Born on 16 June 1974, Stella Nyanzi is a Ugandan anthropologist, female rights activist and scholar for sexuality, family planning and health. She was arrested in 2017 for insulting the president of Uganda.
From Masaka District, Dr Stella Nyanzi grew up with her two parents unfortunately both passed on – Her father passed away in 2014 while her mother Harriet Nyanzi also died that following year in 2015.
Being married to a Gambian man whom she met in London, England, Nyanzi first worked as a Local Anthropologist between 2002-2003 in the husband’s parent country, Gambia.
While a scholar at the PhD course, Nyanzi also did her research in Gambia. In the same country, she gave birth to her first daughter Baraka in 2004 and months later in 2005, the two moved to London.
Where she got pregnant again with twins, Ousman, Dr Stella Nyanzi husband requested her to relocate to Uganda and give birth from there as he was to join them weeks later.
Weeks after reaching her mother country, Nyanzi’s husband told her that he was not coming back to Africa for fear of his life since his native country Gambia, by then led by Yahya Jammeh had passed a law to kill all gays in the Gambia.
Ousman is a gay, a fact that Stella Nyanzi was unaware of, he remained in England where he sought asylum. She finally gave birth to healthy boys who currently are growing up minus their dad.
“After twelve years of marriage to an absent husband, I lost my faith in weddings,” Stella Nyanzi stated at one moment while talking about her lost husband and ever since then, Nyanzi as a mother of three has had no publicly known relationship.
Being academia, Dr Stella Nyanzi received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communication and Literature at Makerere University where she studied from 1993 to 1996.
From 1999 to 2000, Nyanzi completed her Masters of Science in Medical Anthropology at University College London.
As well, she received her PhD in Anthropology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where she studied social anthropology, sexuality, and youth and health policy between 2003 and 2008.
She also researched youth sexuality in Uganda and Gambia in 2005.
Stella Nyanzi’s career began in 1997 working as a Social Science Research Associate at the Medical Research Council (UK) Programme in Uganda, where she worked until September 2002.
She then received a new position working as Local Anthropologist at the Medical Research Council Laboratories, in Gambia, where Nyanzi worked for one year. She left that position to pursue her PhD in London.
In 2009, Stella Nyanzi began working at Makerere University as a Researcher at the Law, Gender & Sexuality Research Project, as a member of the Faculty of Law, where she worked until December 2013. She then worked as a Research Fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research until 2016.
While there, she was asked to lecture in the new PhD programme, called the Mamdani PhD Project, but declined and this led to her being suspended from office on matters to do with disobedience, out of dissatisfaction, Nyanzi stripped naked in protest against her boss’ ruling.
It was out of this that she became a public figure. Later in 2017, she appealed the decision with Makerere University’s appeal tribunal, which directed for her reinstation, promotion to the level of a research fellow with immediate effect, and also her wages to be paid back.
The University refused to abide by its tribunal’s decision. So, she filed a lawsuit against the University requesting reinstatement and being paid back her wages.
In December 2018, the same institution responded by dismissing her, along with 45 others arguing that her contract had expired.
Stella Nyanzi is a well-cited scholar in her fields, with 54 articles and 1,432 citations by the end of 2018.
Among her most cited articles are those on Ugandan youth’s negotiations of sexual relationships, attitudes towards HIV testing among pregnant women in Ugandan, Ugandan women’s control over sexual encounters, Ugandan men’s attitudes towards contraceptive use and the sexual behaviour of many groups.
Stella Nyanzi practices what scholars have called “radical rudeness,” which is a traditional Ugandan strategy of calling the powerful to account through public insult.
This was developed during the colonial era, as “a rude, publicly celebrated strategy of insults, scandal-mongering, disruption, and disorderliness that broke conventions of colonial friendship, partnership, and mutual benefit.”
Being one of the first scholars to publish research on African homosexuality, She has also campaigned for the rights of Ugandan women, youth, and LGBTQIA+ people.
On 6 March 2017, Stella Nyanzi launched the Pads4girlsUg Project, due to her concerns about girls missing school because they could not afford menstrual products.
She collected thousands of reusable pads and distributed them to school girls and also offered lectures to school children about menstrual health.
In March 2017, Stella Nyanzi referred to President Museveni as “a pair of buttocks.”
This led to her arrested On 7 April 2017 and was detained by police at Kiira Police Station on charges of cyber harassment and offensive communication.
On 10 April 2017, she was thereafter produced in court, where she was charged with the misuse of a computer, cyber harassment, and abusing the President under section 24, and 25 of the Computer Misuse Act of 2011 and then remanded to Luzira Prison.
On 11 April 2017, doctors from Butabika Hospital were asked to carry out a psychiatric assessment examination to determine whether she was insane, as the government prosecutor was alleging.
However, she resisted the examination and requested that her doctor and at least one family member should be present if they want to carry out a medical test on her.
Later, on 10th May 2017, she was released on a non-cash 10 million Ugandan shillings (US$2924) bail.
In October 2018, Nyanzi was remanded to prison. She did not request bail desiring to use this chance in jail to continue her education work with the prison women which prompted her lawyer in December 2018, to attack the charges as unlawful.
In January 2019, she asked that her court date could be delayed as she was ill and had suffered a miscarriage in prison.
Reputation and reception
Meanwhile, because of her reputation, the international press has called her one of Africa’s most prominent gender rights activists, a leading scholar in the emerging field of African queer studies and a leader in the fight against repressive anti-queer laws and for freedom of speech.
Her scholarship has provided “insight into the effects of patriarchy, misogyny and homophobia in Uganda, Gambia, and Tanzania. Some consider her arrest as having more to do with her status as a gay ally than other factors.
An international outcry followed Stella Nyanzi’s arrest, with human rights groups condemning the act as a violation of academic freedom and freedom of expression. Amnesty International called for Uganda to drop the “absurd charges” against her.
Pen International, the writer’s organization, also condemned her arrest. Human Rights Watch condemned her arrest as “an indicator that those who express critical views of the Ugandan government, especially the first family, can face its wrath.
International news agencies have also reported on the reasons for her arrest as political. NPR reported that her arrest was for giving hope “that the powerless can take on the powerful.”
The Washington Post reported that her arrest was for being an outspoken anti-Museveni activist while Al Jezeera English reported that Nyanzi’s arrest was due to Museveni’s plans to rule for life and his intolerance of critics.
The Canadian Globe and Mail reported that her arrest was at the heart of it all it, about her imaginative use of language and her fierce defiance of the perceived limits for Ugandan women.
In Uganda, she has a large number of supporters, with also one of the largest social media following for any Ugandan. Many also collected food for her in prison.
Many scholars have praised her as standing up against “our tormentors.” Her lawyer Isaac Kimaze Semakadde was named “most outstanding public interest litigation lawyer in Uganda” by the Uganda Law Society, in part for his work on this case.
In Uganda, strong cultural taboos against talking openly and graphically about sex and sexuality exist and homosexuality are illegal and sex education is banned in schools.
However, Nyanzi speaks openly – and colourfully – about sex, genitalia and politics.
For this, she is adored by many of her fellow citizens but viewed with distaste by some of Uganda’s more conservative elements.
By John Dalton Kigozi