Ugandan journalist and novelist, Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, who was imprisoned and tortured by security agents for his book The Greedy Barbarian, has won the 2021 International Writer of Courage award.
Rukirabashaija was chosen by Zimbabwean Tsitsi Dangarembga, award-winning and this year’s PEN Pinter Prize winner novelist, playwright, filmmaker and activist. The International Writer of Courage award is part of the prestigious PEN Pinter Prize, awarded to an author deemed to have fulfilled Harold Pinter’s aspiration to “define the real truth of our lives and our societies.”
Dangarembga chose Rukirabashaija as an author who is active in defence of freedom of expression, often at great risk to their own safety and liberty, with whom she will share her prize.
The Greedy Barbarian takes on themes of high-level corruption in a fictional place called Buregyeya, and was self-published in 2020.
The story revolves around Bekunda and her toddler son, Kayibanda, who cross an international border, in dire straits, and desperately need sanctuary. The country gives them sanctuary, the natives show them kindness and local spirits do the miraculous on their behalf. But can Kayibanda be as gracious to his new country as it has been to him? Can he overcome his profoundly flawed nature, which appears to be hereditary?
According PEN International, Rukirabashaija was arrested on April 13, 2020, on charges related to Covid-19, but interrogated about the contents of his novel. He was charged with the offence of ‘doing an act likely to spread the infection of disease...’ After failure of the state to appear before court to argue the case, a Chief Magistrate’s Court dismissed the case and discharged Rukirabashaija.
Rukirabashaija was arrested again on September 18, 2020, at his home in Iganga District, eastern Uganda. On September 21, 2020, he was released on bond, of the offence of ‘inciting violence and promoting sectarianism.’
He remains on police bond, and is required to report to the police on a weekly basis. He has reported that he and his family are under surveillance by people believed to be state security agents.
Rukirabashaija, a law student said of the award, “I feel oiled. Freedom of expression should never be hampered by the dictatorship since the same is recognised in domestic and foreign laws and this government cannot claim rule of law without submitting to the international law that we’re a signatory to. The pen will always win against guns and all the oppression. Rogue regimes go but the pen is mightier.”
He was inspired to write The Greedy Barbarian to “open people’s eyes by mirroring impunities of this regime through literature.”
“After publishing my harrowing ordeal, people thought that I was crazy for writing a book about my torture when my tormentors were still in government. But I could not take the injustice with equanimity.”
Rukirabashaija recently published his second book Banana Republic: Where Writing is Treasonous in which he recounts his experience, including torture by state security agents, while detained in April 2020.
The annual PEN Pinter Prize was established in 2009 in memory of Nobel-Laureate playwright Harold Pinter.
Dangarembga won the PEN prize for This Mournable Body, which was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. She also authored Nervous Conditions, at the age of 25 and was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Nervous Conditions was praised by Nobel Literature laureate Doris Lessing as one of the most important novels of the 20th century.
Dangarembga founded the production house Nyerai Films and the International Images Film Festival for Women, as well as the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa where she works as director. She is also a poet and a dedicated activist, as well as a founding member of PEN Zimbabwe.