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Verses of Bold Resistance in No Roses From My Mouth by Dr Stella Nyanzi

I knew I wanted to read this book as soon as I found out that this daring activist that I had been reading about on social media had penned a book while she was in prison. I wanted to know her thoughts and feelings as she lived behind bars. I wanted to know more about her inspirations, her dreams and her frustrations. I wanted to know it all and I finally got the opportunity to sit and be guided. This is a brilliant body of work. I feel special to have had the opportunity to hold this book in my hands!

No Roses From My Mouth is a collection of about one hundred and fifty poems. The collection is divided into three volumes which address several issues such as dictatorial leadership, prison life, feminist issues and life lost/gained by the poet as she wrote these poems in prison. Each of the volumes is structured in three parts, Prison Life, Feminist Issues and About Uganda. As the reader moves from one volume to another the rage and urgency of the book is palpable. How can there be roses from one’s mouth when a system tries to silence them for speaking their truth, which is also undeniably a shared truth?

In Prison, bemoans the state of prisons in Uganda and the foul stench that is the judiciary. In Volume I, Dr Nyanzi takes us into the prison cells where there is congestion, miscarriages due to negligence, the life of children growing up in prison and the degrading treatment of women in prison. The pace increases in Volume II where prison life is dissected; labour, escape, lack of sanitary wear and the power that comes with having more than one packet of sanitary wear. Volume III is a recreation of poems confiscated by prison officers and thankfully she had a rough draft hidden somewhere. In this volume, there is a deep sense of longing for reassurance; that things will get better for the prisoners, that the system will change, that lovers left at home will wait for those locked up and that the fight is not in vain. The poems about prison stem from an activist’s passion during a time of incarceration. Even then when prisoners are locked up there is oppression behind bars and the question will always be is it really about rehabilitation? Are the conditions existing in prisons put up to foster rehabilitation and what means are used to drill deterrence? Dr Nyanzi says for her, the chains are about her honour in speaking the truth, in calling out against political and social suppression. She refuses to be shamed.

Feminist Issues, comes bearing words that mirror Dr Nyanzi’s radical activism and protestations from Volumes I- III. In her words she raises her power fist to inspire change, reaffirming that women shall no longer wait for liberation to be handed to them, for love to be served on platters where the portions are unfulfilling. Women own their bodies, those bodies that have been used to shame them, sexualize them & which have been tossed around by patriarchy and all its various disgusting manifestations, shall be used by women as they please. Dr Nyanzi uses her body to condem injustice and oppression. She also calls out feminists who have deemed her advocacy as too radical, her praxis too immoral and her activism too grounded. Her words on ‘controversy’ are nothing but the truth; you are controversial when they don’t understand you and your power, when you go after your dreams, when you rise after a fall and when you inspire change. This anthology is a fire lighting several other fires elsewhere and I am here for it! The system cannot be comfortable at the expense of women.

For Uganda, speaks of the cry for a nation’s freedom. From Volumes I -III, Dr Nyanzi’s message is a chant for everyone to speak out. We cannot mute ourselves! Because the authoritarian handbook seems to be the same all over Africa, I saw this as a message to all Africans held under iron rule and who continue to be shortchanged in what is passed off as ‘liberated’ states. Where is the liberation when the truth doesn’t make it in the biggest newspapers of the day, when the truth is hushed and dissent is not allowed? Dr Nyanzi calls for the redemption of Uganda’s honour. Defiance is not seen as a bad thing, for how long can compliance which has proved to not yield results be what people choose to hold on to? We definitely need to relook our comfort and in some cases our complicity. Dr Nyanzi raises her middle finger to repression, suppression and oppression.

Here are some quotes from the book:

1. ‘Prisoners of all ranks sit on the floor. It’s meant to rob them of all status, to break the spine from their backs, to unclench their fists of fury, to knock out their brains, to chop off their balls, to shut up their mouths, to break their souls like horses.’ page 9

2. ‘Teach the nation poetry. To write, recite and interpret it. Poems of the oppressed will oppress the oppressor. Poems will transport us to freedom.’ page 12

3. ‘When I raise the timeless symbol of the power fist I tap into histories of bold resistance.’ page 28

4. ‘Thread me a needle and I will mend the Uganda flag. The bullet wounds in the fabric-far too many to go unsewn.’ page 92

5. ‘Sorry, my love. I miscarried Justice. On the prison floor as the prison wardresses screamed at me.’ page 149

I thoroughly enjoyed this anthology of poems. The power that it holds is undeniable, the seeds of inspiration which it has sown will bear fruit, the vision it has sculpted for Uganda and beyond it too great a dream to die and cannot be contained. I highly recommend this book. An anthology based on activism, solidarity, liberty, peace, power, democracy, dignity, equality, justice, labour and ideas. Dr Stella Nyanzi left no stone unturned and that is how it should be!


Author’s Profile

Dr Stella Nyanzi is a renowned medical anthropologist who has published widely on sexuality, family planning and public health. She is also a queer rights activist and is one of the prominent women protesting against dictatorship in Uganda. She was arrested in November 2018 at a police station, presented in court and in August 2019 she was sentenced to 18 months in jail. Her conviction and sentence were quashed in February 2020. This book was written while she was in prison. It is also awarded the 2020 Oxfam / Novib PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression.


Book Details

Title: No Roses From My Mouth

Author: Dr Stella Nyanzi

Genre: Poetry

Pages: 202

Publisher: Ubuntu Reading Group (2020)

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