By Isaac Otidi Amuke
I have debated about writing this for days, in case it has a negative effect on my ability to freely do the things I like doing, like eating fish in the open air pubs at Mulungu Beach in Munyonyo, devouring pork with friends in the roadside cafes in Wandegeya, or having cold ones in backstreet Kabalagala. I have always found a reason, if not an excuse, to travel to Kampala, which is much closer to my home village in Teso than to Nairobi, my country’s capital.
For me, Uganda has always held a deeply sentimental value. Growing up in Busia, at the Kenya-Uganda border, my childhood friends and I knew that everything fancier was always on the Ugandan side of the border. Our fathers went to drink there, bringing back stories that remain alive to this day. All the delicacies we enjoyed – the fish, the roast bananas, the goat meat, nearly always originated from Uganda, and every Saturday morning my friends and I wandered outside Ugandan warehouses in search of the nylon paper and manila strands we used to sew our soccer balls. As a child, I entered Uganda as I would a neighbour’s house. In fact, a good number of my primary school classmates crossed back into Uganda for lunch at home, returning to Kenya to attend their afternoon classes.
Sofia, on the Ugandan side of the border, remains an all time favourite destination for food and drinks. I have never understood, or cared to investigate, how my favourite Kenyan beer, Tusker, retails at one-third of the price I pay for it in Nairobi. Culturally, as an Itesot, my king’s throne is situated in Uganda. I was once filled with cultural pride on seeing a huge billboard advertisement in Kampala by telecommunications giant Orange simply saying “Yoga”, translating the company’s “Hello” tagline into Iteso. Seeing such in Nairobi, where I am almost always the first Iteso my friends have met, would be a pipe dream. To take it further, my maternal great grandmother, Marisiano, has her roots in Uganda, and as an idealistic student activist, just graduated and on the run, your government granted me political asylum.
As you can see, Uganda is more than a second home to me. I hope my writing this will not jeopardise that in any way.
A few days before her arrest in Kampala, Uganda, I sent Dr. Stella Nyanzi a Facebook message of solidarity. She had had run-ins with your government, for what was seen as her indecent attacks on Facebook on your person and the person of the First Lady, Janet Museveni. As someone who has faced personal political upheavals before, I quickly understood the weight of the circumstances Dr. Nyanzi was looking at, and decided to quietly reach out so that she wouldn’t think my silence persisting.
Facebook is where I sent my message of condolence to Dr. Nyanzi on the passing of her father, whom she heavily mourned, on Facebook. Facebook is where I have known of her closeness to her three children. Facebook is where she has teased, cajoled, persuaded and protested. Facebook is where she has celebrated Luganda culture, helping me understand the meaning of Nalongo, as a mother of twins, a name which until then I only associated with Nalongo’s, the most popular pub in Sofia. Importantly, Facebook is where I first got in touch with her for an interview for “Facing the Mediterranean”, a three-part series I wrote on Ugandans in Kenya seeking refuge because of fear of persecution based on their sexual orientation.
To Dr. Nyanzi, Facebook is more than a platform of attack. It is a space she inhabits, a channel for communication, a diary, maybe even a confidant. It must also be a political comrade, with whom she shares and expresses her joys and frustrations. The first time I met her at her office at the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), Dr. Nyanzi warned me that she curses a lot. “Be warned,” she said, “I use curse words a lot.” The fact that I was recording the interview didn’t deter her. Indeed, she cursed a lot, possibly because the subject was emotionally heavy and close to her heart.
I had been apprehensive about meeting Dr. Nyanzi, thinking she was a stand-offish academic who had no time for my journalistic pestering. But to my surprise, the moment we shook hands and started talking, I realised she was the direct opposite of what I had imagined her to be – a no-nonsense activist and researcher. She asked me to tell her about myself, and all she took away was that I had been a hothead during my university days, and she oscillated between teasing and complementing my younger self. She was generous with her time, in her lower ground floor office, which she told me could be bugged, but she really didn’t care. We spoke for nearly two hours, and she didn’t censor herself one bit. It is an afternoon I will not forget.
In the end, Dr. Nyanzi asked me how safe I thought I was moving around investigating the story. I told her I believed I was relatively safe, because in my view, I was merely a journalist reporting on an urgent story that had gone unattended. She told me not to take things for granted, asking me to make sure I backed up all my interviews. She then gave me her phone number, asking me to only call her if I needed bail. I laughed at this but knew exactly what she meant.
Not long after, my story was nominated for the 2016 CNN Multichoice African Journalist of the Year Awards. At the awards ceremony in Johannesburg, South Africa, my name was called out as one of the two finalists in the Features category. The bit of the story that had been selected by the organizers to display on the huge screen on stage was part of my conversation with Dr. Nyanzi.
Why the passage was picked I have no idea, but it showed how Dr. Nyanzi was not only a leading social scientist, but also a human being who sympathised with the condition of other human beings, the Ugandan refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya, who referred to her as “Mama Stella”. After the event, a senior Kenyan journalist approached me and asked, “You mean you’ve interviewed Dr. Nyanzi? I follow her on Facebook.”
Mr. President, yours is an exceptional country, with exceptional individuals. Dr. Stella Nyanzi is one of those. I have read of the difficult circumstances you and your comrades encountered in seeking regime change in Uganda in the early 1980s, how you fought in the bush whileyour wife and children were exiled in Sweden. I suspect you all must have had a sadness about being apart. I believe Dr. Nyanzi and her children are currently facing the same predicament.
I know Dr. Nyanzi will reprimand me for pleading her case, and say that she doesn’t need your mercy or sympathy or that of anyone in your family or regime. But I am willing to take her reprimand, in that very fruity language that you and many others should know by now. She will especially heavily reprimand me for pleading the case incorrectly, using humanitarian grounds as opposed to defending her rights as a Ugandan and an intellectual. I am willing to take that reprimand too, again, in her very fruity language, if my plea will see the end to her incarceration.
Mr. President, please let Dr. Nyanzi go back to her work and her children. That is not to say that she will be silent, because it is in her nature to speak up. We read a lot about your days as a young Marxist idealist at the University of Dar es Salaam. You were part of a generation of African intellectuals, some militant, as you yourself turned out to be, who believed in charting a new course for the continent, a monumental task at the time.
If the hand of time was to go back, Mr. President, you’d understand the need for critiquing a regime and its policies. Yours was an even more potent need; that of urgently seeking regime change either through the ballot or the bullet. I cannot help but see echoes of this young idealist in Dr. Nyanzi, only that hers is not a pursuit for political power, but for the basic rights of fellow citizens. She has not deployed bullets. Only words. I implore that you set her free, Mr. President, for she does not deserve to be separated from her family.
I write from a place of complete obscurity, hoping my words, too, will catch the king’s ear.
A Kenyan who loves Uganda.
Amuke is a writer living in Nairobi.