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Tuesday, November 8, 2011


But am I less holy?/ because I choose to puff a blunt and drink a beerwith my homies?~Tupac Shakur[ghetto gospel]

Nothing in life prepares you for the clang of the first handcuffs that kiss your wrists. The legal system works in many ways, there's the fear of getting caught, the fear of being tried, the fear of being locked away in a place with no light, no freedom, no hope, the fear of watching your life whittle away slowly, a second at a time with nothing to think about but that one second that got you there. It's not the actual time that stops people from being criminals it's the fear, the paralysing fear.

Society is kept in check by a play on psychology, get their minds and you can control their bodies. And has there ever been anything more dehumanising and psychologically paralysing than the act of arrest? Imagine it for a moment. A pair of handcuffs is fastened on to you and your accomplice. This act alone already serves numerous purposes, remember that words are important to the human mid. It makes no sense that a collection of syllables, a jumble of sounds can awaken in people images so vast and real, conjuring up nightmares and pleasure. Every time we hear a word we associate a thousand things with it: how its being used before, who used it, how we felt then, how we were taught to feel. The word accomplice strips away nearly everything friendly from a relationship. Accomplices are people with whom you do criminal acts, the word means the same as acquaintance or associate but it doesn't bring the same thing to your mind. Only bad people need accomplices and conspirators. Then there's the feeling of a handcuff on your wrist.

The cold steel bite. It is a bite make no mistake about it, it's not some loose bangle that bounces near your bones, it's a tight noose, it's too small to be comfortable, it cuts off your circulation and leaves you on the road to numbness.  You can't forget its presence, it's there and it want you to know it. Walking becomes a problem. Immediately you have to coordinate the steps with your accomplice, at this time your minds is still swimming from the fact of the arrest and the presence of the police man in his uniform that signifies authority and power. He talks to you and most of the words wash over you like you're soaking in a bath, all the words are there, they all enter you but only a few penetrate your fibres, the rest being a rinse that passes too too fast. The handcuffs clink as you walk, the clank and they click. You are led to a waiting car, a black maria they used to call it. The walk of the condemned burned into our minds by all the movies we saw, a pirate walking the plank, the asshole officer in the TV show who wants to put the cuffs on in front of the arrestees kids and the arrestee pleading, please please just let me walk to the car and then put them on there. The police officer refusing and putting them on anyway and then leading him off, a sheep to slaughter.

Entering the car is such an exercise in coordination I could not manage it. Your mind doesn't register that you are now under arrest that your wrists are cuffed together and this means you have to enter by the same door and so you try to go to different doors, you and your accomplice looking more and more stupid. You bump into each other on the way to the back until the police officer amused gives you directions that are obvious to anyone, you first, now you, OK.

They give you your phone call in Kenya, the cop will give you his own phone and let you call with it. Then the car drives off and enters the police station. Today it was the kileleshwa police station. I have been here before but only with joy on my mind, you see mututho's long arm does not reach the haunts of the law. But today I am in disgrace led to be processed. The policemen there are a little too rough and you can complain but there are no bruises or anything like that and your mind tells you that this is how suspects should be treated. This is not nursery school and come to think of it that teacher of mine in nursery school inflicted much more pain than this. They search you and relieve you of all your personal documents. They take your i.d. If you have it, they take your money, your phone, they tell you take off your shoes and leave them there, they take your belt and then leave you to enter. I understand that this process is to make sure nobody smuggles in contraband, to make sure nobody hangs themselves up by their belt and to make sure no fights are aided by the shoes everyone trudges around in. but it's also severely degrading and dehumanising. They take away all but your bare essentials. Anyone who has ever worn a watch will tell you that they feel naked without it, imagine losing your watch, your belt, your wallet, your buckles, your shoes. All this gone and you thrown into an abyss where you have no idea what’s awaiting you.

By now you are not a man any more, you have been cuffed up and led around like cattle. They took away your clothes leaving you dressed like a bum, they poked and prodded you, they searched you very uncomfortably, they made comments about your humanity as you waited to be thrown in. they treated you like a criminal is treated. In the way most good citizens believe criminals should be treated. They didn't beat you but it still feels like they beat you down. This may be why when a prisoner enters a jail he is quiet for a few moments. He regards his surroundings with wariness and wiliness. He waits, he has just being mistreated, being made to feel like a criminal and there are actual criminals in here, not people like me. What could happen?

I've been in jail two times now, the first was parkland’s cells and this time kileleshwa. I found parklands horrible, sweaty, stuffy, stinking. No light but a bare lamp, no way of knowing what time it was and a toilet that stank as far as the entrance, don't go to parklands, avoid it. But  kileleshwa on the other hand. Practically five star in comparison. You are led in and there's a long corridor that branches off into two rooms, rooms with mattresses, five prisoners in each. By jail standards this is heaven. And what's that smell? What smell? Exactly. When you actually have to ask directions to the toilet you are in a good jail. There are windows, windows to let light in. light can tell you the time or let you approximate it. Light keeps you from getting depressed, light is life. This is no abyss, not the kind you're used to anyway, here there's air to breath, there's space to stretch, places to sit. Suddenly you don't feel like such a criminal any more. You can tell yourself you're in a dorm room and if the placebo is strong in you, very very strong you can almost believe it, because who are we kidding jail is jail.

You can begin to befriend people. For example consider this young looking Somali character bouncing around the walls like he's actually at home. He offers you a cigarette immediately but of course you're wary, it's good in Africa to take presents since it shows acceptance and trust. But there's no trust and I can't accept my surroundings yet so what to do. The cigarette offerer speaks with a British accent, he's a British citizen and as much as I feel I shouldn’t be here I keep wondering what brought him here, visa issues he says. Of course am unconvinced, Kenya welcomes immigrants from Europe, one of them getting here is a boon to the economy immediately a whole family can live off the pounds they bring pouring in from overseas. He tells us that this is a good jail, “Kamiti was hard” why the hell was he in Kamiti?”there in the morning the guards would shout hesabu hesabu![count, count!] and you had to bend down immediately, squat as they called out their numbers. But I can't understand Swahili so no idea what they meant by chini chini[down] and so they rushed at me and beat me down.” this is one of those people who has something to say to anyone. He goes off about life talking to this other prisoner there, they both have court appearences come monday. The other guy looks scary, he's well built and strong, his face bears the look of a life hard fought, he's in here for bank fraud he says. They already have a greeting all laid out, a way to tell each other they've all been on the inside. The Briton says that's what he and his other fiends use when they were in jail and it bears all the marks of black British culture, a mixture of the hip hop from the west side and the west end. And he loves his hip hop. He sits looking out the window and spits out line after line from pac's ghetto gospel, “Never forget that God hasn't finished with me yet/ I feel his hand on my brain/ when I write rhymes I go blind and let the lord do his thing.” he rhymes away from us. His ipod is in his mind and he can go away in there.

In the cell there's this white guy. He looks old, very old. He has hair hanging off his chin like a well fed Moses. He sits with his legs crossed and stares off into the distance. He gets up and gets into this position then he maintains it. He looks like a wise man but I can't figure out why he’s in here. No one there has ever heard him utter a word. When food is brought they are very concerned about him, “mzungu hajapata yake./ the white guy hasn't got his.” the food is a simple mixture of ugali and cabbage. In such situations you are never sure how long it will be till you see food again and so if you ever find yourself in a place you didn’t expect and can't for the life of you imagine how you got there, find your appetite. I wolfed down my food even before the other prisoners began demanding salt.

Leaving jail, the reversal of the process isn't an actual reversal. You get back all your belongings but you are in such a hurry to leave you forget to look for you dignity, and you carry away an indelible memory. You too were also in jail.


  1. I've never been in jail. I hope it never happens. I don't think I'm strong enough for that =(