Dr Stella Nyanzi was born in Masaka District, Buganda Kingdom in Uganda on 16 June 1974. Also known as Nnalongo (which means mother of twins), she is a medical anthropologist who has written about sexuality, HIV/AIDS and women’s health. She is also a political activist who campaigns for women and girls rights, as well as the rights of LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, asexual and queer) people. She is most known for her outspoken criticism of Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, who has led a dictatorship for more than 30 years. This led to her subsequent imprisonment in 2017 and has brought issues of freedom of speech and political oppression to the surface in Uganda.
Throughout her academic career, Dr Nyanzi has worked for several organisations in many countries, with the majority of these organisations relating to social research.
Dr Nyanzi studied at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, from 1993 to 1996, after which she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communication and Literature. She then attended the University College London, United Kingdom, from 1999 to 2000 and obtained her Masters in Medical Anthropology, which she followed up with a PhD in Anthropology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which she acquired in 2009 after studying there from 2003 to 2008. Furthermore, while at this institution, she also studied social anthropology, sexuality, and youth and health policy. During this time, she travelled to Gambia to carry out her academic research on youth sexualities.
After graduating in 1997, Dr Nyanzi worked as a Social Science Research Associate at the Medical Research Council (United Kingdom) Programme in Uganda from 1997 to 2002. Next, she worked as a Local Anthropologist at the Medical Research Council Laboratories, The Gambia, from 2002 to 2003. Following her PhD in 2009, Nyanzi became a Researcher at the Law, Gender and Sexuality Research Project and was a member of the Faculty of Law until 2013. In 2014 she started working as a Research Fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research which lasted until 2016.
In 2016, Dr Nyanzi was offered a lecturing position for a new PhD programme – the Mamdani PhD Project – but she declined. This sparked friction between her and the head of department, Professor Mamdani, culminating in Nyanzi finding her office at the Research Institute locked. She responded by staging a nude protest against Mamdani. Consequently, she was suspended from Makerere University in 2017 while an investigation was carried out. Eventually, she succeeded in winning the case against Mamdani but was still dismissed by the university.
However, her suspension allowed her to get involved in some social and political activism, such as the May 5th procession led by the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) – the leading opposition party in Uganda – in 2016, which she got arrested for but was later released. In that same year, during the Ugandan general elections Dr Nyanzi played a major role in the opposition launching her campaign against the government.
Her activism is also present in her social media posts, in which she bravely speaks against President Museveni as well as other people in high ranking government positions in the country, including the First Lady, Janet Kataha Museveni. Dr Nyanzi is not afraid to openly voice her disdain for the President and his administration, freely using strong and vulgar language (known as ‘radical rudeness’) as a tool to criticise the oppressive government.
All of this led to her name being added to the travel blacklist, meaning she cannot leave the country.
Dr Nyanzi’s support of members of the LGBTIAQ+ community in Uganda has seen her openly speaking against the infringement of the rights of homosexual people and engaging in several protests of solidarity. For example, in 2013, she was one of the Makerere University academics who protested against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.
In April 2017, Dr Nyanzi was first arrested for a poem she wrote and posted on Facebook, in which she criticised the First Lady and the President after the government refused to hand out sanitary pads in schools. She was charged with cyber harassment, the misuse of a computer, and abusing the President under section 24 and 25 of the Computer Misuse Act of 2011. Subsequently, she was released on a non-cash bail on 10 May 2017. A year later in November 2018, Dr Nyanzi was arrested again for another poem she had posted on Facebook in September 2018, this time targeting the President and his mother. Dr Nyanzi was detained at the maximum-security facility, Luzira Women’s Prison in Kampala. On 2 August 2019, Dr Nyanzi was sentenced to 18 months in jail on the charges of cyber harassment but was acquitted on charges of offensive communication. She appealed against the cyber-harassment conviction; at the same time, the prosecution also lodged an appeal against the offensive communication acquittal. After it was proposed that her hearing take place behind closed doors, her legal team protested and this lead to her case being postponed and reallocated to a different judge. Her arrest drew international condemnation from organisations like PEN, an international organisation that encourages freedom of expression in literature.
Dr NyanzI was released on 20 February 2020, after a High Court Judge overturned the 2018 charges for cyber harassment against her, stating that Dr Nyanzi had been denied a fair hearing by the magistrate’s court and that it had also ruled beyond its jurisdiction, thereby winning her appeal. However, she remains on trial for the 2017 case related to her name-calling the President.
While still in prison, Dr Nyanzi received the Oxfam Novib/PEN Prize for Freedom of Expression in January 2020. She wrote an acceptance speech, which was smuggled out of the prison.
Dr Nyanzi was also among the list of forty women honoured in the entrepreneurship platform AWP Network’s 2018 Power Network List, which honours influential African women who advocate for the betterment of African women and girls. In 2020 she was again recognised by OkayAfrica in its 2020 ‘100 Women’ list which celebrates women from Africa and the diaspora who are forerunners in their respective industries while making a difference within their communities.
The 6 March 2017 marked the date that Dr Nyanzi launched the Pads4girlsUg Project, an initiative she started to donate re-usable sanitary pads to school girls.
She continues to fight for the removal of President Museveni – as soon as she was released from prison following the dismissal of parts of her case, she immediately started calling for Museveni to step down as president.
- Brittle Paper. (2019). Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, Stella Nyanzi, Lola Shoneyin, Panashe Chigumadzi honoured in AWP Network’s 2018 Power List, Alongside Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde, Genevieve Nnaji, and Uzo Aduba, [online], Available at: https://brittlepaper.com/2019/01/bibi-bakare-yusuf-stella-nyanzi-lola-shoneyin-panashe-chigumadzi-honoured-in-awp-networks-2018-power-list-alongside-ethiopian-president-sahle-work-zewde-genevieve-nnaji-and-uzo-aduba/. (Accessed on 22 April 2020)
- Brittle Paper. (2020). The 8 writers & journalists on OkayAfrica’s 100 Women List 2020, [online], Available at: https://brittlepaper.com/2020/04/the-8-writers-journalists-on-okayafricas-100-women-list-2020/. (Accessed on 22 April 2020)
- Thomas, K. (2018). Stella Nyanzi: The formidable feminist foe Museveni has failed to silence, [online], Available at: https://theconversation.com/stella-nyanzi-the-formidable-feminist-foe-museveni-has-failed-to-silence-107017. (Accessed on 20 April 2020)
- Mandi. (2019). Stella Nyanzi biography, age, Makerere University, arrest and sentencing, [online], Available at: https://biographyscoop.com/stella-nyanzi/. (Accessed on 22 April)
- McLean, N. (2020). ‘L’ is for Lesbian, ‘G’ is for Gay: what does LGBTIAQ+ stand for anyway? [online], Available at: https://www.iol.co.za/capeargus/opinion/l-is-for-lesbian-g-is-for-gay-what-does-lgbtiaq-stand-for-anyway-15873673 . (Accessed on 24 April 2020)
- PEN America. (n.d). Stella Nyanzi, [online], Available at: https://pen.org/advocacy-case/stella-nyanzi/. (Accessed on 22 April)
- Samanga, R. (2020). Ugandan activist Stella Nyanzi to be released from prison, [online], Available at: https://www.okayafrica.com/ugandan-activist-stella-nyanzi-to-be-released-from-prison/. (Accessed on 22 April)
- Serugo, G. (2019). FDC marks 15th year anniversary, [online], Available at: https://eagle.co.ug/2019/12/16/fdc-marks-15th-anniversary-in-kampala.html. (Accessed on 23 April 2020)
- Wanjiru, K. (2020). Stella Nyanzi biography, CV, background, marriage, career and politics, [online], Available at: https://informationcradle.com/stella-nyanzi/. (Accessed on 22 April)