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Stella Nyanzi: Uganda's radical activist

March 8, 2022

Nyanzi's fight for free speech, women's rights and LGBTQ+ rights has landed her in high-security prison — twice. But she remains critical of President Yoweri Museveni, even while exiled in Germany.

Stella Nyanzi at a protest for women's rights in Uganda
Stella Nyanzi is one of Uganda's most outspoken women's rights activistsImage: Frederic Noy

Munich, February 2022: Despite the cold, damp winter weather, Stella Nyanzi is wearing a short top and pants made from Kitenge fabric, a traditional African wax print cloth that is popular in Uganda, Nyanzi's homeland. Her lipstick is a striking red. She loves lipstick; she sees it as sort of war paint, as if she could use it to underscore her words as she speaks them. The feminist's words already tend to be quite powerful — so much so that they have twice landed her in prison and forced her into exile.

Stella Nyanzi
Stella Nyanzi has been a German PEN grant recipient since Feburary 2022Image: DW

Catching her breath in Germany

Since the end of January, Nyanzi and her three children have been living in Germany, where she is the current recipient of the "Writer-in-Exile" grant of the German PEN Center, which advocates on behalf of persecuted authors.

"What is important is that what needs to be said to dictatorships can be said and nobody will kill me," Nyanzi tells DW. "My body won't to be beaten down. That is what freedom means."

The path to her current state of freedom was long and dangerous. In Uganda, the 47-year-old activist and civil rights campaigner is considered one of the harshest critics of President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled the East African nation for over 35 years. Nyanzi has used her words and actions to protest Museveni and his government, which has arrested, tortured or even simply "disappeared" undesirable opponents.

Nyanzi has also been considered undesirable. In 2017 she spent over a month in the maximum security prison Luzira for what she calls a "banal" Facebook post in which she described Museveni as "a pair of buttocks" and his wife, Uganda's education minister, Janet Museveni, as "empty-brained."

Prior to Nyanzi's arrest, a major controversy had erupted over Museveni's broken 2016 election campaign promise to provide free monthly sanitary pads to all "poor girls." In Uganda, as in many other sub-Saharan African nations, menstruation products are an unaffordable luxury for many women and girls. This lack of material and the associated shame forces many girls to regularly miss school, and this lost learning time is difficult to make up. Some girls end up abandoning school entirely.  

Stella Nyanzi distributes sanitary pads at a secondary school in Masaka, Uganda
Stella Nyanzi distributes sanitary pads at a school event about reproductive healthImage: Frederic Noy

Museveni's promise could have changed the lives of many girls and increased their chances of getting a good education. Nyanzi spared no criticism of him, even as his election campaign was still ongoing, and accused him of having "s**t" on Ugandan democracy. She also took part in protests, where she was confronted by the police. Yet she wasn't prepared for what followed her sentence.

"When dealing for the first time with repressive militant brutal dictatorships, one might be innocent, and we are allowed to be innocent and naive," she reflects. "But the vast engagement of brutality from the state quickly sharpens a person."

Stella Nyanzi is arrested during a anti-government protest
Stella Nyanzi is arrested during a anti-government protestImage: Sumy Sadurni/AFP/Getty Images

Trailblazing research on sexuality in sub-Saharan Africa

Nyanzi's one-month imprisonment left her so physically weak she could barely walk; she had caught malaria while in prison and also suffered from a urinary tract infection. But, as she recalls, she felt mentally stronger than ever: "If the dictatorship of Museveni hoped that by imprisoning me and finding me guilty and convicting and sentencing me and locking me up in maximum-security prison, if they thought it would silence me, I had to shock them and say, no ... I'm keeping talking... it's going to be harder."

On the streets and in social media, Nyanzi has campaigned tirelessly for freedom of speech, as well as for the rights of women and LGBTQ individuals. Her motivation stems in part from her personal life; her father married multiple wives to make sure he would have sons and thereby fulfill his family's wishes, she explains.

After receiving her doctorate in medical anthropology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Nyanzi focused her work on sexual and reproductive health, with a particular focus on the stigma faced by youths, women and sexual minorities in Uganda. She most recently conducted research at Makerere University in Kampala. Both the scientific and activist communities consider her work to be trailblazing in how it deals with sexual orientation and queer identities — topics that are considered culturally taboo in Uganda and other sub-Saharan countries, and therefore difficult to research.

Torture and trauma in prison

Over the years, Nyanzi has gained a large social media following. Her posts are critical, blunt and accusatory. In 2018, she wrote and posted a strongly worded poem expressing the wish that Museveni had never been born: "Yoweri, they say it was your / birthday yesterday. / How nauseatingly disgusting a day! / I wish the acidic pus flooding Esiteri's [Museveni's mother] cursed vaginal canal had burnt up your unborn fetus…"

Her poem resulted in a second high-security prison stay — this time for 16 months. At the end of her sentence, she managed to smuggle out her prison uniform and worn-out flip-flops, mended many times over; she keeps them like trophies of that time.

"I stole this uniform from prison and I celebrate that because the prison took away for me my baby," she says, pausing before going on. "Prison wardresses beat me up. They tortured me. They traumatized me. When I showed them the blood between my legs, they say to me, that is tomato sauce. [That] I'm hiding. I'm pretending. I'm malingering. My child, beaten out of my womb, was put on a rubbish pit with gloves and syringes and medicines, and I was not allowed to bury my child."

But not even this second imprisonment could break Nyanzi. "Today, in spite of all the pain and the torture that I had to endure in prison, I celebrate," she says. "I celebrate having been locked up because for the first time in the history of Uganda, a woman was able to turn penalization and to turn criminalization on its head and use the courts of law and the prison system to speak truth to power and shame and embarrass and expose the government, and I celebrate that." During her numerous trials, Nyanzi launched into sharply worded, forceful monologues, as well as baring her breasts as an act of protest.

Stella Nyanzi speaks forcefully during a courtroom trial
In court, Stella Nyanzi would not be silencedImage: Frederic Noy

Processing through poetry

Now in Germany, Nyanzi is hoping to artistically process what she experienced over 305 days in that maximum security prison in the form of 305 poems. In 2020, she published a book of poems written while in prison. She continues to be active on social media and recently joined solidarity actions to protest the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

As a single mother, Nyanzi often worried about the safety of her children. "My deepest regret is the effect of every night I slept away from my children," she says. "Every time I was on the prison floor where I slept, sleeping on my blanket, I thought: Did my children have food? Did my boys bathe? They hate homework, so have they done homework?"

Stella Nyanzi and her three kids
Activist and single mother: Stella Nyanzi and her three kidsImage: Konrad Hirsch

The PEN grant will allow Nyanzi to stay in Germany for a maximum of three years, but she doesn't want to think that far ahead yet. Her biggest concern at present is finding a good school for her children. Her 15-year-old sons are already signed up for soccer, her 17-year-old daughter for swimming. After harrowing separations, it's a step toward normalcy for Nyanzi and her family.

This article was originally written in German.