Feb. 24, 2020 (GIN) – She’s one medical anthropologist, activist and poet you don’t want to wrestle with.
Dr. Stella Nyanzi is apt to say exactly what’s on her mind – even if the object of her verbal dart is the President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, or his wife Janet, the First Lady.
What set off the rockets this time was an exchange between the First Lady and Members of Parliament on a presidential pledge to provide free sanitary pads to school-going girls.
The free pads were one way to boost education for girls, the President had said. Studies show that menstruating girls from 13 to 18 years of age miss 8 to 24 days out of 220 learning days in a year and some drop out of school altogether. But after much foot-dragging, the pledge was withdrawn as unaffordable.
“Such a project requires huge amounts of funds to cover the entire country and be sustained,” the First Lady explained. “That is why it has not happened.”
But Dr. Nyanzi was not having it, and in a poem she called Mr. Museveni “a pair of buttocks” prompting authorities to arrest her for “cyber harassment” and “offensive communication” under the 2011 Computer Misuse Act – legislation so vaguely written it has been called a “danger to free expression, the right to privacy and free access to information” by the Human Rights Network for Journalists – Uganda.
On Feb. 20, a High Court Judge in Kampala overturned a “cyber harassment” charge and released Dr. Nyanzi after 33 days in prison. She remains on trial for calling President Museveni “a pair of buttocks.”
Dr. Nyanzi, now suspended from her post at Makerere University, writes about HIV/AIDS, sexuality, and women’s health, and is a prominent scholar in African queer studies, notes PEN America, a group that defends the freedom to write. Dr. Nyanzi also leads Pads4Girls, a campaign to provide free sanitary pads.
She practices “radical rudeness,” a tactic used widely in Uganda during British colonial rule to disrupt relationships with oppressors that manners and polite conventions protected. Dr. Nyanzi’s blunt, fearless poems and commentary are examples of “radical rudeness” and she intends to keep it up.
For her outspokenness, Dr. Nyanzi last month received the 2020 Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression. While still in detention, she wrote: “Unlawful laws are used in unjust courts to punish citizens whose only crime is exercising their constitutional freedom to write boldly about the dictatorship.”