Dr Stella Nyanzi at The Reykjavík Dialogue speaks on Black African Women, Racial and Gender Hierarchies and Trauma

This week’s, Dr Stella Nyanzi’s engagement at The Reykjavík Dialogue 2021 Renewing Activism to End Violence Against Women is a rich reminder of the deep roots of violence against Black African women. Nyanzi is a scholar, activist, politician and poet from Uganda. She was convicted and imprisoned for insulting Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni.  Nyanzi was found guilty of cyber harassment of the president in 2019 after writing a poem about the president’s mother’s vagina. This sentence was overturned in early 2020 after close to 15 months in prison. She refused to apply for bail – a constitutional right -and the state attempted to subject her to “a mental health examination to ascertain her mental status.” To mark her 45th birthday in prison, Nyanzi released a poetry collection under #45PoemsForFreedom. Upon her release in 2020, Nyanzi’s book, No Roses From My Mouth, was published, all poems written in jail. In 2017, Nyanzi was imprisoned for 33 days for a Facebook post in which she described Museveni as a “pair of buttocks” after the president backtracked on a pledge to distribute sanitary towels to schoolgirls. She’s known to deploy “radical rudeness“, a tactic long practised in Uganda to upset civility and challenge power.

 On her nude protest during her conviction in 2019.

And I was surrounded by men with guns and put on television; I thought they think they’re going to have the last laugh. But because I had been practiced in the ways of my people, the history of African women resistance, I knew that when women pushed to the end we throw off our clothes. And in court surrounded by prison wardresses and  on national television, they were capturing me on national television, they give me a platform,  I thought what would my ancestors have done, and I threw off that prison uniform.”

I wasn’t celebrated like you are celebrating. The feminist in my country, in East African, in Africa, in the academic papers they said she is gone cuckoo. Just to say to me that because we do not know our history as African women, we denigrate even what our ancestors would have done. My grandmothers were walking around naked or for respectability when they were in their periods, they would wear a loincloth, right?. So when someone says to me, oh, it’s so vulgar, we can’t protest this way; they have imbibed and embodied western notions of respectability. And I guess I get into this conversation for me is to say we must insist on our own terms to make meaning of our own healing and trauma and claim spaces. Is it always respectable all the time? I don’t care.”

In this presentation, Nyanzi looks at hierarchies of oppression faced by Black African women and calls, “we must reclaim the strength of strong African Black women.” Below is a transcript.

“What an honor and pleasure for me to participate in the Reykjavik dialogue aimed at setting an agenda for work to end violence against girls and women. I am grateful to the Icelandic government, the city of Reykjavik. The Nordic Council of Ministers and RIKK- the Institute for Gender Equality and Difference at the University of Iceland.

In our work on the deep-rooted and multifaceted issues of gender-based violence, it is important for us to focus on the impacts of colonial and racial historical legacies on feminist justice. An old African proverb states, “if we cannot retrace the footsteps that brought our ancestors to where we stand, we can never know where to go aright” 

I entered this space as a radical queer African feminist scholar, as a human rights activist and peaceful demonstrator against multiple intersectional oppressions, as a creative critic who deploys the artistic medium of poetry to amplify voices of resistance and dissidents, as well as a politician with membership to Uganda’s opposition political party called Forum for Democratic Change.

As a young girl who grew into a bold loud-mouth woman, I have survived gender-based violence perpetuated publicly by state agents, institutionally by misogynistic organizational structures, communally by society members and privately by patriarchs in institutions of socializations I was either born into or subscribed to. And so my submissions to this historical panel are subjective because as a recovering survivor, I am devoted to organizing against gender-based violence, against both women and girls. 

I am a Black African woman from Uganda who belongs to the Buffalo clan of the Baganda ethnicity. My home country Uganda was colonized by the British, and we received flag independence in 1962, and my country suffers diverse shades of neo-imperialism from West, East, and Center. This neocolonialism that is perpetuated by several colonial legacies is widespread in Africa and in the Commonwealth. 

Colonialism demonized and pathologized the culture, customs, rituals, traditions, ancestral knowledge and wisdom of us colonized people. Our local languages were deemed primitive and instead, the colonizers language was imposed onto us as a marker of civilization.  Our proverbs, riddles, legends, euphemisms, healing chants, traditional songs and music, our customary dances and cultural forms of artistic self-expression and collective communication were denigrated and instead overridden using the colonizers ways.

Our African traditional religion and spirituality, where we venerated the ancestors, nature and energy were subjugated, and instead, Judeo-Christianity or Islam were transplanted from the West and East, respectively. 

The socially praised statuses of virginity in pubescent girls, motherhood among women of reproductive age, and wise elder among postmenopausal woman took the backstage during slavery, colonialism, post-independence westernization, and increasing globalization. The centrality of the paternal aunt, we call Senga, the Senga institution to processes of sexual maturation was eroded as colonial or missionary schools took over the sex education of my people.

The decimation of traditional values of Black Africans during colonialism echoed the annihilation of African pride during slavery. Black women gained significance as overly sexualized, stupid, savage slaves, providing long hard labour, nonconsensual sexual services and bastard mixed-race children to their slave masters. The value of Black women was reduced to a few coins exchanged on the slave market. Darker skin pigmentation and too little compared to fairer skin pigmentation.

With this dehumanizing, dislocation and devaluing of dear Black womanhood, came a brutal objectification, silencing and de-braining. Our tongues were symbolically cut out and our brains dug out. Speaking out, particularly in dissent and thinking independently for oneself, would earn one punishment such as a rebranding, demotion, degrading torture, detention, dismissal or even death. A speaking, thinking, agenting Black African woman and herself,  a de-fanging of her poison spitting mandibles, for she was stepping above her status. If the Black man sat on the lowest rung of the race ladder, the Black woman was way below the denigrated man and child. This unjust, irrational hierarchy was caricatured most brutally during apartheid in contexts such as South Africa and during civil war. 

In fact, the bodies of Black African women are often subjected to sexual assault, rape, honor crimes and sexual cleansing during national civil unrest. Unfortunately, this dehumanizing de-beaking and de-braining norms prevalent during colonialism and slavery were handed down to hierarchies within the post-independence nation-state, as well as within the global feminist movement. Black African women were flung at the bottom of the racial and gender taxonomies, often relegated as passive, silent and grateful recipients of interventions, delivered by saviors and rescuers in white cream-coloured and mixed skin pigmentations. 

Against this background, Black African women are not expected to voice, whisper, mouth, articulate or amplify any forms of resistance against oppressive abusers including those who mete out diverse forms of gender-based violence. We are expected to be submissive, silent, stupid, long-suffering and strong in the face of gender-based violence. Given that our local languages and traditional modes of expressing grief, speaking out against trauma and shaming our abusers were robbed from us by colonialism, slavery, post-independence nationalist organizing and globalized feminist hierarchies, we are expected to be thought for and spoken for. 

As I conclude, I have highlighted that history is important. The history of silencing and erasures and making us invisible as Black African women must be understood if we’re going to prepare and forge a credible way forward. I have also highlighted that our experiences as Black African women were taken away from us, our modes of expression were stolen from us. And so if we’re going to talk about healing ourselves based on our histories, we must reclaim the strength of strong African Black women and ride on these strengths. And so I hope as we go into the panel discussion that we can be able to think through colonial and racial hierarchies and find ways in which they impact our feminist justice. Thank you very much.”

  1. Thank you for sharing some of my thoughts and giving me the platform to theorize for myself and mine!

  2. I have read this article and listened to the audio. Everytime it felt like I am reading and hearing it for the first time. What an amazing and powerful article. I love the context of claiming our history to challenge and defend our present. As a queer African women, to me this is a road map to our healing justice.

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