Dr Stella Nyanzi can finally celebrate her Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression for 2020 after regaining her freedom.
Dr Nyanzi officially received her award, which she won on January 16, 2020, on Thursday. She had been unable to collect it sooner because she was incacerated in Luzira Prison.
The ceremony was organised by the Ugandan PEN, a subsidiary of the PEN International, a global association of writers at the Uganda Museum library. Nyanzi explained that while in prison something happened to her, saying she was undergoing a traumatic experience and wanted to recover.
An emotional Nyanzi briefly passed out during the ceremony. She explained that she had experienced a traumatic experience in Luzira which is working hard to recover from.
When she was being acquitted of cyber harassment last week, Nyanzi collapsed as Uganda Prisons Service officials battled with her supporters who were blocking her forceful return to prison to formally sign out of Luzira prison.
A medical anthropologist by training, Dr. Nyanzi has published widely in the academia on topics at the intersections of culture, health, law, gender and sexualities. She is an ardent writer on social media where she comments and debates about contemporary social-political occurrences, and she writes poetry, mainly on social media. She is an outspoken activist on women’s rights and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex peoples. In 2017, she launched the #Pads4girlsUg Project, a campaign to raise money to buy and distribute sanitary pads for schoolgirls in Uganda.
She is also known as a fierce, public critic of Uganda’s president and a practitioner of “radical rudeness”, a traditional Ugandan strategy for unsettling the powerful through the tactical use of public insult. Dr. Nyanzi served an 18-month sentence for ‘cyber harassment’, in relation to a poem she wrote on Facebook in September 2018 criticising President Museveni (and his mother).
‘Stella Nyanzi has been deemed a criminal by the Ugandan authorities because she has criticised those at the highest echelons of power; though her words might be colourful and shocking to some, this is not enough to justify the imposition of penalties, and public officials should tolerate a higher degree of criticism than ordinary citizens. At PEN we believe unshakeably in the need for writers to be able to criticise, parody, and mock at the highest levels. This award recognises the work she has done for women, civil society , and in the defence of free expression. We will continue to amplify her voice until she is released.
– Jennifer Clement, PEN International president.
In her poems now compiled into a book No Roses From My Mouth, the former Makerere University don highlights the plight of prisoners, from the deplorable conditions they are held in to the chain that binds jailors and those in the prison.
Nyanzi said she often had to memorize her poems because her notebooks would be confiscated. Prisoners who interacted with her were sometimes taken for questioning by the prison authorities.
No Roses from My Mouth includes 159 poems written in 2019 and 2020 from Luzira women’s prison.