Kakwenza Rukirabashaija Is PEN’s International Writer of Courage 2021

The Ugandan novelist, jailed and tortured last year, was chosen, as is tradition, by the PEN Pinter prize winner, who this year is Tsitsi Dangarembga.
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Kakwenza Rukirabashaija. Photograph - English PEN

Kakwenza Rukirabashaija. Photo credit: English PEN.

As part of her obligation as the winner of the 2021 PEN Pinter Prize, the Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga has selected a Ugandan novelist, Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, as this year’s International Writer of Courage. The recognition goes to a writer who has faced persecution for speaking out. Rukirabashaija was jailed and tortured for one week by the Ugandan government following the April 2020 release of his novel The Greedy Barbarian, a story of a woman and her toddler crossing a fictional international border, which explores political corruption.

Security operatives charged Rukirabashaija with “an act likely to spread the infection of disease (Covid-19), contrary to Section 171 of the Penal Code Act, Cap 120.”

He was rearrested on 18 September 2020, accused of “inciting violence and promoting sectarianism,” and freed after three days, on police bond, which mandates him to report to the police every two weeks. In its statement of support, PEN said that it was “gravely concerned” about Rukirabashaija’s safety.

Rukirabashaija later wrote about his experience in Busesa government prison in a memoir, Banana Republic: Where Writing is Treasonous, released in September 2020.

“In Africa, when you write fiction, especially political fiction. . . the leaders will always think that one is writing about them,” he writes in the book, according to The Guardian. “Of course, every dictator will suspect that the writer meant to embarrass him. Yoweri Museveni, the president of Uganda, felt that it was him that I had written about and so he sent his hoodlums to arrest and torture me in order to hamper my creativity. The idea was to completely stop me from being creative.”

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Commenting on the recognition, Rukirabashaija said, “If it weren’t for PEN, I would still be somewhere in prison—perhaps forgotten. Truth is, I survived death. I appreciate PEN for advocating for my freedom of expression and the different centres all over the world that sent in lovely messages of courage.”

Otosirieze Obi-Young
Otosirieze Obi-Young, a writer, culture journalist, curator, and media consultant, is the founder and editor of Open Country Mag. He was editor of Folio Nigeria, CNN’s exclusive media affiliate in Africa, and has led or joined editorial teams at a host of platforms and projects in African literature. He has written about the Nigerian culture scene, covering innovation in over 20 fields including art, music, tech, sports, cuisine, fashion, journalism, sculpture, beauty, health, and activism. In literature, his Profile subjects have included Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Teju Cole, Damon Galgut, and Tsitsi Dangarembga. His fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review and Transition. He sat on the judging panel of The Morland Scholarship, a British grant for African writers, and currently chairs the panel of The Gerald Kraak Prize, a South African initiative for storytelling about gender, sexuality, and social justice. He has an MA in African Studies and a BA in English and History from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He taught English at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu. He is currently studying for an MFA at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. In 2019, he received the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among “The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians” by Avance Media. Twitter & Instagram: @otosirieze. Website: otosirieze.com.

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