In Uganda, night dancers are ordinary people who become possessed by evil spirits. In the wee hours, they wake up, throw off their clothes and run around naked. Sometimes they eat corpses and cast spells on living people. I first heard about night dancers decades ago when I was working at Uganda’s main referral hospital and teaching at a university there. Most of the Ugandans I knew joked about night dancers, the way we in the West tease children about ghosts. But some people seemed to believe they really existed.
I’d forgotten about night dancers until I read the work of lawyer, human rights activist, torture survivor, and PEN honoree Kakwenza Rukirabashaija. He’s written three books: a novel satirizing the rise of Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni, now in his 37th year in power; a memoir about being tortured for writing that novel, and The Savage Avenger, an account of being tortured again for a Facebook post referring to Museveni’s son Lieutenant General Muhoozi Kainerugaba as an “obese” “curmudgeon.” Together these books provide a valuable introduction to Uganda’s current politics—if what goes on under such a ruthless regime can be considered that.
The Greedy Barbarian, published in 2020, recounts the life story of Kayibanda, son of a sex worker and grandson of a night dancer, who grows up to become the cruel war-mongering ruler of a fictional African country. His story bears many resemblances to Museveni’s. Like Kayibanda, Museveni is rumored to have been born outside Uganda and raised by an impoverished pastoralist stepfather. Like Kayibanda, Museveni’s education was sponsored by a prominent Ugandan elder, whom he later betrayed. Like Kayibanda, Museveni is rumored to have had a multifaceted sex life, such that the identity of his son Muhoozi’s mother is subject to speculation. Like Kayibanda, Museveni is believed to imagine himself an heir to the BaChwezi, an ancient clan of mystical warrior kings who ruled over much of modern-day Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, northern Tanzania, eastern Congo and South Sudan and were said to be so fearsome they wore fringe over their eyes because if you looked right into them you’d shrivel up and die. Like Kayibanda, Museveni worked briefly for Uganda’s intelligence services, was later appointed defense minister, ran for Parliament, lost mightily, seized power anyway through an insurgency, declared he would not inflict violence on his own people, and then proved to be even crueler than his predecessors. Like Kayibanda’s, Museveni’s security forces have rigged elections, tortured and killed members of the political opposition, instigated civil war and launched brutal rebellions in neighboring countries where the BaChwezi are said to have once held sway. Like Kayibanda, Museveni has presided over colossal corruption, wrecked a promising economy and trapped his nation in debt. Like Kayibanda, Museveni has enjoyed the support of the World Bank and international donor nations, including the United States, United Kingdom and European Union members, whose diplomats smile and fistbump with him before the cameras as though they themselves had been bewitched by the Ugandan head of state.
In order to appreciate Rukirabashaija’s wit, it’s essential to understand the extreme politeness of Ugandan culture. You feel it at once, as soon as you step off the plane or cross the border. Practically everyone is charming, humble and kind, and tries to be helpful. Even Museveni’s goons are polite, except when in the process of torturing someone.
Good manners are part indigenous custom, part legacy of colonialism. Once the dirty work of conquest was accomplished, the British who ruled Uganda from the 1890s to 1962 relaxed the color bar far more than in their other African possessions. Missionaries sipped sherry with elite Ugandans in their private quarters, and the governor invited them on hunting trips and entertained them at tea and cocktail parties.
In this genteel atmosphere, rudeness became a political weapon for pro-independence Ugandans. In response to a dinner invitation from an Anglican Bishop, one rebellious Ugandan responded with eighteen pages of vitriol, accusing the Bishop of helping the British steal Uganda’s land and minerals.
This is the tradition to which The Greedy Barbarian belongs. Rukirabashaija and a growing number of other Ugandan writers and artists, including the redoubtable academic Stella Nyanzi, who, in one of her poems likened Museveni to “a pair of buttocks”—use rudeness not just as political entertainment, but as a courageous form of dissent.
The book was an instant hit in Uganda, until the regime banned it and pulped every copy in the bookstores. For Museveni, The Greedy Barbarian was unpardonable lese majeste, and Rukirabashaija soon found himself in the custody of Uganda’s Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence. For over a week, he was detained in a “safe house”—one of an unknown number of secret, ungazetted torture chambers around the country. There, he was forced to lick the filthy floor of an interrogation room, had his head stuck in a full toilet and was beaten so badly that his eyes and kidneys were damaged. He was then injected with unknown substances, waterboarded, forced to kneel on gravel until his knees bled and fed beans containing weevils.
Rukirabashaija’s plight attracted attention outside of Uganda, and he was eventually released. Banana Republic: Where Writing is Treasonous, a non-fiction account of his torture ordeal appeared in 2021, upon which he was arrested and beaten once again.
Then, in December of that year, came the “obese” “curmudgeon” Facebook post concerning Museveni’s son Muhoozi. At the time tensions with neighboring Rwanda were high, and Muhoozi, who envisions himself as Uganda’s future leader, had been tasked with trying to de-escalate the situation by negotiating with Rwanda’s leader Paul Kagame. Rukirabashaija is tall and thin and looks a bit Rwandan. He had also traveled to Rwanda from time to time. Muhoozi seems to have concluded that he was a Rwandan spy, on a mission to undermine the Uganda-Rwanda detente. Hence another round of torture ensued.
This time, Rukirabashaija was abducted by Uganda’s Special Forces Command—or SFC—an elite military unit that operates outside of Ugandan law under the control of Museveni’s family. The SFC has received training from high-level US military commanders and its officers carry sophisticated Israeli weapons, including Uzis, Tavors and Galil-Ace rifles. But their treatment of Rukirabashaija was weirdly low tech. Armed with pliers, operatives plucked chunks of skin from the author’s back, thighs, arms and other body parts. Then they took him to meet Muhoozi, who patiently explained the benefits of using his literary gifts to praise the regime, instead of criticizing it.
None of this surprised me. Countless Ugandans have been subject to even worse abuses at the hands of Uganda’s security forces. But what took me aback is that Muhoozi’s goons also forced Rukirabashaija to dance all night with a jerrycan of water on his head. As I read this, those night dancer stories from decades ago came back to me. The symbols and rituals of this part of Africa are truly mysterious. Was Muhoozi trying to turn Rukirabashaija into an evil night dancer like himself? Or did Muhoozi believe Rukirabashaija already was a night dancer, putting curses on the ruling family? Whatever the plan was, it was not successful. Their prisoner managed to flee and now lives in Europe with his wife and children.
What Uganda’s rulers don’t get is that clobbering words is impossible. As long as there is a pen left on earth, anger, sorrow, laughter and cries will slip under every doorway, and between the bars of every prison. They will escape every hammer, and cross every border, even if the authors are no longer around. In this way, they are truly supernatural.