Ugandan journalist and novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, imprisoned and tortured by security guards for his book The Greedy Barbarian, won the 2021 International Writer of Courage award.
Rukirabashaija was chosen by Zimbabwean Tsitsi Dangarembga, award-winning novelist, playwright, filmmaker and activist and winner of this year’s PEN Pinter Prize. The International Writer of Courage Award is part of the prestigious PEN Pinter Award, awarded to an author known to have fulfilled Harold Pinter’s aspiration to “define the real truth of our lives and our societies”.
Dangarembga has chosen Rukirabashaija as an active author in the defense of freedom of expression, often at the risk of her own safety and freedom, with whom she will share her prize.
The Greedy Barbarian addresses high-level corruption themes in a fictional location called Buregyeya, and was self-published in 2020.
The story revolves around Bekunda and her baby boy, Kayibanda, who cross an international border, in dire straits, and in desperate need of refuge. The country offers them a sanctuary, the natives show them kindness and the local spirits do the miraculous in their favor. But can Kayibanda be as kind to his new country as he was to him? Can he overcome his deeply flawed nature, which appears to be hereditary?
According to PEN International, Rukirabashaija was arrested on April 13, 2020, on charges related to Covid-19, but questioned about the content of his novel. He was charged with the offense of “doing an act likely to spread the infection of a disease …”.
Rukirabashaija was arrested again on September 18, 2020 at his home in Iganga district, eastern Uganda. On September 21, 2020, he was released on bail on charges of “inciting violence and promoting sectarianism”.
He remains on bail and is required to report to the police every week. He said he and his family were being watched by people suspected of being state security agents.
Rukirabashaija, a law student, said of the award: “I feel oiled up. Freedom of expression should never be hampered by dictatorship since the same is recognized in national and foreign laws and this government cannot claim the rule of law without submitting to international law to which we are signatories. The feather will always win against guns and all oppression. Rogue diets are disappearing but the pen is more powerful.
He was inspired to write The Greedy Barbarian to “open the eyes of the people by reflecting the impunities of this regime through literature”.
“After I published my heartbreaking ordeal, people thought I was crazy for writing a book about my torture while my tormentors were still in government. But I couldn’t 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 in detention in April 2020.
The annual PEN Pinter Prize was established in 2009 in memory of Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter.
Dangarembga won the PEN Prize for This Mournable Body, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020. She is also the author of Nervous Conditions, at the age of 25 and a recipient of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Nervous Conditions has been hailed by Nobel Laureate for Literature Doris Lessing as one of the most important novels of the 20th century.
Dangarembga founded the production house Nyerai Films and the International Image Film Festival for Women, as well as the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa where she works as a director. She is also a dedicated poet and activist, as well as a founding member of PEN Zimbabwe.