Family | Uganda

Dear Mummy and Daddy, rest in peace!

Persecution, prison, exile: Life has moved fast for the Ugandan poet Stella Nyanzi since her parents died. So much has changed that she she’s catching up with the past. A farewell letter to Mummy and Daddy.
Portrait of a woman in a dark room, looking to the right. She is wearing a patterned headscarf and a matching collar. She is lit from the side and wears earrings and glasses.

Ugandan author and activist Stella Nyanzi is currently living in exile in Germany


Dear Mummy, dear Daddy,

If I was still at home in Uganda, I would have visited your graves in our ancestral burial grounds, with beautiful wreaths of fresh flowers. I would have brought your three grandchildren to weed the neat rows of flowering shrubs surrounding your final resting places, and to wipe the dust off the marble tiles on your graves.

However, I am writing this letter because I now live with my children in Bavaria as an exiled writer. In January 2022, I started a scholarship under the Writers-in-Exile program of PEN Zentrum Deutschland. Thankfully, the German Ministry of Culture and Media generously funds the program which evacuates and provides temporary accommodation for a maximum of three years to writers who are persecuted, penalised or imprisoned for their writings.

“Your deaths were preventable.”

Isn’t it interesting that I am now paid for holding and expressing my opinions?

Unlike families of my childhood friends in which children were punished for disagreeing with their parents, you made our home a safe space in which to raise all sorts of topics. Whether controversial or banal: We could address everything. And so we argued about feminism, dress lengths, masturbation, watching soft pornography, sex work, religious interpretations about homosexuality, whether women have a role to play in politics and much more. In fact, I fondly remember Daddy drawing illustrations for some of the biological processes he explained simply to us about our growing bodies.

As a teenager, I often got into trouble for questioning Daddy about his polygamy of simultaneously marrying three wives. I shamefully remember yelling at Daddy about his occasional violence against Mummy after they separated their houses. On the whole, we were fortunate that you encouraged us to fearlessly debate with and against you. The numerous debates we had at home were a good preparation for my ability to form and express my own opinion(s).

Now, in exile, I am re-learning the joy of free expression. You see, in the years after your deaths I lived in a repressive dictatorship which punishes government critics and dissident voices – and also punished me for my blunt criticism. You both fell victim to the poor public health services in Uganda. Your deaths were preventable. Bitter poems poured easily from my pen. The pain over losing you was also the reason for the following lines:


My beloved father died mercilessly like a dog.
A medical doctor of four decades,
Heaving and groaning in the backseat of his car.
Driven that dark night by his youngest brother,
Searching in vain from one health unit to another
For a single vial of absent medicine.
His death is on the hands of the dictatorship
Which prizes bullets and guns over medicines.
“Give us bullets and guns, not medicine!”

My sweet mother died senselessly like a frog.
A social worker and patriotic NRM cadre,
Lying under the tree where she collapsed.
Conscious but unable to lift her elderly body,
Waiting in vain from one hour to another hour,
For an absent ambulance with neither driver nor fuel.
Her death is on the hands of the dictatorship
Which prefers huge armoured vehicles over ambulances.
“Give us Black Mambas and Kabangalis not ambulances!”

I published my poems on Facebook. I increasingly criticised government failures and satirically ridiculed corrupt brutal militant leaders. My audiences expanded from social media to consumers of tabloids, newspapers, radio and television programs which reproduced and circulated my poetic writings. So popular were my satirical poems, that they reached the corridors of power. And the president, his wife and family were not amused. I was arrested twice, charged, and imprisoned at Luzira Maximum Security Prison because my poems allegedly disturbed the peace and quiet of the president and his family. In order to deter other dissident poets from criticising his government’s failures, he punished me severely. I was sentenced to eighteen months in maximum security prison. After spending sixteen months there, I was acquitted and released by the high court, in February 2020.

I am certain that the injustice of my imprisonment for sixteen months, only to be acquitted, would have been triggering for both of you. And I am glad you were not around to witness this and other such injustices. While I am certain that you would probably never approve of my colourful language, I am also sure that you would not have stopped me from my radical dissidence against Museveni’s repressive dictatorship. You would have been proud of my audacity… I know you would have secretly celebrated my ability to call out this bully.

“Mummy, you would have been proud.”

A month after my release from prison, the world was locked down because of a virulent virus called COVID-19 which compromised its victims’ respiratory systems. Daddy, as a medical doctor, you would have appreciated COVID-19’s widespread multifarious implications. Not only did the epidemic affect the economics and finances of the world, but it also magnified inequalities between rich and poor countries.

The search for and subsequent distribution of effective affordable vaccines highlighted systemic disparities between first and third world countries. Mummy, you would have been proud of social justice campaigns I organised against injustices meted out on poor people under the guise of preventing COVID-19. I led hungry mothers to peacefully protest against delayed food deliveries, unemployed traders to demonstrate against continued discriminatory closing of their shops, university students to march against the murder of a student found walking during curfew, among others.

During the COVID-19 lockdown, I ran a political campaign and contested in the national elections, specifically for the position of Woman Member of Parliament for Kampala district. Daddy, just like you once contested for a parliamentary position in June 2001, my names and photograph were also on the ballot papers of our country in January 2021. Even when the political campaign was difficult and challenging, I stood my ground and refused to withdraw from the contest: I drew strength from your own staying power even when it became clear you were going to lose the elections race.

Participating in the national elections offered me an empowering opportunity to challenge ongoing excesses of state power, abuses of human rights, and the violations against Ugandans. I drew inspiration from memories of Mummy publicly defending widows, orphans, divorcees and cast-out wives. The electoral campaigns offered me temporary protection from political persecution even when I passionately criticised government. Although I lost the race, I traversed all corners of Kampala, and learnt deep insights about Uganda’s contemporary politics. I also established myself as one of the leading government critics in Uganda.

“I miss you so much.”

The national elections were marred by mass arrests, violent abductions, enforced disappearances, detentions without trials, torture during interrogations, and extra-judicial murders - all targeting opposition members. At midnight on 18 December 2020, Hajj Asuman Semakula, my campaign advisor was abducted from his home by masked gunmen who drove away in a minivan.

Three weeks later, on 18 January 2021, gunmen abducted David Musiri, my lover, while he was buying refreshments. They forced him into the trunk of a car that sped off to an unknown destination. These successive abductions of two people close to me, severely compromised my own security. Thus, I rapidly packed some bags, safely evacuated my three children from Uganda, entered a safe-protection house in Kenya and applied for asylum. Just as Kenya offered refuge to you, my dear parents, when I was a child in the 1980s - Kenya also sheltered my children and I from the looming political persecution we faced in Uganda.

However, even there, was a dense network of spies, security and intelligence officials who routinely reported Ugandan dissidents. Caution about safety was rampant. Thus, I celebrated the chance encounter with Konrad Hirsch, a German filmmaker who forwarded my application to the Writers-in-Exile program of PEN Zentrum Deutschland, forming the genesis of my present exile in Germany.

Although you are physically gone, dear Mummy and Daddy, I continue drawing inspiration from you. I am fearlessly engrossed in local, national and international politics because Daddy engaged in politics. I actively advocate for diverse social justice because Mummy’s work as a social worker influenced me at an early age. I often see aspects of your characters in my children. Kato is as frugal as Daddy was and manages our family finances.

Wasswa, his twin brother, loves to cook tasty foods just like Mummy did. Baraka, their sister manages all of us just like you trained her. She also coordinates socialising activities which encourage us to interact with our new German neighbours. It is a great honour for me to continue your legacies of being engaged politically and socially in my lifetime and through my children.

I miss you so much… Rest well, dear Mummy and Daddy!

Your daughter,

Stella Nyanzi