Saturday, October 31, 2020

Radical Rudeness: A Mode of Traditional and Cultural Resistance and Activism in Uganda

Dr. Stella Nyanzi Protesting Outside a Ugandan Court in February 2020

Africans, particularly African women have long had a history of engaging in individual activism and collective struggle against multiple forms of oppression and discriminations on the continent. These struggles find their origins and often stem out of the colonial period or during periods of severe injustice and oppression.  Resistance and activism of this type has been pivotal in establishing women’s autonomy and agency and very often finds its roots or is institutionalised in traditional African cultural systems. This blog article will attempt to highlight the linkages between between traditional practices that are grounded in activism and resistance and which have served as catalysts in the achievement of various human rights and freedoms curtailed or denied at various times in history and in certain contexts in Africa. In this blog, attention will be paid to radical rudeness as a traditional mode of resistance in Uganda. A series of subsequent blog articles will follow in the coming months that will continue to explore traditional based protests in Africa such as that of nakedness and nudity, motherhood and tough love, as well as music and dance as ways of confronting inequality and other forms of social oppression.

The Roots of Radical Rudeness 

The concept of radical rudeness is one that has recently re- emerged in the context of Uganda. It is a mode of activism that has been reignited and has in recent years been claimed and made popular by the feminist-activist, poet and academic Dr. Stella Nyanzi.  Nyanzi has become well known for regularly challenging Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni with personal attacks, curses and vividly erotic poetry in attempt to question the Ugandan government’s alleged corruption and questionable political manoeuvrings in the country. Radical rudeness as a form of activism found its roots in the early 1940’s when a group of Ugandan elitist activists in the Kingdom of Buganda attempted to challenge the status quo of power that existed between the ruling British elites and upcoming elites from Buganda. At that particular time the power that existed and was wielded by the British was often encapsulated and couched in politeness, manners, hospitality and sociability through which the British were able to secure both economic and political advantages from loyal Ugandan elites. This form of power was however, abruptly disrupted when a group of Ugandan elitist activists hailing from the Kingdom of Buganda used tactics of rudeness and a strategy of public insults to create disorderliness and disruption that worked to break the falsity of colonial ties, friendships/partnerships and mutual benefit between Ugandan elites and the ruling colonists.  Most importantly the method of radical rudeness worked to expose the true intentions of the colonial administration at that time.

Radical rudeness as a method of activism or resistance was implemented through activists employing strong and vividly powerful metaphors publicly either through the publication and dissemination of pamphlets, or through the disruption of public events that worked to destabilize the colonial administration by exposing the true intentions of the British. These insults took on various forms. As Carol Summers, in her article entitled Radical Rudeness: Ugandan Social Critiques in the 1940’s notes, metaphors of disrespect and insult were often used as tactics to champion the colonial administration. For example a metaphor  ‘Dogs of the British’ was used to refer to some Ugandan elites who were like British ‘pets.’ They were permitted into British homes, permitted to partake in all aspects of British culture and customs but in fact were considered dogs by the British because of their “half human” nature. 

Through this derogatory public insult, Ugandan elites who supported the British administration in Uganda were called out for displaying their disloyalty to their fellow countrymen by remaining loyal to their colonial masters and turning a blind eye to the suffering of their fellow countrymen. Activists suggested that these ‘dogs’ were deceived by the pretense of British civility and kindness endowed upon them by their colonial masters who in the end would inevitably face betrayal if British interests came into play. The critique further pointed to the self-deceit that Ugandan elites had been facing because of their identification with the British which insidiously was leading to the loss of control of their own freedoms, self worth and their overall economic disenfranchisement.  

This not only insulted the colonial leadership in Uganda but also attacked the “economic basis of patronage and hospitality which served as a means of ensuring continued power and control by the British administration. The impact that radical rudeness had during this particular period was destabilizing in the sense that it worked to mobilize thousands of people at meetings and gatherings creating the threat of violence and seizing the right to association and freedom of speech, which at that particular time were not recognized as rights in the country. The impact of this type of resistance and activism generated defiance and in turn destabilized the colonial administration, which at that time was considered very effective and progressive. 

Confrontational Advocacy as Weapon to Challenge Oppression and Subjugation

The activism behind radical rudeness has found new stirrings in current day Uganda and has become an effective weapon to challenge the curb on certain human rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of expression and LGBTQ rights, the latter of which have been limited or restricted under Museveni’s rule.  Feminist, activist and poet Stella Nyanzi has publicly challenged power through her many expletive and public tongue-lashings of the President and his family. Nyanzi has for instance referred to the President as a pair of buttocks and has additionally referred to his wife as a “big thighed cow with an empty brain.” She has even gone a step further and written an untitled poem about Museveni’s mother’s vagina graphically describing it in grotesque, disrespectful terms (see poem here). Her latter action however landed her in prison for metaphorically referring to the 35 year oppressive rule by Museveni, but did not however deter her resolve to publicly out her frustration as an activist who wants to see change in her country.  Through all these ongoing developments she has even taken the liberty to further to publish a collection of activist poems that probe gender rigidities, lesbian relationships and miscarriage. The book is entitled ‘No roses from my mouth’ and was published while she was still incarcerated and is a challenge to patriarchy and oppression and the ‘standards of civility of those in power.’ It is clear that the use of this type activism and resistance is destabilizing especially in more conservative societies where certain freedoms such as freedom of expression is frowned upon and suppressed, and where strong cultural taboos exist that defy openly discussing certain topics such as sex, sexuality, and homosexuality. The effectiveness of radical rudeness however in the context of Uganda and through Nyanzi’s activism can be verified on a number of levels. Firstly Nyanzi has certainly made waves both in her country and beyond with her activism gaining a level of notoriety, international renown and support. Most recently she was awarded the 2020 Oxfam Novib/PEN International award for her collection of poems for freedom of expression and in the same vein to demonstrate that the pen is mightier than the sword.  She has furthermore used her activism and advocacy to create impact on the rights of women, LGBTQ rights, and rights attached to sexual freedom. Furthermore she also has also drawn attention to the right to education and its intersections with poverty and thereby the value of education for young women and girls. 

It is clear that the nature of radical rudeness as a traditional or cultural mode of activism is a threatening form of activism to those in power. Its effectiveness as was demonstrated has been tested and found successful in the past and present day context through challenging the rules of politeness and exposing the weaknesses of authoritarian systems of power.  This type of activism can only be achieved through the strength and courage of a few who are willing to place their lives and bodies on the line by championing systems fraught with inequality and oppression. An activism of this type mobilizes awareness, creates power and causes political shifts. It is a true ode to the right to freedom of expression. 

Posted by Ingrid Roestenburg-Morgan


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