In the Endless Sameness of Prison, Writing Kept Me Human

"Paper, Any Paper, is About the Most Precious Article for a Political Prisoner"

By  Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

It is past midnight, December 12, 1978. Unable to face the prickly bristles of three seethrough blankets on a mattress whose sisal stuffing has folded into numerous lumps hard as stones, I am at the desk, under the full electric glare of a 100watt naked bulb, scribbling words on toilet paper. I can hear the bootsteps of the night guard, going up and down the passageway between the two rows of cells, which face each other.

Mine is cell 16 in a prison block enclosing 18 othepolitical prisoners. Here I have no name. I am just a number in a file: K6,77. A tiny iron frame against one wall serves as a bed. A tiny board against another wall serves as a desk. These fill up the minute cell.

One end of the passageway is a culdesac of two latrines, a washroom with only one sink and a shower room for four. These are all open: no doors. At the other end, next to my cell, the passageway opens into a tiny exercise yard whose major features are one aluminum rubbish bin and a decrepit tenniquoitcumvolleyball net hanging from two iron poles.

There is a door of iron bars at this opening—between the exercise yard and the block of cells—and it is always shut and locked at night. The block of cells and the yard are enclosed by four double stone walls so high that they completely cut off the skyline of trees and buildings, which might otherwise give us a glimpse of the world of active life.

This is Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison, one of the largest in Africa. It is situated near three townsRũirũ, Kĩambu, and Nairobiand literally next door to Kenyatta University College, but we could as easily be on Mars. We are completely quarantined from everything and everybody, including convicted prisoners in all the other blocks, except for a highly drilled select squad of prison guards and their commanding officers.

Maximum security: the idea used to fill me with terror whenever I met it in fiction, Dickens mostly, and I have always associated it with England and Englishmen; it conjured up images of hordes of dangerous killers à la Magwitch of Great Expectations, always ready to escape through thick forests and marshes, to unleash yet more havoc and terror on an otherwise stable, peaceful, and Godfearing community of property owners that sees itself as the whole society. It also conjures images of Robben Island political prisoners, Mandela among them, breaking rocks for no purpose other than breaking them. A year as an inmate in Kamĩtĩ has taught me what should have been obvious: that the prison system is a repressive weapon in the hands of a ruling minority to ensure maximum security for its class dictatorship over the rest of the population, and it is not a monopoly exclusive to England and South Africa.

The menacing bootsteps come nearer. I know that the prowling guard cannot enter my cell—it is always doublelocked and the keys, in turn, locked inside a box, which promptly at five oclock is taken away by the corporal on duty to a safe somewhere outside the double walls—but of course he can look into the cell through a small iron-barred rectangular window in the upper half of the door. The barred window is built so as to contain only the face.

 

“[This guard] enjoys talking in riddles and communicating in a roundabout way. Its a way of protecting himself, of course, but he enjoys seeing a prisoner grope for the hidden meanings, if any.”

 

The bootsteps stop. I dont have to look to the door to know that the guard is watching me. I can feel it in my bones. It is an instinct that one develops in prison, the cunning instinct of the hunted. I take my time, and eventually turn my eyes to the door. The face of the guard fills the whole window: I know nothing so menacingly sinister in its silent stillness as that trunkless face glaring at one through the iron bars of a prison cell.

Professor, . . . why are you not in bed? the voice redeems the face. What are you doing?

Relief! I fall back on the current witticism in the detention block.

“I am writing to Jomo Kenyatta in his capacity as an expolitical prisoner.

His case was different, the guard argues.

“How?

His was a colonial affair.

And this, a neocolonial affair? Whats the difference?

A colonial affair . . . now we are independentthats the difference,he says.

A colonial affair in an independent country, eh? The British jailed an innocent Kenyatta. Thus Kenyatta learned to jail innocent Kenyans. Is that the difference?

He laughs. Then he repeats it.

The British jailed Kenyatta. Kenyatta jails Kenyans. He laughs again, adding, Take it any way you like, . . . but write a good petition . . . you might get a hearing this time. . . . Your star shines bright in the sky . . . expolitical prisoner.He chuckles to himself. “Does ex mean the same thing alatehayati?”

What do you mean?

Can I say the late political prisoner instead of the expolitical prisoner?

The tone tells me that he knows the difference and that he is trying to communicate something. But tonight I feel a little impatient.

You know I no longer teach English, I say to him.

You never can tell the language of the stars, he persists. “Once a teacher, always a teacher, he says, and goes away laughing.

In his prison notes, The Man Died, Wole Soyinka aptly comments that no matter how cunning a prisoner, the humanitarian act of courage among his gaolers plays a key role in his survival.

This guard is a good illustration of the truth of that observation. He is the one who in March told me about the formation of the London-based Ngũgĩ Defence Committee and the subsequent picketing of the Kenyan Embassy on March 3, 1978. He enjoys talking in riddles and communicating in a roundabout way. Its a way of protecting himself, of course, but he enjoys seeing a prisoner grope for the hidden meanings, if any. Tonight, his laughter sounds more direct and sympathetic, or perhaps it is another kind of riddle to be taken any way I like.

Two guards walk the passageway in turns. One sleeps, the other is awake. At one oclock they change places. They too cannot get out because the door between the passageway and the exercise yard is locked and the keys taken away. Night warders are themselves prisoners guarding other prisoners. Only they are paid for it and their captivity is selfinflicted or else imposed by lack of alternative means of life. One very young guarda Standard Seven1 dropout—tells me that his ambition is to be a fighter pilot! Another, a grandfather, tells me his ambition once was to become a musician.

To hell with the guards! Away with intruding thoughts! Tonight I dont want to think about guards and prisoners, colonial or neocolonial affairs. I am totally engrossed in Warĩnga, the fictional heroine of the novel I have been writing on toilet paper for the last ten months or so!

 

The two most dominant colors in the detention block are white and gray, and I am convinced these are the colors of death.”

 

Toilet paper: when in the 1960s I first read in KwamNkrumahs autobiography, Ghana, that in his cell at James Fort Prison he used to hoard toilet paper to write on, I thought it was romantic and a little unreal despite the photographic evidence reproduced in the book. Writing on toilet paper?

Now I know: paper, any paper, is about the most precious article for a political prisoner, more so for one, like me, who was imprisoned without trial for his writing. For the urge to write . . .

Picking the jagged bits embedded in my mind,
Partly to wrench some ease for my own mind,
And partly that some world sometime may know

. . . is almost irresistible to a political prisoner.

At Kamĩ, virtually all the political prisoners are writing or composing something, on toilet paper, mostly. Now the same good old toilet paperwhich had served Kwame Nkrumah in James Fort Prison, Dennis Brutus on Robben Island, Abdilatif Abdalla in G Block, Kamĩ, and countless other persons with similar urgeshas enabled me to defy daily the intended detention and imprisonment of my mind.

A flicker, pulse, mere vital hint
which speaks of the stubborwill
the grim assertion of some sense of
worth in the teeth of the wind
on a stony beach, or among rocks
where the brute hammers fall
unceasingly on the mind.

I now know what Brutus meant. Writing a novel has been a daily, almost hourly, assertion of my will to remain human and free despite the states program of animal degradation of political prisoners.

Privacy, for instance. I mean its brutal invasion. A warder trails me waking and sleeping for 24 hours. It is unnerving, truly unnerving, to find a guard watching me shit and urinate into a childrens chamber pot in my cell, or to find him standing by the entrance to the toilet to watch me do the same exercise. The electric light is on all night long. To induce sleep, I tie a towel over my eyes. This ends up straining them, so that after a month they start smarting and watering. But even more painful is to wake up in the middle of the night, from a dreamless slumber or one softened by sweet illusion oriddled with nightmares, to find two bodiless eyes fixed on me through the iron bars.

Or monotony: the human mind revolts against endless sameness. In ordinary social life, even the closestknit family hardly ever spends a whole day together on the same compound in meaningless circles. Man, woman, and child go about their different activities in different places and meet only in the evening to recount their different experiences. Experiments done on animals show that when they are confined to a small space and subjected to the same routine they end up tearing each other apart. Now the Kenyatta government was doing the same experiment on human beings.

At Kamĩ, we daily see the same faces in the same white prison uniforms we call kũngũrũ; for food, we are on corn and beans in the morning, at noon, and at three oclock. Our life here goes through the same motions, day in day out, in a confined space of reliefless dust and gray stones. The two most dominant colors in the detention block are white and gray, and I am convinced these are the colors of death.

The officials cannot have been ignorant of the possible results of these experiments in mental torment: Valium is the most frequently prescribed drug. The doctor expects a political prisoner to be mad or depressed unless proved otherwise.

There is a history to it. I was told a harrowing story of one political prisoner in this very block but before my time who had had a mental breakdown. The authorities watched him go down the drain, till he was reduced to eating his own feces. Yet the regime kept him in that condition for two years.

A week after my incarceration, Wasonga Sijeyo, who has been in that block for nine years but has managed to keep razor-sharp mind and a heart of steel, eluded the vigilant eyes of the warder then guarding me, and within seconds he told me words that I have come to treasure:

It may sound a strange thing to say to you, but in a sense I am glad they brought you here. The other dayin fact a week or so before you camewe were saying that it would be a good thing for Kenya if more intellectuals were imprisoned. First, it would wake most of them from their illusions. And some of them might outlive jail to tell the world. The thing is . . . just watch your mind. . . . Dont let them break you and youll be all right even if they keep you for life, . . . but you must try . . . you have to, for us, for the ones you left behind.

Besides being an insurrection of a detained intellect, the writing of a novel has been one way of keeping my mind and heart together.

__________________________________

Wrestling with the Devil Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

From Wrestling with the Devil: A Prison MemoirUsed with permission of The New Press. Copyright © 2018 by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
One of the leading writers and scholars at work today, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was born in Limuru, Kenya, in 1938. He is the author of A Grain of Wheat; Weep Not, Child; and Petals of Blood, as well as Birth of a Dream Weaver and Wrestling with the Devil (The New Press). He has been nominated for, among other honors, the Man Booker International Prize and is currently Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine.





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