In Communion With Stella Nyanzi, African Feminists’ Reflections: A conversation

The aftermath of Dr. Stella Nyanzi’s irresistible poem speaking to power directly activated an intense slew of fragile masculinities collapsing, patriarchs calling for her arrest and the said arrest was eventually executed. Nyanzi was first held for nine months as the trial went on until August 2019 which was followed by a conviction on charges of cyber harassing President Yoweri Museveni and a sentence of 18 months in prison. A conviction the High Court on February 20, 2020 overturned.   The aftermath of the poem also brought feminists in their droves supporting, pushing for, standing with, calling out and appreciating the disruptive ways in which Dr. Nyanzi’s activism speaks to the numerous number of women in the world who want to be free. A group of young African feminists from Eastern Africa visited Dr. Stella Nyanzi while in prison. These are their voices.

Zemdena: One of the gifts that Stella has is this transformative wit that is on point and quick. Her fire is the kind that rekindles itself. So, for her to be put in prison for using her brains to offend the most offensive dictator is part of her ability to re-strategize in the face of dictatorship. The fact that she uses social media, which has become a modern-day tool for most of us African feminists, is telling of her commitment to calling into account the most powerful via insult, perhaps Stella is using a language that is more familiar to those terror mongering men. She is calling them out using a language that they can speak, the language of insults. Maybe that is why her offensive strategies are effective at communicating with those that have been harassing Ugandans for ages, she matches their energy, the difference is hers is a plight for a better world that they continue to destroy. Visiting her gave me all the energy I need for the year ahead. She not only remembers where and how we met but was quick to know the names of the people she met right there and then. She articulates our feelings and movements, she is leading a revolution wherever she is and I think she knows that. Her soul isn’t caged no matter the physical barriers. She spoke with us sitting on a mat but never beneath us-unlike the intention behind the prison rule of humiliating inmates. Her memory is very sharp, her love abundant, her brilliance infectious and her soldiers, everywhere. She is a collection of poetry and these are no lies

Nancy: President Museveni will live, being called a ‘pair of buttocks’ hasn’t ever killed anybody… but do you know who won’t live? The people of Uganda who are suffocating under Museveni’s oppression, suppression and repression. And yes, I just cited Dr. Nyanzi’s poem. Before I went to visit her at Luzira prison, I thought a lot about the thin line between fangirling over a feminist icon that I have grown to respect and cite in numerous conversations and the human being that is no doubt hurting, sitting in prison with numerous freedoms curtailed. It was important that I do not hero-ize Dr. Nyanzi and accord her humanity even as I appreciate her audacity and radical nature.

Stella Nyanzi sending those kisses to the judge on overturning her conviction. Photo by Evelyn Lirri

The experience is still unforgettable, It was so inspiring seeing how charming and energetic she was. She was very concerned and dedicated to know us the young feminist which was very touching to me. The experience really inspired me –of how even when she was detained even in that little space she still had done a lot of activism from inside, it did not stop her. I felt like I wasn’t doing anything with the freedom I have and I felt indebted to deliver and stir the wheel in every way that I can to be a super proactive feminism creating impact.” ~Gloria

Dr. Stella Nyanzi’s life has always been political and so separating her arrest, subsequent detainment and imprisonment from political influence would be difficult. I never thought I would ever visit Dr Stella in jail in her home country which she loves so dearly. Visiting her in prison was a life-changing experience. It was a reminder that the oppression we fight is deeply entrenched in our systems and that there are so many ways an active voice can be boxed.  The prison environment is very intimidating; our phones and watches were confiscated at the gate so we could not tell how long we waited to see her, but in my estimate, it was around one hour; however, when we eventually met her, she was still bold, stoic and remained unbroken by the environment. More than ever, she was bold, full of life, paying attention to each of us individually and inspiring us to keep going.”~ Antonia

      “When you shake the foundation of oppression, political weapons and cards often come to the defense, that’s how you know you shook the system. I never thought I would visit Stella Nyanzi in prison. We went in thinking we are the ones taking positive energy to her but instead left the prison feeling rather replenished. I was wearing a t-shirt written on “Fight Like A Girl” and Stella just fell in love with those words. I have always thought prison is the worst place someone can be but she proved me wrong. There was so much to share with her and learn from her.” ~ Aluel

Zemdena:  I have read some of her articles on queer Africans –and her work teaches us that we have the right to be impolite and that we do not owe niceness to vulgar and profane leaders whose actions are at our demise. Saying fuck and vagina isn’t rude but violating the bodily integrity of people is. She acknowledges our multiple existences and fights for us to exist in our most authentic self. Her creative flair and theoretical depth are magnetic. I would like to delve deeper into her theorization of sexualities and her assertion of Africanizing epistemologies. Now that I think of it, I should have asked her where one can find her books because I would like to read them.

Stella’s book collection of poems published while prison

Nancy: I enjoyed reading her paper, Politicizing the ‘Sin of Sodom and Gomorrah’: Examining the Christian Rightists’ War Against Homosexuality in Uganda. I have enjoyed reading her poems and I will continue to cite and quote her poem to Museveni because it will always be truth spoken directly to power; necessary truth, truth that prison will not change.

       “Over my feminist questioning and interrogation. Dr. Stella has always been a reference and guiding star and in most instances the answer I was seeking. Her use of sexual language metaphorically, sarcastically and in other forms of literature has always compelled me to deeply interrogate the use of sexual language and its use in sustaining  power dynamics in my country .” ~ Antonia

Zemdena: I never found what Stella did as rude or offensive and I am not saying this to take away the power that Stella is but to merely redefine what constitutes as rude or conventional. Like Stella teaches us, the conditions we find ourselves are extremely rude, the reality for most of us in the margins is ugly af, the conventional is pathetic. ‘Radical rudeness’ to me is more like ‘Radical Realness’. I do not think we are rude enough in the face of injustices. Death is rude. Rape is insulting, there is nothing more scandalous than violence against girls, boys and women. Disrupting the gruesome order of the day which is a life of below standard –is working towards a better world. What is rude is to live these violent, incomplete and painful lives. What is rude to me is the power structures that govern the world any movement to radically shift it is an act of revolutionary love. So, Stella maybe in that way is a rude-lover, just like myself.

Nancy:  Radical rudeness is the truth, and I appreciate Dr. Nyanzi for being bold enough to say fuck you, to power. If oppressors and the unequal systems they advocate against do not want to listen to the voices of marginalized groups, then we will shock them into listening to us. In addition, we are going to use all means necessary, from nudity to scandal-mongering, to disruption to insults. We have to do what we have to do to survive the brutality of the patriarchy and the crippling weight of capitalism. 

“I think it’s a strong reliable strategy whose time has come. In times where womxn and girls (and other oppressed groups) are consistently negotiating to prove their humanity and deserving human freedom; I dare say the time for political correct and diplomatic negotiations with patriarchy and other forms of oppression is up. “ ~ Antonia

“For the longest time, when women get to speak, it’s like the world is doing them a favor, a favor that comes with terms and conditions. Politeness is one of those unspoken terms. Feminists are re-envisioning, re-designing and rebuilding a world where women feel like human beings with full rights and freedom. This new world will unfortunately not be built again on patriarchy’s terms of engagement. “~ Aluel

Zemdena:   I think African feminists should continue their support by openly expressing their solidarity to her, her work, her fight, her love and her freedom. This can be done by talking about her, never forgetting her and sending support by whatever means. Those that can write, let them write about her, those that can sing let them sing about her, those that can dance let them dance in the spirit of her love, those that can visit her, let them and financial support is always a good idea. She laughed when I told her I was going to be called Stella Nyanzi’s breasts on social media. She knows there are people making noise on her behalf, let us continue to do so with more power.

Going to Luzira prison was definitely one way of standing in solidarity with Dr. Nyanzi, but in addition to that, we need to wear our radicalism unabashedly. We need to let go of the patriarchal narratives of shame, meekness and humility and be as shameless and as loud as we can. We need to take back nudity as a form of protest and be as rude as possible in demanding for our freedom because we know that our silence will not save us. ~ Nancy

Feminist should more than ever focus on keeping Dr.Nyanzis work alive by reading, sharing and quoting her. Let us use her work in teaching feminist political education session, in articles, on social media platforms and our publications. Our solidarity should ensure that her name is not forgotten. ~ Antonia

Stella is now free and we hope she stays free forever!

Feature Photo by Halima Athumani

Zemdena Abebe is a kind, pan-Africanist-womanist justice seeker, pushing the Afro-Feminist kinship agenda. Link up with her @Afrowomanist

Aluel Atem is a Feminist, Development Economist and women’s rights activist from South Sudan.

Nancy Houston Ouya is a young Kenyan lawyer, radical intersectional feminist and activist. She is the co-founder of Feminists in Kenya.

Antonia Wanjiku Musunga is unapologetic intersectional feminist. She has over the time worked on refugee rights, women rights, and sexual reproductive health rights and economic rights. 

Gloria Nassary is a young Tanzanian researcher working on Sustainable Development Goals; gender equality, education and environment.

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