The Washington Post

A run on radical rudeness

Stella Nyanzi raged unflinchin­gly against an increasing­ly authoritar­ian regime. Now, from Kenya, she mourns the dying fire at home to fight for change.

- BY MAX BEARAK max.bearak@washpost.com Rael Ombuor contribute­d to this report.

A fiery Ugandan activist who channeled rage into a failed bid for parliament weighs her future.

NAIROBI — In a country like Uganda — where the president has held office for nearly four decades, doing away with term and age limits as he pleases while presiding over elections widely panned as unfair — it often seems like incandesce­nt rage might be the only power strong enough to bring about change.

Stella Nyanzi, a 45-year-old academic-turned-activist, seems to be made of it. Her favorite way to channel it is radical rudeness, a method that’s gained her wide notoriety across East Africa.

She has been jailed for profane online screeds about Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, calling him a “pair of buttocks,” and describing his birth as a “dirty brown discharge” from his mother. The latter earned her an 18month prison sentence for “cyberharas­sment.”

As the verdict was read in court, she bared her breasts and shouted insults.

After she successful­ly appealed the verdict six months into her jail term, she decided it was time to trade the outbursts for a political stump speech, and she ran for a seat in parliament.

But in January’s election, she lost — “a big fat loss, even in the few constituen­cies we thought we’d win,” she said on a recent day in Nairobi. She came here, to neighborin­g Kenya’s capital, not just because many of Uganda’s opposition leaders and activists have been abducted and tortured after the election, but to find space to mourn over a growing suspicion of hers that “perhaps rage is something most Ugandans have learned to suppress rather than embrace.”

It is a common lament of opposition politician­s, but few have remained as radically themselves in public as Nyanzi, and few have withstood such withering social scorn. In Nairobi she was “in retreat, but not defeat,” she said, but the loss, and years ahead living in self-imposed exile, were preoccupyi­ng her.

Wearing a navy blue hoodie and kitenge hair wrap, she tucked her bare feet underneath her.

“It is very cold, and I talk a lot,” she said. “And my words can be as cold as ice.”

Becoming an activist in Uganda has long been a life-threatenin­g propositio­n, and Nyanzi has been far bolder than most. She has lowered her horns and run straight at Museveni, now 76, whom she blames for the deaths of her parents, who couldn’t get medical care when they needed it, and her unborn child, whom she miscarried after being beaten while in jail.

Her bravado has earned her hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, but many of them are there for the spectacle, not because they agree with her revolution­ary politics.

“How do you organize in Uganda where people have been kept uneducated?” she said. “How do you excite a dead nation of beaten-down, impotent men with cement blocks for brains? Where an outspoken woman like me has been dehumanize­d so thoroughly that when she is beaten to the point of miscarriag­e, her female wardens say the blood is ketchup?

“My unborn child became hospital refuse, incinerate­d along with used gloves and test tubes and bandages,” she said. “People may think I’m mad and maybe I am. But we need an injection of madness to break out of being hypnotized. Call me insane, sure. Do I care? No.”

In mid-august, as Nyanzi considered various ways to extract her three teenage children from Uganda, Museveni’s government suspended 54 nonprofit organizati­ons — ostensibly for regulatory infraction­s dealing with registrati­ons and tax documentat­ion.

Uganda’s most prominent human rights and environmen­tal organizati­ons were among those targeted. The move came less than a year into Museveni’s sixth term as president, and soon after his administra­tion earned kudos for offering, at the request of the U.S. government, to host as many as 2,000 Afghan evacuees while they await resettleme­nt in other countries.

All the while, the United States has continued to provide about $1 billion a year to the Ugandan government, in part to support the largest refugee population in Africa. Often left unsaid is Uganda’s role in fueling the conflict in South Sudan that produced those refugees.

“The ban is just the latest government action to undermine civil society in Uganda,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement. “The authoritie­s have failed to investigat­e a string of burglaries and attacks on the offices of prominent rights organizati­ons in recent years.”

The repeated gutting of Uganda’s civil society is familiar to Nyanzi. But she’s worried that too few of her peers know how to cope with loss after loss and end up giving up.

“Who among us is receiving grief counseling?” she asked, drawing on a career of research in medical anthropolo­gy. Not her, not anyone, she guessed.

“Nobody teaches you how to deal with the pain,” she continued. “And so to cope, to grieve, I don’t know, I go on Facebook twice a day. And I go there to get bashed and battered. I go there with my woundednes­s, but I don’t think people realize they are dealing with a damaged person. Someone who through poetry or even just vulgar posts is trying to purge herself of toxins.

“If there’s no Internet, I’ ll write on paper. If no paper, I’ ll write on the walls. If no walls, I’ ll write on my skin. If no pen, I’ ll etch in the dust,” she said.

It is in periods of loss like this, Nyanzi said, that an activist finds out who among her close friends and confidants really believes in the cause.

“After I lost, we cried and cried, we drank beers, we ate byenda katogo” — tripe and mashed plantain, a typical Ugandan funeral food — “but friends and lovers abandoned me. They said, ‘Your feminism is why you lost.’”

It might take months, or even years, before she’s ready to take Museveni on in such a high-profile way again, she said. In the meantime, she’s traveling between Uganda, Europe and Nairobi, where she hunkers down at a friend’s house. There people comfort her and she finds emotional support from Freddie, her friend’s Rhodesian ridgeback.

“Freddie can’t pretend to be a friend,” she said as the dog sauntered out into the misty backyard where she was sitting. “He’s my strong, loyal, ballsy boy, the one who will always be there for me. When I write, even if it’s ugly, ugly stuff, he sits there at my feet.”

 ?? SUMY SADURNI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES ?? LEFT: Nyanzi is arrested in May 2020 in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, after organizing a protest for more government food distributi­on to people struggling with pandemic lockdowns.
ABOVE: Freddie, her friend’s Rhodesian ridgeback, “the one who will always be there for me,” Nyanzi says.
SUMY SADURNI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES LEFT: Nyanzi is arrested in May 2020 in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, after organizing a protest for more government food distributi­on to people struggling with pandemic lockdowns. ABOVE: Freddie, her friend’s Rhodesian ridgeback, “the one who will always be there for me,” Nyanzi says.
 ?? SARAH WAISWA FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ?? TOP: Stella Nyanzi, who ran unsuccessf­ully for Uganda’s parliament in January, at a friend’s home in a Nairobi suburb last month. Nyanzi had been jailed for “cyberharas­sent” over her profane online screeds against longtime President Yoweri Museveni.
SARAH WAISWA FOR THE WASHINGTON POST TOP: Stella Nyanzi, who ran unsuccessf­ully for Uganda’s parliament in January, at a friend’s home in a Nairobi suburb last month. Nyanzi had been jailed for “cyberharas­sent” over her profane online screeds against longtime President Yoweri Museveni.
 ?? SARAH WAISWA FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ??
SARAH WAISWA FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States