Review: Dr. Stella Nyanzi’s Book “Most Important Ugandan Poetry Book of a Generation”

Stella Nyanzi
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[The View From Uganda: Books]

Dr. Stella Nyanzi’s book of poetry, “Don’t Come in My Mouth”, has a curious title. The word “come” being used as a double entendre.

This usage may leave the shallow observer thinking that Stella is not only trying to get her groove back, but is also attempting get her groove on. However, as is much the case with Stella, many of her words are taken out of context and understood according to a reader’s own biases. 

So, we shall provide some context before we look at her 146 poems in this 288-page book. Stella, I use her forename because her words have a way of making me feel like I know her intimately, is an activist who never accepts the received wisdom about anything. 

This has given her a Platonian tendency to examine everything, which takes her words to places many of us would fear to be caught within a mile of. This courage and unrelenting individuality have enlarged her contribution to democracy in ways not easy to estimate, even though Yusuf Serunkuma makes a decent attempt at doing so in the introduction to this book. 

All the poems are numbered and then titled, much like William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets published in his “quarto” in 1609. In the first three poems “I am a writer”, “There are books bubbling in my belly” and “The Government is a Joke”, there’s a unifying thread running through the poet’s words which will give the reader a dramatic foretaste of the poems to come. 

The three poems are like a three-course meal, served as an appetizer. Then, boom! She introduces us to the tragically human condition of Ugandan politics in her fourth poem, “My Personal Motivations To Join Politics!” 

Her father’s death and the accompanying “anguish of losing my father” is extremely touching. 

As Stella relates her father’s death, we quickly realize that he might have been saved if the government did not prioritize bullets over medicines.

My father died unnecessarily like a starving pet dog looking for a bone/He died looking for a vial of medicine in a land of many, many, many rounds of bullets/I joined politics to change national budgeting priorities from bullets to medicines.”

Then, the poet looks tearfully upon her mother’s grave. Her mother died upon entry to Masaka National Referral Hospital, after a frantic and vain search for a single ambulance. 

A single absent ambulance in Uganda’s public health facilities/Separated my mother’s life from death.” 

Yet, she writes, “The national budget prioritises enamoured four-wheel-drive cars, Black Mambas and abduction drones over ambulances for emergency transport/And so, my mother died unnecessarily like a starving pet dog looking for a bone/She died waiting for an ambulance in a land where Members of Parliament get 321 Million Shillings for a fuel-guzzling power-car every term.”

When Stella recalls these two “unnecessarily early graves”, she powerfully reminds us of what the late American writer Toni Morrison called the “disremembered and unaccounted for”. In doing so, we are forced to examine the roles which we played in these deaths.

Yes, the roles we played by in doing nothing when it comes to doing something to change Stella’s past from being manifest in our own harrowing present.   

In Poem 34, ‘I name you”, she calls out the “Dictator Yoweri Tibuhaburwa Museveni Kaguta.”

It only has two verses, but eloquently outguns the firepower Museveni used when he “shot live ammunition at unarmed innocent Ugandans.”

She, ever so beautifully, writes: “Your soldiers murdered children, women and men going about their everyday lives…whose only crime was being in Uganda on that day.” 

It’s a poem which hits you right between the eyes and leaves you reeling for the count; which will probably begin at 36 years of Museveni’s rule, and counting.

Being a dyed-in-the-wool feminist, Stella’s 73rd poem, “A Eulogy for Barbara Allimadi”, is fitting indeed. 

The feminist collective has lost a courageous Commando/I have lost a radically innovative ally who pioneered nude protest among Uganda’s elite/She was fearless when fighting patriarchs…”

Back in 2012, Allimadi organized mass demonstrations after a woman was allegedly assaulted by a police officer in broad daylight. The protests became famous in Uganda and were referred to as the "bra protests".  Allimadi was found dead in her home in Kiwatule, Kampala, in April 2020, the cause of her death remains unsolved. She was the youngest sister of Black Star News publisher Milton Allimadi.

Stella’s book of poetry is hard hitting, without pulling any punches by couching her words in the comfortable imagery many Ugandan poets use to say one thing and mean the other. 

It is a book which inspires a broad sweep of human emotions, so prepare to laugh, cry, curse, cuss, bow your head in shame before lifting it in pride. 

In the 104th poem, entitled “Unhinged”, Stella reveals every reason why we should never simply dismiss her as a mad woman. 

We shall paraphrase: 

“When you stop being dogmatic/When you choose to be pragmatic/when you reduce on the fervour of a fanatic/When your loyalty is not automatic/When you excel at being a reflexive critic…. they say you are unhinged/ Poor woman, she has lost her marbles!”

One cannot forget to mention the wonderful aesthetics of the book, shaped not only by Stella’s poems but by cartoonists, graphic designers and illustrators, seven in number, led by Chris Atukwasize Ogon and Jimmy Spire Sentongo. 

Without a doubt, Stella has written the best Ugandan poetry book of the last decade and possibly the most important Ugandan poetry book of a generation.   

Columnist Matogo can be reached via [email protected] 

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