Jhe first days of Stella Nyanzi’s new life in Germany were not without challenges, from navigating television and the internet in a different language to finding the right school for her three teenagers. On the second day, the family went shopping for clothes – “thick jackets, mittens and scarves” – to get through the harsh Bavarian winter. For her 14-year-old twins, who have lived all their lives in sub-Saharan Africa and insisted on wearing Crocs without socks during the flight, the sub-zero temperatures were a rude awakening.
At the center of it all, however, was a deep sense of relief. Nyanzi, a 47-year-old outspoken academic, poet and human rights activist whose irreverent writings on Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni saw her twice imprisoned, has decided enough is enough. . She has been accepted into a writers-in-exile program run by PEN Germany and has no plans to return to Uganda while Museveni, 77, is in power. And although there are many worries about how she and her children will settle into life in Munich, the feeling of freedom motivates her.
“Because I am truly a free-spirited, loud-mouthed, rude woman who speaks her mind boldly, I think one of the greatest joys is being able to criticize Museveni’s dictatorship and not fear for my life,” she said.
“To not have thick-voiced men breathing into my phone. And being threatened online, but knowing that the threats won’t reach me, is really relieving. I know it’s gonna be hard [with regards to] the practical aspects. But, Jesus, the sense of freedom! Freedom from fear of retaliation and retaliation and punishment, just for refusing to praise dictatorship, is to die for.
“I can suffer winter and cold and hard tongue – and the food is a bit different. But that’s freedom. You know: I’m free at least. My kids don’t have to worry about spending more nights with mom in jail or locked up in a police cell just because I wrote a Facebook post or wrote too harshly about a dictator who begs to be written harshly. freedom fearmuch more than freedom To do. Freedom to be is, like, immediate relief.
This week, the international spotlight was shone on another critic of Uganda’s dictator, novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, whose book The Greedy Barbarian was seen as a satire of Museveni’s Uganda. Rukirabashaija, 33, was charged earlier this month with “offensive communication” over tweets about the six-term president and his son. For two weeks he was held in an undisclosed location before being released on bail. His lawyer says he was tortured.
Rukirabashaija’s case is no stranger to Nyanzi. The former college professor went to jail for a month in 2017 after calling Museveni a “a pair of buttocks”, and for nearly 16 months the following year, for writing a poem describing his mother’s vagina in various grotesque ways. (“Yoweri, they say it was your birthday yesterday./ What an awful day!/ I wish the lice-filled bush of filthy pubic hair invading Esiteri’s unwashed chuchu had strangled you at birth ./ Has strangled you like the long tentacles of corruption you have sown and watered in our bleeding economy.”)
Nyanzi had attempted to leave Uganda for Kenya in January 2021, after losing her candidacy to be elected as the Kampala Women’s Representative. But, stymied by bureaucracy, she returned home a few months later, trying to keep a low profile. Then, at the end of December, Rukirabashaija was arrested, the doors of his home broken down by armed men who took him away.
“And I thought: to hell with the silence,” said Nyanzi, speaking by phone from Munich. “We cannot remain silent in the face of such brutality. And I started fidgeting again. In response, she said, the threats and intimidating messages began to return.
For anyone who has seen her stripping her breasts to protest a prison sentence or walking out of jail wearing a tiara and sash declaring “FUCK OPPRESSION”, it is hard to imagine that Nyanzi was ever an activist. Politics. But, she says, it’s only in recent years that she’s found her cause. His first dissent was a naked demonstration at the university. From then on, she embraced Uganda’s anti-colonial tradition of “radical rudeness” as a tool against oppression. It is, she says, very effective, especially from an otherwise respectable and academic mother.
“People said to me: maybe radical rudeness won’t oust Museveni. And I say: maybe the intention is not to use crude poetry and big boobs in public to oust Museveni; maybe the idea is to invite others to be able to poke holes in this huge over-glorification of a mighty untouchable demigod and, if many of us poke small holes, maybe the mighty tree trunk will fall. I do not know.”
She adds, “Many don’t approve. But I’m not looking for approval.
When she went to Kenya in 2021, there was a backlash from fellow opposition critics who accused her of ‘leaving the battlefield’ before the fight was won, and she now expects similar censorship. But, after years of vigorous participation in the struggle, she feels it’s time for her to put her children first. Moreover, she feels freer to criticize Museveni from the safety of Germany. For the president, it is therefore unlikely that there will be a relaxation. “Now that I’m out of the country, it’s my responsibility…to write, speak and use my voice,” she says.
the Writers in Exile Program, funded by the German government, lasts up to three years. Some – but not all – of its participants then seek political asylum in the country. Does Nyanzi think she will ever come back? “Uganda is my home. I have booked to be buried next to my father in our village,” she says. “We have a beautiful equatorial sun; we don’t have winter and snow. We have sweet pineapples and sweet bananas; we do not have frozen products. We pick mangoes from the trees and eat them. I would like to go back to that and live like that, but I also don’t want my children to sleep alone at night because their mother is in a prison cell just because she wrote a poem about Museveni.
She adds: “I hope to come back because I have work to do in Uganda… I want to change things, to contribute to the construction of the new post-Museveni Uganda. However, I don’t want to go live in fear just because I am myself… I don’t want to kill the voice inside of me. As long as it’s dangerous to express yourself, as long as it’s dangerous to write freely, I don’t want to be in Uganda.