Celebrating East African Writing!
It was a tough challenge, and some really good writers rose to the occasion.
And the winner is… EDDY NGETA.
The judges felt that the writer tried to put some effort in the story line, using the little space offered to give us a large world that has been crumpled into a tiny prison. His choice of language was also really good, which created a realistic story.
Here is his story:
There was an unexplained commotion down the line.
Tens of unwashed bodies, crammed together single file into a disorderly queue of hungry inmates wielding battered mrurus (metallic containers used as plates in prison) and buzzing like disaffected flies, hovered over two large cauldrons of poor prison food served in the open courtyard outside L Block beside a large water tank. Nearby, a towering concrete wall festooned with swirling coils of sharp razor-wire shut out the outside world from the longing eyes of freedom-starved prisoners. A look-out tower with a lone guard lugging a loaded G3 assault rifle loomed high, with a brilliant blue sky hosting the blazing mid-day sun looming higher above it. Lunch was half-cooked ugali and yellowish sukuma-wiki in watery, unhealthy-looking broth – standard prison fare that would make the faint-hearted retch in disgust but into which famished inmates dug in with gusto.
A dirty, once-white pail with a rusty metallic handle and the logo of a popular brand of cooking fat emblazoned on the sides stood a little apart from the cauldrons, guarded hawkishly by two thuggish ruffians specifically chosen for the job because of their legendary propensity for violence. The pail contained highly prized pieces of meat, of which each inmate received two and no more, and for which they were all willing to risk life and limb, hence the long lines and frayed nerves.
The queue stretched well beyond the black-painted iron gates into the four-storeyed prison block proper. Those behind craned their necks to have a better look at what was happening in front. Impatience glowered at their gnawing hunger with the intensity of the blazing 1.00 pm sunshine. The pushing and shoving tested the patience of the mean-looking prison askaris, who brandished their nyahunyos (whips made from hippo hide) threateningly, heavily furrowed brows dripping with sweat.
Whispers carried down the line with news from the “frontline”, borne by stinking breaths belched out from famished stomachs as prisoners struggled to maintain the queue and askaris walked up and down the length of it trying to enforce discipline. It turned out that the hold-up was occasioned by cell prefects arguing over their respective shares of meat up front as they divvied it up amongst themselves. The unwritten rule at the Industrial Area Holding Prison was that cell prefects got the best of the food from the kitchen first. The rest of the inmates shared whatever poorly-looking crumbs remained at the dinner table. It was often that the still-hungry inmates would look enviously at their cell prefects later on after lock-up as the latter called up a few of their sycophants and hangers-on around their sleeping areas to share in the sumptuous fare.
Prison food was regularly used as standard currency for buying different goods, exchanging numerous favours and brokering diverse deals, from kania bets (kania is a kind of board game that is popular in prison, played by up to four people and involving rolling a dice) to phone calls, cigarettes and even sex. Apart from the generous pieces of boiled meat, the cell prefects also got deep-fried Irish potatoes and well-cooked rice from the kitchen.
Hunger and resentment that had welled-up over time combined to break the fortitude of the inmates as they watched the prefects grubbily pile plate loads of meat into small buckets that could feed entire families. These they hurriedly carried off to their sleeping areas in the cells for storage and left them guarded jealously by their minions as they sauntered back to the service area behind the line of prison-guards from which they sneered contemptuously at their fellow inmates as if they were children of a lesser god.
When the fight broke out, it caught everyone off-guard.
The mutiny might have seemed well-choreographed to the casual observer, but the truth was that it was a spontaneous flare-up of anger and resentment targeted at both the prison-guards and cell prefects – the twin symbols of oppression and impunity. A dashing little young man with a wiry frame and sly eyes named Ceska and who was in for possession, started it all when he broke the line and dashed towards the front while yelling at the top of his voice and waving his mruru high above his head. The war-cry was taken up by the rest of the population as though their collective hunger had found a voice that had whispered madness into their ears simultaneously, such that there was no more talking sense into them even at the threat of dire physical violence.
“Hapana Afande!” (No, sir. I won’t!)
A defiant face. A hand raised up against the ill intentions of the oppressor and his dreaded sjambok. The crack of a whip down a shirtless back, black and gleaming with sweat. Blood gushing from a gash on opened skin, streaming thick and heavy like newly mined oil. Violence should ordinarily have been enough to scare the mutineers into capitulation, but not this time. Too late for mere threats. Boots crushed on naked skulls. Batons swung up and down, beating down on defenseless bodies, intent on inculcating painful lessons on submission.
It ended almost as soon as it had begun. Twenty prisoners lay unconscious. The food that they had been fighting over lay strewn all over the courtyard, as if mocking the mutineers. The rest of the prisoners, all variously injured, were forced back to their cells on empty stomachs – bloody, beat, and broken. Outside, a siren wailed an incessant dirge. Heavy boots trudged the courtyard as prisoners scampered like chicken. Batons clanged on metal. Prison doors banged shut. Amidst all this, the warden loomed large at the centre of the courtyard, shouting orders to his men.
“Put them in their cells! Lock this place down! Waweke ndani! Ndaaani, ndaaani kabisaa!”
The prison shushed to a deathly quiet. A groan here, a moan there. Someone wiped his bloodied nose. The clock chimed three.
The collective hunger strike had officially begun.