Two weeks ago, the Ugandan novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija was named this year’s PEN 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.
How are you doing? How are you feeling? Are you physically safe?
I cannot say that I am well now because I suffer from a terrible, intermittent PTSD, but I trust God that I will one day be fine. However, I feel oiled because of the PEN award.
Freedom of expression should never be hampered by any dictatorship, and African governments cannot claim rule of law without submitting or being subservient to the international law that they are signatories to. The pen will always win against guns and all the brutal archaic oppression. The government to which I pay tax, instead of honoring my literature, decided to use barbarism and draconic methods of torture [on me], as though we were in the stone age.
Could you tell us about your work? How did you become a writer? How did you enter the literary scene in Uganda?
I began to write satire when I was little, in secondary school, and one day I escaped heavy punishment from my literature teacher after I described, in an essay, his shabbiness and unhygienic ghetto vibe. He saw talent in me and did not punish me. He, instead, brought me closer to him and encouraged me to fly. He gave me wings.
Did you have any worries during your writing of The Greedy Barbarian? Did any of your associates read a draft before publication? Did they express concerns?
I wrote the novel in 2016, and for many years, publishers rejected it, until I landed on one whose balls are made of steel. Two months after publication, when it became a hot cake in Uganda, the president’s chamchas in uniform, armed to the teeth, arrested me and threw me into the dungeon.
You have written about your experience in Busesa prison in your memoir, Banana Republic: Where Writing Is Treasonous. Could you tell us in detail what happened in April 2020, from the publication of The Greedy Barbarian to your arrest?
I went through a lot. I was tortured to almost death. Hanging, waterboarding, beatings. I was committed to court later, after seven days, pursuant to the writ of habeas corpus that had been issued by the high court and other organizations like Amnesty International and PEN International which advocated for my release. It was then that I was removed from the military barracks dungeon, to the court, and then to prison in Busesa where I spent 15 more days.
In April 2020, you were charged with “an act likely to spread the infection of disease (Covid-19), contrary to Section 171 of the Penal Code Act, Cap 120.” And when you were rearrested in September 2020, you were accused of “inciting violence and promoting sectarianism.” Could you explain what they mean by these?
The soldiers who came to arrest me found me in my bed—bare-assed. They confiscated my computer, phones, and copies of my novel. Throughout the time I was in the dungeon, they were interrogating me about the novel. Later, they debated what to charge me in court. I was so shocked when they preferred such bogus charges of spreading coronavirus when actually they found me in my bed sleeping. I was later released on court bond of nearly $10,000 and discharged for want of prosecution. The case was re-instated and dismissed for the same reasons.
The second time they came, after I had written my ordeal, they found me again in my bed at 6 a.m. They tortured me for three days and released me with other bogus charges of inciting violence and promoting sectarianism, with a condition that I must drive 240 k.m. every Monday to report my presence in the country. They still have not committed me to court.
Before your novel, had you been harassed by Ugandan security officials?
Yes, I have been criticizing Dictator Yoweri Museveni for the past 21 years, since 2000 when I was 12 years old, and I have faced harassment several times.
What was the response from the Ugandan literary community?
Of course, my fellow writers, including PEN Uganda, blamed the arrest and advocated for my freedom. Professor Danson Sylvester Kahyana, the PEN Uganda president, led the writers alongside Professor Stella Nyanzi, a renowned poet who also suffered like me because of her pen.
You cannot arrest a writer for simply mirroring the society in which he lives. As they say, if you want to understand a country, read its writers, especially fiction.
What would you say to writers who have been targeted, directly and indirectly, by governments in Uganda and across the African continent? What would you say to young writers who are watching and losing hope in the moral responsibility of literature in Uganda and Africa?
I was the first Ugandan to publish my harrowing ordeal when my tormentors are still in government and with power. I didn’t run away. I stayed and bravely exposed their impunity and barbarism. I think the courage is inborn and no gun or material offer will whittle down my use of literature to fight against malevolent dictators.
After publishing my ordeal, people thought that I was crazy for writing a book about my torture when my tormentors were still in government. I could not take the injustice with equanimity. That is equal to sweeping barbarism under the carpet in the name of being a coward.
My advice to writers: do not allow yourself to be gagged. Use your talents without fear. Fearing to write because of dictators is equivalent to burying your talent. I would never do that.
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