The most quoted lines is Francis Imbuga’s play, Betrayal in the City, capture our coyness with Stella Nyanzi quite succinctly: “When the madness of an entire nation disturbs a solitary mind, it is not enough to say the man is mad.”
In the play, an outspoken activist, and academic, Dr Mosese, has been imprisoned for his activism. Inside the cells, he is confronted by the dilemma of an offer to sing for the president to get himself and other prisoners pardoned. To sing or not to sing is his damned question.
Terribly disturbed, he suffers somnambulism and nightmares. Surely the horrors/insanity/pains of his country have caused him some madness. Reflecting on the condition of co-prisoner Jere delivers that much-quoted line at the end of Scene Two.
There is a fascinating misquotation of Francis Imbuga’s lines, which is ironically powerful: “When the madness of a solitary mind disturbs an entire nation, it is not enough to say the man is mad.”
This misquotation is irresistibly tempting as it puts our love affair with Dr Nyanzi in interesting perspective. Let’s assume Stella Nyanzi was rightly medically insane. If the madness of her solitary mind disturbs an entire country – as it is doing – it is surely not enough to say the woman is mad.
Nyanzi is a mad woman imprisoned for her contagious uncultured ramblings masquerading as activism. Her critics say her mouth is dirty: she is insensitive to the moral and religious scruples of her country and thus ought to be contained.
But the nationwide love — and energetic loathing — she gets is astounding for a simply mentally sick person. Nyanzi has a huge fanbase, manifested in her huge social media following — via Facebook —the biggest in Uganda, bigger than the best comedian in the land (She has been scorned as an amateur comedian). Museveni’s family has been the luckiest recipient of Nyanzi’s poetically seasoned ire.
Museveni’s state has returned the favor by incarcerating her several times – and getting her fired from Makerere University. With all the mentally sick people whom we have sadly institutionally and socially stigmatized, why would Uganda obsess with the “madness” of this woman?
In truth, Nyanzi’s is not mental illness. Among other things, hers is a reimagination of the world we live against the values that dictate our interaction. These values have tended to dumb us, making us stupidly tolerant to impunity.
In her madness [sic], Nyanzi radically challenges the moral values that Ugandans hold so dear but cannot enable them to confront the festering crises in their midst. By turning them on their head, she gives these values life by making them usable for socio-political agitation.
Jolting us from our morally inspired complacence, we are all running scared. Indeed, accusing Nyanzi of madness is a cheap escape, which only obfuscates a rather complex history of the modern state and moral-political thought that protest movements have so often challenged.
There is an old debate in political philosophy over the use of reason in the public space (or confining reason to the private space), which puts Nyanzi in perspective and thus helps us understand why she is hated by those in power (and their surrogates) — and why she is loved by the everyday “unsophisticated” wretched of the earth.
Let’s examine this debate briefly: With the emergence of the sovereign in Western political thought, where individuals subject private authority to the state, came the question whether the masses were free to be critical of that sovereign publicly or being critical is a thing for the private space—and absolute obedience in the public space.
“What is the use of reason if it cannot be used in the public space?” Immanuel Kant famously asked.
Anyone who has privately interacted with many NRM-leaning legislators and other senior public servants is aware of how critical they are of the sovereign in President Museveni. They are so disgusted by the egregious corruption, breakdown of public service including education, medical care and security. Indeed, they are likely to describe Mr Museveni in worse terms than just a “pair of buttocks” as Nyanzi did.
Many NRM aficionados also believe First Lady Janet Museveni is not qualified for the job of Minister of Education and Sports. But as Mosese would say, they “dare not talk beyond whispers.”
The difference is that Nyanzi has the ‘testicles’ to use her reason publicly – just like Mosese in a 1976 drama.
The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.