Ugandan Novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija named 2021 International Writer of Courage
Ugandan novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, who was manhandled by the Ugandan prison authorities in his country, over his novel The Greedy Barbarian, has been named this year’s International Writer of Courage by Tsitsi Dangarembga.
The award, by PEN Pinter prize goes to an author considered to have fulfilled Harold Pinter’s aspiration to “define the real truth of our lives and our societies”. This year’s PEN Pinter winner, the Zimbabwean writer and activist Dangarembga, chose Rukirabashaija as the International Writer of Courage, an award for an author who has been victimised for speaking out about their beliefs, with whom she will share her prize.
Rukirabashaija was arrested on April 13, 2020 in Uganda, and held for seven days, during which he was interrogated about his fiction and subjected to torture.
His novel “The Greedy Barbarian” is themed around official graft in a fictional country. Rukirabashaija details this treatment, which PEN described as “inhumane and degrading”, in his latest work Banana Republic: Where Writing is Treasonous.
Rukirabashaija writes “in Africa, when you write fiction, especially political fiction, such as the political allegory Animal Farm by George Orwell, the leaders will always think that one is writing about them. Of course, every dictator will suspect that the writer meant to embarrass him”.
“Yoweri Museveni, the president of Uganda, felt that it was him that I had written about and so he sent his hoodlums to arrest and torture me in order to hamper my creativity. The idea was to completely stop me from being creative.”
Rukirabashaija was charged on April 20, 2020 with “an act likely to spread the infection of disease [Covid-19], contrary to Section 171 of the Penal Code Act, Cap 120”, and remanded in custody to Busesa government prison. After his discharge, he was arrested again on September 18, and released on September 21, 2020 on police bond, pending investigation for the offence of “inciting violence and promoting sectarianism”, charges PEN said are believed to be linked to his writing. He remains on police bond, and is required to report to the police twice every week.
PEN is gravely concerned about the physical safety and welfare of Rukirabashaija, adding that the writer has informed his lawyers that he is still undergoing treatment for injuries he sustained during his confinement in April 2020.
Rukirabashaija congratulated Dangarembga on her win, and thanked her “wholeheartedly” for choosing to share the prize with him. “If it weren’t for PEN, I would still be somewhere in prison – perhaps forgotten,” he said. “When I was hanging on chains in the dungeons, I swore to my tormentors that I would never write again if they gave me a chance to live – as if they were some deities or God. Truth is, I survived death. I appreciate PEN for advocating for my freedom of expression and the different centres all over the world that sent in lovely messages of courage. I received the messages with smiles even though I was in horrendous pain.”
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