Two Ugandan women, both of them Christians, are at war with each other. Dr. Stella Nyanzi, a university researcher specializing in queer theory, uses sexually explicit vulgarity to fight Mrs. Janet Museveni, wife of the Ugandan president, who is also minister of education in her husband’s government.
Stella’s language is deeply offensive to Janet, to her husband and to many citizens of what remains a hypocritically conservative country. (Pornographic publications are legal and popular in Uganda, one of the most religious countries on Earth.)
Janet fights back, first with a television appearance, in which she declares that she has forgiven her tormentor, though she claims not to know who Stella is. She gains sympathy from many, for there is no justification for hurling such vulgarity and humiliation at anyone, not even your worst enemy.
Clearly Stella, who has told us that she is a born-again Christian, has ignored one of the central expectations of a believer’s life. The Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 4:29-32, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
However, one understands the source of Stella’s anger and bitterness. Janet and her husband have presided over a regime that has fallen far short of the minimum expectations they set for themselves when they captured state power 31 years ago.
Stella’s immediate reason for her angry vulgarity on Facebook is Museveni’s broken presidential campaign promise to provide sanitary pads to all school-going girls in order to prevent adolescent school dropout. Janet, as Minister of Education, was the bearer of the bad news that there was no money to pay for the promise.
To tell Ugandans that there is no money for this extremely essential measure, when you have just given a bonus of Sh. 6 billion ($1.7 million) to people for doing what is expected of them is very troubling. At best, it is very bad PR. At worst, it is a cruelly insensitive expression of a “we don’t care” attitude. It is un-Christian.
What is surprising is not that Stella reacts to the affront with vulgar attacks on Janet and her husband. Sexually explicit language, complete with a devotion to human genital anatomy and function, is as normal to Stella as a priest’s reference to the Book of Psalms.
The surprise is that Janet and her courtiers are shocked by Stella’s anger. One is reminded of the late Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi on his last day on Earth. A captive in a storm drain in Sirte, Gaddafi reportedly asked one of his captors: “What did I do to you?” Then, as his captors continue to torture him, he says: “What you’re doing is wrong, guys. What you are doing is forbidden in Islam!”
People in power, fed an overdose of adoration by their supporters, become disconnected from the pain and suffering of the “others.”
For example, that presidential handshake for a few courtiers in a country where girls drop out of school because they lack a basic item of personal hygiene is a vulgar contempt for the Wretched of the Earth who are expected to sit and watch as the vultures strip bits of meat from the national carcass.
For her sins, Stella sits in Luzira Maximum Security Prison, charged with using her dirty wit and poetry to disturb or attempt to disturb “the peace, quiet or right of privacy” of the president. According to the Uganda Police, the president might be annoyed by Stella’s vulgar reference to him as “a pair of buttocks.”
In fact Stella’s incarceration has amplified her message to a worldwide audience, adding further insult to the injured presidential feelings and subjecting him to international ridicule and annoyance.
Neither Janet nor Yoweri has bothered to publicly apologize for the broken campaign promise and to try and understand why Stella is angry.
That Stella is expressing the angst of millions who either fear or lack the platform that she has, seems to be lost on the regime. Like the colonial and Apartheid regimes did, the Museveni government’s response to a non-violent protest is to arrest one who dares to challenge them. And like those earlier regimes, the next step will be to control not just what is said but what is read or heard. We must continue to say “no” to that.
Whereas I disagree with Stella’s choice of language, I stand firmly in solidarity with her as she endures unnecessary imprisonment. I urge Yoweri Museveni to unconditionally release her. It is the right thing to do and it is in his interests to save himself from further embarrassment.
This attack on Stella’s freedom of expression is an attack on my freedom of thought and expression and on my right to hold an opinion. Today, it is Stella. Tomorrow – you!