During the Making a Feminist Internet: Africa convening in Johannesburg in November 2019, where I was a rapporteur, there was a letter-writing call for Dr. Stella Nyanzi, the feminist poet and academic who is currently imprisoned in Luzira Women’s Prison in Uganda for the birthday poem for President Yoweri Museveni that she shared on Facebook. The feminist storyteller who made the call lives in North Africa, and said she knew someone who could get the letters to Stella through her sister. This was not the first time I had heard of this idea – a couple of months earlier, a group of East African feminists in Nairobi had had a similar idea, and had cultivated a relationship with Stella’s sister over WhatsApp. They hosted a similar letter-writing communing in Nairobi, as well as a public reading of her work from #45poems4freedom, a collection of poems Stella had written while in prison that had been published across social media platforms by a number of Stella’s comrades across the continent, and retweeted by thousands others.
These are certainly not the only collective labours of love and s Stella Nyanzi’s radical rudeness in the 15 months she has been a prisoner at Luzira Women’s Prison. On my Twitter timeline alone, I have seen calls to action in Kampala, Oxford and Accra under various hashtags: #FreeStellaNyanzi, #DropTheCharges, #PushForStellaNyanzi, #FreeUganda and #SukumaKwaStellaNyanzi. I have seen tweets, articles, videos and illustrations from India to South Africa to the US. Like many feminists around the world who have been engaged in online dialogues, organising, content production and solidarity work, I have been encouraged by the affirmation that even though this often feels like lonely work – especially when we encounter internet trolls, misogynists, government-sponsored loyalists and other violent internet users – none of us is alone in this work.
Like many feminists around the world who have been engaged in online dialogues, organising, content production and solidarity work, I have been encouraged by the affirmation that even though this often feels like lonely work – especially when we encounter internet trolls, misogynists, government-sponsored loyalists and other violent internet users – none of us is alone in this work.
Stella’s latest imprisonment is not the first attempt by Yoweri Museveni and his cohort to silence her rude critique, but she will not let them, or us, forget her. As if smuggling 45 poems out of prison and publishing them on platforms she has been denied access to was not an incredible feat, she published No Roses From My Mouth, a collection of 158 poems and 11 political organising points, in February 2020. The e-book is available on Amazon for five dollars, making Stella “arguably the first Ugandan prison writer to publish a poetry collection written in jail while still incarcerated.”
You publish with a keen eye on promotion
Yet you reject to speak in defense of a poem.
– Professor Hypocrite
As an academic myself, Stella Nyanzi has been a central figure in my politics as a feminist writer and scholar since her 2016 protest at Makerere University. At the time, I was an honours student at the university still known as Rhodes in South Africa, and on the same day as her protest, I had been one of hundreds of women and queer people that shut down our campus and staged a week-long protest against rape culture at our university. We stripped the day after Stella stripped, and consequently garnered support across the country and beyond under the hashtag #RUReferenceList. Today, as I read “Professor Hypocrite”, I recall my Politics lecturer – apparently a trade unionist – passing comment that Stella was overreacting, and that it was every senior lecturer’s duty to teach, contractually obligated or not. That marked my first turn away from the academy that I am still struggling to navigate – revolutionary politics have little use for those who write for obscure journals and posture as authorities to be cited if we do not practise the politics we preach, and Stella’s poetry should remind us to remain radically accountable to our work.
I have since made it a point to keep up with Stella’s activism. I was still on Facebook in 2017, when she called out Janet Museveni, who is Uganda’s Minister for Education and Sport, for reneging on her husband’s campaign promise to provide sanitary pads for poor school children so they would not miss school because of their periods. Putting the power of a hashtag to use, she made a public call for donations under #Pads4GirlsUg, and travelled across the country distributing sanitary towels and giving lessons on menstrual health. For this work that the dictatorship refused to do, she was not arrested, but arrested, instead, for a Facebook post in which she called Yoweri Museveni a pair of buttocks. Stella’s editors remind us that this case is still pending a constitutional court reference challenging the state’s attempt to subject her to a mental health examination under a colonial law. The trope of the mad black woman is still weaponised against women deemed too large and too loud. To this, Stella simply asks,
Must one first fall mad
To speak truth to power
In this god-forsaken country?
After she was released, Stella did not stop her alleged madness. In response to the alarming rate of femicide in Uganda, she convened the Women’s Protest Working Group, which organised against the state’s insufficient action towards the alarming rate of femicide and other forms of gender-based violence. Over 300 people, including comrades from other countries, attended the Women’s March, which received further material and amplification support from around the world.
Congested mobile phone networks,
Aborted internet countrywide,
Computers programmed to cheat
– Presidential Elections
Internet infrastructures are increasingly imperative for the purposes of freedom of expression for marginalised people and communities, but one of the most consistent myths of “Africa rising” narratives has been that the spread of internet connectivity has meant greater freedom for Africans in urban and rural areas. Yet power is as power does, and governments have the resources – including the fire power – to curtail internet freedoms. In India, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Algeria and others, for instance, the internet has been shut down around elections, exams and political insurgency, and internet censorship in general is becoming increasingly common. In Uganda, the government imposed a social media tax, which makes accessibility that much more difficult, while the Computer Misuse Act, under which Stella’s current imprisonment falls, has been weaponised against Ugandan people to keep them afraid.
Internet infrastructures are increasingly imperative for the purposes of freedom of expression for marginalised people and communities, but one of the most consistent myths of “Africa rising” narratives has been that the spread of internet connectivity has meant greater freedom for Africans in urban and rural areas. Yet power is as power does, and governments have the resources – including the fire power – to curtail internet freedoms.
Still, despite these attempts at censorship, it is through the internet that most of us learn about what is happening with Stella, and with other forms of individual and collective resistance around the world. In the face of various forms of online abuse and censorship, collaborative amplification is our most useful tool of transnational subversion, a point that Stella emphasises in her appreciation for Rosebell Kagumire, the journalist and blogger who started #FreeStellaNyanzi:
Texts, sounds, videos, commentary – the works
And the battalion of tweeps retweeted your tweets
They tagged troops who also retweeted.
Haters, trolls, bots and moles joined in
What a colourful explosion of Twitterati!
– My Twitter Commando
“I dedicate these poems to all women locked up in prisons in Uganda and the world over.”
One of the most powerful things about Stella’s poetry is her description and critique of prison conditions, including her insistence that “prison congestion is a man-made catastrophe.” Not only does her poetry keep meticulous record of her time in prison, and that of her fellow prisoners, it also demonstrates the interconnectedness of all social issues – menstrual hygiene, labour politics, sexual and reproductive health and education, pleasure, poverty, academic elitism, sexual violence – and demands that we interrogate every aspect of our politics so that we can imagine and create a radically different world that does not need prisons. Put differently, we will never get free as long as we live within carceral economies, which depend on the existence of prisons and the torture and exploitation of incarcerated people. The global prison industrial complex in all its iterations is one of the most difficult issues we have to grapple with as feminists, because at one point or another, we may have all wished those who have caused us irreparable harm behind bars. But as Stella reminds us in her poems about prison life, the police state and the (in)justice system are set up to criminalise poor people and victims of abuse, not corrupt politicians or rapists.
One of the most powerful things about Stella’s poetry is her description and critique of prison conditions, including her insistence that “prison congestion is a man-made catastrophe.”
Do not ban the songs that I compose.
You need them to inspire the revolution.
– Do Not Pull Me Down
Within our various interconnected struggles to get free, it is easy to fall prey to the doom and gloom that characterise our current conditions. But through sarcasm, parody, humour and anecdote Stella also reminds us to remain hopeful. In “Weaver of Mats”, “Do Not Pull Me Down”, “Teach the Nation Poetry”, “Sappho Opportunities”, “Dark Kiss”, “Joyously Dance Again” and others, Stella reminds us of the importance of pleasure, creativity, laughter, love and friendship in our freedom fighting. Much of this is made possible by feminist comradeship – from wherever we stand, we must show up for each other with what we have. And like Audre Lorde has written that our silence will never protect us, Stella urges us:
Warrior of free speech and truth,
Wear your lipstick shamelessly.
Defender of voice and free expression,
Wear your lipstick as war-paint.
– Wear Your Lipstick Powerfully