With plenty of time on their hands, prisoners in Uganda have written an anthology of poetry, short stories and plays about life in prison, its pain, loneliness, regret, joys, hope and redemption.
Published by Pen Uganda, the 150-page collection titled As I Stood Dead Before the World: Creative Writing from Luzira Prison is divided into three sections of poetry, short stories and drama.
Some 25 inmates of Luzira prison in Kampala, both men and women, contributed 32 poems, nine short stories and eight short plays.
The works were born from a creative writing project run by Pen Uganda in Luzira prison. As I Stood Dead Before the World was edited by Danson Kahyana, Bob G. Kisiki and Beatrice Lamwaka.
Luzira has a diverse mix of writers. “The prison authorities advised us to work with students in the secondary prison school. However, in the women’s prison, there were few students, and others who were not in school joined the classes.
“We had one inmate who does not speak English but Acholi and Luganda; she wrote in Luganda. Unfortunately her story wasn’t selected to be published in the anthology.
“The editors—Danson, Bob and I —selected the writings based on publishable quality. If the text read well, then we edited it. In total, about 1,000 texts were submitted for consideration for publishing in the anthology,” Lamwaka said.
Romana Cacchioli, the director of the international programme at Pen, said the creative writing project sought to work towards restoring dignity and hope to those incarcerated and often reviled by society at large.
“Pen believes in the restorative, rehabilitative power of writing. The project has provided inmates in Luzira with the skills to express themselves freely and has encouraged the use of the written word as a constructive way to begin to recover self-worth.
“Often regarded by the public as people without value, because of the crimes they have committed or are presumed to have committed, these inmates’ creative writing has proved a cathartic journey of self-reflection, of exploring experiences and for some, imagining a future upon their release,” he said.
Elizabeth Nanfuka, commissioner of prisons, social rehabilitation and re-integration at Uganda Prison Service said that through writing, the inmates could earn a living, in addition to contributing to Uganda’s culture.
“The works also bring out the inmates’ inner selves in the sense that through them, one can see what they are struggling with, and the experiences that mean a lot to them.
“For this reason, social rehabilitation and welfare officers will find this book critical to their work, as it reveals what the inmates’ needs and desires are, and therefore indirectly points to what should be done to meet these needs and desires,” she said.
The poetry section opens with The White Walls of Luzira, by Joseph Kevin Wenwa. The poem describes the walls that seem to talk and speak words that are as white as chalk. The walls conceal agony and death. Blood and tears stain these walls like grease.
In his poem There Used to Be, Francis Kyakuwa is longing for what he is missing behind bars. There used to be laughter but now it is silence and mourning.
There used to be romantic delicacies, but all there is now is a stale musty environment. There used to be pictures of loved ones, but now it is a blank wall staring back.
Pen Uganda plans to expand the project, Lamwaka, said: “We are looking for funding so that more of the writers can be published. We hope to run the project in other prisons so that more inmates are able to write their stories.
“We are now facilitating workshops in Jinja Main Prison and hopefully by the end of the year we shall have another anthology,” Lamwaka said.
“Many of the inmates continue to write, and it would be nice to publish their own collections. For example, Elizabeth Kyomuhangi is a prolific writer and publishing her collection of poetry would be a great achievement.”
Kyomuhangi’s poem The Manager dwells on the importance of a woman in a home, who works cheerfully from dawn to dusk for those she loves. But a violent hand sent her to jail where she cannot toil for those she loves.
Grace Layet’s poem The Puzzle, is about the cruelty, pain and mysterious hand of death. “...Who among the dead has come back/To narrate the pains of death/The dead don’t return/For only they would tell us/The pains of death/For only the dead know/The true pain of death!”
Her second poem, Lonesome, captures the loneliness of prison. Like a tongue among teeth no one can comfort her. She has no shoulder to lean on and what she does, she does it alone. She is lonely and it hurts her.
Also writing about loneliness is Racheal Pearl Orishaba. In her poem I Need a Friend, she writes about having secrets but no one to confide in, having lots of questions but no one to ask, and jokes with no one to tell them to.
Orishaba also wrote a short story about Racheal, who is imprisoned for a crime that was committed by her best friend Praise.
It all started when Praise invited Racheal to escort her to hospital where Praise’s mother was admitted. When they arrived at the hospital the old lady who was lying on a bed and asked for drinking water.
Praise got the water from a small cupboard on the other side of the patient’s bed. She gave it to her mum. “Take it, please,” Praise said gently as she pressed the tumbler to her mother’s lips.
After the sick woman drank the water, she started complaining of stomach pains. Praise rushed off to look for the doctor. Racheal tried to calm her down until the doctor came. Unfortunately, the old woman died in her arms before the doctor arrived.
Praise held her friend’s hand and pulled her outside where she informed her that she herself had done her mother in.
“It’s me, Racheal, it’s me who poisoned her because she deserves nothing else but hell,” Praise said.
Racheal ended up in jail. “I am locked here in prison for a crime I didn’t commit while the real criminal, Praise, is walking free out there.”
Inmates at Luzira are following in the footsteps of some global literary luminaries like Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o and British writer Jeffrey Archer, who both wrote books while in jail.
Thiong’o, an award-winning writer and academic, penned the novel Caitaani Mutharaba-Ini(Devil on the Cross) in his native Kikuyu language on prison-issued toilet paper in the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison in Nairobi between 1977-1978.
His 1977 political play Ngaahika Ndeenda(I Will Marry When I Want), co-written with Ngungi wa Mirii, landed him in prison.
Archer, a former politician, wrote his memoir A Prison Diary—a series of three books—during his time in prison from 2001 to 2003.
As I Stood Dead Before the World was published by Pen Uganda last year, and is dedicated to all inmates in Uganda and elsewhere and their families. It is available in bookshops at Ushs20,000 ($5.3).
Speaking of money, the poem Sente Ekaaye Luno (Money is a Big Issue Nowadays) by Ivan Byenkya is a take on the issues bedevilling society.
Prostitutes sell themselves for money. The state attorney frees you upon paying money. Both the solider and thief are looking for money. Divorce happens because of money. And murders occur because of money.
Luzira Maximum Security Prison is located in the Luzira neighbourhood in Nakawa Division in southeastern Kampala, Though the total capacity of Luzira prisons is 1,500, they now have 52,317 prisoners, with 27,368 on remand.
The prison complex includes the only maximum security prison in the country, and houses Uganda’s death row inmates.
Prisons Commisioner Robert Munanura said last year that in Luzira Upper Prison, the maximum capacity was 668 yet they now have 3,300; Murchison Bay with a capacity of 602 had 2,460 prisoners; Luzira women’s prison had 506 women with 33 children under the age of two years, yet its capacity was 141.
In 2016, when Irish photographer Lar Boland spent time in Luzira prison, he documented life behind bars.
In his pictures, the inmates in Luzira wear different coloured uniforms. Those on remand and those serving less than 20 years wear pale yellow overalls.
Prisoners wearing a more intense yellow are serving more than 20 years. Inmates who wear a red stripe have tried to escape, and a blue stripe indicates superiority, and entitlement. Inmates on death row live separately from the main prison population, and wear white overalls.
The prisoners have access to spiritual seminars and counselling, Boland noted.
The African Prisons Project works at Luzira among the men and women. In 2018, they hosted Uganda’s first ever prison-based TEDx and Graduation Thanksgiving in Luzira Upper Prison, and opened a legal aid clinic and a youth centre.
Prison students Susan Kigula, Moses Ekwam and Pascal Kakuru all graduated with a world-class University of London Law Degree.
The prison has a library of over 7,000 books from the UK.
Currently one of the better known inmates is 45-year-old Ugandan medical anthropologist Stella Nyanzi.
The academic, who has been in Luzira Women’s Prison for eight months, was found guilty of cyber harassment for penning and posting a poem on Facebook.
The poem, published last September, is a graphic description of the birth of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.