MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
To Uganda now, where speaking against the government means you will face tough consequences. We're going to hear about a woman who doesn't care. She is a university researcher, a feminist, a writer of erotic nonfiction. She has emerged as one of the regime's most serious and profane adversaries. She's already been jailed. NPR's Eyder Peralta brings us this profile, which does include some strong language.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: These days you usually find Stella Nyanzi in court.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Dr. Stella Nyanzi under application number 64.
PERALTA: The first time I meet her, the government is arguing that she is crazy and should submit to a medical evaluation. She just sits there taking notes, smiling. Not-so-secret agents look over shoulders. They peek at my notebook. And before long, the judge sends court to recess and a horde of media surround Stella Nyanzi.
PERALTA: It was just a few months ago that she was released from prison too weak to walk. She was in for a month for insulting the president, for calling him a pair of buttocks and talking about the size of the first lady's vagina. But here Stella Nyanzi seems at ease, joking, dropping vulgarities. She tells me she's a woman at her wit's end. Both her parents are dead. She lost her job. She's dead broke.
STELLA NYANZI: What else will they do? Kill me? If they kill me, it defeats their purpose. I'm liberated (laughter). I rest in some earth, and I go home victorious.
PERALTA: Here in Uganda, people like Nyanzi are rare. Yoweri Museveni came into power in 1986, and he's made sure that any serious dissent is shut down. There's a law, for example, that bans gatherings of more than 3 people. Political analyst Bernard Sabiti.
BERNARD SABITI: I'm sure you'll find that in that context, then people reach a point where they use desperate means to express their feelings.
PERALTA: He says Nyanzi fits right into that category. Because there are no legitimate ways to be heard in Uganda, Nyanzi, he says, has resorted to vicious barbs.
SABITI: To be that no-holds-barred in a way alienates certain allies who would have supported your cause.
PERALTA: I sit with Stella Nyanzi at a rooftop cafe overlooking Kampala. Just a few years ago, she was a little-known anthropologist studying sex at Makerere University. But in 2014, her life changed. Her dad was a medical doctor, but he died because the hospitals near his house didn't have the right medicine. And then in 2015, her mother died because an ambulance didn't have fuel to take her to the hospital. If this could happen to her, a privileged Ugandan, she thought, what happens to the poor?
NYANZI: So suddenly, the issues of those poor women, those poor Ugandans became my issues. And sometimes it takes that sort of awakening.
PERALTA: She began to write critically of the government on Facebook, and her relationship with her university deteriorated. She was suspended, but she chained herself to her office. And suddenly Stella Nyanzi was all over Ugandan TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
NYANZI: Why is no one taking action against the poor? I am...
PERALTA: In front of the cameras and students, as a form of protest in the conservative nation, she stripped naked.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Listen to us. We are suffering from the same oppression, the same dictatorship.
NYANZI: You can't talk here. Everybody...
PERALTA: For Nyanzi, a Ph.D. who loved her academic job, losing it felt like she had lost everything. And then last year, the first lady backed off from a campaign promise to provide free sanitary pads to schoolgirls, and Stella Nyanzi was enraged once more. She hurled insults on Facebook, and then she started collecting pads and money on GoFundMe. She was arrested the day she was going to deliver free pads to the first lady's constituency.
NYANZI: Look. What did I do? I wasn't doing it to the girls. I wasn't shaming the girls. I wasn't putting women's menstruation out there just for the sake of getting sanitary pads. I was saying, screw you, Museveni. And I think it was fun (laughter).
PERALTA: After jail, Nyanzi says she thought about reforming, especially because a raid on her home scared her three children. But then she thinks about her mom and her dad and all the other Ugandans suffering through a corrupt regime, and her blood boils.
NYANZI: For me, I don't have guns. I don't have money. I don't have clout. I have Facebook, and I have language. And I think we can be polite and continue suffering, or we can step out and be rude and get some - maybe they won't give us the sanitary pads or the public health services or - but they'll know that we know.
PERALTA: Nyanzi is still awaiting trial after being accused of insulting the president. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Kampala.
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