Stella Nyanzi on dissident writers and free expression in Uganda.
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Co-published with The Author, the quarterly journal of the Society of Authors.
A gruesome photo greets me on Facebook. It is Danson Kahyana’s bloodied face, his gaping mouth exposing bleeding gums from which most of the canines are missing, his slit-open cheek exposing flesh. ‘Ugandan Writer Violently Attacked by Robbers’… ‘Thieves Hack Former President of PEN Uganda’… ‘Another Critical Writer Brutalised in Uganda’, the headlines screech.
I sit still. I stare at my friend’s disfigured face. I wonder how this poet will read and recite. How this lecturer in English Literature will teach his students at Makerere University. How this bold advocate for the freedom and safety of critical writers in Uganda will continue to perform this important service. A poet, a lecturer, a teacher, and an advocate – all need a functional mouth to do their work.
I scroll down to a magnified photo. Only one cream-coloured front tooth remains, his mouth a yawning hippopotamus’s. I shiver as I imagine the pain he will feel when he tries to eat spicy food.
In an email copied to members of PEN, Danson insists that the attack is a robbery, and not related to his writings, but I immediately connect his ordeal to other gross violations committed against writers and other creatives who are critical of dictator Yoweri Museveni’s repressive regime. I am enraged at the shrewdness – the sophistry – of this regime; at the machinery of dictatorship that has now advanced to the point of brutalising its critics, then protecting those brutalisers from public condemnation.
Even Danson’s denial speaks to the logic of how Museveni’s dictatorship silences those who oppose it, including writers. First, because it is common knowledge in Uganda that the dictatorship often outsources brutality to organised private gangs of vigilante youths, such as the notorious Boda Boda 2010. Previously, when individual gang-members were unknowingly netted by police officers, they sometimes revealed under interrogation that they were working on assignment, taking orders from officers within the armed services.
Second, because, during the interrogation and torture of the satirical novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, the name Danson Kahyana arose frequently. The brutes in the military’s Special Forces Command (SFC) revealed that they were deeply interested in silencing his writing and advocacy. When Kakwenza was released from the torture chambers of the state, he revealed these aspects of his interrogation – leading Danson to begin a regime of self-silencing on his social media spaces in a bid to protect himself, his blind mother, wife and daughters.
Third, in his poetry, short stories, essays, academic papers and edited book collections, Danson is critical of the failings of Museveni’s dictatorship. This makes him as dangerous in the eyes of the state as any other politically persecuted Ugandan writers. What makes him even more dangerous, however, is that as an editor, publisher and university lecturer Danson has built a community of critical writers.
Moreover, when he was the President of PEN Uganda, Danson gave voice to the largely silenced individuals locked up behind bars when he organised, led and implemented the Writers-in-Prison programme at Uganda’s maximum-security facilities. Running this programme gave silenced people a voice. Danson also advocated for and amplified the issues of writers facing political persecution. When I was arrested, tried and imprisoned – on two different occasions – for writings that allegedly offended dictator Museveni, he raised my case within and outside Uganda. He pushed PEN centres around the world to advocate and lobby for my release, fair trial, and humane treatment in prison. He visited me several times in prison – often bringing me much-needed foods, hygiene products and books. When I was awarded the Oxfam-Novib / PEN International Freedom of Expression Award in 2020, he travelled to receive it on my behalf, because I was still serving my 18-month prison sentence. He brought me letters from two different meetings of PEN’s annual Congress – letters that were promptly confiscated by the prison staff and only given to me many months after my release, upon acquittal.
And so, while in exile, I am gripped by a mixture of rage and frustration that the violent attack on Danson is not being seen as politically motivated. His machete-wielding attackers were not wearing any of the gazetted uniforms of the various security agencies in Uganda. But given the incidents of state torture of critical writers who were later able to name the security units responsible for maiming, wounding, traumatising, brutalising and illegally detaining them, in violation of their human rights, it would have made sense for these state institutions to try and prevent further shaming.
Wondering how to respond meaningfully to Danson’s ordeal, I telephone Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, who recently arrived limping in Germany after his own experience of torture at the hands of the repressive Ugandan state. His phone rings for a while and then goes silent. I do not call again, in case he is asleep. I am learning to respect his need for sleep at the most awkward hours of the day, because one of the enduring symptoms of PTSD that he has carried into exile is acute insomnia. After only one hour of sleep troubled by nightmares, Kakwenza often wakes up trembling, in an anxiety-induced sweat, his heart racing. Often, he is unable to return to sleep.
I empathise. I too battled with insomnia for many months after my imprisonment for publishing a poem on social media that allegedly offended Museveni and his family. Kakwenza and I are both registered, card-carrying members of the opposition political party Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). Our political ideology and activism for liberation are influenced by the non-violent ‘defiance campaign’ approach of Dr Kizza Besigye. They are enacted by grabbing our civil and political rights to assemble, hold peaceful demonstrations, freely express ourselves, and speak and write bitter truths to oppressive power.
Our writings against Museveni’s dictatorship are irreverent, crass, persistent and always deliberately confrontational. We are both active on social media, posting on Facebook and tweeting on Twitter. We approach writing as a non-violent weapon that we use against brutal, corrupt state power. We also share an ease with deploying sexually graphic language to mock oppression. There are differences, though. While Kakwenza writes and publishes novels, non-fiction and newspaper reports, I write and publish poems, short stories, essays and academic articles. While Kakwenza belongs to the Bahororo ethnic group in Western Uganda, is baptised in the Roman Catholic church, and is a male Ugandan aged 33, I belong to the Baganda ethnicity, am baptised in the Protestant Anglican church, and am a female Ugandan mother (of three teenagers) aged 47.
What unites us now is our new identity as dissident Uganda writers exiled in Germany. In January 2022, I fled to begin my scholarship under the Writers-in-Exile program of PEN Germany. In February, after release from brutal torture by the Special Forces Command, Kakwenza Rukirabashaija joined the same scholarship program.
In Uganda, dissident writers are fast becoming an endangered species. In March, Norman Tumuhimbiise, the author of two satirical non-fiction books, was arrested and charged along with eight other journalists at Alternative DigiTalk Media, after security officers raided their office premises. In April, as I have described, Danson Kahyana was brutally attacked by machete-wielding “thieves” who slit his cheek and knocked out his teeth.
Each month, it seems, another dissident Ugandan writer is persecuted. I am only holding my breath before the next attack on my tribe.
Dr. Stella Nyanzi is a Ugandan medical anthropologist, activist, and poet. An outspoken supporter of women’s and LGBTQ rights, she was arrested in 2018 and convicted of ‘cyber harrassment’ after posting a poem on her Facebook about Ugandan president Museveni, before being acquitted in 2020. For her activism, she has received the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression 2020. In January 2022, she moved to Germany on a writers-in-exile program run by PEN Germany, with her three children. Her collections of poetry include No Roses From My Mouth (2020), which was written while she was in prison; Don’t Come in My Mouth: Poems That Rattled Uganda (2021); and Eulogies of My Mouth Poems For A Poisoned Uganda (2022).