About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Prison Notes - Part 5: The first night

Then there was a young boy of 14 years who had been arrested as an idler. I worried about him, as he looked angry, miserable and lost. I gave him food too. The police officer in charge of the prisoners had come downstairs and asked me to sleep in a room, which had mats and blankets in it. It is reserved for the elderly and the sick. He had been told that I suffer from acute asthma allergies. I told him I wanted to sleep with all other prisoners on the cold floor. Later, I was to use that room to keep things brought to me, which I would distribute to prisoners just like President Museveni distributes patronage to politicians.

By the time I went to bed, it was past 1am. I had not eaten anything in 35 hours. I had not rested over the same period and was completely exhausted. The result is that I had the most comfortable sleep in a long time. I slept without the usual violent dreams, sweating and turning as I often do. On my side was a robbery suspect, near my feet a petty thief, then a pick pocket slept with his arm on me, the gun dealer was snoring near my head while the rapist had his leg leaning on my tummy.

I was rudely woken up from my deep slumber at 7am on Saturday morning by a loud banging of the metallic door in the underground cell to find all prisoners lining up for the morning parade. I sat down on the floor with fellow inmates and listened to the roll call. We sat on the western side of the hallway, and each time someone’s name was read out, they would cross and sit on the eastern side. When my name was read, the police officer signalled me to remain at my sit. I refused – again to be treated like any other prisoner – and walked across the hallway and sat down in a queue with other inmates. The police were very polite to me.

I found that prisoners had woken up as early as 5am and had been cleaning the cells. Somehow, they did not bother me at all. I also discovered they have leaders in jail. “Boss” was actually a young 17 years old boy from Bushenyi called Brian Mugabe who was the chairman of the prisoners. He was brought to CPS by VCCU and had been there for two months now. He told me he had never recorded a statement, or signed a charge and caution statement, or appeared in court. So why are you here? I asked him. I do not know. He answered. One day he told me he was accused of robbery. Later a police officer told me that he had been brought to CPS on allegations of murder. Jeez!!

But why don’t they take him to court? I asked. The police officer told me that his case was handed to CID headquarters by VCCU. “We at CPS are not responsible for taking inmates to court,” the officer told me, “That is the work of CID. Our job is to keep people.” I was to discover that contrary to claims in the media, police at CPS do not torture prisoners. In fact, I found a relationship of mutual respect and accommodation, and in some cases even mutual trust, between the prisoners and the police. If there is credit to give to the Museveni administration at CPS, it is the civilised manner in which police treats prisoners.

Below “boss” was a team of other leaders selected by him, some by the prisoners and others by the police officers depending on circumstances called RPs. I never came to know what that means. However, I suspected it to be Regimental Police – a status used in army barracks for those soldiers who handle some administrative or disciplinary responsibility. There were about six of them: one in charge of food, another for cleanliness, etc. All were friends to Mugabe. Somehow, Mugabe was afflicted with a problem of money. All the time he was asking for money. I wondered what business this 17 years old boy had to require cash inside police cells.

Receiving visitors

At 8am, I was called upstairs. I found KFM Program Manager, Peter Kaba, had brought me breakfast, a meal CPS prisoners are not served. There was tea with sugar, bread, juice, biscuits, etc. He had also brought me a bottle of hot water. I found my nephew Patrick Kwezi there – in tears, in company of other friends and relatives. Patrick hugged me like he wanted to attach himself to my body and I was somehow overcome with emotion – seeing him so devastated when I was actually feeling at my very best of spirits. I was anxious to conclude talking to visitors and return to the cells to continue my interviews with inmates.

I had been down for less than 30 minutes when I was called up again to find my sister Margaret, an aunt and cousins. They had brought me sumptuous breakfast of flasks of tea, eggs, sausages, baked beans. They had also brought me shirts and T-shirts to change into, a cardigan pullover, a warm jacket etc. I almost collapsed out of laughter. I told them I was in jail and wanted to live that way. I was not ready for Sheraton food. That is what I eat daily. I was also not ready for good or warm clothing. I needed to live the hard, true life of Ugandan jail.

Margaret was almost convinced I was mad, and that my asthma allergies would kill me. She pleaded, cajoled and finally even threatened. “When you fall sick I will not come here to see you,” she threatened. I knew it was an empty threat. She would be the first. I became even more defiant and refused to be pampered. I did my best to demonstrate to Margaret that I was okay, that I had good company in the cells; that the journalist in me had fallen into a goldmine etc. My aunt Keturah could not believe me. Margaret’s daughter Yvette was looking at me in silent wonderment and left without saying a word.

I ran back down to the cells, telling them I could not wait to be re-united with my fellow in-mates. In the cells, most prisoners spoke Luganda. I understand Luganda perfectly but have never become fluent in it because I never speak it. In jail, I had to speak it. Practice, the saying goes, makes perfect. Within those hours, I discovered I was mastering speaking Luganda! A few minutes later, I was called up again only find Monitor’s Simon Kasyate, New Vision’s Robert Kabushenga (just before he went on the Capital Gang program), my friend Robert Kasango and Blake Lambert etc among my guests. “Thanks to the NRM government,” I told my pals, “Now I can perfect my skills in Luganda.”

Blake had brought me a book by Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad titled The Bookseller of Kabul – a typical Mzungu attitude. Ugandans brought me food, warm clothing and beddings – things that provide material comfort, certainly a very kind and generous thing. Blake brought something that would improve my knowledge and occupy my mind. It tells a lot about how differences in the levels of development bring differences in perception of people’s challenges. As fresh graduates from a peasant society which lives on the margin of subsistence, we Africans tend to privilege material comfort over intellectual pursuits. People from industrial societies tend to privilege mental health over physical health because physical wellbeing is taken for granted.

I kept running up and down the staircase to and from the underground cell. I divided my time between meeting visitors upstairs and listening to the experiences of inmates in the cell. Many inmates competed for my ear so that I could listen to their difficulties, some hoping that somehow I had a magic solution up my sleeve. I went upstairs sometime before midday where I met with my brother Isaac, nephew Chris, and Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu. Isaac made me speak to my mother. I knew she was devastated, but I wanted to assure her of my good health. “Police are treating me well, and I am having a good time,” I told her, “you should not worry.” I knew there was no amount of words to console her. I also spoke to my dad who was as hopeful as ever. He has seen me grow from one crisis to another – always coming out even stronger than before. Later, I returned up stairs to meet with a host of people from the media fraternity led by my former boss and mentor, Wafula Oguttu. Waf (as he is popularly known at Monitor), is a man of great integrity and moral values. “There are many more Ugandans who cannot wait to join you in jail if that is what it takes for us to be free,” he told me. It was a great encouragement. I also talked to my mother and father on phone for the second time, courtesy of my sister Margaret. My brother in the army, Kayanja, called and we charted. Later, I was so happy to talk to my lovely girlfriend Fifi – always calm and kind. She encouraged me to be strong and to keep warm. “I love you very much,” she told me.


CoralBloom said...

"a typical Mzungu attitude"
Eh, here in Europe the prisons feed the people held within, and often the prisons are a better place to be for some of the poorest in our countries.
It wouldn't occur to us 'Mzungus' to bring food.
I'd guess you were given the book since the reading material provided in European jails is mostly intended to help inmates with poor literacy skills.

Unknown said...

it's Bazungu for plural