14 April 2017

Uganda: Can Vulgarity Contribute to Broadening What We Say in Our Civic Spaces?


Civic spaces such as rights are usually fought for by wringing it off the paws of ogres.

There are a myriad ways of doing this - legislation, litigation, activism, elections and, as a last resort, unconstitutional means. But first about what you see in the mirror when you look at it. When the Red Pepper was founded, one of its most memorable acts was publishing a story, complete with pictures, of a teen orgy gone wild on one of the beaches in Entebbe.

The din that followed the publication of the story was immeasurable. The church shrieked. The traditionalists whistled in astonishment. Moralist kicked their legs. Women activists yelled. The alarm bells rang in the air. It was as if treason had been committed.

The Red Pepper calmly shot back that it was mirroring society - that what the paper had published was not its creation but a reflection of the Ugandan society. And they were right.

In its lifetime, the Red Pepper has committed some sins, but it has also done good! One such good is its contribution to broadening what we could say/read in a public space as viewed from a moralistic prism.

It was the Red Pepper which published a story implying that a prominent politician, a minister, had died of HIV/Aids. The story made it in the international press.

"Ugandan newspaper breaks taboo," reported the United Kingdom's The Guardian in April 2004. The minister "talked diplomacy during the day, he spoke the language of love in the evening," The Guardian quoted the Red Pepper.

If the Red Pepper published another story today about a wild teen booze and sex binge, it won't raise as much dust as it did more than a decade ago. If the Red Pepper today published that a minister had died of HIV/Aids, its chances of making it in the international press is minimal because that taboo is long broken.

In his early days, before he was consumed by power, President Museveni was a darling of Western reporters. To them, he was a "rebel with a cause."

Part of the reason Museveni was loved is because his government broke the taboo subject of HIV/Aids. To his credit, and to the benefit of Ugandans, Museveni demystified HIV/Aids by opening up about the disease at a time Ugandans only spoke about it in whispers.

Sex and sexuality was and is still a taboo subject to many Ugandans because it is 'vulgar'. But compared to two decades ago, Ugandans are becoming more open about sex talk, which can now be found in spaces like WhatsApp, Facebook and in newspapers. So, can vulgarity be used to stretch the limits of Uganda's restrictive space in talking matters morally unaccepted?

Vulgarity is on our lips. Thanks to a large part to Dr Stella Nyanzi, who was arrested last week and later arraigned before courts of law and charged with cyber harassment, having allegedly called President Museveni a pair of buttocks, among other 'vulgar' things.

Many have accused the fire-spitting academic of being vulgar. I think that shouldn't be our primary concern. In assessing the appropriateness or not of Dr Nyanzi's deployment of vulgarity as a weapon of choice, our focus should be on whether or not her vulgarity captures the vulgarity she attacks.

More importantly, based on the examples about the Red Pepper and the fight against HIV/Aids, I think it is worth pondering about whether what society considers vulgar can broaden what we can discuss in our public spaces.

Equally important is that while many take the state to be the only ogre, moralistically narrow viewpoints that restrict our outlook of the world is also an ogre. From this perspective, Nyanzi is wringing the paws of two ogres - the state and moralists.

The author has interests in media development, communication and public affairs.


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