Thursday, 7 February 2013


* The names of some people have been changed to protect their identities

"Cover! Tano tano tano, kanuni ya serikali; na mtu an swali aulize lakini asiulize swali la ujinga!!!"

With those words, emanating from a mean five foot tall prison warder, the residents of Cell Block D2 in the Industrial Area Remand Prison dove for places to squat so as to be counted in one of the thrice-daily roll calls - the dramatic highlights of otherwise very dull days!

It was early November 1993. It was my first day as a guest of the state and I did not understand the rush to squat since the shrill voice preceded the small body of the screaming afande by at least two minutes. Little did I know that anyone left out of a group of five was to be severely punished for 'laziness' in not 'covering' as soon as the command had been given. This Thursday evening, I was squarely on the receiving end and I got several kicks on my back for a crime I was not aware I had committed.

I had arrived an hour earlier at about 5.30 p.m. aboard the infamous Black Maria - that contraption which was the dread of all drunks, prostitutes and night time revelers without IDs. This time, it had ferried us from the High Court Building to what was to be our temporary aboard, while the state decided what to do with us for our various misdeeds.

On arrival, as soon as the prison gates shut, we were all ordered to strip bare so that we could be searched for weapons and other illicit substances. It was easy to tell who among the group was a new comer and who was returning after a court appearance. The former, of which I was part, naturally hesitated once the order to strip was given. We needed some encouragement from the warders who walked among us lashing out with whips and indiscriminately whipping the flesh that was now very quickly coming into view.

When we were all stripped bare, the afandes searched through our clothes painstakingly, with the patience of forensic scientists. I pondered how sixty odd characters, brought together by diverse sins against the state, but having little else in common, could suddenly look so alike as they stood stark naked, shivering in the light evening breeze.

But if there was indignity in being forced to bear our all in public, we took a certain solace in the fact that there was also a strange measure of anonymity in stark nakedness, there was little point in one prisoner staring at another as he had his own state of undress to worry about!

"Wewe Mhubiri, kuja hapa," the Senior Warder seemed to take a sudden interest in me once I was fully clothed and he noticed my NIV Bible which I had carried with me as I was scheduled to go for a Bible Study that evening. I couldn't help wondering how interesting it was that a moment ago, while we were a mass of naked bodies, he could not have distinguished the preacher from the murderer!

I made my way to him and he started inquiring as to who I was and why I had been arrested carrying a Bible. "Kama hukuiba pesa za kanisa, uliiba nini? Biblia" he asked, much to the delight of his junior colleagues - though it was obvious that most of them laughed out of a sense of duty rather than an abundance of mirth.

I took advantage of this lighthearted banter to seek permission to take my Bible into the cell block  with me. I knew that I might be in custody for two weeks or more and I certainly needed spiritual nourishment - not to mention how useful the Bible became later as a makeshift pillow on the cold cement floor where I lay night after night during my incarceration. Permission was granted, and I whispered a silent prayer of thanks.

A number of us were frog-marched to Cell Block D2, a long block on the East side of the prison. D2, the largest of seven blocks, was initially meant to house about forty inmates. It was currently holding in excess of 120. As soon as the new intake was pushed in and the warders left, a whole new pecking order became apparent.

The huge cell block was virtually divided into several 'estates' depending on the proximity to the unbearable stench that emanated from the toilets. On the far left, closest to the toilets, was 'Korogocho'. Next to that was 'Mathare' followed by 'Kibera'. Then came 'Eastlands' - 'Umoja', 'Donholm', 'Buruburu' in that order. This was followed by 'South B' and 'Ngummo'; then came Lavington and Muthaiga. On the far right, farthest from the stench of the toilets, was 'State House'. It was called State House because those who occupied it, all long term remandees, rarely moved out. The resemblance of the defacto permanent tenancy to that other place, whose then tenant had been in residence for almost two decades was uncanny. New inmates started out occupying Korogocho and moved up to 'better' estates to take the place of those who left either due to conviction or acquittal. As they did, new inmates came in to take their place.

When we got into the cell, just as we, the freshers, were being herded to Korogocho, one of the state house inmates, noticing my Bible, intervened and ordered that I occupy a space in Buruburu next to a 'fellow preacher' who had himself made it from Korogocho on merit. And thus I was saved from the virtual hell of sleeping practically inside the toilet. Not that it made much of a difference since the whole block stank of urine mixed with sweat.

I was a guest of the state for the next five days. Five days of sleeping on the concrete floor without beddings, so packed that we had to all lie facing one side and we would be woken up on intervals to turn to the other side in unison. Five days of surviving on a diet that never changed, perhaps only got worse - a diet of porridge in the morning, ugali and boiled cabbage for lunch, and ugali and boiled beans for supper. Five days of getting only on hour of exercise outdoors and being locked in the rest of the time.

It was an experience that one does not forget easily. But I will resist the temptation to recount it here, and focus on instead on the story of the central character of this story, one Emmanuel Wekesa (not his real name)

-------------------- END OF PART ONE ---------

In Part 2, we meet Wekesa, a young unemployed school drop-out who is driven by desperation to join a group of youths who are removed surreptitiously from Kenya and taken for military training in in a North African country through a neighbouring country. We learn how FERA was formed and its eventual collapse.

Wekesa recounts his tale - how he went abroad and returned to take advantage of a presidential amnesty which turned out to be a hollow promise which quickly degenerated into a nightmare and how Wekesa's path crossed eventually mine.

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