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Prison narratives



Prison literature by political prisoners and detainees has become something we read and re-read. We try to get into the shoes of the prisoner, sometimes with little success. We come away from it, however, quite convinced that human beings in dire circumstances, survive through not giving up hope.

Ngugi WaThiongo is best known for his first novel Weep Not, Child. His other novels; The River Between, A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood, confirmed his stature as one of the major African writers of our time. However, his detention without trial in 1977, probably followed the Limuru production of his and Ngugi WaMirii’s Gikuyu play, published in English as I Will Marry When I Want, has left many shaking their heads.

In Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary, Ngugi describes his times at Kamiti Maximum Prison in Kenya, the purposeful degradation and humiliation of the political detainees, the neglect and casual cruelty that undermined their health, the debilitating tension and tedium that marked each day in prison. In a series of reflections he is able to consider his own writings, the nature of imprisonment and the way forward for the people of Kenya.

This very elaborate testimony by Ngugi, is confined to the periods between 31 December 1977 and 12 December 1978, during his incarceration. It is divided into two main sections; his experiences and thoughts in prison and his letters from prison.

In the second section Ngugi includes another detainee, Mr A Matheenge to show that disease was used as a means of torture. The third section which is about the prison aftermaths contains narratives, letters and documents showing the collusion between the government and university authorities to deny Ngugi employment at the university where he worked before his arrest.

Ngugi says in the preface to this book: “I have, therefore, tried to discuss this issue not as a personal experience between me and a few individuals, but as a social, political and historical phenomenon. I have tried to see it in the context of the historical attempts, from the colonial times to the present, by a foreign imperialist bourgeoisie, in alliance with its local Kenyan representatives, to turn Kenyans into slaves and of the historical struggles of the Kenyan people against economic, political and cultural slavery.”

Much earlier in the memoir, Ngugi boldly declares that being at Kamiti helped him to realise that “the prison system is a repressive weapon in the hands of the ruling minorities determined to ensure maximum security for its class dictatorship over the rest of the population.”

Ngugi soon realises that at Kamiritu virtually all the political detainees are writers or composers. He looks around and sees that he is in the midst of Wasonga Sijeyo a writer of various forms of history, Koigi wa Wamwere who writes essays on politics and culture and various novels, Giceru wa Njau a Swahili novelist, Thairu wa Mutiga a poet, Simba Ongongi a composer and many others.

In a section of Detained, Ngugi demonstrates a battle of wits between himself and some of the prison warders who often come across him writing at night on toilet paper and the narrative could be both casual and natural:

“Professor… why are you not in bed?” the warder asks. To that, Ngugi experienced some relief. Ngugi answers back, teasingly, “I am writing to Jomo Kenyatta (then President of Kenya) in his capacity as an ex detainee.” But the warder is quick to say, “His (Kenyatta’s) case was different.” And Ngugi asks to know why the warder thinks Kenyatta’s case was different. The warder shoots back, “His (Kenyatta’s case) was a colonial affair.” To that the wily Ngugi answers, “And this, a neo colonial affair? What is the difference?” The warder pretends to be ignorant and says to Ngugi,

“A colonial affair…now we are independent…that is the difference.” Then Ngugi is quick to complete the circle for himself and the friendly warder, “A colonial affair…in an independent country eh?

The British jailed an innocent Kenyatta. Thus Kenyatta learnt to jail innocent Kenyans. Is that the difference?” Both Ngugi and the warder laugh.

Ngugi immediately remembers the prison notes of Wole Soyinka called The Man Died in which Soyinka aptly comments that no matter how cunning a prisoner is, the humanitarian act of courage among his gaolers has a role in his survival.

Ngugi sees that the witty warder is a good illustration of the truth of that observation. Apparently during this period, Ngugi is writing parts of a novel on toilet paper

. This is how the first draft of Devil on the Cross, which came out in 1981, was conceived and written. Ngugi had actually learnt that Kwame Nkrumah, the first African President of Ghana had also written one of his books while still at James Fort Prison.

While he is at Kamiti, Ngugi reflects on his own children and their names. He looks at the photograph of his daughter, Njooki. The name means she who comes back from the dead; or Aiyerubo, meaning she who defines heaven and hell.

There is also the other child, Wamuingi which means she who belongs to the people. Wamuingi was born on 15 May 1978, five months after Ngugi’s abduction and subsequent incarceration. When her photograph arrives in Kamiti Prison, Thairu waMuthiga had nicknamed the baby Kaana ka Boothia, meaning a post office baby.

Ngugi’s Detained: A Writer’s prison Diary is a journey in to the history of imperialism and neocolonialism. In it Ngugi makes great contributions to literary and political theory in Africa.
Jack Mapanje, probably the most well known Malawian poet to date had a brush with the government of President Kamuzu Banda in Malawi.

It was a collection of his satiric poems in Of Chameleons and Gods that landed Jack Mapanje in prison. Although the book was initially released in the early 1980’s without cause for concern, a reissue in the late 1980’s triggered his detainment by Malawian authorities for three years during which he was never charged with a crime!

Of his poem, ‘Scrubbing the furious Walls of Mikuyu Prison’, Mapanje says: “Of all the prison poems I’ve written I think this is my favourite little one. We were asked to scrub the walls of the prison to clean the place up and we saw on one wall graffiti and several prisoners refused to touch it, to scrub it out, because it was good. It was a rude statement about the country’s politics, hence this poem.”

That poem is a double poem. In one hand the persona registers the misery of seeing a cell in which an unknown prisoner had previously been kept without trial being abused and humiliated physically and spiritually. On the other, the prisoner with the cleaning brush and bucket is aware that the bloody and filthy walls are a useful evidence of all this inhumanity:

Shall I scrub these brave squiggles out
Of human memory then or should I perhaps
Superimpose my own, less caustic; dare I
Overwrite this precious scrawl? Who’d
Have known I’d find another prey without
Charge, without trial (without bitterness)
In these otherwise black walls of Mikuyu
Prison? No, I will throw my water and mop
Elsewhere. We have liquidated too many
Brave names out of nation’s memory
I will not rub out or inscribe
My own, more ignoble, to consummate this
Moment of truth I have always feared.

Mapanje is imprisoned alongside many different Malawians, teachers, [preaches, doctors, journalists and others who had been considered to have spoken or written against President Banda.There are other well known poems like ‘The Famished Stubborn Ravens of Mikuyu,’ ‘To the Unknown Dutch Postcard-Sender’ (1988) and the unnerving realities of Mikuyu Maximum Prison.

The months that key South African poet, Denis Brutus spent in solitary confinement and in prison on Robben Island, during apartheid, caused him a lot of soul searching in poetic form.

In 1963, Dennis Brutus was arrested for attending a sports meeting bent on having South Africa banned from the Olympics due to its racism. When released on bail, he fled to Swaziland and from there tried to make his way to Germany to meet with the world Olympic executive committee, but the Portuguese secret police at the Mozambique border handed him back to the South African security police.

Realising that no one would know of his capture, he made a desperate attempt to escape, only to be shot in the back on a Johannesburg street. On recovery he was sentenced to 18 months hard labour on Robben Island.

His Letters to Martha and Other Poems from a South African Prison (1968) contains brief, simple statements deriving from his experiences as a prisoner. The diction is deliberately conversational and devoid of high poetic devices. Instead of seeking to express two or three thoughts simultaneously, Brutus was striving to say only one thing at a time and to say it directly.

Each poem in there is supposedly a prisoner’s letter written to a lover or a relative out there called Martha. We also access this by reading Martha’s letters. You could say that each letter is an artistic diary.

These ‘letters’ snoop into the mind of the prisoner and access all the psychology that goes with being captured and kept somewhere without freedom. In the very first poem, you learn that on being sentenced to prison, the political prisoner goes through many varied emotions running through him like “sick relief, apprehension, vague heroism, self pity…” The lines are short, the words are simple and the floor is jagged:

After the sentence
mingled feelings;
Sick relief,
the load of the approaching day’s
apprehension –
the hints of brutality
have a depth of personal meaning;

The persona is on a trip full of uncertainties. In these poetic short letters, the persona quickly learns that in prison, any sharp object is valuable as a weapon and when other prisoners wield such a weapon, all you feel is the sense of being vulnerable.

Prisoners keep sharp objects everywhere including the rectum, for use in the future when necessary.

In this environment of sexual starvation, one also comes across the dangers of being sodomised by fellow prisoners. You read on in trepidation as the persona expects to be violated. However, the rigours of prison are such that the mind loses guard and there is total annihilation of the prisoner that in some cases, some prisoners actually ask other prisoners to sodomimise them as one finds in poem/letter 7:

Perhaps most terrible are those who beg for it,
who beg for sexual assault.

To what desperate limits are they driven
and what fierce agonies they have endured
that this, which they have resisted,
should seem to them preferable,
even desirable.

It is regarded as the depths
of absolute and ludicrous submission.
And so perhaps it is.

But it has seemed to me
one of the most terrible
most rendingly pathetic
of all a prisoner’s predicaments.

In line with that, some prisoners start to parade themselves as prostitutes for favours and for security. One such prisoner is actually nicknamed Blue Champagne. He would sleep with several men in one night. He is other men’s woman. And with time, he switches over to become a man to other men.

Dennis Brutus further indicates that since little or no information is released from prison, the family of the prisoner out there struggles to survive without the breadwinner. But it is said that their biggest pain comes with not knowing what is exactly happening to their own relative inside prison. Meanwhile, the prisoner continues to hold on to anything that reminds him that he is still being remembered and cherished by his own people out there.

Indeed, Martha is being let into the confidence of the political prisoner. But at some point, the persona says prison affords the individual opportunity to realise that the company of other humans is supreme to the extent that the mind may start to work. Cut off from the outside, the only contact is with inmates and warders.

The persona that Brutus employs reveals, however, that there are occasions when even this precarious relationship can be constructive.

When he finished his term in prison, Brutus was permitted to leave South Africa with his wife and children on an “exit permit,” a document which made it illegal for him to return. He lived in London from 1966 to 1970, where he worked as a teacher and a journalist.

In 1970, he took a position as a visiting professor of English at the University of Denver for a year, after which he moved to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

In Africa, Prison literature is gathering momentum. It is a window through which one could understand the extent to which human being find strategies to survive under very inhuman conditions.

Memory Chirere

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