Digital Radical Rudeness: The Story of Stella Nyanzi
By Toussaint Nothias & Rosebell Kagumire, January 29, 2020
This is the story of a self–described “queer laughist, writer, and critic from the non–core academia” and a “die–hard Facebooker who loudly speaks [her] mind based on [her] banal experiences of life.” This is the story of how one of her poems, published on Facebook and discussing in obscene language the vagina of the Ugandan president’s mother, landed her in jail. This is the story of a scholar, activist, and a mother whose relationship to technology is fundamentally grounded in a tradition of social protest known as radical rudeness — a tradition rooted in Ugandan culture that was successfully deployed in the anti–colonial resistance. As such, it is not only the story of one individual, but a story about the crossroads of resistance to authoritarianism, patriarchy, and homophobia; art, politics, law, and technology; the public and the personal; the global and the local; and the ongoing tension between the empowering and repressive affordances of social media.
Stella Nyanzi was born in Uganda in 1974. In the mid–1990s, she gained a first degree from Makerere University, a leading and one of the oldest Ugandan universities that many post–independence African leaders and writers attended, from Uganda’s independence leader Dr. Apollo Milton Obote to Tanzanian and Kenyan presidents Julius Nyerere and Mwai Kibaki to Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah and Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Nyanzi went on to work for the United Kingdom’s Medical Research Council Programme in Uganda and eventually moved to London. There, she obtained a master’s degree in Medical Anthropology from University College London and a Ph.D. in Anthropology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. As a medical anthropologist, her scholarship explored questions of sexual and reproductive health, particularly as they relate to the stigmatization of youth, women, and sexual minorities within the Uganda context. Her work today is widely recognized as groundbreaking for shedding light on homosexuality and queer African identities, a topic long considered culturally taboo and thus challenging to research. Consequently, Nyanzi’s scholarship was always intertwined with her activism in support of queer communities: her work sought to reclaim these communities as part of the country’s history (as opposed to a common argument of them being a foreign import); to challenge reified “African” sexual identities; and to oppose the repressive legal, medical, and cultural practices that these dominant discourses sustain.
Her work granted her recognition from both scholars and activists. After gaining her Ph.D., she moved back to Uganda and took a position at Makerere University. She started gaining broader public recognition through a combination of fervent social media use and outspoken opposition to President Yoweri Museveni, using sexual innuendo, dysphemisms, public insults, and nude protesting.
Nyanzi built a social media following through her routinely critical, crude, and outspoken Facebook posts against President Museveni, most notably when the government attempted to pass, in 2014, a law criminalizing homosexuality and calling for the death penalty. The first major controversy however emerged out of a somewhat banal workplace conflict.
After a few years at the university, a dispute arose between Nyanzi and Professor Mahmood Mamdani, a leading Ugandan scholar and the head of the Makerere Institute of Social Research where Nyanzi was a research fellow. Nyanzi was requested to lecture in the newly created Ph.D. program led by Mamdani. Her contract as a research fellow, however, did not initially include teaching in its mandate and Nyanzi declined to teach. Arguing that she did not fulfill her contractual obligations, the university put a padlock on the door of her office –something that Nyanzi would only discover when she showed up to work.
Nyanzi responded by announcing on Facebook that should her eviction stand, she would strip down naked in protest. On Monday, April 18, 2016, Nyanzi staged a protest in front of cameras with major national television networks covering it live. She threw red paint all over the office and herself; she wore a large metal chain around her neck and taped her mouth; and eventually, she removed her clothes. That same day her Facebook page, where she used virulent language to attack Mamdani, was temporarily blocked. Following her protest, the university administration gave her back the keys to her office.
In deciding to strip down, Nyanzi used a type of protest that some readers may associate with a range of social movements –from the Ukrainian group FEMEN to anti-war activists and animal rights groups. As Naminata Diabate explores in her book Naked Agency: Genital Cursing and Biopolitics in Africa, this practice is one that has a particularly strong tradition across Africa where “mature women have for decades mobilized the power of their nakedness in political protest to shame and punish male adversaries.” In her book Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya, Nanjala Nyabola reminds us of a particular example in Kenya in the early 1990s: “women like Wangari Maathai used the shame culture against itself, operationalizing public nudity and the hang-up with decency as a form of protest. When threatened with arrest for protesting the detention of political prisoners in Nyayo House in Kenya, Maathai and the mothers of the political prisoners stripped, shaming the young men who were sent to arrest them into capitulation.” In an article for The New Yorker, Alexis Okeowo described how women in Abidjan, Ivory Coast protested against president Laurent Gbagbo by being either naked or wearing black. Aya Virigine Toure, the main organizer of the protest, explained that this practice was traditionally used to send a curse –the target, in that case, being Gbagbo’s rule. More recently, and in Uganda itself, a similar tactic was adopted by elderly women protesting the expropriation of farming land in the Amuru district.
One year later, a second controversy would propel Nyanzi to the forefront of a much broader battle about freedom of expression online in politically repressive contexts. During a campaign rally in 2015, President Yoweri Museveni promised to provide sanitary pads to school girls across the country. With menstruation being relatively taboo in the country, many schoolgirls are ill-informed and under-prepared when their periods start. For girls from the lowest income families, they simply can’t afford the added cost of sanitary hygiene; this, in turn, leads some of them to miss school, sometimes even drop out, eventually reinforcing gender inequalities. In 2017, Janet Museveni — Uganda’s education minister and the wife of President Museveni — declared in front of the Parliament that they would not be able to fulfill the campaign pledge of providing sanitary pads. Stella Nyanzi launched an online campaign (Pads4girlsUg Project) to raise funds to fulfill this promise. She also published on her Facebook page a critical post, in which she referred to the president as a “pair of buttocks” and a poem where she described the first lady as “empty-brained.” A few weeks later, she was arrested and charged with “cyber harassment” and “offensive communication.” When faced with the charges in court, she offered:
Offensive communication? Who is offended? How long are Ugandans going to be silent because of fear … I am an academic, poet. A writer. I use my writing metaphorically. I have called the president impotent, a rapist, a pathetic pair of buttocks. He lied to voters that he would provide pads and Ugandans are offended that he is such a dishonorable man. It is we who are offended, not him.
In a mix of new and old legal repression, Nyanzi was charged under Sections 24 and 25 of the Computer Misuse Act of 2011, and during the trial, the state sought to force a mental health examination on her by using a 1938 colonial law known as the Mental Treatment Act. Nyanzi challenged the psychiatric examination. One of her lawyers, Nicholas Opiyo (who, a few years earlier, had successfully challenged the anti–homosexuality bill of 2014) explained before the constitutional court: “They just want to declare her an idiot so they delegitimize a legitimate form of expression and send her away to a mental health hospital.” The state prosecutors threatened Nyanzi with indefinite detention in a mental asylum in retaliation for the pair–of–buttocks depiction of President Museveni and her defiance. In February 2018, Nyanzi appeared before the parliamentary committee on health to advocate for the scrapping of the old colonial law and careful examination of the new mental health bill that was before parliament.
The legal battle known as the #PairofButtocks case — thanks to the hashtag trending when Nyanzi was arrested — is still underway today pending the constitutional court ruling. After 33 days in prison, she was released on bail in May 2017. Throughout the year, the court continually postponed Nyanzi’s case.
In June 2018, Nyanzi led the first peaceful protest in a long time on the streets of Kampala to protest the femicide, kidnapping, and rape of women in Uganda. The #WomensMarchUg was followed by many across the continent. It brought together women’s rights activists, sex workers' representatives, and LGBTQI activists for the first time to demand for accountability for violence against women.
Meanwhile, popular protests emerged against a change to the presidential age limit which would allow Museveni to run for a sixth consecutive term in 2021. The government increased its control over the digital sphere by announcing a social media tax — a barely veiled attempt to curtail free speech under the guise of reducing “olugambo” (gossiping). And journalists and political opponents found themselves facing growing repression, culminating with the arrest of leading opposition figures led by popular singer and parliamentarian Bobi Wine in August 2018. Nyanzi was heavily involved in caring and fighting for the lesser known suspects, particularly women of the Arua33, who had been tortured and charged with Bobi Wine. She proved her ability to ally with forces of change, especially those that might be quickly forgotten when key figures with social capital are released.
The following month, Nyanzi penned a “masterpiece of calculated obscenity” for Museveni’s seventy–fourth birthday. Her poem, again published on Facebook, viscerally expressed how much she wished he would have died at birth and included many vulgar descriptions of Museveni’s mother’s vagina and clitoris. On November 2, 2018, she was again arrested for “cyber harassment” and “offensive communication” under the provisions of the Computer Misuse Act of 2011. As Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire, Isaac Seemakadde, Kuukuwa Manful, and Margaret Namulyanga write: “By charging Dr. Stella Nyanzi, the government aims to make an example out of her and send a warning to others who use social media platforms to criticize the regime.”
Nyanzi’s use of obscenity should not be understood as mere provocation. Rather, it is part of a conscious effort by Nyanzi to reclaim, in a digital age, a strategy of upsetting civility, using offensive words and shocking actions to speak truth to power –radical rudeness. In her study of activism in Uganda in the 1940s, Caroll Summers describes how activists “performed a rude, publicly celebrated strategy of insults, scandal mongering, disruption, and disorderliness that broke conventions of colonial friendship, partnership, and mutual benefit.” Young radicals, who questioned British colonial rule and were at odds with their elders who collaborated with the British, “chose rudeness as a tactic to destabilize the ruling alliances, draw conflicts of interest into the public view, and shape essential preconditions for real change.”
Nyanzi’s use of digital platforms echoes directly this strategy. And while Summers observes that this tactic was largely adopted by young men, Nyanzi’s strategic rudeness also draws on another cultural code: she is a mother of twins (Nnalongo) and “in the central Ugandan ethnic group of Baganda, these women are treated with respect and are allowed to use obscene language to express themselves.” She draws strength from the same culture that would restrict women’s rudeness to challenge power in the most unconventional way. To celebrate her forty-fifth birthday on June 16, 2019, Nyanzi released #45poems4Freedom, which were published on various platforms and trended on social media. In one, she writes: “Women shall no longer wait for timid men. To fight for the liberation of Uganda. We pack missiles in our own pens and grenades in our mouths. And shoot our truths at the dictatorship.” By continuing to write radically and ignite the internet even when in prison, Nyanzi attests to the enduring power of connectedness in the digital age.
As of this writing, Stella Nyanzi is in jail after she was convicted of cyber harassment and sentenced to 18 months, a sentence and conviction she’s appealing. At a time when rudeness online is primarily associated with the incivility of trolling, bullying, and harassment, Nyanzi’s story offers a different take on the practice, as one that has a place in the fight for social justice and human rights. Her continuing reliance on the Facebook platform, at a time of seemingly never-ending Facebook-bashing, is also a reminder of the ongoing ways in which social media platforms provide tools to challenge authoritarianism — even as they bring about the age of surveillance capitalism.
But what is perhaps the most radical in Nyanzi’s relationship to technology is the extent to which it is altogether grounded in her struggle in support of marginalized communities and against dominant power, be it social or autocratic power. She uses technology to turn taboos on their heads and deploy them to force a society to have uncomfortable conversations, even at the risk of her freedom and safety. To many scholars and activists who care about these issues, this may seem obvious. But it is certainly an important lesson that is worth sharing, time and time again, with tech workers and software engineers who struggle to come to terms with, or choose to ignore, the ideological components and societal implications of their work. And here, activists, scholars, journalists, and citizens all have an important role to play in making sure her story is being heard. At a time of great online censorship by platforms and community standards that stifle alternative thought, Nyanzi’s push through Facebook offers a lesson on why the contours and ideological function of civility should also be questioned as technology is developed and deployed. In that sense, Stella Nyanzi’s story is not merely a call to think “ethically” about the consequences of digital technology, but rather to ask, what are the social values that you are starting from in the first place?
Toussaint Nothias (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a postdoctoral fellow at the Digital Civil Society Lab, Stanford University. His research explores journalism, digital media, and civil society in Africa. He holds a Ph.D. in Media and Communication from the University of Leeds and received the 2018 Stuart Hall Award from IAMCR.
Rosebell Kagumire (email@example.com) is a feminist writer, award-winning blogger, and socio-political commentator. She is currently the curator and editor of African Feminism-AF, a platform that documents narratives and experiences of African women on the continent and the diaspora. Kagumire has expertise in media, gender, and peace and conflict issues. Her writing appears in international media like The Guardian, Al Jazeera, and Quartz. In 2018, she was honored with the Anna Guèye Award for her work on digital democracy, justice, and equality by Africtivistes. The World Economic Forum recognized her as one of the Young Global Leaders under the age of 40.
Images by Rosebell Kagumire