonzikonzi brooms, mingling spoons and papyrus mats … Earnest citizens making an honest living from informal trade/The entire stock of their capital confiscated as exhibits of crime/Earnest citizens striving hard to make ends meet/Arrested violently by Kampala City Council Authority agents/Detained for weeks in dirty at cells scattered at police posts/Charged for being idle and disorderly at the Kampala City Hall Court ….”

These quoted lines summarise the tragedy of modern Uganda — you can replace Uganda with many other African countries — where poor citizens struggle.

Stella is provoking readers of her poetry to ask questions, to probe the actions, thoughts, declarations, behaviour etc of those in power.

The genesis of her battles with the state is her questioning of the promises of rulers, who, when challenged about their failed offers, turn violent.


The violence then becomes the language of the relationship between the rulers and the ruled, with the rulers having the resources to sustain the violence through the police, the court system, laws, the prisons.

Stella remains defiant in the face of the violations that she suffers. The lice and bedbugs in the prison, the indignity of the crowded cells, lack of basic amenities in the prisons, the denial of her rights such as when the state attempted to declare her mad, the general depiction of her as a mere protester etc, all do not cow Stella.

Instead, they seem to give her the inspiration to struggle on. This is why No Roses from my Mouth is also a cry for her country’s fate. It may be a personal search for freedom, but Stella Nyanzi is aware that her personal freedom isn’t useful in a society where the majority walk about ‘free’ but are in fact ‘incarcerated’ in various ways.

So, Stella Nyanzi’s prison poems urges its readers to write, to protest, to speak up to their rulers about their freedoms, human dignity, justice. She makes this position so clear in the poem, ‘My Take on my Writing’, “My writing may be cheap/But it is rather effective/My poetry may be tasteless/But it is shaking the nation/ … My language may be dirty/But it exposed the dictatorship/My pen never stops writing/I will write myself to freedom.” Indeed, in a world where the artist can no longer dream of ruling politically, Stella Nyanzi’s poems and speeches and social media postings demonstrate that the pen can still contest for power with the gun.

The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]