Prison Literature in East Africa

Flashback: May 22, 1970: “A sudden, frenzied and unusual search in my cell. I didn’t know exactly what they were looking for. But they found leaves of toilet paper I had written a poem on. They confiscated all the 14 verses of my poem Kamliwaze (Go and Comfort Him). It is a pity I’ve lost it, especially that I had memorized only the first four stanzas of it. The rest is now gone and lost. Fortunately they couldn’t find the other three poems (Nshishiyelo ni Lilo, Tuza Moyo and Jipu), which I had wrapped in a plastic paper and tossed them in my urine pot for “safe custody;” and also the two poems (Siwati and Mamba), which were dangling on a blanket thread outside my cell window. But I doubt if they will be able to make out the meaning of the poems. Even if they will, I have 1001 alternative interpretations for each one of them.”

This is how Professor Abdilatif Abdalla, arguably seen as the first political prisoner and author in post independence Kenya captured the early morning raid in his cell in a dairy of his times at the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. He was lucky that even the diary that was later published in the Africa Events magazine survived the raid and in its own way contributed to the prison literature sub genre. Prison literature-namely novels, short stories, poems or plays— that delve into the horrid conditions and experiences in prison, has increased immensely. It is a global phenomenon whose importance in examining the struggles in the society cannot be ignored.

It would for instance be fallacious and inadequate to study the body that is African Literature without mentioning prison writings and the writers who have been so prolific in prison and captured insightful thematic concerns in Kenya and the continent at large. The sub genre has writings that give insights into the independence struggle and this is seen in writings like the biography of Ghana’s first president, the late Kwame Nkrumah, who wrote his autobiography while imprisoned in James Fort Prison in Ghana, by the British colonialists for agitating for his country’s independence.

The post independence era in Africa is a remarkable one. The continent experienced turbulent times with some of the hitherto liberators turning into oppressors and using the same methodologies to suppress dissent. The sub genre can thus, be closely linked to the democratization of our society and an indicator that even jail has not and cannot dampen the fury of the pen.

A brief explication of these writings indicates clearly that they can also be used to give an adequate, accurate and comprehensive commentary on the socio-economic, political development of Africa and Kenya for that matter.

They are an important resource in indicating where we are coming from and what sorts of fragments are scattered along the political, economical and social path that we have used as a country and continent.

Further scrutiny reveals that the body is complex and can be classified differently. The two major classifications are the traditional ones namely-fiction and non-fiction. The non-fiction is further sub-divided into those that are mainly historical or just a diary of events.

However, whether fictional or non-fictional, these writings capture vividly the horrid and gruesome experiences in the state corridors of silence. These writings can be traced as far back as colonial days in some countries and have become eminent beacons of many other countries and particularly Kenya’s post independence histories.

They generally tell where the continent has come from and reached in its quest for justice, upholding the rule of law and ensuring that the fundamental human rights are respected. Prison writings, whether fictional or non-fictional, have become a major source of a vast body of knowledge that tells the African tale.

Kenya’s experience can be traced way back during the British rule that saw many militants Kenyans agitating for self-determination thrown into jail and detention camps. Graduates of these jails and detention camps captured their experiences on paper and sort of subtly outlined a path that has been followed by subsequent writers. The late J.M. Kariuki was amongst the first Kenyans to capture their horrid experiences in his non-fictional account Mau Mau in Detention way back in 1963. Written after serving imprisonment in a number of detention camps, JM’s book opened the gate for others to tell their tales of the independence struggle that had been skewed to favour the oppressors.

Others soon followed suit. Gakaara wa Wanjau, an established writer and publisher, who had the misfortune of being imprisoned in both the colonial and independent Kenya, documented his experience in the British corridors of silence in his book, Mwandiki wa Mau Mau Ithamerio-ine (Mau Mau Author in Detention).

Independent Kenya has however produced more and better works of art that are indicative of many things like the gradual intolerance to dissenting views and even suppression of dissenters. The doors of this literature were opened by Abdulatif Abdullah, the first post-independence Kenyan political prisoner.

Abdulatif was imprisoned by the Kenyatta regime for four years and hard labour after he wrote an article titled Kenya Twendapi (Kenya Where are we Headed), in reaction to the disbandment of K.P.U. while serving his term, he wrote a collection of poems called Sauti ya Dhiki, which ironically won the second the edition of the erstwhile prestigious Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature.

Other writers were later to follow and each chose a unique way to capture the grisly events in jail. The most famous of these writers is Ngugi wa Thiong’o. His activities community theatre in Kamirithu led to his detention in 1977. While in Kamiti, he wrote Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary, which is a diversion from his other fictional works. Others, who have contributed a great wealth in this body, include Maina wa Kinyatti, Koigi wa Wamwere and Wanyiri Kihoro more recently.

Maina wa Kinyatti perhaps has the highest number of books that vividly describe his harrowing experience. He has a collection of poems A Season of Blood: Poems from Kenyan Prison (1995), his day-in-day-out recollections, Kenya -A Prison Notebook (1996) and a third one that details events covering his arrest, torture and imprisonment called Mother Africa.

Wanyiri Kihoro, the Nyeri Town MP has documented his ordeal in Never Say Die, which another writer, the late Wahome Mutahi described as a brilliant piece of work that was the closest work of art that detailed events that want on at the infamous Nyayo House basement cells.

The late Wahome Mutahi also captured his own ghastly experiences in two insightful accounts—Three Days on the Cross and Jail Bugs. Wahome was arrested a few days after he had submitted his manuscript—Three Days on the Cross to the publishers and when he was released, the publishers asked him to revise it incorporate other details of his incarceration.

There are hordes of other works that have been written that are largely fictional. Several others have a thrilling fast-paced drama. The East African Educational Publishers, who have a big collection in this area, have listed them under their Spear series.

Most of these writings that are largely confessions of erstwhile crooks like John Kiriamiti’s My Life in Crime, Kiggia Kimani’s Prison is Not a Holiday Camp or Charles Githae’s Comrade Inmate, amongst other offer scintillating narratives but they are all shrouded by the gruesome prison experience and the grotesque. Karuga Wandai’s Mayor in Prison and Benjamin Garth Bundeh’s Birds of Kamiti are amongst those listed in the spear series in spite of their strong real life experience. Bundeh’s Birds of Kamiti is a detailed account of his close shave with the hangman’s noose. It is a personal account that is gripping and quite emotional.

However, these works, whether autobiographical or biographical or mere confessions are representative of pertinent issues. They provide a social commentary that needs consideration. They open new insights for both the authors and society at large.

Incarceration, for instance, did not provide an opportunity for Ngugi to write a prison diary but within this physical prison, Ngugi stumbled upon a non-physical prison, namely language.

Ngugi defied this non-physical prison he had done the physical. He sought the refuge in the power of the pen and wrote Detained. He defied the subordination of-physical prison and found refuge in Gikuyu. In cell 16, he wrote Caitaani Mutharabaine (Devil on the Cross) in Gikuyu as a demonstration of his new found freedom and EAEP boss intimated to me that his latest manuscript is being scrutinised.

For others like Maina wa Kinyatti, “writing and reciting poems in solitary confinement under conditions of unendurable physical and psychological torture hardened the heart and steeled the mind to remain steadfast and truthful to the cause”.

Incarceration has not been limited in Kenya only. Apartheid South Africa jailed writers like Dennis Brutus, who wrote Letters to Martha, the late Alex La Guma amongst others.
Jack Mapanje from Malawi, Kofi Awoonor from Ghana, Sherif Hatata and Nawal el Sadaawi from Egypt, and the first African recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Prof. Wole Soyinka have all been there before.

They have also served to help raise fundamental questions on the dispensation of justice and basically the entire process of crime and punishment. The works, whether biographical like Wanyiri’s Never Say Die, which was also nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, or confessions by erstwhile bank robbers or other crooks or other real-life drama experiences, have served as clear indicators that system is rotten and closer scrutiny is necessary.

What Drives Them to Write?

Could it be the appalling, grotesque, grisly conditions in the state corridors of silence that has kept the number of prison writings growing year in year out or just an insatiable desire to write and keep the tabs?

It is certainly this and many other reasons that keeps that pen rolling. A chat with a number of these writers reveals that it is a combination of these and many other things. It is a bottomless pit of stories and the experience cannot be bottled inside. “One normally feels that the story has to be told”, comments one writer.

“For many writers”, observed the late Wahome Mutahi, who has two books – Three Days on the Cross and Jail Bugs – on prison writing, “Writing about their horrid experiences behind bar is often cathartic”. It is a way of telling time to comment on many things that go on both behind bars and outside.

Writing is a way of telling the rest of the world, the horrid conditions that persist in these places that society places some of its members for correction and punishment. It has been described differently by many writers.

It is a place, where like Benjamin Garth Bundeh describes in Birds of Kamiti as a totally new world. “A world of prisoners, of warders, and of the tragic twist of fate. It was a world in which either the spirit was completely broken and degraded, or true courage was born”.

“When you enter this place”, writes Bundeh, “you have to forget everything about the outside world. The dungeon becomes your home and you must survive smoking is treason here – But we still manage to pass the traffic load of fags and like stone age man, we create fire in these caves”. It is a place where the basic instinct of survival reigns supreme.

Writers want to talk about this place where every effort is geared towards removing any trace of humanity that could be remaining to these inmates. Bundeh notes in his non-fictional dossier that after his first night a truer picture started forming.

“I saw more people and most of them looked like creatures out of a nightmare. Together with them, we had ceased to be human beings. Our names had been taken away from us. We had been relegated to more numbers in a heap of files. Both the beginning and end of life seemed to have been lost”.

They want to narrate about these correctional places that are a law unto them selves. Into the damp mould and stagnation of these tombs, “the warders would from time to time burst in to remind us that unlike free people”, inmates “could be tormented again and again, physically and spiritually, subtly and brutally, collectively and individually, day and night. “The warders enjoyed treating us to the choicest of gutter oaths”, notes Bundeh.

The authorities find several ways to further break and degrade the inmates. There is torture that targets the most vulnerable parts of our bodies and every writer seems to have endured this. The occasional beating is often capped with eating partially cooked food and solitary confinement that many writers argue that it is not different from a shot of L.S.D. or any other hallucinogen. They both degrade people “only that the drugs make one mad more quickly thus removing the utter hopeless”.

Besides the deplorable and dehumanizing conditions behind bar that most writers want to vividly point out, the other issues that often come out in prison literature appeals to the outside prison conditions. These books, whether fictional or non-fictional all offer important questions that society needs to consider for further scrutiny.

In their writings, the writers often want to focus society on the entire system of justice and its dispensation. Many question the whole system of crime and punishment and although some don’t ask directly, the effectiveness of the whole set-up is put to test.
Bundeh, who was on the death row and actually witnessed some of his inmates and friends executed packs his narrative with so much energy and emotion that you can feel it deeply and is more direct when he poses these questions.

“I wonder, should any human being be allowed to condemn another human being to death? Should one form of killing be lawful and another one unlawful? Should the law be allowed to take away that which it cannot create? Is there any correlation between the execution of treasonous, murderers or violent robbers and the number of crimes committed? The gallows in Kenya, the guillotine, the electric chair, and firing squads elsewhere – are these deterrents?”

Many books that are non-fictional have a similar trait. The authors are in many instances unwilling guests of the state in their corridors of silence. Most of these authors repeatedly turn to writing as a catharsis. Majority has been thrown behind bars for their political beliefs and in their writings, they have more than once provided new insights into the political machinations of this country.

Karuga Wandai, an erstwhile deputy mayor in Thika, provides interesting insights of the “siasa za kumalizana” in the Kenyan political arena in his prison account “Mayor in Prison”. Although it is an account of his survival and fight for his freedom, he nonetheless manages to show the country’s struggles, transition and some of the central issues that greatly influenced the political under-dealings.

Wanyiri Kihoro, the erstwhile Nyeri Town MP in his biography Never Say Die or Wahome Mutahi’s work of fiction Three Days on the Cross capture the dark days in the country’s political spectrum. They vividly document their gruesome ordeal in the hands of the state security machinery in the infamous underground cells of Nyayo houses was an experience that couldn’t be bottled inside.

The other way that many authors have managed to give a commentary on the political manoeuvres has been by giving the politicians central parts in the narratives. They (the characters) have in turn revealed how they manipulated people in society and how laws have been turned to suit a few and how these laws are in turn used against them once they fall out of favour.

13 thoughts on “Prison Literature in East Africa

  1. Thanks a lot for this great article. It helps me a lot to construct my dissertation proposal. I am comparing Brutu’s “Letters to Martha” to the works of our Filipino political poet Amado V. Hernandez.

  2. wonderful submit, very informative. I wonder why the other experts of this sector don’t understand this. You should proceed your writing. I’m sure, you have a great readers’ base already!

  3. wow Kimani! your piece on prison literature is really so fresh, so scholarly. It insightfully provokes ones mind on the numerous research possibilities still unexplored.

  4. Thank you Kimani, Though part of my PhD is on African Diaries, I should be honest in saying that I found a lot of information that I couldn’t access while doing research. Keep the good work Kym.

  5. Pingback: Prison Literature in East Africa | Shout-Africa

  6. Pingback: Global Voices in English » Kenya: Prison Literature in East Africa

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