The accomplishment of No Roses from My Mouth by renowned Ugandan feminist and queer rights advocate Stella Nyanzi, it not so much that the poetry collection was written in jail, but because it’s as thorny as the writing that got her imprisoned.
In the 196-page book published on February 1, 2020 by Ubuntu Reading Group, Nyanzi establishes a defiant and provocative tone right from the Author’s Note when she asserts: “Fuck the dictatorship.”
The medical anthropologist and scholar on sexuality, was in jail from November 2, 2018 until court overturned her sentence last Thursday on grounds of unfair trial. No Roses from My Mouth captures her three-year legal battle with the Ugandan government, making the collection distinctly autobiographical.
In 2017, Nyanzi, in a viral Facebook post called the president, Yoweri Museveni, “a pair of buttocks” while criticizing him for running down the country in his 34 years in power. For that content, Nyanzi was charged with cyber harassment and offensive communication and held at the country’s maximum-security prison for 33 days before being released on bail (this case is still pending). In 2018, Nyanzi penned a poem for the president‘s 74th birthday in which she wished he had “suffocated to death during birth”. Two months later, as she was being handed down an 18-month sentence, Nyanzi bared her breasts during the televised court session.
If Nyanzi’s imprisonment was to blunt her writing, then No Roses from My Mouth is evidence that it only emboldened it. In the book, Nyanzi refers to President Museveni as “dictator” 38 times; she gives him more than 30 identifiers such as “tyrant”, “autocrat”, “rapist of the constitution”, “coward”, “hungry hyena” and “old poop” without a care about being cryptic.
While the Ugandan president gets the biggest whip from the poems, Nyanzi takes no prisoners; chastising members of the Ugandan Parliament, the Judiciary, the university that fired her (after she staged a nude protest at the institution in 2016), and even feminists.
The book is divided into three volumes, under which there are three sections titled, “In Prison”, “On Feminism” and “About Uganda”.
“In Prison” captures issues such as congestion, a justice system that imprisons the have-nots and the innocent; poor sanitary and medical facilities, as well as daily life behind bars.
Nyanzi keeps echoing the failures of the prison system which sometimes forces inmates to become ad-hoc midwives and medics for their peers. In the poem “Victims of Injustice,” Nyanzi writes:
The prison is flooding with inmates
Packed to the brim with prisoners
Festering with victims of injustice
The section “On Feminism”, highlights sexual harassment, arrest of women vendors by city authorities, and the hardships faced by women prisoners. One of the most chilling details in this section is when Nyanzi gets a miscarriage but the prison warders disregard her, saying she is “post-menopausal”. In the poem “I Miscarried Justice,” she writes: “I miscarried justice…As the prison wardresses screamed at me, blood gushing out of my womb…P.O Leah screaming that I am a liar…”. It’s her fellow inmates that give her sanitary pads, underwear and tissue to wrap the fetus that is eventually discarded in the toilet.
Nyanzi upholds her radical-ness and criticizes women who fail to stand by each other; the female prison staff who mistreat inmates, and women who refused to testify in her case for fear of drawing negative attention to themselves. In the poem “Who Pinched My Buttocks,” she writes:
Those who speak the language of diplomacy
Should not seal the mouths of singers of ragga.
Those who fast and pray and intercede
Should not drive demons out of nude protestors.
The last segment “About Uganda” captures the political, social and economic conditions of the country. From the president, his family and ministers, Nyanzi doesn’t spare anybody, including the opposition political parties. The “parachute lawyers”—the shrewd ones who waylay desperate suspects in court corridors with promises of handling their cases—, and Uganda’s thinkers whose brains have been eaten up by dictatorship, also get a lashing. Nyanzi echoes a running complaint by many Ugandans about corruption, nepotism, and press censorship. In the poem “Soiled Opposition,” Nyanzi writes:
The opposition turns on itself.
One party bites chunks out of another
Yet another party whores itself to the incumbent.
Soiled opposition parties entrench dictatorship.
Some opposition elites feed from the tyrant’s palms.
Others are buckets for the dictator’s stool.
While Nyanzi carries more stick than carrot in this collection, there are times when she heaps praise on those who have stood by her; she pays tribute to deceased Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina and Ugandan blogger Rosebell Kagumire who kept her name alive on the timelines. The fellow prisoners who inspired her poetry, shared meals and sanitary pads with her; the competent prison warder as well as the prison staff who taught her how to make mats, are all her victors.
The only time Nyanzi’s linguistic knife becomes blunt is when she writes of how she misses her young children and her partner; when she weeps for the child she lost on the prison floor. Here, the collection takes a soft, reflective and pleading tone; the poet’s voice loses its fire and rings of helplessness.
It’s easy to notice the prose-y-ness of No Roses from My Mouth. While prose poetry is a legitimate technique in itself, some poems could have been tighter without losing message or tone. Nyanzi seems aware that technique would be a point of contention and shuts the critics before they speak. In the poem “Your Aesthetic Standards,” she writes:
My writing fails to meet your aesthetic standards!
Pooh to your bourgeois snobbery!
Your aesthetic what-what again?
Bitch, I penned my pieces on prison floors.
Nyanzi joins a long list of reputable African authors who have been imprisoned for their writing or activism, and continued writing while in jail. They include Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka from Nigeria and his counterpart, the environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa as well as Kenya’s award-winning author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Malawi’s Jack Mapanje, South Africa’s Caesarina Kona Makhoere, Egypt’s Nawal ElSaadawi, among others.
No Roses from My Mouth, the title poem, carries Nyanzi’s declaration that there will be “no roses”, “no perfume”, “no honey”, “no orgasm” coming from her mouth. What Nyanzi also says, without saying it, is that, for its sharpness, the poetry collection could as well be taken by the title, Thorns from My Mouth.