Baring it all: Supporters of Ugandan human rights activist Stella Nyanzi are roughed up by police at court. (Sumy Sadurni/AFP)
Stella Nyanzi divides opinion: is she a relentless human rights campaigner or a vulgar and uncouth woman?
Judging by her impact, it is undoubtedly the former: if the edifice that supports patriarchal systems in Uganda shows signs of dents and bruises, it is from Nyanzi’s one-woman campaign to kick down doors — physical or otherwise — putting women at the centre of spaces from which they have been historically marginalised.
“If decent language has not been used to effect change on behalf of Ugandans, of what use is it? I would rather insult and change things, revise the balance of power, than keep quiet or be polite in ways that do not change anything,” said Nyanzi, an academic, feminist and activist at Makerere University in Kampala, after declaring her intention to run for Parliament in next year’s election.
Ugandans have tried moderate, quiet candidates, but Nyanzi’s outspokenness offers something different. It would be a shame if we let this opportunity pass. She says what she means and will defend it to the hilt — even if it means going to prison. Think of the torment Nyanzi has gone through: many people would have compromised, but she stood up for her principles.
Uganda needs a politician who will challenge our comfort zone. Surely Nalongo Dr Stella Nyanzi would unflinchingly challenge such folly if she were in Parliament.
“Nalongo” means “mother of twins”. The first twins in Buganda were recorded during the reign of the first king of Buganda, Kabaka Kintu. This was so unusual at the time, the story goes that the gods were consulted through a medium called Kaaye, who deemed that unusual things would be allowed to happen.
In the Kiganda tradition, when a woman becomes a Nalongo, this gives her licence to publicly mouth bawdy obscenities of varying shades.
A licence for ‘radical activism’
Nyanzi has sometimes used this unusual licence to antagonise the ruling class through her “radical activism”. Like the anti-colonial female legend Queen Muhumuza — who antagonised the colonial rulers in 1900s East Africa — Nyanzi is a symbol of resistance against the tyranny of the current governing class, who inherited a skewed political institution left by the colonialists.
Unlike many former army generals who protest against President Yoweri Museveni’s never-ending regime — he has been in power since 1986 — only in the run up to an election then curiously retire quietly soon after the election, Nyanzi has proved to be a force to be reckoned with.
She didn’t stand idly watching the Constitution get butchered without using tools, however outrageous. She protested against numerous constitutional changes at every turn, including the removal of presidential term and age limits that have enabled Museveni to stay 34 years in power.
Nyanzi has spent more time in jail than Bobi Wine, the young and popular opposition leader who is planning to run against Museveni for president. Time in jail is not a qualification for political office, of course, as four times opposition candidate Kizza Besigye would testify — Besigye has been arrested so frequently that some people describe him as “the world’s most arrested man”.
But Nyanzi’s track record of suffering for her convictions shows that she would doubtless energise the next Parliament and expose absurdities without fear or favour.
Nyanzi does not let her own rights be trampled on. When she took on a distinguished academic, Mahmood Mamdani, whom she alleged had blocked her promotion, everyone thought she was finished — but Nyanzi was eventually awarded compensation. And constant criticism has not stopped her from campaigning for free sanitary products for all teenage girls, as well as the rights of minorities in Uganda.
Radical protests against the patriarchy
A lot of Ugandans understandably find Nyanzi’s mode of protest — including vulgar insults and stripping to make a point — unsettling, given the influence of conservative Christianity in the country.
However, that is exactly why any Ugandan should vote for her. Taboo-breaking, unsettling protests led by women are actually common across Africa. Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan activist and Nobel Peace prize laureate, famously stripped to protest police brutality; in South Africa, women silently waved underwear in the air during a speech by President Cyril Ramaphosa in solidarity with victims of gender-based violence. Women have not been afraid to shock the public for a greater political or societal good.
In many African communities, a woman’s body is supposed to be revered. Her nakedness is seen as sacred. Wilful nudity, therefore, shocks and unnerves men. A woman undressing in protest is the signal that the authority of men is no longer recognised. It is not a surprise that decency laws in some African countries target women. That’s why stripping is seen as the ultimate protest to subvert patriarchy. It forces people to pay attention and listen.
Nyanzi challenges Uganda’s patriarchy, and makes the country better as a result. In Parliament, together with other reformists, her influence would be even greater, allowing her to articulate her vision on the national stage.