Editor’s note: This post contains some strong language.
Stella Nyanzi walks into court with a broad smile. She is familiar with this place, so she is the first in the door and casually takes a seat on a wooden bench right in front of the judge.
It was almost a year ago that Nyanzi was released from prison. She served a month in May 2017 for insulting Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, calling him “a pair of buttocks” and talking about the size of the first lady’s vagina. She stumbled out of a pickup truck too weak to walk. She was held up by two female police officers, a bandage on her left wrist, grimacing in pain.
Nyanzi, 43, is a university researcher, a feminist and a writer of erotic nonfiction who has emerged as one of Museveni’s most serious — and profane — adversaries. But at the time, she looked wounded and dejected, as if that stint in prison had drained all the indignation and resistance she came to represent in Uganda.
At court this March, she looks at ease again. The government, which has charged her with insulting the president, argues that she is crazy and should submit to a medical evaluation. What is unspoken is that the government wants her committed. It wants her gone because she has emerged as a serious threat to a three-decade-old regime.
Nyanzi just sits there, smiling. She takes notes, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this place is crawling with intelligence agents. Almost every single guest or journalist is sitting right next to one, taking notes on their notes.
The judge hears a few arguments and says that before he rules, he is going to wait for a constitutional court to decide whether submitting Nyanzi to a mental evaluation violates her constitutional rights. He dismisses the court, and a horde of media surround Nyanzi.
She flips from English to Luganda. It’s the lyrical language of her tribe, and when Nyanzi uses it, she tends to stretch vulgarities like taffy. The journalists erupt in laughter, asking her to repeat herself. She says she is a woman at her wit’s end. Both her parents are dead; she lost her job; she’s dead broke.
“What else will they do? Kill me?” she says. “If they kill me, it defeats their purpose. I am liberated. I rest in some earth, and I go home victorious.”
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On the streets of Kampala, you very quickly understand that talking politics requires lots of diplomacy.
A group of motorcycle taxi drivers on street corner refuse to talk about Nyanzi. They laugh and say they cannot allow their names to be used for fear of retribution. One of them leans back on his motorcycle with a broad grin on his face.
“You know, she said something about the big man being a pair of buttocks,” he says, not once mentioning Museveni by name. “What I will say is that an ass does exist in this country.”
Here in Uganda, people like Nyanzi are rare. Museveni came into power in 1986 after leading a coup that overthrew the government of Milton Obote. Since then, he has made sure that any serious dissent is shut down. Street protests are often met with deadly force, members of the opposition face arrest and detention, and in 2013, Parliament passed a law that essentially bans gatherings of more than three people.
Ugandans, therefore, are careful with what they say.
Haja Njolchra says that in Uganda, you never know who is a spy and can turn you in for speaking ill of the president. That is why she supports Nyanzi “100 percent,” because Nyanzi says what she is too afraid to.
Yes, as a Muslim woman, she would prefer that Nyanzi used less colorful language. But she also understands why she does it.
“She speaks strongly because of the problems people are facing,” she says. “Because she’s in the same Uganda we are in right now.”
After a long period of civil war, Uganda is relatively peaceful, a fact the government likes to point out often. But Uganda is still one of the most corrupt countries in the world. It’s poor, yet millions of dollars are lost to graft. In the past few years, millions have been stolen from health and education programs and few — especially not the political elite — have ever been held accountable.
Down the street, Bryan Mtumbe is shopping at a mobile phone store. He says Nyanzi has changed Uganda. Every Ugandan knows, for example, that you can criticize the president, but the first lady — who crowned herself the mother of the nation and whom everyone is forced to call Mama Janet Museveni — is out of bounds.
Nyanzi, though, went right after her.
“I think when she dared her, people came to believe that, ‘OK, even the mighty can be taken on,’ ” he says.
What Nyanzi has done for Ugandans, he says, is give them hope that the powerless can take on the powerful.
Just a few years ago, Nyanzi was a little-known anthropologist studying sexual behavior in society at Makerere University in Kampala. She was controversial only because she wrote openly, and with explicit detail, about her sex life and her fantasies.
But in 2014, her life changed. Her dad was doctor, but he died because the hospitals near his house didn’t have the right medicine. And then in 2015, her mother died because an ambulance didn’t have fuel to take her to the hospital.
If this could happen to her, a privileged Ugandan, she thought, what happens to the poor?
“So suddenly, the issues of those poor women, those poor Ugandans became my issues, and sometimes, it takes that sort of awakening,” she says.
Nyanzi took to Facebook, where she wrote critically of the government, accusing Museveni of “murdering” her parents. At the same time, her relationship with her university deteriorated. Her department head wanted her to teach instead of conduct research, but she refused because she was a research fellow. The university suspended her and asked Nyanzi to vacate the premises, but she chained herself to her office.
On live television, she smeared red paint across walls at the university. She cried, she screamed, and as a final act of protest in a very conservative country, she stripped naked.
For Nyanzi, who has a doctorate and loved her academic job, losing it felt as if she had lost everything.
And then last year, the first lady backed off from a campaign promise to provide free sanitary pads to schoolgirls, and Nyanzi was enraged once more.
This time, her target was Janet Museveni, who had campaigned on the program and had become the minister of education and sports.
In a Facebook post, Nyanzi wrote that she refused to call the first lady “Mama Janet.”
“What sort of mother allows her daughters to keep away from school because they are too poor to afford padding materials that would adequately protect them from the shame and ridicule that comes by staining their uniforms with menstrual blood?” she wrote. “What malice plays in the heart of a woman who sleeps with a man who finds money for millions of bullets, billions of bribes, and uncountable ballots to stuff into boxes but she cannot ask him to prioritize sanitary pads for poor schoolgirls? She is no Mama! She is just Janet!”
At the same, time Nyanzi started collecting pads and money on GoFundMe. But it all ended the day she planned her most daring feat. For five years, the first lady had served as a member of Parliament representing a county in southwestern Uganda. Nyanzi was arrested the day she was going to deliver free pads to the first lady’s former constituents.
“Look what did I do? I wasn’t shaming the girls. I wasn’t putting women’s menstruation out there just for the sake of getting sanitary pads. I was saying, ‘Screw you, Museveni,’ ” she says.
She pauses for a long time and then a smile emerges from her face.
“I think it was fun. It was so fun,” she concludes with a cackle.
Suddenly in that spring of 2017, Nyanzi had become a household name to an entire nation, and she had found her political voice.
Behind the barbs
As political analyst Bernard Sabiti sees it, Nyanzi is coming to the fore of Ugandan politics at a strange time. One of the leading opposition members of parliament is a reggae singer, who calls himself the “ghetto president.” Young men are bringing bloodied pigs to Parliament as a symbol of the country’s shameless corruption.
Sabiti thinks this is because the government has dramatically curtailed the freedom to dissent.
“So you find that in that context, then people reach a point where they use desperate means to express their feelings,” he says.
He says Nyanzi fits right into that category. Because there are no legitimate ways to be heard in Uganda, Sabiti says, Nyanzi has resorted to vicious barbs.
“You know to be that no-holds-barred, in a way, alienates certain allies who would have supported your cause,” he says.
In some ways, Sabiti believes that by being so caustic, Nyanzi has fallen into the government’s trap. Their main argument against Nyanzi is that she’s crazy, and her behavior does little to dispel that narrative.
That was evident in an interview that Janet Museveni gave to Ugandan broadcaster NTV last year. She didn’t address the substance of Nyanzi’s critiques, instead she spoke patronizingly of her.
“I just wanted to tell people that I honestly forgive that lady,” Museveni said, “because I can’t understand how an educationalist could use that language to say anything about anybody.”
That one-month stint in jail did shake Nyanzi. She says she is not afraid, but when asked where to hold an interview, she said it had to be somewhere safe, where she wasn’t in danger of being poisoned.
When we finally sit, she looks around, behind her shoulders; she jumps from subject to subject.
Most of the time, she is full of bravado. She says that sometimes, she feels like a bystander watching Stella Nyanzi unfurl an outrageous situation. When she disrobed, she found herself holding on to the burglar bars at the university and declaring herself a nalongo owenene — the mother of twins with the big vagina.
It’s a vulgarity that few in Uganda would dare say in public. But Nyanzi used it once on a live TV appearance and the host went pale, shocked by her audacity.
At another point, conjuring tribal mythology, she also said that Janet Museveni had no power over her, because, as the mother of twins, she had endured a pain Museveni would never know. Her vagina was bigger and more powerful than Museveni’s, Nyanzi said. She also denigrated the first lady using sexual, misogynist imagery that made Nyanzi unpopular with her feminist colleagues.
After jail, she says she thought about reforming, especially because a raid on her home scared her three children. While she was in jail, they stayed with family, and on at least one occasion, Nyanzi says, her sister stopped talking to her because of all her antics.
Nyanzi is also cognizant of what happens to opposition figures in this part of the world. In the 1990s in Kenya, the Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, who also undressed once in protest, was beaten for trying to plant trees. The government belittled her, the authoritarian president, Daniel Arap Moi, called her a “mad woman.”
More recently, in Rwanda, Diane Rwigara, a young, rich woman, dared to challenge President Paul Kagame. She tried to run for president and call out corruption and repression in Rwanda, but a few months later, she was jailed along with her sister and mother.
This reporter told Nyanzi that when he spoke to Rwigara a few months before her arrest, he got the feeling that she felt invincible.
“Invincibility is the wrong word for me,” Nyanzi says. “Mine is just a refusal to keep quiet.”
Every time she thinks about quitting, she says she notices that nothing has changed in Uganda. So she thinks about her mom and dad and all the other Ugandans suffering through a corrupt regime and her blood boils.
“For me, I don’t have guns,” she says. “I don’t have money. I don’t have clout. I have Facebook and I have language, and I think we can be polite and continue to suffer or we can step out and be rude and get some…”
She stops — to think, to measure her words and perhaps to rein in some expectations — and continues, “Maybe they won’t give us the sanitary pads or the public health services, but they will know that we know.”