The Ugandan satirist who scared a dictator: Kakwenza Rukirabashaija on torture, exile and activism

The Ugandan satirist who scared a dictator: Kakwenza Rukirabashaija on torture, exile and activism

Ugandan author Kakwenza Rukirabashaija reading his first novel, The Greedy Barbarian, a thinly veiled broadside at Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni. Photograph: Abubaker Lubowa/Reuters

The Ugandan satirist who scared a dictator: Kakwenza Rukirabashaija on torture, exile and activism

Emma Graham-Harrison

The award-winning author was arrested and tortured for his work – and then tortured again for writing about his detention. Now he smuggles his latest banned book into Uganda to ensure it is read

Global development is supported by

Kakwenza Rukirabashaija tries to keep his scars covered around his children. Even in the height of summer he never takes off his long-sleeved shirt and trousers. He is worried that evidence of the extensive, brutal torture he endured before fleeing Uganda, etched permanently into his body, would terrify them. The damage is so bad that he washes in the dark to avoid seeing them himself.

“The scars are not painful, but they trigger trauma whenever I am in the bathroom and look at myself in the mirror. So I decided to turn off the light when I shower to avoid seeing them,” says the satirical writer, who was this month given the Václav Havel award for creative dissent.

His back is a crisscross of welts and his thighs are pockmarked with craters where his flesh was ripped away. Fractures in his ankles, viciously beaten more than a year ago, may take years to fully heal, doctors have told him.

“You know children are very inquisitive. They ask what happened to you. So even when it is sweltering hot outside, I try by all means to cover my body,” he says.

Kakwenza Rukirabashaija displays scars on his back. He claims they were inflicted by torture.

Writer and government critic Kakwenza Rukirabashaija displays the scars on his back that resulted from the torture he endured during detention. Photograph: Hajarah Nalwadda/AP

Rukirabashaija details his ordeal in a new book, The Savage Avenger. It is a chronicle of an abusive system and testimony to the power of the pen.

He was targeted and forced into exile because his work humiliated and frightened Uganda’s president, the authoritarian Yoweri Museveni, who has led the country since 1986.

Rukirabashaija’s first novel, The Greedy Barbarian, a thinly veiled broadside at Museveni, led to the author’s detention and torture. His second, Banana Republic: Where Writing is Treasonous, details the regime’s attempts to silence him.

It infuriated Ugandan authorities, and he was seized again. So, like reflections in a gruesome hall of mirrors, his third and most recent book is an account of the detention and torture he suffered for writing the second book.

I have to keep going, I have to keep pushing until Uganda gets a better person to lead it

The persecution derailed his career as a novelist, turning him into a chronicler of abuse and forcing him to flee the country, fearing for his life. His passport had been confiscated but he made it out through a route that he says in the book must stay secret for now, and found refuge in Germany.

He carries on writing mostly for his children, who are aged nine, five and three, but even they did not escape the fury of Uganda’s leaders. After Rukirabashaija escaped, authorities refused to issue his children with passports, so they were in effect held hostage for weeks.

He went public about the family’s situation a year ago, and the passports were issued after an outcry, including an investigation by the Uganda Human Rights Commission. They are now united in Germany, and Rukirabashaija says they help keep him going.

“I want to make a better world for them, not in exile but back in Uganda,” he says. “So I have to keep going, I have to keep pushing until Uganda gets a better person to lead it. I don’t want my children to judge me in future as a sellout.”

The Savage Avenger, by Kakwenza Rukirabashaija

The Savage Avenger, Kakwenza Rukirabashaija’s latest book

He is trying to smuggle the book into Uganda, where it is officially banned. A few dozen copies have already made it inside the country, he says.

He also wants to raise awareness abroad of abuses he and others have endured. Uganda is a key western ally in east Africa, and has received billions of dollars of development and security assistance from the UK and US, even as human rights failings have worsened in the country.

“I’m meeting foreign powers and asking them why they keep on supporting Museveni, who is terrorising us, forcing us to run out of the country. It amazes me that these people do not know exactly what Museveni is capable of, what he is doing.”

The book is brutally honest on that front, with devastating pictures of Rukirabashaija’s injuries to illustrate and support his account. It is equally open about his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the support he needs from a therapist.

“Sometimes I can have two weeks when I am very fine, then I get down for the next week – it really hits me.” He has got a lot more sympathy since he was published, he says, from people who had not previously understood the intensity of his torture ordeal.

But the book is also often funny. Rukirabashaija’s sense of humour was one of the few things to escape unscathed, perhaps even sharpened. He uses it to attack the people who held and tortured him, but also writes affectionately about those who have helped him, and his new home in Germany.

A place where people love beer and long philosophical discussions was always going to feel something like home to a Ugandan, he says, although it is taking longer for him to adjust to the food.

“Really, we want to return home,” he says. The government has tried to invite him back, but for now he does not think that would be safe. “I can’t return home when the things that pushed me to exile still exist there.”

So instead, he keeps up a furious pace of activism, to avoid becoming irrelevant at home, the fate of many exiles who fade into the past – and the hope of the dictators who banish them.

“That is the reason I wake up early every morning: to interact with Ugandans, read the newspapers,” he says. “I don’t want to miss anything that goes on in Uganda.”

You’ve read 6 articles in the last year

Article count

… there is a good reason why NOT to support the Guardian.

Not everyone can afford to pay for news right now. That is why we keep our journalism open for everyone to read, including in Norway. If this is you, please continue to read for free. 

But if you are able to, then there are THREE good reasons to support us today.

1. Our quality, investigative journalism is a scrutinising force at a time when the rich and powerful are getting away with more and more

2. We are independent and have no billionaire owner pulling the strings, so your money directly powers our reporting

3. It doesn’t cost much, and takes less time than it took to read this message

Help power the Guardian’s journalism for the years to come, whether with a small sum or a larger one.

Source The Guardian.

Post a Comment

Translate »