Stella Nyanzi: I am actually a very quiet person

Dr Stella Nyanzi

Dr Stella Nyanzi

Stella Nyanzi, 46, is a poet, feminist, researcher, activist, scholar of sexuality and Kampala Woman MP aspirant.

Quick Talk found her at Makerere University last week.

Good morning, Doctor!

Good morning, Quick Talk!

And how is your health?

I feel fine. I’m just worried about Covid-19 because Kampala is now a hotspot. I have been to many gatherings particularly in my political party FDC.

I used the microphone that the MC and other people were using and I think last week was contagious. My health is so fine, but there are reasons for me to be concerned, because many people are still joking about coronavirus.

True. How was prison?

Prison was interesting; it was tough because of the conditions and congestion. In my ward, we had only six beds for 80 women; so, the beds were used by long-term prisoners, [the rest of us] slept on the floor.

I was lucky to have taken my son’s bed sheets and when I arrived, a friend of mine had a new mattress. But in Luzira, they remove all mattress covers and you sleep on bare [foam] and I got an allergy [shows Quick Talk the scars on her arms]. The officer in charge allowed me to get bed sheets. I left them with an old woman who was my best friend. 

That sounds really bad!

I was very lucky; I think I was the most visited prisoner. The only time I was not allowed visitors was when they would take away my visitation rights as a form of punishment, especially when they had beaten me and my body was bruised and they did not want the public to see the evidence of torture.

[Otherwise] visitors brought me food, medicines, sanitary towels and many basics [that I shared with] other prisoners. Prison was also very dirty. We were sleeping in a line of three; so, my head was against the wall and my feet against the feet of another person, and that other person’s head is against the head of another person.

Then the bathrooms; there was one cubicle and one toilet, but there was no water most of the times. Many women got UTIs and genital infections.

We had sex workers who have unprotected sex; so, whatever infections they had was left in the bathrooms and we caught them. This was aggravated by the lack of medicines. If a woman got pregnant and had to deliver in prison, often we had to walk to Murchison bay, which was the men’s hospital.

I had a miscarriage when I was in prison and that was so difficult because mine was induced by torture. The wardresses did not believe I was having a miscarriage; they were insulting me, saying I could not be getting menstrual periods anymore, when I asked them to help me. I showed them the blood on my shorts, because that is what we wore as underwear [she spreads her legs to show Quick Talk how she showed the wardresses…]. One of them told me that that was not blood but tomato sauce.

I was deeply saddened by losing my baby, but I was much more saddened by the unkindness of [some] women to another woman. 

That is really sad! Sorry for your loss.

Then there was solitary confinement, where one would be locked up alone. While it was the most shameful form of punishment, it was my best moment because this meant I was not crowded by all these dirty women with lice and bedbugs. However much I was sleeping on the wet floor, I at least had my privacy.

The other form of punishment was undressing a prisoner and parading her around naked, [huh! Not a problem for Nyanzi, Quick Talk imagines]. I watched many women crying and falling apart because they were told to undress and parade. With me, any moment they tried me, I would be like, ‘Eeeh? You want to see!’

But otherwise, I’m thankful that prison trained me; nothing else would have made me more fearless about calling Museveni a dictator, corruption, murders, brutality, negligence… I mean [she points to Makerere’s dilapidated buildings]Look at the buildings of the public university; the best university. Apart from that, I made very many friends. You find women plaiting one another’s hair, they sell lipstick, makeup. There is friendship, sisterhood and cooking clubs. It really gave me a lot of structural reforms.

How were your children surviving?

I have three children who became responsible and took care of themselves. My daughter became mummy and my sons became daddy. My daughter is making 15 and my twin sons are making 13. I thank my family because they took care of my children; they attended the best private schools and they were protected.

My daughter and my sons are good writers. One of my sons was writing books which he gave me when I came back, the other was writing me letters especially on days when he was hurt or insulted by the cruel adults – even teachers.

Wasswa is very close to me in that if I am sick, even when we are apart, he will also feel sick. We are so spiritually attached. Whenever I was beaten, for example, he would feel terrible headache. When I got malaria twice in prison, he would also be sick but his medical tests would come back negative. He was the most affected. 

Bambi. Now, are you really as tough as you are portrayed?

Define tough. Do I speak bitter words which are truthful? Yes. Do I like discipline and order? Yes. Do I like justice and fairness? Yes. Will I speak loudly when someone is treating me unjustly? Of course. Will I fight for my rights? Yes.

Look, I have a PhD and I should have been promoted here at Makerere University. I was doing the work. I was publishing and was getting grants. When I asked for my promotion, an old professor refused. Just because he thought he would change my contract from a researcher to a lecturer. 

For the last five years I had been negotiating, pleading and I was kind. I became tough and said a line has been crossed after he put a padlock on my office. I took a tough stand and threw off my clothes. And so, if that is what toughness is, then I think I am very tough.

But now you have given up a career you fought so much for!

I did not give up, because going to the field every day and speaking to voters asking them their issues is research. Going to parliament and saying this is what I have got from the community is research. So, sweetheart, [shifts an imaginary gear stick] I have just changed platform but the skill of research never leaves.

I don’t need an office to excel as a researcher, scholar and thinker. I don’t do this thing as a job, but out of passion.

What makes you think Kampala needs you as MP?

Kampala is a hot seat of power. It’s also a hub of the economic activity. I need to be here; if not Kampala, then nowhere? I want people to remember that there was a woman who brought a difference in Kampala unlike my [predecessor] who has been absent in Parliament when important issues were raised, like ‘Togikwatako’, social media tax, mobile money tax.

My boldness and fearlessness make me the suitable candidate. [A young man walks to where we are and plays loud music. Nyanzi calmly turns to him and says, ‘f*#k you’ and then continues with her interview].

Aren’t you scared of losing?

Why would I lose? I have seen all the other candidates and the best they have is one or two degrees. I have a PhD and four [other] degrees. I beat them in terms of articulation, academic qualification…I have persevered prison and I am still saying Museveni must go even after all I went through. But give them two days in prison, they will quit and give up. There is no way under the sun that I am losing; I was born for it.

Meanwhile, prison seems to have tamed your vulgar tongue…

Vulgarity is a weapon; what do you even mean, yet I undressed in court? The police were taking me from the arcades when we were protesting, and I showed my panties to the world, even at Buganda road, the police undressed me when they were arresting me for banging my pots and pans for food. Every time I am unjustly treated, I will use my tools [of] vulgarity and nudity where necessary.

What would surprise people about you?

I think most people would be surprised that I am actually a very quiet person. The decision to become vocal and loud is in response to the persecution, oppression and suppression.


Yes. The people that know me will tell you that Stella is actually very quiet.

Someone mentioned you were actually a shy girl at Gayaza High School.

I have never been a shy girl. I played piano at Gayaza and also sang to a whole school. I am just quiet and reserved; I think shy is a mischaracterization. But is the quiet girl still in there? Well, of course; as long as my rights are not violated.

Did you attend Gayaza throughout?

I went to Lake Vic primary school for P.1, then joined Gayaza Junior. My family had to go to exile because my father was a medical doctor treating soldiers who were fighting against Idi Amin’s  regime…his life was at risk; so, he went to exile and we joined him later.

When I came back, I went back to Gayaza after a term at Victoria Nile in Jinja and a term at Blessed Sacrament in Masaka. I joined Gayaza High for my O and A-level before joining Makerere University. I also studied at the University of London and other universities abroad.

What is the secret behind this kitenge dress code?

I love colour. I buy fabric from all over the world. Sometimes in West Africa and Holland, because they have very good fabric. Even here in Uganda at our local markets… I used to wear suits, shirts and jackets and got tired of fitting within a particular script. When I left for West Africa [Ssalongo is Gambian], I liked the freedom of going to a tailor and designing my own clothes.

And the dreadlocks? [She has short dreadlocks]

These are similar to the kitenge. I cut them off in prison when I miscarried my baby. I sacrificed the dreadlocks so that I could memorize my child. I was not allowed to take the dead foetus. It was dumped in the rubbish of the prison clinic. I cut off my hair and I still have them [dreadlocks]. I had grown them for five years. I am re-growing them because they are my signature just as my big mouth is.

Which girly behaviour have you kept?

I love to gossip. I just like sitting with my girlfriends and gossip; and over the years I have reclaimed what people call gossip as actually storytelling.

Are you still seeing the young man you are rumoured to be dating?

I am in a relationship with a man younger than me. Most of my love relations have been with men younger than me. I love this man dearly but politics is separating us. He belongs to NUP and is initially from FDC too. I think the source of conflict is around his support for the NUP candidate running for the same position as me.

My lover is also running for MP; so, I think the intensity of the political season needs him to be loyal to NUP. It’s like I’m competing with his political party and its members, and I am too good for that. We are currently not in a good place. I am not entertaining anyone who is supporting my opponent over me.

What is the secret behind younger men?

I love younger men, because I am not a submissive woman who will go around kneeling for this old man and walking on my knees. I like to be the person in control and I have been in control of my life for a very long time. I make my own money... Sex is also very good with younger men.

What can’t you live without?

I used to think if there was no music, a book, pen and sometimes my phone it would be terrible but I have learnt the value of silence. I would at some point think of the children but prison taught me that life will move on even without love and children.

It threatens to rain; so, Quick Talk winds up chatting to the most interesting character she has ever interviewed.

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd