My abdomen clenched like a fist, my bladder tightened, I wretched and recoiled in disgust. I reflexively ducked out of the prison cell toilets.
I have grown up in boarding school, and had lived in the poor areas of Nairobi city, but nothing can prepare you for the three-foot-tall mound hill of human faeces that was slowly decomposing, two walls away from the office of the police officer in charge of Kilimani Police station. How did he survive here? How could he allow this in his police facility?
I fled back to my cell, barely three metres away. I realised how important it was that the cell had only bars where there had probably meant to be windows, otherwise the odour would have driven detainees to insanity.
I had never been incarcerated before; I had only heard about prison from reading and watching popular television shows and movies. But now my real-life journey through the so-called correctional system had begun.
I instinctively hated school all my life. Now in the prison system I knew why. School, like prison, is an instrument designed to break your will, to condition you to surrender. Not just your rights – to food, to dignity, to being treated like a human – but your free will itself, your right to choose.
In school, we were always asked, “Any questions?” But we knew the questions you could ask and the questions you couldn’t ask, even when you were deviously encouraged and prodded with, “Ask any question.” After many years of schooling, we intuitively self-censored. You knew that no teacher could actually entertain any question. When they asked if you had understood, you were supposed to say yes. The school rules, the syllabus, and the textbooks were your truth; they were all that was relevant. The truth was irrelevant.
Prison is kind of like school. I was in jail because I had distributed a leaflet containing thoughts and ideas that were outside “the approved syllabus” to the public. I had asked why young Muslim men were disappearing at the rate of four-a-week in Eastleigh, a predominantly Muslim area, and their tortured bodies turning up the Tsavo National Park. Others lost forever. I had asked why the leaders who purported to speak for Muslims were silent on the spate of state-sponsored killings but loud on pledges of allegiance and calls to voting during elections. I had read speeches endeavouring to wake my fellow citizens, my “school mates” in this school of life, up to the fraud being perpetrated upon us.
I had asked “Why?”
“Why?” to the tyrant is “terrorism”. The tyrant feels terrorised. “Why” isn’t just defiance, “why” is to challenge the basis of his order, the very foundation of his rule.
It is the one question you can never ask, either in school, or outside.
My odyssey was just beginning.
I was shuttled between police station’s cells, as my lawyer endeavoured to have me incarcerated in the Anti-Terror Police Unit’s (ATPU) holding facility, explaining to the magistrate that the devilish intention of the arresting officers to hold me while innocent in police cells was to inflict mental torture, as they knew what a few weeks in their stinking decrepit infrastructure would do to a human being. The magistrate granted our appeal, but how could she follow-up and monitor implementation? Once you are out of the magistrate’s court, the police do as they will.
Back to Kilimani Police Station. The cell I was in had a number of steel rings jutting out from the floor, two thirds of the circumference emerging from the floor, while the other third remained embedded in the cement floor. None of us in the cell could tell what purpose they served. They served no aesthetic or functional purpose we could think of.
Two days later, an apparent veteran of the prison system made his regular visit. He explained to us the rings were from the colonial times. Rebellious natives wouldn’t just be locked in, they would be chained to the floors of the cells they were held in. It was horrifying to imagine. But what struck me the most is that the colonial penal infrastructure is still intact. There wasn’t even a cosmetic makeover. The buildings are the exact same ones, the cells, even the cells doors are the very same ones the British imperialists built. At “independence” no one thought to rip up these degrading rings that held our grandfathers down like animals.
I was told Kilimani Police Station was the preferred holding facility where elites asked to be held when arrested. I was afraid to imagine what the rest were like.
I was transferred to Muthaiga Police Station over the weekend, after a week of interrogations about everything, except a possible crime or misdemeanour. Not once was I asked or told what crime I was being held for.
Three questions were repeated in different order and context: ”Do you believe in jihad?”, “Do you support Kenya Defence Force’s war in Somalia?”, and “Have you ever been to Somalia?”
It was odd, I thought, that they knew I had committed no criminal offence but they were content to persecute me. How did they live with this moral dilemma? How did the police go home everyday to their children and manage to find sleep knowing they had their fellow human beings locked up in inhuman conditions?
John Laurits writes in this insightful article that police training and institutions are designed to completely destroy a human being’s moral agency. Moral agency is the ability to choose between right and wrong. The militaristic chain of command takes away individual officers’ sense of moral responsibility and abstracts it all into the realm of bureaucracy. “The result is that nobody can be held responsible and the officer becomes an inanimate tool in the spooky hand of an unseen and unaccountable bureaucracy — the police officer becomes no more than a vessel for policies, totally devoid of agency and free of its consequences.” To know this from reading, and to experience it first hand, were completely different phenomena. Was this the dissonance Nabii Yusuf suffered as his brothers lowered him into a hole in the wilderness?
I was brought to Muthaiga Police Station on Friday evening. It was dark, dire and strangely very sparsely populated. I sighed with relief, but my comfort was to be short lived. “Ngoja uone,” (wait and see), my cellmate warned ominously.
At approximately ten o’clock that night there was a loud bang, commotion outside, and shouts of, “Ndani!! ndani!!” (Move in!! move in!!). Over a hundred people flooded in and were crammed into the three cells, each about nine square metres. A few were stoned but the rest seemed like anyone you’d pass by on the street on any day of the week. And as it turns out, they were.
It was dark but we could make each other out in the light reflected from the yard outside. When one of them established eye contact I asked, “What is going on? Where are you all from? What are you all doing here?”He explained to me he was netted in an “operation”, while on his way home from work. “How?” I asked incredulously. This world was new to me; his polite tone made me confident enough to ask him.
He explained that every Friday, the police would randomly cordon off different areas of public roads in Mathare, a nearby slum area, and sweep everyone caught in between into waiting police trucks. If it was your unlucky day, c’est la vie.
“What!? No!” This sounded preposterous; in my mind I thought there must be some legitimate reasons for these so-called “operations”. They could not just be mass shakedowns, it was unfathomably malevolent, it was simply unbelievable. But quietly, he told me this happened every Friday.
We fell into silence, with the occasional scuffles and fights as the drunks were disciplined by their sober comrades, who in this space had little patience for shenanigans. It was so cramped that we had to lock into each other’s thighs in squatting positions to settle in for the night and try and get some sleep. But the cramps and the freezing cold wouldn’t let any of us sleep. Why on earth would they do this? Who on earth would do this to his fellow human beings? I knew the police to be inhumane but again, to know and to experience is a world apart.
At Muthaiga Police Station, the outhouse — where one could relieve oneself — was literally outside the cellblock. We had to beg, bribe, grovel, hurl insults and vitriol at the on-duty office to let the desperate visit it. The corridor often ended being the temporary crapper.
At about 2 a.m. there was a loud shouting and banging on the doors. We could hardly see, the lights in the yard had been switched off. The police stormed the cells with torches and ordered everyone who heard their name to cross the floor where they stood armed with rifles and batons. Apparently it was roll call. I felt thankful for the rude interruption, the movement would allow us to walk and relieve the cramps.
Little did I know the open door was a gateway into another trial. As names were called out the police would randomly beat up detainees as they crossed the open space between them, roll call was running a gauntlet, literally.
Nights are long when out in the cold, but in Kenya’s jail cells nights last forever. You become certain that death from cold will find you long before the dawn does. But our will to live is stronger than we often think, and dawn does come, even in hell for a believer. When morning arrives, you are served two slices of bread and hot tea and a chance to visit the lavatory. Then you are locked up again, to begin the wait.
“Wait for what?” you might naturally ask. Not for your sins to be read, not for redemption, not even for damnation — this is the Kenya Police Force, sorry, Police Service, not God. You wait for extortion; you wait for your ransom to be read.
The caricature of an OCS (Officer in Charge of Station) waddled into the yard outside our cellblock at 9 p.m. We were swept out of the cells double time. Everyone could tell by the obsequiousness of the constables that he was the King here; his word was law.
He held out a two-foot-long book like a scroll. He read out the names of about seven of us and we were escorted back to the cells, where we watched the proceedings through the elevated barred windows of our cellblock.
The list of approximately one hundred plus detainees was read out without pause. At the end, in the guttural voice of a terribly unhealthy 100kg+ bully, he announced that every single individual whose name he had called out was charged with being drunk and disorderly and would have to pay Ksh2,000 for their freedom. He cued the police constables to herd them all back into the cellblock.
“Why on earth would they do this?” I had wondered the previous night. Then it hit me; this was why the cells had been empty when I’d arrived, they’d been cleared for the herd that was to be brought in for the night!
The one thing you have plenty of in jail is time. We all got to know each other. I sat next to the polite young man I had talked to the night before and we got talking. Sometimes I intentionally asked probing questions, looking for contradictions that would reveal deceit, but I found none.
John worked as a temporary worker at the Coca Cola bottling plant in Nairobi Industrial area and was on his way home from work, the same route he used everyday. He told me he didn’t take alcohol, and I believed him. He had a homely, mommy’s boy kinda feel to him, he struck me as the kind of guy who left work to go straight home to his wife every day, a decent human being in every sense of the word. He told me it was not the first time he had gotten caught in these “operations”. His wife knew what to do; they had a process. He would call her from the Muthaiga Police Post jail cell — the police availed a cell phone for detainees to use to call their loved ones to come and bail them out. She would go to the drawer where he kept his ATM card, she’d withdraw some money and come and bail him out. Yes, they had kidnap insurance.
But as luck would have it, his wife’s phone had been stolen a few days before and he had lost his ATM card. Therefore even if he could reach her, she had no way to access the emergency fund quickly enough to bail him out in time to go and save his temporary job at the Coca Cola plant. He was going to lose his money for no reason other than extortion, he was also going to lose his job as he was not going to report to work the next day — Saturday — and possibly also on Monday. This absence would be without reason, as far as his employer would know.
During the rest of the Saturday and Sunday, all manner of people were brought in for one, sorry reason, or another. From traffic violations, domestic quarrels, exam cheats, business disputes… the list of problems that brought people in was endless, but the answer that led out was only one: cash. The correctional system was a revolving door with free entry but paid exit.
When I thought about it, it dawned on me, that it everyone was guilty of some offence. If you were driving and in motion, a traffic violation. If stationary, a potential parking violation. If not driving, just walking was potentially loitering. If standing, you were possibly trespassing. If resisting arrest, well, drunk and disorderly. If in business, tax violation, tripwires criss-crossed everywhere around you. Every single action a human being could possibly perform in public was laced with a potential felony or misdemeanour, in a system of menacing laws and by-laws, one that ensured we were always guilty of one crime or another.
All the police needed to do was walk out into the street and arrest anyone or everyone they could. It helps them that everyone has been “educated” to cooperate with the legalised oppressors, it costs less. Therefore ten policemen will easily herd a hundred innocent people like sheep into jail. Once at the station, they can and do charge you with anything.
The police, the judiciary, the prisons…are all one business, a large extraction industry.
The industry’s mine is the country, its minerals are the people. The entire territory is a large prison, with ever increasing tripwires and contracting walls configured as laws, by-laws and boundaries. The population works to earn money to pay taxes that will keep the walls from contracting on them or their family members, and to prevent the tripwires from triggering the leg-lock traps.
Kenya, the entire Westphalian nation-state-capitalist system with all its glitter and promise is just one large mine of slaves, run by over-glorified guards and taskmasters. The slaves work in different parts and different levels of the mine, in order to serve time in specific cells and cell blocks with different levels of comfort and space. It is a panopticon equipped with an intricate system of locks and permission levels, to control movement either horizontally or vertically within the cells and cell blocks.
For instance, the other six “terror suspects” I had been brought in with were Maasai herders from Tanzania. They had been picked up in Narok, a town in the southern part of Kenya, for failing to show ID. They didn’t have passports. How Maasai herding goats in the Rift Valley, something they have done for centuries, had become a “terror offence” was beyond me and beyond them, given they didn’t even know what “terror” or “terror suspect” meant, but here they were.
Fortunately, there is nowhere angels sent cannot reach you, even in the darkest dungeons of Firaun. Mine was sent in the form of my Investigating Officer. The Muthaiga chapter of my odyssey ended early the following Monday morning.
That morning, my name alone was called. It immediately struck me as strange. I stepped out into the yard to find my Investigating Officer waiting for me. He had come to rescue me from my ordeal, I felt an overwhelming surge of fraternal affection for him. Now I understand Stockholm syndrome.
I walked out in slow uncertain steps. I was burdened with mixed feelings. Even as my heart soared in what it saw as my escape, it was weighed down by guilt. My fellow “terror suspect” detainees, the Maasai herdsmen who had suffered with me throughout the weekend, had looked at me with desperately hopeful eyes when my name was called out of the first light. “Wametukujia?” (have they come for us?), they asked desperately, hoping we would all be returned to the Terror Unit holding facility, with its working toilets and urine-free floors. I could hear them calling me, but I couldn’t look back. I still can’t. In hell, no man will care about his fellow man’s plight. You can barely bear heat of your own fires, how can you bear someone else’s?
I do not know if John lost his job at Coca-Cola, let alone if or when he was released.
I was at the Anti-Terror Police Unit holding facility for only a few more days before being promoted to full remand in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison’s Solitary Confinement Block. To await either conviction and release into the general prison population of Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, or acquittal and release into the general prison population of Kenya.
This is Hotel California*, “… you can check in any time you like, but you can never leave!”
*”Hotel California” is the title track from the Eagles’ album of the same name and was released as a single in February 1977.
Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt: A People’s History Through Photographs and Stories
8 min read. It was the women of that time that intrigued me most and I was watching their lives with the impatient envy of a child. I wanted to grow up and wear those cat-eye glasses and cute kitten heels, burn my hair straight, drink Babycham and laugh like they did, with a hand full of bangles held out at just the right angle.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been inviting people to share photos of their mothers, grandmothers and aunties looking stylish in the fashion of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The idea, which we are calling “Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt”, is simple enough, crowdsource photographs from Kenyan homes of women dressed in the style of that era; the photographs will be accompanied by reflections, essays, short stories or poems. The aim is to capture a history of ordinary people and to share this history through physical exhibitions, an online archived exhibition, and a coffee table book. I see the project as a celebration of Kenyan women and gives a snap shot of the emergence of the modern Kenyan woman.
By the time we staged the first mini-exhibition with a selection of 27 photographs submitted by people from around the country, I had come to understand that projects are not easy in that they all require planning and careful execution, even if they excite people. Getting people to send their scanned photographs from precious family albums has been challenging. The project goes into the intimate spaces of families and asks them to override their tendency towards privacy and share their lives with strangers. Of course this was always going to be a trial. It was not surprising that although the daughters or granddaughters were enthusiastic to participate in the project, their mothers and grandmothers — the subjects of the photos — sometimes refused to allow them to share these images. But I’m glad the images are trickling in.
Implementing the project over the last few months has helped me see its possibilities and expanded its scope in so many ways. Most important I am now looking for photographs before the 1960s and of Kenyan women wearing a variety of dress and hairstyles. The secret to the power of the project has furthermore revealed itself in the act of crowdsourcing. This approach has allowed people to connect and own the project, much more than if the photos were purchased from a media source.
My Childhood: 1960s and 1970s
The photographs have unleashed a collage of memories for me. I was a child in the 1960s and the 1970s watching Nairobi slowly emerge from its colonial yoke and my parents seemed to be at the centre of it all. They were amongst that group of Africans who were literally stepping into the shoes left by our colonial powers. My late father’s (William Ndala Wamalwa) career developed quickly and after only two or three years in government service, he stopped driving himself and moved to the senior government ranks.
But it was the women of that time that intrigued me most and I was watching their lives with the impatient envy of a child. I wanted to grow up and wear those cat-eye glasses and cute kitten heels, burn my hair straight, drink Babycham and laugh like they did, with a hand full of bangles held out at just the right angle. But most of all I wanted to wear those glamorous clothes that I saw women wear to parties and dinners – there seemed to be a party or dinner every other weekend! Miniskirts, bell-bottom trouser suits, halter tops, maxi dresses, stilettoes, kitten heels. I wanted to dance to the very dangerous James Brown, the elegant Supremes, the cool Fadhili William, the revolutionary Miriam Makeba, and the handsome Harry Belafonte. I thought all these musicians were my parents’ friends. Imagine my shock when I grew up enough to understand that these were distant celebrities.
For African women, hair means everything. Women spend large sums of money on our hair and even more woman-hours on styling it. Braiding can take eight hours. Typically a myriad of products are used on African hair, from oils, pomades, sprays, gels, dyes, treatments, conditioners and shampoos. How seriously do African women take their hair? Well in the days when we still had plastic bag around, Kenyan women could be seen risking their reputations by wearing plastic bags on their heads in broad daylight, to stop their hair from getting wet during an unexpected downpour.
But when it comes to hair, there was a simpler time. In the early 1960s, hair straightening was not yet fashionable and chemical relaxers had not yet arrived in the country. Kenyan women still wore their natural hair and fashioned it using African hairstyle traditions that involved elaborate cornrows, braids and plaiting. Saturday was the day when hair was dressed, typically with the help of skilled friends or relatives. Hair salons were still a faraway concept and the hair industry was a rudimentary affair and not the billion shilling industry of today.
In our home, many Saturdays found Aunty Truphena dressing my mother’s hair. Aunty Truphena was not my mother’s sister. But she and my mother were closer than sisters. They came from one of the smallest of the eighteen Luyhia sub-tribes, the Abanyala ba Ndombi, who are located in Navakholo division, north of Kakamega forest, in western Kenya. At that time, not many people seemed to have made it out of my Bunyala and it was rare to meet a Mnyala in Nairobi.
Sometimes Aunty Truphena straightened my mother’s hair using a hot comb heated on a charcoal jiko. She divided the wet hai,r drenched it in liquid coconut oil, and burnt it straight with the hot comb. Next she rolled the hair onto pink rollers and pinned it down. I wondered how she had learnt to dress hair like that. Her own hair was forever hidden under the flowered scarf that she always wore.
Nigerians Come to Town
The late 1960s were marked by an influx of Nigerians who came with their loud laughter, outsized personalities and strange food. They were mostly Igbos who had fled to Kenya as refugees from the Biafran War (1967-1970), but there was nothing “refugee pathetic” about them. In fact they came and took over our live,s adding flavour and passion like I had never experienced. I remember the names of one family in particular: Chief Jerome Oputa Udoji, his wife Mrs. Uzoamaka Udoji (Aunty Uzo) and their three children Scholastica, Osita Paul and Peter Ebelechukwu. The photograph of my mother below was taken at that time, and it was Aunty Uzo who made me realise just how beautiful my mother was, when she loudly exclaimed that my mother looked like Miss Kenya.
Mrs Rose Nanjala Wamalwa (Sitawa Namwalie’s mother) as an executive secretary at the Ford Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya (early 1970s). Photo Credit: Studio One.
Aunty Uzo was a force of nature. She and the other Nigerian women introduced me to a different way of being African. They were militant in taking on any vestigial racism that still had the temerity to cling on and even fight back, so soon after Kenya’s Independence. Aunty Uzo often regaled us with stories of the many battles she fought when white people dared to assert their colonial-era privilege. For us Kenyans, would so often acquiesce to everyday racism from the British, but not a Nigerian and definitely not Aunty Uzo. She fought with the priests at St. Mary’s school in Lavington where her sons were enrolled and she fought when white people tried to jump queues in banks or supermarkets and she argued with African waiters who tried to ignore her in restaurants. She was strong and assertive, always encouraging Kenyans not to be cowed by white people.
There were days when Aunty Uzo took over our kitchen and taught my mother how to cook Nigerian food, subjecting us to strange new flavours and aromas. Every so often our kitchen was overwhelmed by the strong smell of a dried fish imported direct from Nigeria which was even more pungent than our sivambala catfish dried in the hot sun of western Kenya. I learnt that Nigerians waste very little, cooking all parts of the goat,:the skin, meat, innards and hooves. The one dish that really tested my rather narrow palate as a child was a soup that combined beef, fish and chicken which Nigerians seemed to particularly love. When the war in Nigeria ended, our Nigerian friends left, leaving us changed for ever. But soon their place was taken by Ugandans fleeing the abuses of Idi Amin who began his rule in 1971, but that is a story for another day.
About the Exhibition
These photographs have triggered so many memories for me and it is my hope that they will do the same for all who see them. They document the social history of ordinary people in Kenya. I’ve learned that the past can be another country, sometimes a more interesting country than the narrow ideas that populate the present. I shared the premise of “Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt” with a young man, Basil Ibrahim who taught me the word hagiographic when he wrote the following in an email about the project;
“…a particularly interesting deviation from the hagiographic custom of The Great Men model of history-making…It is a model for bringing the archive to life, using memory, popular culture…in an experiment to provoke us to think about the implications the past has on the future we want.” (17 August 2019)
What he meant was that we tend to make saints of certain “great men” of the past (hagiography means the making of a saint), while ignoring the stories of ordinary people, who lived through those times. I hope that this project will correct that tendency towards hagiography.
When arranged chronologically, the photographs begin with one from1945 of a woman named Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari, dressed in the traditional dress of the Tharaka ethnic community. The type of dress she wears was worn by married women. The unmarried ladies had their breasts left uncovered. The photograph was submitted by Mr Simon Mitambo, Gatoro’s nephew and shows her in what can only be described as a brief miniskirt. The photo was taken in Meru town in 1945, after entertaining the then colonial governor of Meru. In discussing her traditional dress, Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari — who is over 90 years old — had the following to say: “Although we looked almost naked in miniskirts, there were no cases of sexual harassment.”
Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari, from the Tharaka ethnic community. 1945, Photograph submitted by Mr Simon Mitambo.
In another story entitled, “The Village Woman and Son, Bound for England” John Sibi-Okumu pays tribute to his mother Maria Ajiambo, wa Agostino Munika nende Sarah Mbaye (the names of her parents.) She was also addressed as Naliali, her clan name from the Samia of Western Kenya. John estimates that she was born in 1936.
Maria Ajiambo wa Agostino Munika nende Sarah Mbaye, mother of John Sibi-Okumu. The photograph was taken in 1958 at Noble Studio in Nairobi when John, her first born son, was four years of age.
John’s story of his mother reveals many intriguing circumstances, first being that his mother was born on a sisal estate in Juja, Kalimoni, where his grandfather worked as a nyapara or ‘overseer.’ John notes that Tom Mboya was born in similar circumstances, showing the country had already started to change with people migrating from their homes and making new homes in different parts of the country.
Rosalie Kere wearing a “Stiff” skirt and her “Beehive” hairstyle (1961). Photograph submitted by Caroline Kere.
Caroline Kere shared the photographs of her mother Rosalie Kere – the first photo above – who had the distinction of being a poster girl for soap called “Nakasero” and “Lux” in the early 1960s. Caroline’s tribute story to her mother has the intriguing title, “The Amazing Story of How my Father Found my Mother”. Her mother and father’s story is such an improbable romance story worthy of a blockbuster Nollywood film, that you can read for yourself at the exhibition, the online archive or in the coffee table book that is to come.
What follows is an exhibition of selected photographs.
Grace Ntini, from Narok County. The photograph was taken in Nairobi in 1969. Grace was 24 years old and worked for Avis Rent-A-Car Company. The photograph was submitted by Grace’s sister-in-law, Rosemary Mesopirr.
Rosemary Mesopirr, who was 14 years old and a primary school pupil in the rural areas of Narok County. This photograph was taken in Mombasa in 1974. This was the first time she travelled to the Kenyan coast to visit her father who was a civil servant then. It was her first time to board a bus.
My Stylish Mother
By Doris Rutere
My mother Cecilia Kanyoe was a copy typist at Marimanti Rural Training Centre back in 1975. She was always detailed and careful in her choice of office wear. In this photograph she is wearing closed toe heels and has broken her suit with a turtleneck that matches her head gear, a chain and a wrist watch. I think they present a level of sophistication making her refined and chic. Next to her is Esther Muthoni, who was my mother’s friend. In the picture, she wears a wide belt on her cute mini-dress to create contrast while matching her head gear partly with her shoes.
Both women are quite careful in how they let their hands rest on their thighs.
Joyce Akoth, pregnant with her fifth born in 1973. This picture was taken in the early 1970s when Joyce worked as a teacher and before joining the Ministry of Public Works. The photograph of Joyce Akoth was submitted by her daughter Esther Adiambo.
Nancy Wanjiku Kimani , the photo was taken outside Kijabe Nursing Institute, where she was undergoing training as a nurse in Kijabe Town (1969). The photograph was submitted by her daughter Ruth Kimani.
A Letter to Stella Nyanzi: “You Teach Us to Lay Blame Exactly Where It Belongs”
6 min read. Too often we are willing to believe that if we are calm enough, if we are silent enough, polite enough, eloquent enough, poised enough, then the tyrants will listen. We believe that if we are ‘’well mannered’’ then we will be heard. You remind us that this is deception.
My sister Nyanzi,
I used to think tyranny means one-party rule, one media station and army garrisons everywhere. Now I know tyranny also means that who we love, how we live, how we die and even the speed of our death is chosen for us by people that never have to face us, by people that have learned not to fear our wrath or our collective pain. You have taught me this, because both of us live under tyrannies. As I write this, you are in Luzira Maximum Security Prison contending with the tyrannies of the prison authorities, the judicial system, the police, Makerere University, Museveni and his state and personal machinery. We live under multiple tyrannies at once, some more immediate than others, all of them intent on silencing us.
I am writing this from Kenya. I am writing from a country reeling through an economic recession that the state’s press statements will never admit exists. A manmade recession fueled by the looting that seems to grow more arrogant with each day. As I write this, many Kenyans are dying in public hospitals because there is no medicine or the doctors have not been paid or someone stole the money for the equipment. As I write this, there are young people attending endless seminars on entrepreneurship because they face grim rates of unemployment, this too is manmade disaster. I don’t know how many young men the police have killed today; I don’t know how many women have been sexually abused or killed by a country that just seems to hate its women. There are also the university students who are teargassed and beat up every time they try to march, and the many communities unhumaned by the state. I don’t know how many queer people have been stripped or raped or mocked or told to prove they are human beings today. These are the tyrannies I live under.
We share some of these tyrannies and for this, I call you sister. Allow me to call you Stella.
When you staged your first nude protest at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), several academics gave media interviews to say that they condemned your protest and found it to be ‘’too much’’, they mockingly asked if negotiations had failed for you to go to such lengths. More insultingly, some said while they agreed you had legitimate grievances, you could have been more civil. They seem to think that you should have spoken more sweetly. I laughed when I heard them. You know how tyranny works Stella, how it works especially well in bureaucracies. You know how good bureaucracies are at silencing and ignoring. You and I know that bureaucracies move at exactly the speed dictated by tyranny, no faster and no slower.
It is a maddening thing to realize that even in the hallowed halls of universities, we are ignored and insulted and treated anyhow, as our people say. It is more maddening to know that our emails, our eloquent letters and our pleas will go unheard when tyranny is present, as it was at MISR. Tyranny often wears a nice suit and can be well spoken and well respected. At Makerere, you used the tools at your disposal in defense of yourself. The tools on that day were red paint, cellotape, your body, your voice and camera. Those were the tools available to you. The other important tool in your arsenal, arguably the most potent, is your refusal of respectability.
So often, women are only celebrated when we protest in service of the men in our lives — our brothers, our fathers, anyone but ourselves. I think of all of us who are scared of speaking in our own defense, scared of organizing for our own wellbeing, our reproductive freedom, our sexual freedom, our safety. I think of how we have been intimidated to believe that this is entitlement, as if being entitled is a bad thing. How many of us have swallowed indignity after indignity because the only person being humiliated is us?
Here, I pause, in the middle of my letter to acknowledge and greet you in the movements you come from, the movements that have shaped you and supported you. We know that often people are isolated from their movements in order to make them messiahs. But messiahs always fail because they don’t really exist. I greet you in the name of the #RotAtMISR , #WomensMarchUG , #ThisTaxMustGo , #PeoplePowerMovement and the many offline political actions you have taken. From standing in solidarity with students of Makerere when they protested arbitrary inclusion of fees, to caring for the Arua 33 that were victims of state violence, to dealing with menstrual injustice through the #Pads4GirlsUG movement.
It is from your movements that you have dealt with the effects of Museveni’s tyranny intimately, by seeing how your comrades are brutalized and seeing how relaxed the dictators can be even in the face of impassioned pleas for even a small measure of justice. You have seen your movements forced to wait on the dictator’s time. We all do so much waiting after all. We wait for enough money to take our relatives to decent hospitals and decent schools, we wait for courts to vindicate us and for the churches to speak for justice and for the police to stop killing. On both sides of the Malaba border, we wait. A feminist sister, Mumbi, has written about how we are forced to wait on the state’s time, wait on tyranny’s time, in order to live as human beings. Mumbi considers that one of the ways we can disrupt the state’s time is through the communities we build and how we care for each other.
You have given us another answer to how we can disrupt the state’s time; by abandoning respectability and politeness. After all, the tyrants know exactly what they are doing when they abuse our humanity. From your political actions, your Facebook posts, and your court appearances, we learn to call the tyrants by name and declare their shame to them. I read somewhere that your father died because of the poor healthcare system in Uganda, and in your writing, you lay the responsibility for this on Museveni’s head. Rightfully so. Another feminist sister, Sunshine, says that this is reminiscent of what Fela Kuti did when his mother (and our feminist ancestor) Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti died from injuries she got after the Nigerian police raided Fela’s home. Fela took his mother’s coffin to the army barracks, to Olusegun Obasanjo, who for all intents and purposes had killed Funmilayo. When you call Museveni a pair of buttocks, that is exactly what you are doing, connecting the tragedy of all the deaths and suffering caused by a sick state to the head of the state. Truth telling can start there, by us clearly naming the tyrants and abusers.
For some reason, tyrants hate this. They are shocked at the idea that we might call them what they are: abusers, misogynists, sexists, thieves, robbers, murderers, homophobes. You teach us to lay blame exactly where it belongs, to practice the radical truth telling that refuses to be distracted by bureaucracy. Stella, you say that politeness has been held captive, and the powerful don’t listen anymore, and sometimes we have to say fuck it and then people will listen.
Too often we are willing to believe that if we are calm enough, if we are silent enough, polite enough, eloquent enough, poised enough, then the tyrants will listen. We believe that if we are ‘’well mannered’’ then we will be heard. We think if we bend ourselves enough, the tyrants will feel some pity for us. You remind us that this is deception. Good manners are decided by the powerful, and after all — isn’t it the worst manners to steal and oppress? Yet no one accuses tyrants of having bad manners. No, bad manners are left to be a cross for us to carry to hasten our own silencing, our own internal and final deaths. Respectability protects the comfort of the tyrants. Your political actions show us that when we shed politeness, we can disturb their peace in potent ways.
You, like Audre Lorde, know that our silence will not save us. Not only that, but politeness and niceness cannot save us either. You know that we only get silent to work out our internal convictions and from there, we use whatever tools we have to shout, be it our bodies, our phones, our voices. We shout. We shout because we are being killed either way. Your poetry, court appearances and nude protest are all political actions, asking us what we are still afraid of. What do we gain by protecting the comfort of these tyrants to enjoy their theft, their tyranny unoffended?
Stella, you are a woman who has reached into herself and taken joy, taken brazenness and categorically refused shame. Your body is your manifesto, as you say, and with it, you declare and live your radical queer feminist politics every day. We are affirmed by you.
Some people think you are fearless, others believe you are unashameable, I don’t believe either of them. Even with the best intentions, they are trying to make you iron, invulnerable, and otherworldly. I know different. You are not otherworldly Stella, you are fully human.
In care and love,
A Letter To Stella Nyanzi: The Revolution Lives in You
7 min read. I want, like you, to steadily and surely offend anything that stands in the way of freedom, of liberation, of love, of justice, of truth, of humanity. Let me be rude, let me be all these things, if all they are trying to say is that I am free, unbound.
My sister Nyanzi,
We grew up on folktales and stories that spoke on the value of truth, of clarity, of assertiveness. We read about scheming animals always having to face the consequences of their actions, while those characters that upheld the truth were the examples that we were meant to emulate. Yet, somehow, these stories were supposed to remain suspended in our minds, perhaps as pieces of entertainment. No one wanted a truth teller, especially not a primary school going child. I have gone through most of my life being called rude, difficult, entitled or spoilt, by aunties, by cousins, by teachers, and by neighbors who cautioned their children against associating with me. Most of my life, I thought there was something wrong with how God made me.
Why did my teachers punish me for speaking truth? Why did I go home, my body tender from a caning because I asked the teacher to explain the logic behind making students kneel on gravel? Why did my cousins whisper behind my back, saying that my opinions were rude, that my parents had spoilt me, and that I was too entitled? I questioned a lot, yet I did not see any other way to live. I knew the truth to be good, even when it seemed a heavy weight on my heart. Each one of us owes ourselves the truth. The truth is our duty. It is my duty, a duty that you have taken on and stood by, even when the very ground is threatening to betray you.
I am writing this after returning to Kenya from a visit to Uganda less than 24 hours ago. I thought about you a lot during my stay there. I thought about all the Ugandans who have lived their lives silencing themselves, their truth, their pain, their desires, their ability to want to imagine freedom because of fear, fear not born of themselves, but of tyranny, from the ways in which their society has dealt with ‘rude’ individuals. I saw children going to school, with heavy bags and tender spirits. I thought of all the stories, the theory, the language they are being taught about morality and truth, knowing that they are probably being short-changed. I thought about how they are being taught that truth depends on who holds the power to instill fear.
Are the children being told that truth is silence? Are they being told that truth is folding the pain in their hearts into smiles? Are they being told that truth is accepting state and religious terrorism? Are the children carrying fear in their heavy bags? Are they rushing home to be cautioned against following in the footsteps of Dr. Stella Nyanzi? I thought about your multiple arrests, and how that has been weaponized to further silence, to further disregard, and to further trample on the possibility of individual and collective expression. What do the children think when they see you on television? What do they say about you in their private conversations?
It is no secret that we live in a world that rewards complacency. The systems we live under: economic, social, and political, are so fragile and fickle that they have made us scared of ourselves. Of course, all this is deliberate, to maintain control. We live under the giant lie that we get to choose. We choose which schools our children go to, what we will purchase, how we will spend our time, how we will interact with authority, what and how we teach our children, yet all this exists under tyranny. We have been robbed of our humanity, of our ability to make decisions guided by what aligns with truth, with courage, with kindness. That is why, Stella, the children are being taught politeness, one that will rob them of their ability to speak up in the face of injustice when they are told that they cannot love who they want to love, when they are told that they don’t belong, when they are told that their lives are not precious, when they are lied to over and over, when they are made to wait for their rights, when they are killed, when they are hurt, when their education is used to oppress them, and when their lives become small residues of what freedom might have looked like, when they are reduced to small ‘maybes’ and ‘could have beens.’
That is why many people may be blind to the importance of your protest, which is in effect, a protest to your protest. Is this the tragedy of having a heart constantly pursuing freedom?
When I first read about you, I felt so affirmed that I cried. When I saw you speaking, how you spoke, what you spoke about, I remember feeling small eruptions of heavy joy inside me amidst the pain of seeing how the state responded to you. I prayed for the courage to want, so intently and so intentionally, the kind of truth abiding freedom that oozed from your heart. I prayed that I am brave enough to bare it all in the face of millions of odds stacked against me. I prayed that I may never steer away from a life tied to imagining, wanting and working towards freedom, towards a life unbound by fear. They have used your truth to call you obscene, to call you indecent, to call you lascivious, and to say that you are profane. They say you hold no remorse, but why should you? They call you untamed, rude, vulgar, and reckless; they call you intolerable. In the churches, they are saying that you are sinning against god. In truth, all they are trying to say is that you are free. Unbound. Your spirit can never be contained. They do not have the language for any of this because they speak the language of fear. The voice of truth makes them afraid. Your life is testimony that freedom is possible. Unbounded freedom. Freedom that is safe from tyranny, freedom that tugs on the heart and forces you to run towards the what is right, what is eternal, and what is true.
So let me live a vulgar disrespectful life. Let me be seriously and gloriously profane. Let me be intolerable. Let the people say that no man will marry me. Especially that. Let me be disagreeable. Let me be a sinner. Unapologetically. Let me be ungovernable. Let me be untamed. Let me be unremorseful. Let me be untethered. Let my life insult them. Let me be offensive. Let my freedom live as critical evidence that truth exists, that it always sits sharp and intentional, between my joy and my pain. I am shameless. I am unafraid. I am a manifestation of defiance. Let my life be shaped by defiance and resistance. I want to steadily and surely offend anything that stands in the way of freedom, of liberation, of love, of justice, of truth, of humanity. Let me be rude, let me be all these things, if all they are trying to say is that I am free, unbound. Let my life be grandly disruptive. That’s what I want. Let us all be grandly disruptive, in our small ways, in standing up in our small pockets of possibility. May we be the embodiment of radical rudeness.
Manners always end up on the shelves, next to civility, collecting dust and making the silence louder. This is why the despots love them. This is why we are told to use ‘respectable civil channels,’ when that in itself is an injustice: to be told we will be heard by the very tools which ensure we remain unheard. You live in a country under dictatorship, under tyranny, under evil rule. So do I, so do so many people on this continent. They have arrested our freedoms, kept them locked up. They lie, they steal, and they laugh at us for wanting to live. They deny us belonging, they want to take away everything, our voices, the voices of the children, even before they break.
Stella, they want us to beg them. They want us to lick their feet, grateful for the smelly crumbs. They want us to crawl on our bellies, waiting for permission to sit on our buttocks, then to kneel before them, and then finally, maybe, to stand, when they will it, how they will it, for their benefit. I refuse. Let these tyrants sweat in terror at the mention of your name, let them tremble at the sound of your song, your poetry, your protest, your truth, your prayer, your defiance. Let all the despots shake and fear at the sound of our collective lament. Let peace be least of their experiences. Let them tremble. May they tremble.
I refuse politeness. I dedicate my life to unlearning respectability, because at the end of it all, divine freedom is fearless. It is not neat and pretty and dainty. It is rude, it is vulgar, it is naked, it is wild, it is unashamed, it is raw, it is profane, it is indecent. It is loud. It is demanding and disrespectful. It is you. You are divinely free, and they cannot take that away from you. The entire revolution has already happened inside you, and we get to experience that, from your life, your words, your work, hoping that we can meet you, where you are, in whatever capacity we can. You have taught me that when we are silent, we are more at risk of pain, of suffering, of living lives suspended on insubstantial strings of fear, always waiting on where our next small redemption will come from. You have taught me that the process of truth is rewarding, not in the ways in which the world rewards, but the ways in which the spirit rewards. The process is indeed the shortcut. It is the homage to freedom, to the channels between us and liberation.
So I am writing this to you, and to my 15 year old self, to my 10 year old self, and to the black children who will live after us. I am writing this to myself, before I accepted that I am brazen, before I accepted that nothing is wrong with me, that maybe everyone who called me rude for speaking the truth was just afraid and cowardly, because this world thrives on the fear of people. I am writing this to my sisters, to my mothers, to everyone who has housed silence and shame in their hearts. I am writing this to you, hoping that you can rest in the knowledge that there are so many of us who are holding your spirit, your soul, your heart, your dreams, in our spirits, in our souls, in our hearts, in our dreams, during this time and always. We stand in solidarity with you, with your defiance, and with your dreams of freedom. Your life has affirmed us in so many ways, and knowing that you live an absolutely unapologetic life has sustained the bulk of my ability to imagine freedom. I hope like you, I can show up as my highest, truest self, always. May your words continue to be the fuel that will sustain the fire that will consume all these tyrants, all these despots, all these oppressors, all these dictators.
Thank you for refusing shame, for refusing fear, for embracing love, for embracing the call of truth and freedom. Thank you for always showing up as your full self, thank you for making it possible to for so many of us to imagine other ways of living, of being. Thank you for your poetry, for remaining tender, for remaining you.
In love and solidarity,
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