By Paula Akugizibwe
In Seeing, Jose Saramago’s novel about the death of democracy, citizens in the capital city of an unnamed country calmly disengage from the ritual of elections, in which they have lost faith. The state retaliates by sealing off the city and withdrawing all public services, and in response residents organise themselves to sustain order in the absence of government systems. Garbage is collected. Peace is maintained. Life goes on. This worsens the government’s distress, as it presents them with an even deeper existential threat: redundancy.
Saramago’s prophetic tale came to mind when I started following the response of Ugandan academic Dr. Stella Nyanzi to the government’s failure to provide sanitary pads to schoolgirls who cannot afford them. Incensed by the government’s claim that they lacked money to fulfil their election campaign promise, Nyanzi launched a crowdfunded campaign of her own, Pads4GirlsUg, which elicited a strong show of support from the public. In just a few weeks, the campaign raised thousands of dollars and distributed pads to over 2 000 schoolgirls across four districts.
Inevitably, the state was sidelined from this impressive display of active citizenship, which cast it as both unreliable and redundant when it comes to sanitary health for Uganda’s schoolgirls. “Ugandans have moved away from, ‘we beg the government to help us’,” Nyanzi declared in an interview with Ugandan weekly The Observer. “They say that if the government is impotent, let’s be our own men and impregnate our own women”.
Nyanzi, who is known for deploying vivid sexual metaphors as a tool to invoke outrage over injustice, also used her widely-followed Facebook page to deliver scathing commentary targeting President Yoweri Museveni and first lady, Janet Museveni, who is also the Minister of Education and Sports. On 7 April, Nyanzi was arrested and charged with cyber harassment, for posting “a suggestion or proposal referring to his Excellency Yoweri Kaguta Museveni as among others ‘a pair of buttocks’ which suggestion/proposal is obscene or indecent.”
In other words, Nyanzi was arrested, and has now spent almost three weeks in jail without a bail hearing, for being rude. Her type of activism, while unique in contemporary Ugandan politics – Charles Onyango Obbo has described her as “our first neck-on-the-chopping-block female social media combatant” – is not entirely new to Uganda’s political landscape. Several days before her arrest, Nyanzi posted a paper by historian Carol Summers titled, Radical Rudeness: Ugandan Social Critiques in the 1940s, challenging her followers to “know our rich history before you think I am the first fighter with words”.
This paper, which has done the rounds since her arrest, is centered on the most famous RSVP in Ugandan history, activist Ssemakula Mulumba’s 18-page rejection of the Bishop of Uganda’s invitation to dinner in 1948. Summers dives into historical records that illustrate how radical activists of the time used rudeness strategically, to provoke the colonial government and citizens alike into a naked confrontation of oppression that was blunted by the emphasis on good manners in politics. This emphasis was central to Britain’s rule in Uganda, allowing it to brush past conflicts in the name of civility: as the Bishop had written to Mulumba, “there is no reason that we should not be on friendly terms, even if you dislike me officially”.
Mulumba, repulsed, rejected the Bishop’s invitation on account of the “foul activities” of the British in Uganda, whom he accused of turning his country into “a pigsty for white swine”. His letter, although addressed to the Bishop, was also intended for the general public. In the analog equivalent of a viral digital post, copies were printed and distributed in Uganda by his comrades. When the British objected to his rudeness, Mulumba unleashed even more vitriol, accusing the Bishop of “disdainful filth” and defiantly asserting that “I know, the [first] letter was spicy, because I took time and care to season it well for you…”
Due to their extremism, Summers writes, these radical activists were sometimes painted as insane — much as the state has now sought to use the Mental Treatment Act against Nyanzi, which lawyer Tricia Twasiima describes as “a colonial law formerly reserved for Africans who demanded for freedom”. But from the perspective of Mulumba and his colleagues, the real insanity lay in oppressive British rule, which sought to both slap their face and shake their hand in one motion. A similar perspective has been raised by many of Nyanzi’s supporters in Uganda today, where her activism channels broader frustrations around chronic problems with public sector services.
In The Observer, Dr. Jimmy Spire Ssentongo marvels that “Our leaders ironically fail to understand our madness, much of which is their making! Such is the bizarre structure of our society that although many of us are insane, the calamitous madness of the powerful always finds exemption while that of the powerless is condemned.” Atuki Turner comments in The Monitor that the real vulgarity does not lie in Nyanzi’s use of language, but in “the situation of the hundreds of girls who have been shamed, teased, ridiculed, laughed at, until they’ve cowered with embarrassment or run out of class in tears, or stayed at home in shame, because of their menstrual periods”.
It is disingenuous to demand respectability in citizens’ responses to a politics that is not respectable. But this principle, however intuitive, is at odds with the popularised understanding of active citizenship, which has been rooted in the vague pursuit of “a seat at the table”. Nyanzi is in prison because, like the citizens of Saramago’s fictional city, she chose instead to construct another table with and for the people, while exposing the vulgarities of the high table in the harshest possible light. Like Mulumba, she was not interested in an easy dinner, but rather in disrupting the enforced respectability in oppression. This is a different kind of active citizenship, and perhaps the most effective kind, when dealing with states that are not responsive to the needs of their people.
Pads4GirlsUg continued to publicise their work in the days leading up to Nyanzi’s second court appearance, while other citizens announced their plans to collect sanitary pad donations at an upcoming music festival. But as Nyanzi and her lawyers sat in the high court on 26 April, with journalists and the general public banned from observing court proceedings, the Minister of Education declared her intent to look into non-governmental organisations that independently distribute pads to schools — adding skeptically, “if they are there”.
Akugizibwe is a writer based in Kigali.