A QUESTION OF POWER: DON’T SAY THAT #freestellanyanzi

There’s a story a former colleague and housemate told me once about “madness”. The story has stuck with me over the years, periodically releasing legions of ants who crawl under my skin – forcing me to resist the urge to scratch my body all over, over and over again incessantly. While I cannot confirm its credibility, factual or otherwise – it’s the principle behind it which matters here.

The story takes place in the American South during a time when black people were still slaves, it was a time when white people could not imagine black people  being anything more than mere animals let alone, qualified medical doctors.

However there was one. And she was a woman.

One day she encountered a motor accident in which white people were involved. She rushed over to the injured passengers offering to help; I’m a doctor, I am a doctor” she said. 

But instead of allowing her to treat or stabilise the injured, the white people standing about were annoyed, bewildered.

This N… here says she’s a doctor!

She must be mad! They exclaimed.

When the authorities eventually come, they have the woman committed.

Take this N… here too, she thinks she’s a doctor! She needs to be hospitalised.

The woman was blind-folded and taken to a mental hospital where she was kept for several years until she became an old woman.

One day they decided to release her, drove her to a place she had never been before. On arrival – the woman scanned the surroundings and not recognising where she was, asked “ Where am I?” 

On hearing the questions the warders looked at each other with wonder.

“She’s still mad!” They exclaimed to one another, “she doesn’t know where she is!”

And so the African-American woman medical doctor was put back in the van and sent back to the hospital where she was kept until her death.

This story comes to mind now after a reading of South African born writer an activists Bessie Heads’ third Novel, A Question of Power (1973).  It is a book about a mixed-race South African woman who suffers a nervous break-down while exiled in Botswana.

I didn’t know what to expect between the pages: I thought I will find distilled theories of Afro-feminist thinking along the lines of some of my favourite thinkers on the subject such as African-American writer(s) Audre Lorde and bell hooks. 

A Question of Power, however, plunged me into this strange dissociative state where everything is fluid. Where there is no difference between what happens in ones mind and reality.

The book is frightening.

The main character, Elizabeth-a teacher, leaves South Africa with her son and is living in the village of Motabeng, a place of sand, in Botswana where there are no street lights at night. Here she develops an entirely abnormal relationship with two (semi) imaginary men Sello (the saint) and Dan (the devil), who spend the nights and sometimes days tormenting her. Telling her how worthless, useless, stupid, ugly, evil and possessed she is. The third main character here is the Greek Goddess, Medusa ( who in this story represents both Elizabeth’s alter ego and the people of Motabeng who look at her with vague curiosity as an outsider ).

All three characters made life so unbearable that “By day, Elizabeth crawled around, painfully.  By night, she lay back a pinned-down victim of approaching death. Medusa had the air of one performing a skilled and practiced murder. She seemed to say to herself: ‘I’ll let loose another bolt here. I’ll let loose another bolt there. Ahah, look how she topples over!”

Sello rants about piety and Godliness, about a savior, while Dan is the minister of sex, which he performs with hundreds of women; describing each of them and their genitals with nauseating detail.  Sometimes Dan brings the women to Elizabeth’s bed while she is still in it and together with them he demonstrates how athletic and strong his manhood is – because it can last all night and all day.

This assault continues on my senses until I finish the book – utterly in need of some evidence, tangible proof that I myself have not lost my mind to the musings of a crazed character in a book.

In reality, I am confronted with images of the bespectacled academic Stella Nyanzi, a Ugandan researcher, writer and political activist who has been given an 18month prison term for calling the country’s President Yoweri Museveni a pair of buttocks and insulting his mother in this poem.

At some point during her hearing in court, she exposes her breasts in protest. 

At first I think she’s crazy: falling into all the prefabricated – stereotypical-trap- narratives reserved almost exclusively for black women whenever they protest: crazy,  emotional, bitches.

How can a whole professor stoop so low. I ask myself.  Then I read more and the more I read the more I realise that she is the “ Doctor” in my friends story. She is the sober character in this story of our collective madness. 

Describing the contours of power in A Question of Power, Bessi Head says; “ The victim is the most flexible, the most free person on earth. He doesn’t have to think up endless falsehoods. His jailer does that. His jailers create the chains and the oppression the victim is merely presented with it. He is presented in a thousand and one hells to live through and he usually lives through them all. The faces of the oppressed are not ugly – they are scarred with suffering. But the torturers become more hedious everyday. The are no limits to the excesses they indulge in. There is no end to the death and darkness of the soul. The victim who sits in jail always sees a bit of sunlight shining through. He sits there and dreams of beautiful wonders. He looses his children, his wife, his everything. What happens to all those tears? Who is the greater man? The man who cries broken by anguish or his scoffing, jeering, mocking oppressor?”

Stella Nyazis’s activism – her dream of women emancipation and freedom of expression – makes her mad.

She is fighting with everything she is, even her body has become an instrument echoing the lyrics in Nigerian-French singer Asa’s popular (2009) song Jailer where the songstress notes: “I’m in chains, you’re in chains too, I wear uniforms and you wear uniforms too, I have fears, you have fears too, I’ll die but yourself you’ll die too… you suppress all my strategies, you oppress every part of me, what you don’t know is you’re a victim too”

Museveni’s irrational reaction to Stella Nyanzi’s words – a poem meant to annoy him – reveal what we all know to be true about men and patriarchy. The truth which bell hooks organises with such genius:

“The power of patriarchy has been to make maleness feared and to make men feel that it is better to be feared that to be loved. Whether they can confess this or not, men know that just is not true.”

Ugandan President Yoweri Musevenis’ decision to incarcerate Stella Nyanzi, expose a man who fears he is not loved and so he imprisons the person who insults the only woman who ever did.

But love is authentic only when it gives freedom.

Stella Nyanzi is doing what any artist in their right minds should do because; ” This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There’s no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal” – Toni Morrison (1931-2019)

#PushforStellaNyanzi, #FreeStellaNyanzi, #SukumaKwaStellaNyanzi, #BamuweEddembeLye, #DropTheCharges

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