In February, Stella Nyanzi was released from prison. The feminist academic and writer spent almost 16 months inside Luzira prison in Uganda for writing a poem on Facebook about Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni’s mother’s vagina. In the untitled poem, she graphically described the vagina in grotesque terms (one line reads: “I wish the lice-filled bush of dirty pubic hair overgrown all over Esiteri’s unwashed chuchu had strangled you at birth”), framing the president’s emergence from the birth canal as a metaphor for his increasingly oppressive near 35-year rule.
But Nyanzi came out of prison all guns blazing, head first into a tense political climate as Uganda’s 2021 election looms closer; when she stepped out of the court in Kampala, she donned a tiara and a sash that read “FUCK OPPRESSION” and began to address crowds. When we meet weeks later, she’s excited and speaks quickly; she wants to show people – particularly those “inspired to write as boldly or even bolder than me” – that imprisonment did not silence her.
“It’s good to be out, but it’s not necessarily freedom,” she says, gazing out over the shores of Lake Victoria. “When I got a phone, everyone was saying, ‘Do not [use] Facebook, do not tweet, don’t write anything stupid.’ I’m like, ‘Fuck you, guys!’” She’s shouting now, hands on hips: “They should say, ‘Hey! Even after prison, she came back harder, stronger, more vulgar!’”
Nyanzi laid the groundwork for this long before her release. During a court appearance in August, via a video link from prison, she swore and stripped as the judge sentenced her to an extra nine months on top of her initial punishment, on charges of cyberharassing Museveni. Her release in February followed a successful challenge by her legal team.
While in prison, Nyanzi released a poetry collection, No Roses from My Mouth, made up of 158 poems she wrote behind bars. With sections dedicated to prison, feminism and Uganda, the collection includes poems as explicit as the piece of writing for which she was imprisoned. She has been described as employing “radical rudeness” – an activist tactic with roots in Uganda’s anti-colonial resistance movement, which uses public insult and naked protest to disrupt social norms and criticise those in power.
Nyanzi estimates that half of her poems were confiscated by guards, including a collection about solitary confinement she wrote in an exercise book. “I wrote on my body, on the walls, in the toilets, on leaves,” she says. Despite losing so much, she believes poetry was a practical tool of resistance: “A poem can be short. It can be a little piece of paper stuck inside the bra. On five pages you can have 20 poems,” she says, going through the different methods she used to smuggle her words out of prison, such as hiding pages inside the traditional woven mat she sat on when people visited her.
Nyanzi clearly feels indebted to those who worked to get her poems out of prison and into a published book – despite arriving at our interview holding a copy labelled “corrections” in red marker. (“We cannot win any struggle if we can’t spell right!” she says.)
Before prison, Nyanzi always wrote poetry for herself; inside, she says, it became a way for her to make sense of what she and others around her were experiencing. “It was so, so much. Somebody is dying there, someone is pregnant here, someone is being beaten there,” she says. “These intense moments were always there.”
One poem, The Mango Seller, describes a woman who has arrived in prison after being arrested for selling mangos on the street. Nyanzi paints an unflattering picture – her “scary” eyes, knotted hair and snotty nose – but contrasts this with her pain and fragility. “I am here in prison crying for my baby,” the mother says; she has been separated from her eight-month-old child, who she left with her neighbour that morning while she went to sell mangos by the roadside. Unable to afford the fine for operating without a licence, she was sent on a bus to prison.
Nyanzi’s own trauma is also explored in the book, including several devastating tributes to the baby she miscarried in prison. There is also a poem about a lesbian relationship between inmates, and an intersex prisoner who Nyanzi describes as “a man, a woman, a fabulous person / How you confuse gender rigidities!”
An anthropologist by profession, Nyanzi is known for her studies of, and allyship with, marginalised groups, such as the sex worker and LGBT+ communities. Her research was controversial in Uganda’s conservative society before she went to prison; she wonders if this may have contributed to the loss of her position at Makerere University, a decision she is still battling in a civil court. While Nyanzi says she has academic colleagues who support her, none would testify for her in court.
Museveni is the target of many of Nyanzi’s poems. The two have family in the same area of Uganda and she says she would politely greet him if they met. “I have nothing personal against the man,” she laughs. “But this dictatorship must be represented by an ‘it’.” She says she even admires Museveni’s use of language, full of “metaphors and proverbs and riddles” such as describing anti-government protesters as putting their lands “in the anus of a leopard” – a phrase Nyanzi uses back at him in her poetry, by describing herself as “poking the leopard’s anus.”
“He’s a snake and a bastard and a bitch and a murderer and all those things, but he’s also very funny,” she says. “Like, really-clever-brilliant funny.”
While Nyanzi makes jokes about inviting Museveni for a live poetry standoff, she knows she needs rest. She has collapsed several times since being released from jail, due to a condition that has now been diagnosed as trauma-induced.
“I am thinking I need to go for warm baths, and to sit in rustic overgrown gardens,” she smiles – although she then lays out her jam-packed schedule. It’s hard to understand when she will find time to relax. Yet since her release she continues to find solace in poetry, particularly listening to the work of young writers in Kampala at spoken-word events. She speaks animatedly about a recent university poetry slam she went to with her 15-year-old daughter, on the theme of sexual consent.
“Because I have teenagers in my house, I have access to kids doing poetry events,” she says. “It’s very soothing, music and poetry, percussion and poetry. It’s helping me to cope.”