Ugandan novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija has been named this year’s International Writer of Courage by Tsitsi Dangarembga.
The award is part of the PEN Pinter prize, which goes to an author deemed 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 persecuted for speaking out about their beliefs, with whom she will share her prize.
Rukirabashaija is the author of the novel The Greedy Barbarian, which takes on themes of high-level corruption in a fictional country. He was arrested on 13 April 2020 in Uganda, and held for seven days, during which time he was interrogated about his fiction and subjected to torture. Rukirabashaija details this treatment, which PEN described as “inhumane and degrading”, in his latest work Banana Republic: Where Writing is Treasonous.
“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,” Rukirabashaija writes. “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.”
On 20 April last year Rukirabashaija was charged 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 18 September, and released on 21 September 2020 on police bond, pending investigation for the offence of “inciting violence and promoting sectarianism”, charges PEN said are believed to relate to his writings. He remains on police bond, and is required to report to the police on a fortnightly basis.
PEN said it was “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 suffered during his detention in April 2020. “He has also reported that he and his family are constant targets of extrajudicial surveillance by individuals believed to be state security agents,” said the free speech organisation. “PEN condemns the unlawful arrest, detention and ongoing harassment of Kakwenza Rukirabashaija.”
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.”