Monday 11 October 2021
Zimbabwean novelist, playwright, filmmaker and activist Tsitsi Dangarembga shares PEN Pinter Prize 2021 with Kakwenza Rukirabashaija
– PEN Pinter Prize 2021 winner Tsitsi Dangarembga announces Kakwenza Rukirabashaija as the International Writer of Courage 2021
– Kakwenza Rukirabashaija is a Ugandan novelist, who was subjected to torture by the Ugandan government while detained in 2020
Kakwenza Rukirabashaija has been named International Writer of Courage at the PEN Pinter Prize ceremony. The Writer of Courage is awarded to someone who has been persecuted for speaking out about their beliefs. The winner of the 2021 PEN Pinter Prize, Tsitsi Dangarembga, made the announcement in an event at the British Library this evening, Monday 11 October.
Kakwenza Rukirabashaija will also feature as part of PENWrites, English PEN’s international letter-writing campaign in solidarity with writers in prison and at risk around the world.
On 13 April 2020, Rukirabashaija was arrested at his home by officers from the Ugandan Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI). He was held for seven days, during which time he was blindfolded, held in solitary confinement, and subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment, including torture. The interrogation centred on his novel The Greedy Barbarian, which explores themes of high-level corruption in a fictional country and includes characters in the political and military establishment. His subsequent work, Banana Republic: Where Writing is Treasonous, is an account of the torture he was subjected to during this time.
On 20 April 2020, Rukirabashaija was brought before the Iganga Magistrate court and charged with ‘an act likely to spread the infection of disease [C19], contrary to Section 171 of the Penal Code Act, Cap 120.’ The Ugandan authorities claimed that he ‘unlawfully/negligently posted messages on his Facebook account mobilising the public against complying with directives and public health guidelines issued to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and knowing or having reason to believe that such actions would lead to further spread of COVID-19, a disease dangerous to human life.’ He was remanded in custody to Busesa government prison, 17km from his home.
Rukirabashaija was due to reappear at the Iganga Magistrate court on Wednesday 6 May 2020 to face the charges, which he vehemently denied. Months later, following the failure of the state to appear before court to argue the case for a period of six months, the case was dismissed and Rukirabashaija was discharged. However, the prosecution reinstated the charge, claiming readiness to prosecute and present witnesses.
On 18 September 2020, Rukirabashaija was arrested again at his home in Iganga District, Kigulu County, by officers from the CMI. Reports stated that the arresting officers informed Rukirabashaija’s wife and a Local Council official, both present at the time of arrest, that the arrest was related to Rukirabashaija’s continued writing, which they claimed was critical of President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni.
Rukirabashaija was detained for three days in violation of Ugandan law, which requires that arrested persons be charged in court within 48 hours of their arrest. During this time, the arresting officers questioned him about his new book, Banana Republic: Where Writing is Treasonous. In this book, Rukirabashaija describes the torture he was subjected to during his first detention. On 21 September 2020, he was released on police bond, pending investigation for the offence of ‘inciting violence and promoting sectarianism’, charges widely believed to relate to his writings.
The police bond required him to report to the police at the Special Investigations Unit at Kireka, 240km away from his home, on a fortnightly basis for an indefinite period. In May 2021, the Magistrates Court discharged the reinstated case against Rukirabashaija, due to non-appearance of the complainant. Nevertheless, Rukirabashaija remains on police bond, and is required to report to the police on a fortnightly basis.
PEN remains concerned about the physical safety and welfare of Rukirabashaija. He has informed his lawyers that he is still undergoing treatment for injuries he suffered during his detention in April 2020. Furthermore, state security agents continue to withhold his computer, mobile phone, and data storage bank although these are not included as exhibits in the court case against him. He has also reported that he and his family are constant targets of extrajudicial surveillance by individuals believed to be state security agents. PEN condemns the unlawful arrest, detention and ongoing harassment of Kakwenza Rukirabashaija.
Tsitsi Dangarembga says: “My career has taught me that the work of a writer is doing and that when circumstances allow, this doing is in fact writing. On the other hand, when circumstances do not allow for the writing process, a writer continues the expression that is no longer possible in literature, or that has become inadequate through literature with other actions. I have come to see that the work of writing is not to be seen to be doing but, in fact, to do and to keep on doing, regardless of circumstances. Only sometimes, if a writer is very fortunate, is that doing seen.”
Kakwenza Rukirabashaija says: ‘I would like to congratulate Tsitsi Dangarembga for the deserved PEN Pinter Prize and thank her wholeheartedly for having chosen to share with me this prestigious prize. If it weren’t for PEN, I would still be somewhere in prison—perhaps forgotten. 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.’
PEN Pinter Prize 2021
Tsitsi Dangarembga was chosen by this year’s judges: The Guardian’s Associate Editor for Culture and English PEN trustee, Claire Armitstead; literary critic and Editor-at-large for Canongate Ellah P. Wakatama, and poet Andrew McMillan. The judges said of Dangarembga:
Claire Armitstead: “Tsitsi Dangarembga has had an unusual and exemplary career as a writer, filmmaker and activist, who has made things happen for other people as well as achieving in her own right. Through her trilogy of novels, starting with Nervous Conditions in 1988 and culminating 30 years later in her fine, Booker shortlisted This Mournable Body, she has charted the development of Zimbabwe from a British colony to an autocratic and troubled free state. In doing so, she has held a magnifying glass up to the struggles of ordinary people, in so many parts of the world, to lead good lives in the increasingly corrupt and fractured new world order. Hers is a voice we all need to hear and heed.”
Ellah P. Wakatama: “Tsitsi Dangarembga’s work through her books, activism and films demonstrates diligence, stoicism, and the ability to capture and communicate vital truths even amidst times of upheaval. It is an honour to join my colleagues in raising up the voice of a woman whose words have written the story of my country of birth with a clarity, bravery and honesty that is a rare and precious gift.”
Andrew McMillan: “I’m honoured to have been able to sit with my fellow judges, and to shine a light on Tsitsi Dangarembga in this way; and through her choice to highlight another international writer of courage. When Nervous Conditions was published in 1988 it was the first novel to be published in English by a black woman from Zimbabwe; here’s to our bookshelves, our syllabuses and our collective imaginations being full of many more, from current and future generations, in the years to come.”
The PEN Pinter Prize is generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation and Ruth Maxted.
Former winners of the PEN Pinter Prize are: Linton Kwesi Johnson (2020) Lemn Sissay (2019), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2018), Michael Longley (2017), Margaret Atwood (2016), James Fenton (2015), Salman Rushdie (2014), Tom Stoppard (2013), Carol Ann Duffy (2012), David Hare (2011), Hanif Kureishi (2010) and Tony Harrison (2009). Former International Writers of Courage have been: Amanuel Asrat (2020), Befeqadu Hailu (2019), Waleed Abulkhair (2018), Mahvash Sabet (2017), Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury a.k.a.Tutul (2016), Raif Badawi (2015), Mazen Darwish (2014), Iryan Khalip (2013), Samar Yazbek (2012), Roberto Saviano (2011), Lydia Cacho (2010) and Zarganar (Maung Thura) (2009).
Photo by George Torode