#100PENMembers No. 91: Stella Nyanzi

Stella Nyanzi is a academic, activist and feminist working in Uganda. She has frequently faced imprisonment because of her outspoken criticism of the country’s President.

Nyanzi is a medical anthropologist at Makerere University and has published widely on issues relating to culture, health, law, gender and sexuality. She is an outspoken activist for women’s rights as well as for LGBT rights and around sexual health issues, particularly AIDS.

In 2017 Nyanzi launched the #Pads4girlsUg Project which raised money for sanitary products for Ugandan schoolgirls. Her first arrest involved a poem which she wrote about the First Lady and Cabinet Minister for Education Janet Museveni and her husband, the President, prompted by the government’s refusal to provide sanitary pads in schools.

Until recently she has been serving an 18-month sentence in Uganda for another poem she wrote criticising the country’s President and implying that the country would be better off if he had not been born. She was imprisoned under the Computer Misuse Act 2011, which Amnesty International has criticised publicly because it is most frequently deployed to imprison those who are publicly critical of the government.

Nyanzi frequently uses the traditional Uganda strategy of “radical rudeness”, which was developed as a response and disruptive device to British colonial rule. Her satirical poems, published on social media perform a crucial purpose in using this “radical rudeness” and often shocking imagery, to draw attention to the inconsistencies of the Ugandan dictatorial regime.

In 2020 Nyanzi was awarded the Oxfam Novib/ PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression. It recognised the breadth of her work as an academic, activist and feminist. In a speech smuggled out of prison Nyanzi wrote that: ‘Unlawful laws are used in unjust courts to punish citizens whose only crime is exercising their constitutional freedom to write boldly about the dictatorship.’

She added: ‘My custodial sentence in a maximum security prison highlights how fearful this dictator and his cronies are of writers. Isn’t the pen, indeed, mightier than the sword?’

PEN International President Jennifer Clement said of the award: ‘At PEN we believe unshakeably in the need for writers to be able to criticise, parody, and mock at the highest levels. This award recognises the work she has done for women, civil society, and in the defence of free expression. We will continue to amplify her voice until she is released.’

The award was accepted on behalf of Dr Nyanzi by PEN Uganda President Danson Kahyana ‘Dr Stella Nyanzi’s winning of the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Freedom of Expression Award is good news not only to her, but to all freedom of expression defenders in Uganda and elsewhere, for it shows that demonising and harassing a courageous writer does not signal their vocal death.’

An Empty Chair was used to symbolise her presence in light of her continued imprisonment.

Although she has now been released, in February 2021 Nganzi fled to Kenya following the abduction of several fellow activists in Uganda. Speaking with CNN she said: ‘I fled to get my voice back, I fled to get my mind back. I fled to get my freedom back.’