By Anna Baral
Take a woman anthropologist, an online social network and a President who has stayed in power thirty years. Take a country whose governance has been defined a “hybrid regime” (Tripp 2010) – a formal democracy with a free press and an articulated decentralised government, contradictorily coexisting with gerrymandering, corruption, police violence and attempts to capillary control local politics. Now, observe what happens when anthropology, as the analysis of the functioning and malfunctioning of a society, becomes fervent political critique.
The country is Uganda in 2016-2017. The President is Yoweri K. Museveni, in power since 1986. The anthropologist is Dr. Stella Nyanzi, a researcher in her forties whose personal vicissitudes inspire a reflection on the complicated relationship between scholarly and civil engagement.
One week after the World Press Freedom Day (Unesco), which celebrates “the fundamental principles of press freedom” and “pay(s) tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession”, researcher Dr. Stella Nyanzi was finally granted bail. Her Ugandan and international supporters celebrated as she got back home after 33 days in Luzira, the national maximum security prison. She was released under two conditions: a non-cash bond of 10 million Ugandan shillings (2750 USD) and leaving her passport with the court.
Meanwhile, the judge took time to remind the press that the matter is “sub judice”. Journalists are therefore not allowed to discuss it or they will be charged with interfering with the investigations. The Human Rights Network for Journalists lamented that journalists were asked to leave when Stella Nyanzi appeared in court on April 26. Dr. Nyanzi, however, promptly went back to her Facebook page after posting bail. While she cannot speak to journalists, she has resumed her longtime practice of firing words of contempt at the Government of her country.
Background: nudity and resistance?
To understand how Stella Nyanzi found herself in a maximum security prison, one must also recall her own professional and activist history. A researcher with a PhD in medical anthropology from the UK, Stella Nyanzi has written about teenage sexual behaviour, same sex and heterosexual sexualities, female control of sexuality, transforming masculinities and lgbt+ struggles, in The Gambia and Uganda in particular. Since 2009, when a bill against homosexuality was first discussed in the Ugandan Parliament, she has been increasingly involved also in activism. Three papers (Nyanzi 2013, 2014; Nyanzi and Karamagi 2015) summarise her engagement in both activism and research around the lgbt+ question in Uganda. Well respected by scholars as an expert in her field, she is frequently invited to universities in Europe, Africa and the USA. In 2015, she was visited the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology and Forum for Africa Studies at Uppsala University to give a keynote address at the symposium “African sexualities”.
Dr. Nyanzi’s name is today familiar to most Ugandans and to thousands of people internationally, but not primarily for her research. Rather, she is famous for her critical stance towards a number of important people in her country, in the academic and political milieu. First came the argument with Prof. Mahmood Mamdani, director of the Makerere Institute for Social Research (MISR, Kampala) where Dr. Nyanzi was based until last year. In April 2016, following their dispute around the roles that she was supposed to cover at the Institute, her office was locked and her contract suspended.
Stella Nyanzi’s reaction was quick and visible, and it was duly reported by newspapers worldwide. She stripped naked, painted herself in red, and shouted as a muganda woman (from the Baganda group, in central Uganda, to which she belongs) is not supposed to do. She was loud and “vulgar”, a word that would be repeated innumerable times in the news and conversations across the country. Her intention was to denounce what she describes as a patriarchal and sexist academic structure hindering women’s careers and subjugating researchers to powerful men. The case has been amply discussed in the media, where Prof. Mamdani rendition of the conflict emerged as greatly divergent from Dr. Nyanzi’s.
“She doesn’t have manners” (talina empisa) is the typical comment that more conservative audience made about Dr. Nyanzi online and in the conversations I had with Ugandan informants on social media. Her reaction attracted the morbid attention of tabloids, triggered the contempt of (mainly masculine) gatekeepers of the national morality (priests, bishops, scholars and the minister for Ethics and Integrity, the excommunicated Fr. Lokodo), and divided the feminist community. While Miria Matembe, former Ministry of Ethics and women’s advocate, declared Dr. Nyanzi mad and asked not to associate her actions with women’s struggles, other renowned activists (Godiva Akullo and Kasha Nabagesera among many others), more active in the lgbt+ landscape, joined Nyanzi’s cry. If nothing else, her protest brought hot topics such as feminine bodies, nudity, sexuality and protest to the newspapers and the daily TV programmes in Uganda.
The same event inspired the Inaugural Professorial Lecture by Prof. Sylvia Tamale, feminist researcher at the School of Law of Makerere University, on 28th October 2016. In the lecture, the Professor asked important questions aimed at contextualising Nyanzi’s protest in a historical perspective, and thereby implicitly re-situating it away from the moralising and medicalising gaze of the institutions. Stella Nyanzi’s case quickly transcended her personal grudges, to become an entry point into sensitive discussions of freedom and resistance in Uganda and beyond. “Have African women‘s bodies always been viewed as shameful and a source of sin? Historically, what power, if any, did women‘s naked bodies hold? (…) What does women‘s fecundity and maternal power signify in patriarchal-capitalist societies? What is the role of the law in the negative construction of women‘s bodies and in maintaining their subordinate status?” (Tamale 2016: 2). Prof. Tamale, in a post-structuralist vein, calls for attention to the ways in which law and institutions regulate, shape and tame citizens’ bodies, and women’s in particular.
Not everybody agreed with Prof. Tamale in reading Nyanzi’s naked protest as form of “resistance and subversion of the dominant scripts engraved on women‘s bodies” (ibid.:31). Coincidentally published on the MISR’s Facebook page on the 20th April (a couple of weeks after Stella was arrested), three essays signed by two MISR researchers and by the Institute’s director discharged Sylvia Tamale’s analysis and the value of Dr. Nyanzi’s protest. The first essay (Bezabeh 2017) dismisses Tamale’s theoretical finesse in engaging with post-structuralism. The second (Ossome 2017) questions the emancipatory value of the event from a materialistic perspective, accusing Tamale of essentialising the woman’s body without attending to the historical dimensions of nudity that may, or may not, become political. “That is romanticism, not politics”, the author writes (12). The third essay (Mamdani 2017), wages a postcolonial-studies-war at the Law Professor, accusing her of generalizations and simplifications. He adds that Stella Nyanzi’s protest in particular, and “female nudity” in general, is also used to claim privileges and not only for defending rights. The timing of the publication of the paper on the MISR page indirectly legitimizes Dr. Nyanzi’s persecution by way of discrediting her intellectual ally.
Vaginas, penises and buttocks: the Facebook posts that offended a President
One year after the naked protest, Stella Nyanzi returned to the newspapers’ first pages for yet another dispute with another powerful man. This time, the target of her protest was the President of the Ugandan Republic, Yoweri K. Museveni.
Before the 2016 Presidential Elections, Museveni promised to provide free sanitary pads to school girls. In Uganda, sanitary pads are beyond the economic means of many school girls. This means that during their menstruation, the young women stay at home and miss up to a week of school rather than facing the embarrassment and shame of bleeding publicly at school. Free sanitary pads would help to reduce the high numbers of female school drop-outs, especially in the countryside.
In February 2017, the First Lady (doubling as Minister of Education) admitted that the Government had no money to implement such a project; murmurs of disappointment spread in Kampala and were echoed, once again, in social media discussions. Stella Nyanzi and her team of supporters and activists quickly organized a campaign, “#Pads4GirlsUg”, which collected millions of schillings and sanitary pads to be distributed to school girls, showing how civil society can move faster than the state, giving priority to pressing issues like women’s schooling while ministers and bureaucrats waste resources through rife corruption .
Before engaging in this crowdfunding campaign and outdoing the Government, Stella Nyanzi had written heated words accusing the First Lady of neglecting her role as a “maama” of the nationand failing to hold her own husband accountable for his promises. In an interview, the President’s wife magnanimously forgave Dr. Nyanzi, reducing in this way her protests to an irrational outburst of a childish (and perhaps mentally unstable) person, thereby attempting to tame and diminish her protest. Stella, no need to say, fought back from the trench of her Facebook page.
But Dr. Nyanzi’s 2017 critique of the status quo was not a novelty. The illnesses of Ugandan society: government’s corruption, citizens’ marginalization, police’ brutality, inflation, lack of mutual trust among citizens and between the people and institutions – have paraded on her Facebook page almost daily for years, triggering engaged and sometimes violent exchanges with hundreds of followers from all over the world. Sociopolitical critique alternates with scenes from Stella’s personal life, sketches from her children’s education, complaints to people working for her or love declarations to men whose real existence the reader could never assess. What emerges from her Facebook profile is the portrait of a woman well placed in her society, speaking from a privileged position at the intersection of class and education, which probably allows for more courageous upsurge of critique.
The murmurs and laughter of citizens disheartened by the Government’s actions, which I recorded during my years of fieldwork in Kampala, have received a louder echo in the posts by Stella, but also of other activists, individuals and collectives, whose identities remain sometimes hidden (for example, the much talked-about profile TVO Uganda) . Nyanzi’s posts became increasingly political, and intentionally provocative for the chosen vocabulary: fishing from a grotesque repertoire of bodily functions and parts, food and drinks, sweat and refuse, she described the subjugation of citizens to what she laments to be the arbitrary power of an illegitimate President. She promised to burn her clitoris to charcoal if Museveni won the elections again in 2016 and use it to color the Ugandan flag black; she called the NRM (National Resistance Movement, Museveni’s movement and later party which has dominated the political scene since 1980s) a venereal disease caused by the sick private parts of the system; she offered her body to Museveni, fantasizing of making him turn into a more sensible person by giving him the romantic care that he lacks – but “Alas, it may be too late to teach the president about mutual love and loving”.
In her posts, the Government and institutions are described in the act of raping the country. Genitalia of the powerful are depicted with contempt and disgust, but Dr. Nyanzi did not shy away herself and delves also into the details of her own body, embracing its good and its bad, the wrinkles, the flaccidity, the stretchmarks… making sometimes her body a mirror of the history of the country. As the public has often been reminded, Stella is a mother of twins (nnalongo), a figure that in the Baganda culture represents a sort of trickster, allowed to challenge the moral laws of the community and speak the unspeakable, uncover the body and being loud. Rituals surrounding the birth of twins were banned by Christian missionaries for the licentiousness they afforded to mothers.
While the naked protest leads one to reflect on resistance, the engagement with social media goes in another direction. It flirts with power, insolently using its same vocabulary, playing on the logic of “conviviality” that we have learnt through Mbembe’s “Provisional Notes on the Postcolony”. Museveni himself has not been exempt from the use of “vulgar” language; Ugandans have not forgotten his words during the press conference for the signature of the anti-Homosexuality law (24 February 2014) when he suggested that critics of the regime should go and eat [their] “mother’s something something”; or his detailed description of how “mouth is for eating, not for sex… we know the address of sex, we know where sex is” and the observation that oral sex gives worms and gonorrhea. However, while the use of vulgarity by the powerful causes people to laugh and wonder about its seriousness, Stella Nyanzi’s toying with the same vocabulary has helped her to make a grievous point about country’s status.
In January 2017 Dr. Nyanzi described the President as a “pair of buttocks”. Fast-forwarding to April 2017, this and the many messages that followed, unpleasant to power, alongside the successful “Pads for Girls” civil society campaign and the reactions of the First Lady, led to the most dramatic of consequences: the arrest of the activist-researcher, in a murky operation by Kampala Police. Remanded to Luzira Prison for more than a month, Stella Nyanzi now faces counts of “Cyber Harassment and Offensive Communication”, established by the Computer Misuse Act 2011. While Dr. Nyanzi was no longer been able to write on Facebook, many of her followers have reinvented themselves adopting her style, and protesting the arrest with a language of “vulgarity” and “obscenity”. Perhaps, however, the best service to Dr. Nyanzi’s cause has been offered by the sheet signed by the Kampala Police that describes her charges. Here, conviviality resurfaces. The document starts with the stiff language of bureaucracy, but quickly slips into its opposite when forced to report the crimes in detail: “She made a suggestion or proposal referring his Excellency Yower Kaguta Museveni as among other ‘A pair of buttocks’ which suggestion/proposal is obscene or indecent”. If bureaucracy is a technology for subjecting citizens, the stylistic pastiche in this document and the hilarity it has inspired in Ugandans, re-posted on thousands of Facebook profile, suggests that this is not always a successful operation.
What does all this mean for Uganda?
Celebrating the World Press Freedom Day in Kampala, the American Ambassador has brought the example of Stella Nyanzi to the attention of the public in order to make a point on the precarious state of intellectual freedom in Uganda. International reactions to Stella Nyanzi’s arrest included, among others, an Avaaz petition, a statement by the African Studies Association, and Amnesty International’s numerous requests for the liberation of the researcher and for dropping all charges, once she was released on bail.
The recent decision to grant bail to Dr. Nyanzi has represented an individual success and a fortunate development for her own personal well-being (despite the fact that she has had to return already three times to court, and she is still challenging the order to ascertain her mental status ). However, the real issue remains how to guarantee that researchers, intellectuals and journalists can operate freely in the country.
In 1990, Ugandans witnessed the signature of the Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility (29th November, 1990), meant to be a “standard-bearer for the African intellectual community to assert its autonomy and undertake its responsibility to the people of our continent”. Twenty-seven years later, efforts must still be made for intellectual work to be free from the moral scrutiny of the state.
Anna Baral is PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Uppsala University. Her project investigates the intensification of moralistic discourses in Uganda, particularly through the exploration of informal workers’ lives in Kampala. She has also done research on neotraditional/cultural institutions, cultural heritage, political elections and traditional music in central Uganda.
Bezabeh, Samson A. (2017). Reflections on Sylvia Tamale’s Inaugural Professorial Lecture. In Commentaries on Professor Sylvia Tamale’s Inaugural Lecture, “Nudity, Protest and the Law in Uganda,” School of Law, Makerere University, MISR working paper n. 28, MISR, Kampala, p. 1-6.
Mamdani, Mahmood (2017). A Comment on Sylvia Tamale, ‘Nudity, Protest and the Law in Uganda,’ Inaugural Professorial Lecture, October 28, 2016, in In Commentaries on Professor Sylvia Tamale’s Inaugural Lecture, “Nudity, Protest and the Law in Uganda,” School of Law, Makerere University, MISR working paper n. 28, MISR, Kampala, pp. 17-23
Mbembe, Achille (1992). Provisional Notes on the Post colony. Africa, 62 (1): 3-37.
Nyanzi, Stella (2013). Dismantling reified African culture through localised homosexualities in Uganda. Culture, Health & Sexuality 15: 952–967
— (2014). Queer Pride and Protest: A Reading of the Bodies at Uganda’s First Gay Beach Pride. Signs Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 40 (1):36-40
Nyanzi, Stella and Andrew Karamagi (2015). The social-political dynamics of the anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda. Agenda, 29 (1): 24-38
Ossome, Lyn (2017). The Public Politics of Nudity. In Commentaries on Professor Sylvia Tamale’s Inaugural Lecture, “Nudity, Protest and the Law in Uganda,” School of Law, Makerere University, MISR working paper n. 28, MISR, Kampala, pp. 7–16
Tamale, Sylvia (2016). Nudity, Protest and the Law in Uganda. Inaugural Professorial Lecture, October 28, 2016, School of Law, Makerere University, Kampala.
Tripp, Aili Mari (2010). Museveni’s Uganda: Paradoxes of power in a hybrid regime. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers
The arguments and positions expressed in this article belong to the author, and do not necessarily represent those of Sveriges antropologförbund.
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