Stella Nyanzi is the first Ugandan writer to publish a full single authored poetry collection written from jail.
She was arrested on November 2, 2018 and imprisoned for posting a poem on Facebook that was regarded to be cyber-harassing the long-serving President of the republic of Uganda. She was convicted and sentenced to eighteen months in jail. She wrote all the 158 poems in No Roses From My Mouth during her detention. Her first collection of the poems was released on her 45th birthday on June 16, 2019, which was celebrated while she was in jail under the hashtag #45Poems4Freedom.
No Roses from My Mouth is divided into three sections titled “About Uganda”, “In Prison” and “On Feminism”.
The section on “About Uganda” took me through the political, social and economic conditions of Uganda. Nyanzi left no stone unturned.
She touched on the presidency, his family and ministers and reminded us about the necessity of honesty and vulgarity in our speech when it comes to challenging dictatorial rule and theft within political chambers.
It is for this reason that I think Nyanzi experienced her incarceration with honor instead of shame. The honor that she retains rests in her patriotic anti-patriotism. Rather than embracing empty nationalism, she challenges leadership in order to pave the way for more accountable governance.
While the president received the biggest pinch from her poems, Nyanzi also chastised members of Parliament, the Judiciary and the university.
“In Prison” she talks about the economic power structures that are within the confines of Luzira prison, the justice system that imprisons the disadvantaged and the innocent.
In this poem, Nyanzi vibrantly discusses the lives of her fellow inmates (especially the ones who supported her), wardresses and officers (most of whom she despises), visitors (who kept checking on her and sneaking her poems out) and everyone else she’s met during her long and memorable journey in Luzira Women’s Prison. Nyanzi writes…………
The prison is flooding with inmates
Packed to the brim with prisoners
Festering with victims of injustice
Her poems also offer reflections on menstrual discomfort and the insanitary conditions inside Luzira Women’s Prison which will make your heart break. She talks about the pitiable sanitary and medical facilities, congestion and the general daily life in Luzira prison.
Through these poems we also get to feel the wreck that is a Ugandan women’s prison with inmates playing roles not meant for them such as assisting each other to give birth and sourcing for medication when other inmates fall sick.
The Poem “On Feminism”, talks about sexual harassment in different institutions by those who have “Power”, the arrest of poor and vulnerable women vendors by the Kampala capital city authorities, and the heaps of hardships and exploitation of women prison laborers….
“People with so much to offer are entrapped, degraded and used to create products from which they cannot themselves benefit. They are left to deal with the full-scale degradation of the maximum-security prison, where health provisions and food become currencies that arise from the context of total deprivation. Prisoners suffer labels meant to deny them of their full humanity”.
Her words lend a brilliant proposition that we radically re-envision what it means to contribute to a country, and that, perhaps, we do so by centering the learned skills of the feminized.
Nyanzi’s entire career has been in service to a greater Uganda, as an anthropologist unafraid to embed herself in difference.
One of the most jaw dropping detail in the FEMINISM poem is when Nyanzi writes about her miscarriage that the prison warders disregarded at first sight. she writes……
“I miscarried justice…As the prison wardresses screamed at me, blood gushing out of my womb…some screaming that I am a liar…”.
Nyanzi narrates that it’s her fellow inmates that gave her sanitary pads, underwear and tissue to wrap the fetus that was eventually thrown in the toilet and was admitted to the prison’s sick bay for hypertension.
What is said is that the prison warders disregarded her at first, saying she is “post-menopausal”
Here Nyanzi sends a strong message and criticizes women who fail to stand by each other, especiallythe female prison staff who ill-treated her and other inmates. She writes……
Those who speak the language of diplomacy
Should not seal the mouths of singers of ragga.
Those who fast and pray and intercede
Should not drive demons out of nude protestors.
We see this universal truth of prisons examined through a Ugandan lens.
If you thought that her imprisonment was going to blur her writing, then this anthology is evidence that it only bolstered it. In this way she follows in the footsteps of others writers who have endured incarceration while emboldening their convictions. The environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa as well as Kenya’s award-winning author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka from Nigeria and his counterpart, South Africa’s Caesarina Kona Makhoere, Malawi’s Jack Mapanje, Egypt’s Nawal El Saadawi, among others make an impressive list of writers who refused to be silenced by prison. Nyanzi is a mother of three children, including a pair of twins that have bestowed her the doting cultural title of ‘Nalongo’ which means mother to twins.