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COMMENT: On Stella Nyanzi

Should the intelligentsia’s weapon of choice in contesting the ideas of the current ruling class be brawny or brainy?

By Kwezi Tabaro

The late author Michael Crichton’s 2004 novel, `State of Fear’ – about a conspiracy by Hollywood, environmentalists and academicians to create unnecessary fear among the public about global warming – did not go down well with many on the left. None more than Michael Crowley, then editor of the New Republic, who wrote a scathing review of the book in which he made uncharitable remarks about the author, comparing him to “a mighty t-rex that has escaped Jurassic park…”

Revenge from Crichton was swift, and boy was it sweet! Writing in his 2006 book, `Next’, Crichton caricatured Crowley as a wealthy, spoiled Yale-educated paedophile (aptly named Mick Crowley) with a small penis who rapes his sister-in-law’s two year old son.

And as if to drive his point home, Mick Crowley’s character does not play any significant role in the book and neither does he affect the overall plot in the fast-paced 448-page techno-thriller about genetic science and its mass-marketing industry that soon runs out of control.

Which brings us to the “small penis” rule – a strategy famously attributed to libel lawyer Leon Friedman.  Friedman’s “small penis” rule summed up states that a fictional character one is writing about can bear such close resemblance to the real life person that a reader will instantly make connection between the two. However, the author would then need to add an unflattering description: that the character has a small penis or has a bad body odour so as to throw off the possibility of any libel suit.

Since no man, however aggrieved, can come to court protesting they have a small penis, or foul body odour, the strategy allows many writers to get away with unflattering caricatures of real life people.

Now to our own beloved Stella Nyanzi: I first met her during the 2015 Writivism festival at the National Theater where we hosted her to speak about sex and its representation in African literature. During her conversation on the panel she read from her erotic Facebook posts and got the audience frenzied. In the end her panel was a crowd puller and one of the best attended at the festival.

Since then I have only followed her Facebook posts – at which point I should admit: I very much loved the imagery in her writings; especially the now famous one in which she wants to make love to the president. It was a masterpiece.

More recently, however, (starting February 2016, I think) her writing seemed to take a turn for the worst – from literary eroticism to outright slander and abuse. Her choice of victims included MISR’s professor Mahmood Mamdani, the President, first lady, minister for ethics, among other public officials. Her list of victims keeps growing by the day and so do the numbers of her followers. The more graphic her writing has become, it seems, the more her fan base has grown.

Recently, she was charged with cyber harassment and offensive communication (for using her Facebook page to refer to President Yoweri Museveni as, to avoid repeating potentially actionable words we shall say a “pair of but….s”). She was remanded to Luzira prison, much to the angst of many Ugandans who decried the government’s creeping intolerance to dissent and free speech – a claim I find very interesting.

Although a firm believer and advocate of artistic license – literary exaggeration and alteration of conventions of grammar to make a point – I am also skeptical of the Pandora’s box such unrestrained freedom can open.

There is no shortage of literary luminaries who have used the might of the pen to speak truth to power. Names like George Orwell or, closer to home, Okot P’Bitek and Wahome Mutahi (he of the famous “Whispers” column) come to mind. Wahome used his column in the Daily Nation to drive literary daggers into the heart of the KANU dictatorship. He was jailed, got out and wrote even more scathing, yet humourous, attacks. One thing distinguished him though: he did not resort to calling people by their nether regions!

Perhaps the dearth of provocative writers like Wahome (who passed on over a decade ago) explains the rise of voices like Stella’s. Or it is the changing times? All the same one ought to be worried for this dying art form. I see sparks of the same from my friend Jimmy Spire Ssentongo’s Observer column. Beyond that there is nothing really.

In closing, there is no doubt in my mind now that the current ruling class is not only devoid of any ideas, it is also allergic to new ones; which explains the anger meted out on Stella and many of her kind. But perhaps more saddening is the lack of imagination, you can say even ideas, in what another friend, Angelo Izama, calls the “waiting room” generation.

That the ideas – if any – informing the current ruling class should be contested is not in doubt, what is, however, is the intelligentsia’s weapon of choice – brawn or brains? Stella seems to have chosen the latter. But we can all join her to do better: we do not have to go to the sewers to reclaim Uganda.

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Kwezi Tabarois a socio-political commentator based in Kampala

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