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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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The Joker Returns: Conclusion



Last week I was talking about how jokes, or humour generally, can help get one through the most desperate situations (although it’s like taking a paracetamol for a headache; a much, much stronger resort is faith). I used the example of how Polish Jews, trapped and dying in the Warsaw ghetto, used humour to get them through day by day.

A similar, though less nightmarish, situation obtains in today’s Nigeria. Conditions there are less hellish than those of the Warsaw ghetto, but still pretty awful. There are massive redundancies, so millions of people are jobless. Inflation is at about 30% and the cost of living is sky-rocketing, with the most basic foodstuffs often unavailable. There is the breakdown of basic social services.

And endemic violence, with widespread armed robbery (to travel by road from one city to another you take your life in your hands) and the frequent kidnapping for ransom of schoolchildren and teachers. In a recent issue of the Punch newspaper (Lagos) Taiwo Obindo, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Jos, writes of the effects of economic hardship and insecurity on his people’s mental health.

He concludes: “We should see the funny side of things. We can use humour to handle some things. Don’t take things to heart; laugh it off.”

Professor Obindo doesn’t, regrettably, give examples of the humour he prescribes, but I remember two from a period when things were less grim. Power-cuts happened all the time — a big problem if you’re trying to work at night and can’t afford a generator.

And so the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) was universally referred to as Never Expect Power Always. And second, for inter-city travel there was a company called Luxurious Buses. Believe me, the average Lesotho kombi is a great deal more luxurious (I can’t remember ever having to sit on the floor of one of those).

And because of the dreadful state of Nigerian roads and the frequent fatal crashes, Luxurious Buses were referred to as Luxurious Hearses.

Lesotho’s newspaper thepost, for which I slave away tirelessly, doesn’t use humour very much. But there is Muckraker. I’ve always wondered whether Muckraker is the pen-name of a single person or a group who alternate writing the column.

Whatever, I’d love to have a drink with him / her/ them and chew things over. I like the ironic pen-name of the author(s). Traditionally speaking, a muckraker is a gossip, someone who scrabbles around for titbits (usually sexual) on the personal life of a celebrity — not exactly a noble thing to do.

But thepost’s Muckraker exposes big problems, deep demerits, conducted by those who should know and do better — problems that the powerful would like to be swept under the carpet, and the intention of Muckraker’s exposure is corrective.

And I always join in the closing exasperated “Ichuuuu!” (as I do this rather loudly, my housemates probably think I’m going bonkers).

Finally I want to mention television satire. The Brits are renowned for this, an achievement dating back to the early 1960s and the weekly satirical programme “TW3” (That Was The Week That Was). More recently we have had “Mock the Week”, though, despite its popularity, the BBC has cancelled this.

The cancellation wasn’t for political reasons. For decades the UK has been encumbered with a foul Conservative government, though this year’s election may be won by Labour (not such very good news, as the Labour leadership is only pseudo-socialist). “Mock the Week” was pretty even-handed in deriding politicians; the BBC’s problem was, I imagine, with the programme’s frequent obscenity.

As an example of their political jokes, I quote a discussion on the less than inspiring leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer. One member of the panel said: “Labour may well have a huge lead in the polls at present, but the day before election day Starmer will destroy it by doing something like accidentally infecting David Attenborough with chicken-pox.”

And a favourite, basically non-political interchange on “Mock the Week” had to do with our former monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Whatever one thinks about the British monarchy as an institution, the Queen was much loved, but the following interchange between two panellists (A and B) was fun:

A: Is the Queen’s nickname really Lilibet?
B: Yes, it is.
A: I thought her nickname was Her Majesty.
B: That’s her gang name.

OK, dear readers, that’s enough humour from me for a while. Next week I’m turning dead serious — and more than a little controversial — responding to a recent Insight piece by Mokhosi Mohapi titled “A reversal of our traditions and culture.” To be forewarned is to be prepared.

Chris Dunton

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Reading, writing and the art of reflection



There is a close thread that runs through what you reflect on, what you read and what sticks in your mind. It’s almost a cyclic process with regards to how all these processes unfold. Today, in this installment we focus on the thread between reading, reflection and writing.

This appears a bit cumbersome to explain. But let’s simplify it. Let’s begin with a beautiful poem which encompasses what we have so far spoken about. Here we are! The poem is penned by “Tachibama Akemi.” It goes:

It is a pleasure
When, rising in the morning,
I go outside and
Find that a flower has blossomed
That was not there yesterday.

Seemingly, the poem is simple. But, on close analysis, it reflects very deep reflection and thoughtfulness.

The persona, in an existential fashion, reflects all about the purpose and meaning of life and his place in the overall matrix of life.

The persona carefully reflects on nature. This is what makes all this poem rustic and romantic.

The persona thinks deeply about the blossoming flowers and how the process of the growth of flowers appears almost inadvertently.

It is a poem about change, healing, the lapse of time and the changes or vissiccitudes in the life of a person are reflected creatively through imagery and poetry. We all go through that, isn’t it? We all react and respond to love, truth and beauty.

So far everything appears very interesting. Let’s just put to the fore some good and appealing thoughts. Let’s enlarge on reading, writing and reflection.

Kindly keep in mind that thoughts must be captured, told, expressed and shared through the magical power of the written word.

As a person, obviously through keeping entries in a journal, there is no doubt that you have toyed about thoughts and ideas and experiences you wish you could put across.

Here is an example you can peek from Anthony. Anthony likes writing. He tells us that in his spare time he likes exploring a lot. And, more often than not he tells us,

“I stop, and think, and then when I find something, I just keep on writing.”

So crisp, but how beautiful. Notice something interesting here; you need to stop, to take life effortlessly and ponderously, as it were; observe, be attentive to your environment; formulate thought patterns and then write.

To some extent, this article builds on our previous experiences when we spoke at length about the reading process.

But how can you do it? It’s not pretty much different. I can help you from my previous life as a teacher of English Languge.

The most important skill you must cultivate is that of listening, close listening. Look at how people and events mingle.

What makes both of you happy; enjoy it. I am sure you still keep that journal in which you enter very beautiful entries. Reflect about Maseru, the so-called affluent city. So majestic!

How can you picture it in writing!

I am glad you learnt to reflect deep and write. Thank you very much. Kindly learn and perfect the craft of observing, reflecting and writing. Learn that connection. Let’s meet for another class.

Vuso Mhlanga

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The Joker Returns: Part One



Don’t be put off by the title, esteemed readers; what follows has nothing to do with the Batman films. As you will be happily (or unhappily) aware, I am a big fan of jokes. There’s a common understanding that a joke is ruined if you have to explain it, and this is true, but some jokes do need a bit of background explanation. Anyway. I like jokes and I like thinking about how they work.

Many of my favourite jokes have to do with language and the way we use it. For example: “I just bought myself a thesaurus. I similar it very much.”

Other jokes have to do with human behaviour and here it is important, out of respect for others, to avoid jokes that perpetuate stereotypical ideas about gender, race, nationality, and so on. I’m afraid the following joke does depend upon a stereotype (I’ll come back to that), but here goes, after a bit of background information.

In Lesotho you have an insect called a praying mantis — stick-like, bright green, and with great bulging eyes. They are rather lovable, despite the off-putting fact that the female practices insect cannibalism; after mating, she consumes the male. So, now you’ve had your zoological primer, here goes.

Two praying mantises are getting up close and personal. The female says to the male: “before we have sex and I bite your head off, could you help me put up some shelves?”

Apologies to female readers, because, as I said, that joke perpetuates a gender stereotype, namely, that women are good with a vacuum cleaner or a dustpan and brush, but hopeless with a hammer and nails.

There are many jokes that are, as it were, much more serious than that. As I rattled on about in a couple of earlier columns, many of these are satirical — jokes that are designed to point a finger at human folly or even wickedness. In another column, titled “Should we laugh?”, I explored the question “is there any subject that should be kept out of the range of humour?”

Well, apparently not, if we take on board the following account of the Warsaw ghetto.

Historical preface first.

The Warsaw ghetto represents one of the worst atrocities in modern history. In November 1940 the genocidal Nazis rounded up all the Jews in Poland’s capital and herded them into a small sector of the city, which they euphemistically, cynically, dubbed the “Jewish Residential District in Warsaw.”

Here nearly half a million Jews were in effect imprisoned, barely subsisting on tiny food rations. An estimated quarter of a million were sent off to the death camps. An uprising against the Nazi captors was brutally crushed. Around 100 000 died of starvation or disease.

Not much to laugh about there, you might say. But then consider the following, which I’ve taken from the New York Review of Books of February 29th this year:

“In the Warsaw Ghetto in October 1941 Mary Berg, then a teenager, wrote in her diary about the improbable persistence of laughter in that hellish place: ‘Every day at the Art Café on Leszno Street one can hear songs and satire on the police, the ambulance service, the rickshaws, and even the Gestapo, [on the latter] in a veiled fashion. The typhoid epidemic itself is the subject of jokes. It is laughter through tears, but it is laughter. This is not our only weapon in the ghetto — our people laugh at death and at the Nazi decrees. Humour is the only thing the Nazis cannot understand.’”

To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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