This Ugandan Activist and Poet Refuses To Be Silenced

Speaking out can come at a high price. But Dr. Stella Nyanzi is always asking herself what she can do to keep the fight going. 

This Ugandan Activist and Poet Refuses To Be Silenced
In this photo taken on April 13, 2017, police lead Dr Stella Nyanzi to Buganda Road Court in the capital Kampala, Uganda.

Speaking out can come at a high price. But Dr. Stella Nyanzi is always asking herself what she can do to keep the fight going. 

Dr. Nyanzi is a Ugandan feminist, activist, academic, and poet known for her outspoken advocacy on social and political issues, particularly women's rights and gender equality. She gained international attention for her fearless and provocative style of activism, often writing and performing explicit poems and songs to criticize the government of Yoweri Museveni. She was abducted by plainclothes men during a period of heightened criticism, marking the first of several abductions.

She became widely known for a campaign advocating for sanitary pads for schoolgirls in Uganda, particularly for those who could not afford them. Ugandan President Museveni campaigned on the promise to provide sanitary pads. But when Museveni failed to deliver his promise, Dr. Nyanzi - fueled by the government's hypocrisy and duplicity - harshly spoke out against Museveni. 

In this exclusive question-and-answer interview, we delve into Dr. Nyanzi's extraordinary journey from Uganda to exile in Germany, shedding light on the paranoia she faced in her home country, the chilling details of her abduction, and the profound personal losses that have fueled her activism.

Shivan: At what stage of your activism were you at when you were abducted?

Dr Nyanzi: I've been arrested so many times. I've been arrested, and I know what an arrest is. I also know what an abduction is. It was an abduction, not an arrest. I was at the height of my criticism, very acidic criticism, sort of satirical making a tomfoolery of Yoweri Museveni’s government and his wife. Their hypocrisy and duplicity around the failed promise to provide sanitary pads to young girls who have to miss school because they can't afford to protect themselves from getting soiled.

And when he was campaigning leading up to the 2016 elections, Yoweri Museveni made a promise. He told rural communities that if they voted him into the presidency, he would provide sanitary pads, exercise books, geometry sets, and scholastic material to their children. There many presidential failed promises in Uganda and other dictatorships. But for me, because it was not important, it was not necessary, it was not relevant for him to include women's periods. The fact that he went there, I thought, 'Okay, we'll hold you up to this promise.' He won the elections, the assumption is that poor people were persuaded to give him their votes. The other argument is he rigged the elections like we know him to do. But when he went to the presidency, to the State House, he appointed his wife as Minister of Education. And then he sent his wife to parliament to inform them there was no money to fulfill the menstruation, hygiene products promise. 

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni in 2023

I was outraged. I was like, 'No! A lot of promises have been made and broken, but this one, I can mobilize women, whether they're from the party of the president or the opposition, or even those who are not interested in politics. Anyone who menstruates.'  Women, transgender people, but also men who either have a mother or a sister, or a daughter, or a wife or a lover, a menstruator in their lives can be mobilized regardless of our political differences, ethnic differences, even income differences. We can congregate around menstruation. 

We were singing on television. These chants we were singing and dancing to in a way that really ridiculed and shamed the government. And then we were distributing sanitary pads to young girls. 

And we made a call to anyone who was interested to fundraise, give us sanitary pads.If the president cannot distribute them, me, and the people who came in response to the call would distribute the sanitary pads. And so it was one of those fundraisers. And we’d gone to a few schools to distribute sanitary pads. A fellowship in the city center in Kampala then invited me and my comrades and said 'There are a number of wealthy middle class people who meet monthly. Come and talk to us.' And we had a very successful pitch. Money was collected, pledges were made. We were fundraising.

And in that meeting room, I began to see totally militarized bodies coming in. They were not in uniform, but one can read from posture. And I left. I went to the ladies room and thought, ‘how do I escape?’ I look through the window and there are military trucks. I got a young man to put me in the bottom of his car. He drove outside the hotel where this was happening. And then I sat to wait for my driver. As I sat waiting for my driver, my car was suddenly surrounded, especially by men. They broke into this car. They just pulled me out. I lost consciousness. And when I regained consciousness, I'm in a car in the middle of two men.

I'm lying in the back seat, and they're driving circuitously. I say to them, ‘Open the windows, I'm suffocating, I can't breathe.’ I said to them, ‘Who are you? Identify yourselves.’ I said to them, ‘If I'm arrested, you must identify yourselves. What am I charged with? Who are you, you're not wearing a police uniform?’ And they're very rude and harsh in responding to me. They tell me, ‘How dare you insult the president? How dare you question the president? How dare you mobilize Ugandans around menstruation?’ 

And they drove around Kampala city making stops threatening me, shouting at me. I was telling them about my rights, and I was screaming at the top of my voice. They tried to muzzle me, and eventually I was dumped in the basement of a building. I don't know where this was. I was there for a few days. Later on, I understood that the people with whom I was fundraising with had gotten a message from the man who drove me out and left me in his car waiting. Then they tried to look for me in every police station in Kampala city. They couldn't identify where I was. I think it was three days later that I was dumped in the Special Investigations Unit, a post outside the city very close to what we call safe houses. Safe houses are unidentified deserted detention facilities that look like residential buildings with high raised perimeters around them. But many times they are detention facilities where detainees are interrogated, tortured on charges that are not recorded in the police records. So it's irregular detention - as I was abducted.

You said: 'What stage in my life?' Well, I was being an activist, I was writing critically of the government, I was organizing women. And our campaign did so well because we went to district schools, we went to village schools, and we were able to collaborate with members of parliament in the opposition. And we challenged the president. 

Shivan: When you were dumped in the building basement, did you realize what was happening? What was going through your mind? 

Dr. Nyanzi: I was campaigning for period products. And I was on my period. So, three days without a bathroom, without a change of underwear, without water. For anyone, that's much, even for me, with all my strength

My female body was not prepared. I was hungry. But what do you eat? Who do you eat with? What do you do?  But you say to me, 'What was I thinking?' First, I wasn't thinking, there wasn't clarity. I was also going in and out of consciousness for a little while. And I look around this dark room. It's a cold floor, I'm on the floor. And I'm not sure what's going on. 

Shivan: What motivated you to so fiercely fight for this cause? 

Dr. Nyanzi: The idea that the so-called father of the nation - President Museveni -  that he could be given permission by women and girls, if not all nationals, to talk about menstruation periods in vain was unacceptable. There was something about feminist rage. Yoweri Museveni is praised for women emancipation, taking women from the kitchen and bringing them to the sitting rooms. Taking them from the backyards and the gardens and taking them to parliament. Our vice president is a woman. Our prime minister is a woman. We have so many women members of parliament. And I was thinking, 'What are these women doing? What are they doing for other women? What are they doing for poor women, poor girls?' This gratitude among women in the country that he has empowered and liberated us. How do you liberate us? But we still don't go to school because we are bleeding! 

That triggered me. Also, my parents' unnecessary death radicalized me because my father was a medical doctor. He did not need a doctor to diagnose what was wrong with him. But he dies looking for medicine from clinic to health center to hospital. And the failure to provide menstruation products is the same failure to provide public health services. My mother dies waiting for an ambulance that doesn't show up. The same failure of government. 

Shivan: I’m sorry to hear about your parents’ passing. How did this deeply personal experience shape your activism?

Dr. Nyanzi: Prior to my father's death, I wasn't interested in the politics of my country. No, I wasn't interested.

Shivan: So you did not anticipate going down the path of activism until this happened?

Dr. Nyanzi: I graduated from my first degree in 1997. I went and did research. I was writing and publishing for years, about a whole decade. My work was academic and abstract, removed from the pain and plight and poverty and ugliness of everyday living, especially for poor people. 

The first time I come really in close contact with the pain of a government that does not provide medicine is with my father's death. It becomes up close and personal. The first time I experienced the pain of millions of Ugandans who rely on good public health services from the government is when I'm listening to how my father is driving at night from hospital to hospital 'cause he’s gotten a heart attack. He knows he needs one vial of medicine. So we are driving from his village house to a public health center. The nurse comes in, there's no medicine. Drive again, about 20 more minutes. And my father is heaving and saying, ‘I'm going to die. I know if I don't get this medicine in 10 minutes, I'm dying.’

So they drive to the main hospital in the district. This vial of medicine is not there. So he is referred to the main district referral hospital. And as he is entering the gate, my father dies. Now the same thing is replayed with my mom. For my mother, we were speaking on the phone separated by a two hour drive. She falls and can't lift herself. And I'm calling the hospital for an ambulance.

They’re telling me, ‘The ambulance is there, but the driver's salary hasn't been paid for six months. Can you at least pay him for a month.’ And I'm calling mommy, ‘Mommy, are you well?’ She's like, ‘Stella, my chest is so heavy. I need someone to come help me get up.’ And I'm like, 'Don't worry, I'm still trying to get you an ambulance.' The hospital is five minutes away from where we live. So if there was an ambulance on time, maybe my mother would still be alive. So I called the hospital back, ‘Have you been able to find the driver?’ So when we find the driver, he says, ‘Oh, we don't have fuel in the ambulance. Can you send us money for fuel?’

I mobilized my sisters. We are ready to send the money. And then I'm calling my mom. She's like, ‘Stella I feel like I really want to vomit, but I can't lift my chest to vomit.’ And I'm calling these people again. And time is going. The neighbors came and carried my mother into their private car, and drove her to the hospital. Just as they were lifting her onto the hospital bed, she died. And I think for me, it was the double pain one year apart: My father dies in August 2014. My mother dies in August 2015, just one day after his death.

That never left me the same.

Dr. Stella Nyanzi speaks in court in Kampala, Uganda on August 1, 2019

Shivan: How did it reflect in your writing?

Dr. Nyanzi: My writing takes on a very bitter, abrasive, urgent tone coming from the place of the grave. In that time, I wrote a lot of poetry about children who have to mourn unnecessarily. Why are people dying because of government negligence? And I think some of my most hard-hitting poetry was generated in that season. And I think part of the urgency with which I write is this sense of lost time. I lost so much time doing academic work that I didn't have enough input. So I take on the more poetic, symbolic, figurative, beautiful, language. It's really beautiful because it's  working with language to impute particular messages, urgent messages that come from this pain of grieving my parents. And I don't have any regrets. 

People asked me questions like, 'How much money would your Museveni pay you to either keep quiet or begin writing for the regime? You could write for us and grow wealthy. And I said, 'Bring back my father. Give him back to me. That is how dear it'll cost. Bring back my mother after giving me my father.' And it's impossible. My father paid the ultimate price. And I think part of the guilt for me is that my eyes opened after his passing. At his passing, I realized, 'Oh my God, he shielded me so long. He shielded my sisters for so long. I should have done so much more, so much earlier, perhaps daddy would be alive.'

And in some ways there's this struggle to reconcile my non-involvement and blindness prior to my parents' departure. The negligence of the state led to their deaths. And in my writing those days, I used to say, Museveni murdered my father, Museveni murdered my mother. And people would say, ‘What do you mean?’ But for me, the connections are very clear: the lack of public health services led to my parents' deaths. 

Shivan: Why did you choose poetry as your medium of expression?

Dr. Nyanzi: I work in different genres. I write prose. I write academic articles. I write short stories. But poetry has an urgency. The literary tools that are available to us, the symbolic language, the metaphors. Couching one thing into another, into another, is powerful. And one doesn't have to write a whole script. One could write a short verse. And that in and of itself is enough. It's a whole production. I think for me that poetry invites emotion as much as it also invites logic. But sometimes it can just be rough and emotional, and that's okay in poetry. And I think African poetry particularly is open verse freestyle. It can be anything. And I think that a number of Ugandan poets who've gone before my generation, gave us the permission and the license to break normative, stylistic rules about how to write a sonnet. 

And so I like to work with the flexibility, the malleability, the changeability, the amorphousness and ambiguity of African poems and crafts of writing. I like Radical Rudeness because in Uganda, during the anti-colonial wars, it was elite men who used this style to shock the colonizer, the queen, and the colonial administrative power. And I think that part of the horror around what I do is that I'm just a tiny woman appropriating a craft that was used by elite men. And for me, I think it's very empowering. To write the way I write is not for everybody. But I think it's a powerful medium because it says to people, 'Stop and listen. Stop, it's not beautiful.' And for me, it serves my purposes very well.

Shivan: When you started using poetry to express discontent, were you aware of the risks involved? 

Dr. Nyanzi: Every time I say ‘No,’ people are kind of surprised about my naivety. But maybe I'm naive. Maybe I live in a very utopian world where I still imagine that one shouldn't be punished because of what one writes or says. I very much believe in my freedom and right to express myself whichever way. And if I choose not to write disgustingly about a disgusting government, that should be my choice. But if I write in non-conventional, rude, abrasive ways, that shouldn't be grounds for my persecution by the state because our constitution gives us the right to express ourselves.

And part of the pity is even after my first abduction, I go back to writing. Even after my second arrest, I go back to writing. I refuse. I refuse to acknowledge the danger. Having gone to prison the first time, having gone to court, having gone through all these different modes of intimidation, I learned it's a dangerous world for people who write freely as I do. For people who criticize abundantly, have an abundance of opinions that don't agree with the ruling government. And the ruling government doesn't like that. It's threatened by strong voices such as mine. But I still insist. I must say what has to be said. And part of why I'm in exile today is so I can continue articulating these issues from a place of relative safety. It's unfortunate that I have to leave Uganda, I have to live outside Uganda in order to tell Museveni that he's a dictator. 

Shivan: What was the final straw? When did you decide you were leaving Uganda? 

Dr. Nyanzi: I was tired of going to prison. When I'm convicted and I have to serve 18 months in prison, I get tortured by prison wardens who should have been protecting me 'Safe custody,' they call prison. They beat me up. I'm pregnant, I get a miscarriage, I lose my baby. I'm denied access to my medical records. I'm denied access to post-abortion care. I'm even denied access to the little tiny dead body. And it's dumped on a rubbish pit where clinical rubbish is put with gloves and injections and all those things. That was the beginning of my disgust. I can play this dangerous game, but not at the expense of my baby. 

My relationships were affected. My lover, my children, my sisters. It became too dangerous to stay home. But I think immediately after the elections, my lover was abducted. In December, my campaign team manager was abducted. I was abducted in 2017. At that time, there were not too many abductions. By 2021, when I pack my bags and flee with my children from Uganda to Kenya, abductions have become a normal part of the day. Anyone in the opposition, anybody who criticizes, anybody who is a dissident, anybody who is associated with opposition, political parties gets picked up by gunmen and thrown into fast speeding cars and driven to God knows where. Some have returned, some have not. Some have returned maimed and scarred, their nails taken out, they've flesh torn apart, their minds fractured. And I thought, ‘No, no, no. If I stay, I must silence myself. I'm not staying.’ So just the bottom line for me was a realization that if I continued writing critically, speaking critically, protesting on the streets, they'd kill me. They'd batter me to death. That's the only way I was going to be silenced. And I wasn't going to be silenced that way.

Shivan: You’re now living in exile in Germany. How does your experience in Germany differ from what you experienced in Uganda?

Dr. Nyanzi: In Uganda my vehicle was trailed, my phone calls bugged. So coming from that background, paranoia is almost natural. It's second nature. I've been here in Germany for 18 months.

Exile has peeled away layers of paranoia. I feel that the physical distance from home has become very dangerous for me, and people such as me. The awareness of that distance has reduced paranoia. But I've been engineered to be very paranoid. And what I've learned is to use paranoia, one of the eighth or ninth senses, to be more careful around particular people, but also to use that as fuel. 

I'm always reflexively asking myself, 'What is it about that person? Why am I suddenly on edge? Why is the back of my hair standing up? Why do I feel like I want to flee?' And, this self interrogation becomes second nature.

So there's a way in which paranoia, while it may be a form of psychosis, is a necessary skill for survival that some of us have had to embrace. In some ways I'm trying to take away the shame and negative elements around paranoia and say, it could be a skill that's useful. 

Shivan: What do you think is misunderstood about being in exile?

Dr. Nyanzi: Different people have different exile experiences. In my case, there's the idea that I deserted or betrayed the liberation struggle in Uganda. And I've been accused many times, especially online, ‘You're a deserter, you're defectant. You left us, you betrayed us.’ And the idea that one must be in Uganda to continue contributing meaningfully to the liberation struggle is a misunderstanding of what exile does. Exile gave me the opportunity to stay alive. Many times I tell people, ‘a dead soldier cannot fight.’ I was going to die in Uganda, but at least in exile, I'm still alive. I'm taking care of my wounds and getting some healing, and I can still participate.

My greatest contribution to the liberation struggle in Uganda was voice and articulation. Words and text, and maybe protest actions physically. Apart from protesting physically in the streets in Uganda, I can do everything else. I can speak what people can't speak. People who are close to the government, close to Uganda, will be arrested and punished. So the idea that exile silences us is not true. 

I think the other one is the assumption that exile is necessarily a place of loss and pain and poverty. Actually I gained. I gained access to libraries and a good public health infrastructure. I have access to all these first world amenities. I have access to networks that were not accessible from home. 

Of course, there’s loss. I miss home. I long for home. I miss my lover. I miss the action, the in-your-face timely protest against every bad thing that's happening at home. But perhaps for now that distance is necessary. Is it a loss? I'm hopeful that I'll go home one day. I hope I don't go home in a coffin. I hope I don't go home too late. I hope that Museveni will leave power and home will become safe enough for people like me to go back.

Shivan: What do you think your impact has been so far? And what do you want it to be?

Dr. Nyanzi: Rebellion. I've taught people it's okay to rebel.

I hope I have given people reason to believe it's possible to rebel against dictatorships using everyday skills like language and writing and expression. That one need not pick up a gun in order to speak effectively to gunmen. That there are ways in which we can challenge obstinate oppressive power using our creativity.

Bullets can't shoot down my sentences. Handcuffs cannot handcuff my paragraphs. Prison cannot imprison ink. Part of what I have done is to give permission to others who need permission to write, maybe not as vulgarly as me, not as boldly and crassly and brazenly as I do, but to write from wherever they are.

Shivan: What is the fire that keeps you going despite the horrors you’ve experienced?

Dr. Nyanzi: I think it's not about me. The issues have not gone away.

Museveni is still in power. Kids still don't go to school when they menstruate. Women still die in childbirth. The issues that I'm writing about haven't ended. The motive to write is still there. The counter question to that would be, 'Well, do you think your writing is going to take Museveni out of power?' That is not the point. The point is to keep writing and encourage others to write against those violations until we see better. I will not silence myself. 

I was still writing in prison. I was handcuffed and naked. They took off all my clothes. They handcuffed me and they paraded me through the prison grounds and took me to solitary confinement. They had poured water on the floor. And with those handcuffs I scratched into the wall of solitary confinement, ‘You may take away my liberty, but you won't take my freedom.’ And I wrote Bob Marley's words, ‘Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery.’ Very long sentences and I'm writing with handcuffs. When these prison wardresses came to the solitary confinement place, they said, ‘How did she write this? How did she write this? And I showed them, you gave me the tool. Your handcuffs become my pen.’

And it was painful. Every time you press the handcuffs, they cut into you. I have these little scars on my hand where the handcuffs were pressing into me as I was writing. So I think I won't stop. If I was writing in solitary confinement, writing into the wall, writing with handcuffs, I think I won’t stop. 

Shivan: How would you encourage creatives also facing grave risks to find their strength?

Dr. Nyanzi: Find it. Find it. For me, it's not strength. It's often outrage. Many times I'm thinking, 'What else can I do to keep the fight going? I'm not giving up on this one.' I've learned that there's always a brilliant idea lurking somewhere in our minds. From our creativity, from our rebellion. There are moments when it's important to show, even though you've beaten the living daylights out of me, I still have the mental strength to challenge you. And there's nothing wrong with challenging, with questioning, with interrogating. I'm cause driven. As long as the cause still needs speaking up about, just find ways to speak about it.