Stella Nyanzi's Poetry of Protest in Uganda : Rough Translation After a Ugandan scholar is suspended from her university job, she discovers a new tool for resistance: extreme public rudeness. Will it work against a strongman president?

Radical Rudeness

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GREGORY WARNER, HOST:

You're listening to ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner. And today, a story from Uganda about a woman who has elevated insults to an art form that even the president of her country, Yoweri Museveni, has not been able to ignore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STELLA NYANZI: Yoweri, they say it was your birthday yesterday - how bitterly sad a day.

WARNER: Now, before we go further, a language alert - this episode includes language that is vulgar and is sexual in nature. It is by far the most explicit episode I have ever worked on. It might be the most graphic thing in your podcast feed right now. And so it goes without saying, some of you may not find this appropriate for kids or safe for work. But we have left this language unbleeped because this episode is all about the art of the inappropriate and the role of incivility and put-downs in politics in a country that prides itself on being highly proper and where being seen as vulgar can have severe consequences, which brings us back to this birthday poem about the president's birth to his late mother Esteri.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STELLA NYANZI: Yoweri, they say it was your birthday yesterday - how painfully ugly a day. I wish the lice-filled bush of dirty pubic hair overgrown all over Esiteri's unwashed chuchu (ph) had strangled you at birth, strangled you just like the long tentacles of corruption you sowed and watered into our bleeding economy. I wish the infectious, dirty-brown discharge flooding Esiteri's loose pussy had drowned you to death, drowned you as vilely as you have sank and murdered the dreams and aspirations of millions of youths who languish in the deep sea of massive unemployment and underemployment in Uganda.

WARNER: Uganda is a very conservative and very Christian country. A majority of Ugandans say that they would approve of the Bible being the law of the land. During the AIDS epidemic, President Museveni organized abstinence pride parades. And more recently, his government proposed a ban on miniskirts and the death penalty for being gay. It's a country where you get political power by claiming to defend morality. The author of this poem, Stella Nyanzi, was put on trial and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STELLA NYANZI: Yoweri, they say it was your birthday yesterday - how traumatically wasted a day. I wish the poisoned uterus sitting just above Esiteri's dry clitoris had prematurely miscarried a thing to be cast upon a manure pit, prematurely miscarried just like you prematurely aborted any semblance of democracy, good governance and rule of law.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WARNER: This is NPR's ROUGH TRANSLATION with the last in our series School of Scandal. I'm Gregory Warner.

Today we have an origin story about how an elite, academic, queer feminist scholar became a populist hero in a deeply conservative Christian country. Stella and people like her are spearheading a shift in how the art of politics is waged in other African countries. She turned crass insults into a merciless force. But this is also a really intimate story about the price of that, both to Stella and to her family. ROUGH TRANSLATION - back after these messages.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRICKETS CHIRPING)

WARNER: Am I hearing crickets on your end, or is that just audio?

EYDER PERALTA, HOST:

You might. No, there might be crickets, and I can't believe you can hear that on WhatsApp.

WARNER: We first heard about Stella Nyanzi from NPR's East Africa correspondent, Eyder Peralta. Eyder first met Stella before she'd written the birthday poem. She'd already spent time in jail for other poetry she'd written about the president.

PERALTA: One of the first things she told me was like, where can we go where I won't be poisoned? We drove to a cafe on the rooftop of a hotel. I order coffee. She orders some tea.

STELLA NYANZI: So what records? Is it this or that? Or...

PERALTA: No, this records.

And then she looks at my left hand where I have - I have what used to be a sixth finger.

STELLA NYANZI: Hey, you have a little finger - another one.

PERALTA: I do.

STELLA NYANZI: Was it operated or not?

PERALTA: It was. (Unintelligible) Cut it off.

STELLA NYANZI: (Gasping) Did it have a bone? I've always wondered, do they have bones inside?

PERALTA: I don't think it had a bone, just tissue.

STELLA NYANZI: Just flesh - sorry, I'm just rude again. But...

PERALTA: And that was, like, the thing that, like - that I was always self-conscious about. Right? And the idea that she would pick up...

WARNER: She sort of smelled it.

PERALTA: ...On that immediately. She smelled me.

WARNER: She smelled it on you.

PERALTA: Right, right. She is very purposely trying to put you in an uncomfortable spot. I mean, that's what she does in her activism, and that's what she was doing right there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Stella learned her curiosity about the human body from her father, a successful doctor and a district medical officer for the region. He used to take Stella on walks and quiz her about anatomy. And her dad always emphasized that Stella and her three sisters were special, destined for great things. Stella's youngest sister, Sheila, remembers this phrase that her dad used.

SHEILA NYANZI: He always said, oh, (non-English language spoken), you know? We Nyanzis don't do that. And you had that pride of - excuse me, I'm a Nyanzi.

WARNER: You didn't wear jeans or drink from a plastic cup. Quitting was not allowed, nor was being shy. And the sisters were expected to have respectable careers. Sheila, the youngest, became a corporate lawyer while Stella became a research fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research or MISR, housed at one of the most prestigious universities on the continent. But she used that respectable post to research something seen as taboo.

STELLA NYANZI: Having a scholar in Uganda working on homosexuality during that very homophobic time, queering what MISR. I had queers, you know, sashaying into MISR any time.

PERALTA: President Museveni, he has said, we know people who are rumored to be gay. And I think one of the things that Stella Nyanzi did was she documented that gay people do exist.

WARNER: Like, homosexuality is not just a foreign import. It is something...

PERALTA: Right.

WARNER: ...That - there are real flesh-and-blood Ugandans who are gay and lesbian.

PERALTA: Yes. And that's - and I think that's huge. And it's coming from a university that is respected.

STELLA NYANZI: I'm read in, like, medical anthropology journals. I'm doing culture, health and sexuality. And in my own area at that time - sexuality - there were not very many Africans writing about African sexualities and contributing into these spaces.

WARNER: Stella told Eyder, this really was her dream job. She felt free to research what she wanted, and she had the respect of a tenure-track academic with invites to conferences and media panels and a nice office and a salary to raise her three kids as a single mom.

STELLA NYANZI: I come in thinking permanent and pensionable, right?

WARNER: A permanent and pensionable job.

STELLA NYANZI: And for me, it's like liberation. The dream was to be like la professeur, the go-to professor for African sexualities, specifically Uganda.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: And then one summer day in 2014, when her father was in his late 60s, he had a stroke. It came upon him gradually, as some strokes do. And as a doctor, he not only realized he was having a stroke, he was able to call up the nearest clinic and tell them exactly the anti-clotting medication that might save his life.

STELLA NYANZI: My father knew. He's educated. He's gone to Michigan for crying out loud.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERALTA: And he went - he went, she says, to three different clinics, and they didn't have the medicine for him.

WARNER: He died that night of a heart attack in the backseat of a car, still searching for that medication.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STELLA NYANZI: I'm like, how does a medical doctor die? He has all the knowledge he needs. He just needs the government to provide services for hospitals. I think in that moment, I realized we're impotent as the middle class.

WARNER: Stella calls herself middle class because she grew up with formal dinners and a library with works of Nietzsche. But now she felt like a fool to think that their family's education or their accomplishments or their status could protect them from the country's problems.

STELLA NYANZI: I knew it as a fact. I thought my dick was so hot. I should have been part of the struggle for a long, long time. But I think for me, that's when I - when it comes home that Museveni's not good for us, he's bad. How can Daddy die because there's no medicine?

WARNER: And exactly a year after her father dies for the lack of a vial of medicine, her mother collapses in her yard, and she dies because there's no ambulance to come pick her up in time.

STELLA NYANZI: And for me - people say I'm insane. But I hold Museveni directly responsible for my father's death. Did his murder my father? Of course. Did he murder my mother? Give her an ambulance. She was there languishing. There's no ambulance.

WARNER: We reached out to the Ugandan government several times for comment on this story. They did not respond.

PERALTA: But Stella is not the only one drawing a connection between the endemic corruption that Museveni's regime has enabled and the poor state of the country's health care. One report that came out around this time from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, it found that 70% of Ugandan clinics they visited had run out of key medicines. And that's even though the government had been given the money by international donors to buy these medicines.

WARNER: Stella's sister Sheila watched how the death of her parents changed Stella.

SHEILA NYANZI: My father died like a common man. He was not common man. And that was what really fueled Stella.

WARNER: Stella had always been antiauthoritarian. There's a tree in their grade school called the punishment tree. It has many of young carvings on it. The tree was a place where kids were supposed to stand in shame, but Stella turned it into a platform. But then, after her parents died, something changed.

SHEILA NYANZI: The two people she feared are dead - Daddy, Mummy - everybody else, not even herself. I think her sense of self-preservation departed.

WARNER: The breaking point for Stella came after something seemingly small, a dispute with her boss at the university, one that will be probably familiar to many in academia. The university wanted her to teach classes. She said she'd been hired as a researcher, not a teacher. They said she wasn't publishing enough to be a researcher. It went on like this, and eventually she was suspended.

PERALTA: And she is told by the university that she will no longer have access to her office - that they're going to take everything out, that they're going to change the locks and she won't have access to this space that she really loved.

WARNER: And she pulls out all her middle-class connections to restore that post. She even hires a lawyer to sue the university.

STELLA NYANZI: I brought letters. They said, why didn't she write letters? I did. What didn't she try counsel? I did. I tried so hard, and nobody cared.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: And so early one morning, she shows up at her old office with padlocks and a bucket of red paint. She'd invited journalists to come film her.

PERALTA: And she starts her protest by just painting, like, some of the offices red.

WARNER: She barricades herself with the padlocks behind the burglar bars that separate her block of offices.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STELLA NYANZI: Why is no one taking...

PERALTA: You hear the administrator telling her, you know, like, we can talk about this. You don't have to do this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAKERERE UNIVERSITY ADMINISTRATOR: You are right. You are right.

STELLA NYANZI: ...University I am protected. (Unintelligible) This university...

UNIDENTIFIED MAKERERE UNIVERSITY ADMINISTRATOR: You are right. You are right.

PERALTA: People are trying to talk her off a ledge, right? It's super chaotic. She's moving back and forth, like, along this corridor.

WARNER: Police show up to cut the locks. One of the biggest Ugandan TV stations, NTV, starts airing all this live.

PERALTA: They're airing this protest, and more police arrive. They start cutting the chains.

STELLA NYANZI: As they got there, I was like fuck it. I'm finished. I'm finished.

PERALTA: Right? And she knows that she doesn't have much more time. And she's live on television.

STELLA NYANZI: At the time when mothers and children are having breakfast.

WARNER: Whatever she does right now will livestream into hundreds of thousands of Ugandan homes.

STELLA NYANZI: And then, you know - like, you know, my brain works in like these amazing ways. Schwee (ph).

PERALTA: That's when the bra comes off. And everybody pauses.

WARNER: Stella is topless on national TV. And her sister Sheila is watching.

SHEILA NYANZI: So Makerere - Makerere was an absolute shocker for all of us.

PERALTA: So you hadn't talked about that with Stella?

SHEILA NYANZI: No. But I know why she didn't say to me anything - because she knew I would restrain her. I'm her only brakes in her life.

PERALTA: So you would have told her what? Like, fine - lock yourself up in the office, but don't take off your clothes? Like, I mean, where would you have braked her?

SHEILA NYANZI: Um - I think the execution would be different. Clothes, I don't - they're her clothes. It's her body. It's not mine, you know? So I don't have a right over that.

WARNER: To Eyder's surprise, it was not her sister's nakedness that bothered Sheila, the corporate lawyer. Even though Uganda is a conservative country, there is a tradition both here and on the continent of women, particularly mothers, using nudity as protest.

PERALTA: And these protests, they go way back. Some researchers have found examples in the 17th century in what was now Nigeria. Women protested the brutality of the ruler of the oil empire.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERALTA: And Nigerian women used it again against the British in the '20s. Women in Soweto protested naked against the apartheid regime, and Stella Nyanzi's protest came just about a year after a group of women in northern Uganda stripped naked to stop the government from taking their land. But to Sheila, there was an important difference between all these protests and what her big sister had done in the university. These are usually groups of women.

SHEILA NYANZI: Why did you go alone? So I think from a strategic perspective, I would have said to Stella - you know what? - bring more people on board. Execute it with numbers to give it credibility.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERALTA: I mean, even Stella's friend Dr. Sylvia Tamale, who was the first woman dean of the law school at Makerere and who had studied these kinds of protests, she begged Stella to put on her clothes. And then a while later, Tamale gave a lecture about this incident. And she wrote that in this moment - and I'm quoting her - she says, "I was shocked and horrified, embarrassed and ashamed. I thought my friend had completely lost it."

The immediate reaction was that this professor, this, you know - Dr. Stella Nyanzi had gone mad. And people commented on her breasts.

STELLA NYANZI: My breasts are special. They're just long and ugly and fat, and they have veins. And when you're angry, they look angry. When you're happy, they look happy - like, you know, breasts with special expressions.

PERALTA: They made cartoons that showed her on top of her boss in bed, and he's in a stupor. The caption is how Stella got her keys back. And I think if there was supposed to be some greater politics or philosophy to this, it was lost.

STELLA NYANZI: If the motive was really about having an office, then we failed. Oh, poor Stella, you failed. No, don't misread me.

WARNER: Her protest, she says, wasn't about getting her job back. It was more like an expression of rage and grief at being powerless on the heels of her parents' death because they were ignored.

STELLA NYANZI: What was the motive? Everybody had ignored me. I pushed and pushed. I tried so hard, and nobody cared. But that day, everybody paid attention. They acted, and I don't care. They listened. They stopped. They looked. They discussed. They (non-English language spoken). They misunderstood. But they listened. They got it. Do you get me?

WARNER: Stella, in that moment, topless on TV, declared herself a word in the Luganda language. She calls herself a nalongo, a mother of twins - which is true. Stella has an older daughter and two twin boys. But a nalongo in Uganda is also a title. And in fact, once you give birth to twins, there's this very elaborate ceremony that happens.

HAMIDA NAMATOVU CHUWANOKA: (Singing in non-English language, clapping).

WARNER: They also spend the whole night singing these just incredibly vulgar songs. Hamida Namatovu Chuwanoka is an expert in these ceremonies. She conducts them herself, and she sung one of these songs to us.

NAMATOVU CHUWANOKA: (Singing in non-English language).

WARNER: The new mom of twins is allowed to steal. In fact, it's an honor to be stolen from by her. And she can curse. The ceremony celebrates the art of cursing.

NAMATOVU CHUWANOKA: The words were very, very vulgar. Like, where she says she might not (non-English language spoken) is like vagina (non-English language spoken). It's so big, it would burst like a sweet potato.

(LAUGHTER)

PERALTA: She's saying a vagina so big, it would burst like a baked sweet potato.

TINA ANTOLINI, BYLINE: A thing that wasn't clear to me when listening to the nalongo thing...

WARNER: This, by the way, is our producer Tina Antolini.

ANTOLINI: ...Is a big vagina a good thing to have, or is it a bad thing to have?

PERALTA: Well - so for this, it's a very good thing to have. In this ceremony, a big vagina is celebrated. It's something to be proud of because there's so much pain in childbirth that pushing out one child is hard enough. To push out two is almost superhuman.

WARNER: The nalongo ceremony, with its songs and its rituals, is meant to neutralize the vagina power. Without which ritual, it's believed that all kinds of curses would be unleashed.

STELLA NYANZI: The twins will curse your family, and the girls won't get married, and the matooke plantations won't have food, and you'll have insane people, and your men will not erect. So Stella the academic, is like, what a bunch of hogwash. But Stella the performer knows that to protect herself, she's got to claim her nalongoship (ph) and do the nalongo thing.

WARNER: But if Stella didn't believe the tradition, she instinctively understood the effect it would have on her audience watching over breakfast. In fact, Stella, in her university protest, proclaims herself not just a nalongo.

PERALTA: She's saying nalongo owenene, which the translation is the mother of twins with the big vagina.

NAMATOVU CHUWANOKA: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: Hamida thinks that in that moment, Stella went too far.

NAMATOVU CHUWANOKA: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: The sort of ability to be vulgar and ability to go beyond societal norms, that's supposed to stay within that ceremony.

WARNER: She broke with the tradition.

PERALTA: That was truly the moment that Stella Nyanzi became a huge deal in Uganda.

WARNER: She gets all this attention on social media, and she starts using it to vent her frustration with the president and the first lady.

STELLA NYANZI: They're so used to policy critiques. They know it's coming. They're prepared for it. They don't give a fuck. They have money invested into normalizing critique and unjust zombifying (ph). Is there such a word as zombifying? Like, we are dead to the critique of the university guys and World Bank and foreigners and experts.

PERALTA: At this point, Stella gets really bold.

WARNER: She writes about the first lady, Janet Museveni, that she's not going to be another Ugandan licking her boots. Stella says she is going to lick her clitoris.

PERALTA: And this is coming at a time when the president is warning against oral sex, saying that the mouth is for eating.

WARNER: She also calls the president matako butako, a pair of buttocks.

STELLA NYANZI: Matako butako, like, it's not a pair of buttocks. It's - like, you're just - you're nothing more than just a pair of buttocks. Like, if it's shitting all over the country, it's just a pair of buttocks.

WARNER: She gets even more attention, and then she runs away to direct that attention toward a real cause.

PERALTA: Which is that during the 2016 campaign, the president and the first lady promised all girls would have pads in school.

WARNER: Because if you're poor and you can't afford pads, you miss a lot of school. So that's the campaign promise. But then after the president wins his fifth term, the government says, well, they don't actually have money to do this.

PERALTA: And Stella Nyanzi sees an opening. She goes to her Facebook page, which now has thousands of followers. And she says, hey, guys, the government is not doing this. Like, I'm going to deliver pads to girls.

WARNER: And so many people respond. Stella and her sister Sheila, who's organizing this, collect thousands of pads.

PERALTA: And the day that she is going to deliver pads to a school in the first lady's home territory, that's when she's arrested, not for delivering pads but for insulting the president.

WARNER: For calling him a pair of buttocks.

STELLA NYANZI: I mean, I don't know if it had been a man, if it had been someone with particular clout, it would make sense. But, ah, who is that just laughing at the king?

WARNER: Now, if the president's aim with that arrest had been to shut down the joke, it did not work. Stella's arrest prompted headlines around the world. The hashtag #PairOfButtocks started to trend. But Eyder believes that was actually part of the government's strategy.

PERALTA: To say they were arresting her for delivering pads would be admitting that this woman did what you couldn't do. And not only did she shame the president, she shamed his wife.

WARNER: So arresting Stella for shaming things she wrote about him was actually the president's attempt to shame her.

PERALTA: Right - by morality because it works in Uganda.

WARNER: And Museveni had used this strategy in the past when he was under attack for corruption or government failures. He'd take that moment to propose these moralistic laws, like that ban on miniskirts or the death penalty for LGBTQ people. And even when these laws were never expected to pass, they worked as a distraction. And so now he was turning the tables on Stella, calling her shameless and bad for Uganda. And Sheila was furious at her sister. Why did she hijack the pads campaign by again calling attention to herself?

SHEILA NYANZI: And she laughed and said, no, I don't want your corporate nature, I don't want your diplomacy, I don't want your anything, Sheila. I don't want to sanitize this process. I want it to be as dirty as, you know, the people we're speaking to because they play dirty. We want to play dirty, you know? She always says (non-English language spoken), fire for fire, an eye for an eye.

WARNER: The official charge against Stella for the buttocks line was offensive communication, also cyber harassment because she had written it on Facebook.

STELLA NYANZI: This is not the best thing that I've written or the worst thing I've written about the president.

WARNER: It says something about Stella's opinion of her own work - that she would have preferred to have been arrested for a more eloquent use of vulgarity than this one phrase because she took pride in elevating these street insults to the level of poetry, which is why the most painful moment of the trial for her was hearing her own words read aloud in court by the detective on the case.

STELLA NYANZI: It's terrible. He's reading pussy and calling it pus-y (ph). You know, he's calling cunt candy. (Laughter) Like, cunt, he calls it candy. And he's reading so badly and he's calling pubic lice public lice. Like, come on. You're doing injustice to this thing.

WARNER: Even as they are putting her on trial for vulgarity, she feels like they're vulgarizing her words.

STELLA NYANZI: Then I understood, they don't get it. Like, at one point, I got so sad. Like, they would never, ever understand the symbol.

WARNER: Would Ugandan's understand that she was trying to show contempt for a government that had shown contempt for them? Or would she just be seen as attention seeking and a bit mad? Stella, after this, became even more outspoken. Not long after, she wrote that birthday poem that we quoted at the beginning of the episode, and that was treated very seriously. She was sentenced to a year and a half. And as Eyder went back and forth to Uganda reporting this story, he started to notice a shift.

PERALTA: The last time that I went to Uganda, the immigration guy asked me, what are you here for? And I said, oh, I'm here - you know, I'm doing a story about Stella Nyanzi. And he says, what do you think of Stella Nyanzi? And I told him, oh, you know, I think she's interesting. And he says, she's not interesting; she's brave. Right? This was a government official saying that. And that was not what you heard of Stella Nyanzi when she was protesting against her boss at the university. But when her target went to the president, that changed things. That changed the way Ugandans viewed Stella Nyanzi - and not just her nakedness but also her rudeness.

WARNER: After the break, the price paid by Stella's children and how Eyder comes up with a desperate plan to meet Stella behind bars.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROOSTER CLUCKING)

PERALTA: Wait. That's not a chicken. That's a cock.

WARNER: That's coming up when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Hey. We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. Back at the end of last year when Eyder Peralta pitched us this story, Stella Nyanzi was still in prison for that birthday poem that she'd written to the president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STELLA NYANZI: I wish the lice-filled bush of dirty pubic hair overgrown all over Esiteri's unwashed chuchu had strangled you at birth.

WARNER: That's the one. But while Stella was in prison, her reputation was growing internationally.

PERALTA: Academics are writing essays and papers about her. Mona Eltahawy, who is this prominent Egyptian American feminist, dedicated a chapter in her book to Stella. And she paints her as this kind of naked and vulgar revolutionary who is a model for a new way to take on strongmen. And this is especially true in a continent that's full of authoritarian democracies and strongmen who hold elections that they never lose.

WARNER: But people weren't hearing from Stella herself. The prison was not allowing journalists to visit her. Eyder knew very little about how she might be faring behind bars.

PERALTA: So I was in Uganda in December, and I wanted to see her in prison. But, I mean, one of the big problems was that if you go in there and they ask you what you do - right? - you have to say you're a journalist.

WARNER: You don't actually have to tell the truth to Ugandan prison guards. But as an NPR correspondent, we're not supposed to lie to a government authority. So Eyder and his producer Halima Athumani came up with a plan to distract the guards from ever asking them why they were there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROOSTER CLUCKING)

PERALTA: It was around Christmas holiday time, and we thought we would take her a chicken because live chickens are allowed in the prison. And you take them live because there's no refrigeration. So the prisoners can receive a live chicken, keep it there until they're ready to eat it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROOSTER CLUCKING)

PERALTA: But that's not a chicken. That's a cock.

We take chicken. We take some chocolates.

WARNER: They just want to make it seem like a social call for Christmas. But they also take secret recorders disguised as pens.

PERALTA: You can hear us getting patted down. You can hear our conversations with, like, the guards and like, us, walking in and then them telling us to wait. Right?

UNIDENTIFIED GUARD: Sorry. They don't know what we're doing.

WARNER: And incredibly, this plan seems to work. They are not asked questions that they'd have to lie to.

PERALTA: We haven't been here too long.

WARNER: But just as they are being led in to visit Stella...

(SOUNDBITE OF STATIC)

WARNER: ...They turn on what Eyder now believes was some kind of radio interference to block recordings.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATIC)

WARNER: So we do not have tape of this prison encounter. Eyder says it took place in the office of the director of the prison. Stella came in carrying a little mat to sit on.

PERALTA: There was a bunch of chairs there, but she wasn't allowed to use those chairs. We were told to sit down in the chairs, and she was told that she had to sit on the floor.

WARNER: Why wasn't she allowed to use the chair?

PERALTA: That's the way they treat prisoners there. It's a way to humiliate them.

WARNER: And so how did Stella seem to you?

PERALTA: I found a completely defiant human. She showed no chip in her armor. So she told us about, you know, her time in solitary, which was - it had to have been pretty horrific. But, you know, the part that she talked about then was her defiance of it, which is that, you know, she used her excrement to write on the walls, that she used, you know, her hands to try and chip away a message on the walls.

WARNER: It's in front of the prison director that she's saying all this. She's saying that she scratched her poems onto the prison wall with her handcuffs. She'd write, freedom is more than liberty, just as she'd once left carvings on the punishment tree in grade school. And again in front of the prison director, she told Eyder how she instructed other women prisoners how they could break the rules against masturbation.

PERALTA: She showed no weakness at all. Right? She did not show that she had any fear of the situation that she was in.

WARNER: The first time that Eyder met Stella back in 2017 in that cafe where she'd pointed out his sixth finger, she talked a lot about her mom and the kind of defiance that she'd learned from her.

STELLA NYANZI: She went to court and told the judges, I refuse to give my husband a divorce. But you're saying he's an adulterer. I love my adulterer. And the court case just failed.

WARNER: Stella says her mom did love her dad. But she was also being strategic. She knew she'd have more rights as a married woman than a divorcee.

PERALTA: I think her mother was also insisting on respectability in the most unrespectable way, right? She was insisting that this marriage be kept at any cost.

STELLA NYANZI: Like, she has all these moments where she did crazy things. And maybe it's the gene or the exemplar I got from her.

WARNER: And just as her mom stayed in a bad marriage because it would give her more power, Stella stayed in prison. She refused to apply for bail. She believed that it made the president look weaker for having arrested her in the first place. She wasn't going to take what she called the middle-class way out - paying money for freedom. But outside the prison, her sister Sheila had urged her to apply for bail. Bail meant not missing another Christmas with her kids.

SHEILA NYANZI: Stella doesn't understand that her consequences have visited on all us. When she protested in Makerere, I lost my job. I did.

PERALTA: Do you really think she doesn't know that?

SHEILA NYANZI: She didn't give a damn, for lack of a better expression. I don't know how you say that in English without reducing the weight of it. She's so driven with the ultimate, she doesn't care for what happens along the way.

WARNER: Sheila had also taken in Stella's daughter Baraka and the twin boys. And she told Eyder, go talk to the kids, and you'll understand what I mean.

PERALTA: Go talk to them. They're never inside the house. They're always outside. Go find them. So we leave this big house, go outside. And Baraka is there.

BARAKA: We're fine. Well, if you're asking, like - OK, no. We're not fine. We're surviving. Yeah.

WARNER: Baraka is 15 now, but she was 12 when her mom was first arrested for stripping at the university. And her mom gave all the kids a speech.

BARAKA: Yeah, she gave us a speech, you know? You guys will survive. And, like, you know, at that moment, when she was telling us this, we were like, yeah, we got this. But, you know, when you're actually, like, faced with the situation, it's not something you're prepared for.

WARNER: Before her mom went to prison, Baraka was on the swim team, and she remembered how her mom would go to all her meets and scream so loudly poolside to cheer her on. When her mom went to prison, Baraka quit swimming because she knew it would hurt her.

BARAKA: So the swimming thing was, like, that kind of, like, revenge-ish (ph).

PERALTA: Do you guys think all of this is worth it? I've asked her that question, too. She thinks it is. Do you guys think it's worth it?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: No.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: No.

PERALTA: No?

BARAKA: No.

PERALTA: All of you? No?

BARAKA: No.

PERALTA: Even for what it might mean for the country?

BARAKA: She ain't owe it to the country; she owes it to us, not the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: It was two months after this interview that Stella released a book of poems smuggled out of her prison cell. It's called "No Roses From My Mouth." And in it, there's another birthday poem. This one is called "Missed Birthdays."

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "MISSED BIRTHDAYS")

STELLA NYANZI: My daughter turned 14 years three days into my imprisonment. I failed to fulfill a promise I made her. Her first cappuccino in life, I had planned to go to Endiro Cafe in Kisementi, to sit and chat with her for hours. Instead, I spent that Saturday on the floor of prison surrounded by 63 other prisoners.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Three weeks after that book of poems comes out, Stella is released from prison.

STELLA NYANZI: I've messed up my kids' lives so many times. How will they - when will they catch up? Where will they catch up with school?

WARNER: And in this interview she does with Eyder, she looks and sounds very different than when he met her sitting on the mat in prison.

PERALTA: She's constantly fainting. Like, she just seems to lose control of her body, and she collapses. And this is - there's nothing physically wrong with her. So it's trauma. And she's really collapsing everywhere. Like, she's trying to get up some stairs and she faints. She paints at the sound of sirens.

WARNER: When she does fall, it's her daughter, Baraka, who's there to catch her. Baraka is not only constantly by her mom's side; she's almost her personal assistant, fielding calls from journalists and scheduling her mom's days. And she's not going to school.

STELLA NYANZI: I think it's scary that they have grown so much. I think in fighting the regime, I've lost them. I lost their innocence. I lost their hugs. So what am I saying? I don't know what I'm saying about the children.

PERALTA: So you have to reconnect.

STELLA NYANZI: I do. But I think that the person they want to reconnect with is not there; someone else is - a very broken person, a very angry person. I am now a very bitter person. But the problem is, my sort of bitterness now is I will be smiling at you and planning to dig this fork I'm eating with - I'm eating with a fork and I'm eating with you. And I'm planning to do something with my fork to you, and I'm smiling and eating, and you're eating and you're thinking I'm your friend, and then I'll kill you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STELLA NYANZI: That sort of - you don't know where it's going to come from, so beware. And that's dangerous because I fear myself as well.

WARNER: In trying to send a message to the government, they'd sent one to her.

STELLA NYANZI: What they were trying to say to me was, hey, Stella, I think you have nothing to lose; let's show you what having nothing to lose actually means.

WARNER: Stella lost a baby in prison. She had a miscarriage. But she also lost little things, like the right to sit on a chair or sleep with the lights off or drink from a glass.

STELLA NYANZI: But I realized that they don't have to beat you to damage you. They just take away - like, how do you drink a nice drink in plastic? You don't do that. I mean, maybe some poor people do it. I don't do it.

WARNER: Stella's defining characteristic as an activist - as a person, really - was that she did not care about respectability when she was fighting for her cause. Everyone said this about her. She took after her mother in this way. But she was also her father's child. There were certain things that Nyanzis just did not do, like drink from a plastic cup. And maybe that sense of being an elite that her father had instilled in her helped insulate her from the judgment of others. But then in prison, when those little things were taken away, it shocked her how much it stung.

STELLA NYANZI: You know, like, I've been drunk on the illusion that I can do it. I can do it. But so living in denial of the damage, having to put on an act - It's OK, I'm strong, I'm in prison - suddenly realized, actually, it was not OK. It was hard. It was so hard. I mean, like, crying about - I cried about clothes. I cried about glass, like - you know? (Crying) I was not allowed to drink from glasses.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERALTA: While she was in prison, she was given a PEN International award for free speech. And so when she came out, they wanted to do a physical award ceremony. They just wanted to give her the plaque.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STELLA NYANZI: So my daughter has designed this dress, and she wants me to be seen (laughter).

(APPLAUSE)

PERALTA: She shows up to this bookstore in a dress that Baraka has designed for her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STELLA NYANZI: Yes. And this dress was made yesterday. She's been adjusting it this morning.

PERALTA: It's this, like, just beautiful purple dress with a matching head wrap.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STELLA NYANZI: And I'm like, when I left you at 13, you knew nothing. And she's like, Mom, I'm 15, and I know everything about makeup.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: A very good morning to you all. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for coming, too.

PERALTA: And as they sort of - they talk and they give, you know, a description of her work and what she's done, like, she can't sit up straight in her chair.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The question bothered me. But it's...

(SOUNDBITE OF THUD)

PERALTA: She faints, and there's some cameras.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Some privacy from the media.

PERALTA: And her lawyer steps in and says, you know, you can't put this on television.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: No cameras, please. No pictures.

PERALTA: And so at one point...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STELLA NYANZI: Can I just sit on the floor?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, that's fine.

PERALTA: She just decides, I'm just going to sit on the floor. And, like, there's, like, a pillow behind her. And she sits through the whole ceremony.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STELLA NYANZI: I'm so stupid. I must have...

(CROSSTALK)

PERALTA: You know, it just - it felt like a weird parallel to her being in prison, sitting on the floor, and here she is receiving an award.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STELLA NYANZI: I don't cry. I don't cry. But I want to celebrate the director at PEN International - of PEN International because the award changed everything for me. I would be beaten by prison officials - names withheld, yes? And they'd say things like, what do you think you are? How can a woman like you, with a Ph.D., write this shit, right? Like, who are you to fuck with the president in writing?

PERALTA: Her jailers started calling her doctor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STELLA NYANZI: And people become very careful. But, also, they began to respect me, like, eh? Doctor, are you writing for us, eh? Doctor, how much money is coming with the award, eh?

(LAUGHTER)

STELLA NYANZI: Doctor - like, suddenly, because there's an award. That is PEN International. And for them - I don't know what they thought. I don't care what they thought. But the power that comes from allying with a prisoner because of her writing that was on display through the giving of the award.

WARNER: Stella's decision to remain in prison, not to ask for bail, it was proven an effective legal strategy. Because of the way the Ugandan court system works, her being incarcerated forced the government to hear her appeal instead of delaying it. And judges ruled that she had not only been wrongfully imprisoned, but also wrongfully suspended from her job at the university, the thing that started this whole journey. The court ordered her to be reinstated as a researcher. Stella got her office keys back.

And then a month later, she quit her job, the job that she loved, because somewhere along the way, she learned that the attention that she gained for herself could also inspire others. She recently announced she's running for Ugandan Parliament. The election is this February.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STELLA NYANZI: And I think those of us who refuse to be weak, we get to a point where the denial of our weakness damages our bodies. And this - I have a weak body, but my mind is still fucking with the president. And so please...

(APPLAUSE)

STELLA NYANZI: ...Please, as I finish, I want to just say thank you for not giving up on the dirty, immoral shame of the country. You may not entirely agree with everything I stand for. You don't have to. I'm not asking for that. But allow me to be your friend. Allow me. Don't turn me away. Allow me to be me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Today's show was produced by Tina Antolini, additional reporting by Aviva DeKornfeld and Halima Athumani. Our editor is Lu Olkowski. The ROUGH TRANSLATION team includes Jess Jiang, Derek Arthur and Justine Yan.

Thanks for editorial insight and feedback from Jeff Sharlet, Dr. Rita Nketiah, Angela Nampewo, Romie Kawagala Mitala, Robert Krulwich, Nelson Kasfir and Sana Krasikov. Neal Carruth, Didi Schanche, Chris Turpin and Anya Grundmann sit on the ROUGH TRANSLATION high council. Nicole Beemsterboer is supervising producer. Nicolette Khan fact-checked this episode. Mastering by Isaac Rodrigues. Our theme music is by John Ellis, with additional music from Blue Dot Sessions.

We have three other scandalous stories in the feed from China, India and the U.S. Your feedback on them has been amazing. It's so fascinating. It's led to follow-up ideas that we are going to be pursuing. And, you know, let me just encourage you - if you want to send us a note about our episodes, think about writing a review in Apple Podcasts. It takes 60 seconds. We timed it. We have a video to show you how to do it. And, honestly, that 1 minute of your time, it helps us serve you with more episodes like this one that take you around the world in a way that hits close to home.

Of course, you can tweet us at @roughly or tell us your ROUGH TRANSLATION moments at roughtranslation@npr.org. I'm Gregory Warner. Back in two weeks with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.

A pair of buttocks. A pair of buttocks. A pair of buttocks. A pair of buttocks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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