Sometime in 2015, Dr Stella Nyanzi and I were gossiping in the compound of our institute, Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR).
When her driver arrived to pick her up, we still had to plan for a Cranes game we were preparing to watch at Namboole stadium the following day. [For the record, Nyanzi never missed a game when The Cranes were playing. Inspired by her two little adorable twins whose love for football is intense, Nyanzi had transformed into one of The Cranes elite supporters, and those who saw her out there in the stands, and on the road, attest that Uncle Money had a potent competitor]. Forgive my meanderings; let me return to the MISR story.
I do not recall how or why Nyanzi ended up on top of her peach black Toyota Ipsum. But I recall offering her my back to jump on to get her down. When she jumped onto my back, a friend took some nice shots of the incident as she had clung onto my back – as I also refused to put her down – assuring her that I was fit for the game [no pun intended – we were preparing for one]. I still have those pictures in my phone. Joly, playful, and daring are impressions many friends of Nyanzi have of her as she went about her daily chores.
Before the Mahmood Mamdani-Nyanzi debacle of 2016, Nyanzi was a little-known queer scholar but with a hugely rising star. I was president of the MISR students union then, and Nyanzi and I enjoyed extended conversations over many topics, both local and international: national identity, Buganda culture, language and literature, sexuality, and democracy.
To access my office, I often passed by Nyanzi’s ever-open window. It had become custom to stand by her window for extended “greetings,” turning and winding over one topic or another. I published some of our conversations in this space and exorbitantly mentioned the genesis of those ramblings.
Then came 2016. Our views became more polarized. The major difference this time, however, was that we boxed in front of scribes. And as is well-known, Nyanzi is a passionate conversationist, and tireless pugilist. But that is not the story I want to tell today.
I was at home recently watching the news with my six-year-old son when pictures of Nyanzi played on screen. My son turned to me gaily: “There is your friend in the phone; what is wrong with her?” he asked. [By the way, my son and I hold conversation in Luganda, and what you are reading are loose translations].
“Museveni imprisoned her,” I said. “Museveni imprisoned her! Why?” “Because she wrote a poem about him, his wife, and his mother,” I said. “What is a poem? Is writing a poem bad?” my son returned in quick successions.
I said writing poems was a good thing. “Do you like writing poems?” he asked. Despite having written no poems, I said yes. “Will Museveni imprison you too?” my boy continued.
“Yes, Museveni will imprison me too!” After a small pause, my son pensively returned: “If Museveni imprisons you, I will go with you,” then declared: “Nze Museveni simwagala!” Before he would ask me whether I liked Museveni myself, I quickly told him how much I loved him (not necessarily for not loving Museveni, but for simply being my son).
The moment I started fumbling over my son’s innocent curiosity, and anticipating myself in prison, it powerfully struck me, more than ever before that it had become terribly difficult to explain the national condition under Museveni with basic reason and logic.
Surely, why is Stella Nyanzi in prison? Museveni’s surrogates have explained that Nyanzi “hurt Museveni’s feeling” when she “denigrated” his dead mother in a poem [sic]. This president who went to the bush and killed people when he disagreed with the status quo is now hurt by mere words of those who disagree with him. What irony! What brittleness has become of our hard-boiled president!
In truth, Stella Nyanzi is the absolute portrait of a political prisoner of our time. Hers is a classic textbook case: political prisoners are never politicians in the ordinary sense. They tend to be public intellectuals – poets, painters, and other exceptionally gifted activists who choose to use their reason for the public good.
Like characters in a Waiting for Godot drama, they end in prison for reasons that even their jailors cannot explain. Interestingly, succeeding governments build monuments for political prisoners, and their suffering often translates into the happiness of theirs and the jailor’s grandchildren.
The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.