Writing from Kenya's prisons

October 16, 1996

A Season of Blood: Poems From Kenyan Prison
Vita Books. 156 pp., $15
Kenya: A Prison Notebook

Vita Books. 287 pp., $15
Both by Maina wa Kinyatti
Reviewed by Ndungi wa Mungai

These two volumes of prison writing are based on the author's experience as a political prisoner for six and a half years. Maina was arrested and imprisoned in 1982 for his research on the history of the Mau-Mau when he was a history lecturer in Kenyatta University.

Amnesty International recognised him as a prisoner of conscience and campaigned for his release. Maina believes that campaigns by AI, PEN International and others led to his eventual release rather than an extension of imprisonment or even elimination.

Maina says he wrote from prison because he wanted to remind people of all the people who were in prison because of the Moi regime. Despite the restrictions and torture that he experienced, he recounts glimpses of humanity as some of the guards fed him and helped him to smuggle the manuscripts out. They also told him that as far as they were concerned, he was a "prisoner of Moi". They therefore acknowledged that he was a political prisoner but they could not treat him any differently from common prisoners. They informed him that if he renounced his beliefs, including socialism, and pledged loyalty to Moi, he could be released.

The most depressing thing Maina experienced in prison, however, seems to have been loneliness: he was kept in the "isolation block" with the psychiatric inmates for most of his time in prison.

He wrote about this in the poem "The Candlelight":
"Mama/ Here I am inside my skin/ Writing the songs of our people/ I am like an abandoned candle/ Flickering in darkness"

Writing became Maina's way of coping with the degrading and inhuman conditions that he was subjected to. He describes a typical day: "You wake up in the morning, there is no water to wash your face and no breakfast. You feel like howling. Sometimes you sit back in your cell. Your mind goes back to the first day you were incarcerated. You remember life outside, people you love, things you are missing and tears snake down your cheeks. You wipe them, stand up and begin pacing the room — cursing your captors and the world around you.

"Another common-law prisoner died. He got seriously ill last night. When the night guard was notified, he refused to call the night doctor. The sick man lay there, groaning and moaning all night long. In the morning when they came for him, the man was dead. So many have died this way that we no longer mourn for them. Violence and death have toughened us."

The author took great risk in writing these two books and many other letters to friends, relatives, human rights organisations and political comrades in and out of prison. It is a monument of courage, determination and political commitment and invaluable historical documentation of the barbarity committed by human beings against others in the closing decades of the 20th century.

I found the accounts moving, since I also opposed the Moi regime and this could have easily been my fate had I not found refuge in Australia. My brother was in prison at the same time, released after political pressure mounted by the Release Political Prisoners group. A cousin in prison at the same time did not survive the inhuman conditions.

While what Maina writes is shocking, conditions have become worse since Maina left prison in 1988. A High Court judge said last year that he feels like he is sentencing someone to death when he sends them to the Kenyan prisons. Any struggle for justice and democracy in Kenya should include reform in the prisons which the repressive regime uses to punish political opponents and which are inexcusable for any human being — regardless of their crimes.

Other books by Maina wa Kinyatti include: Thunder from the Mountain: Mau Mau patriotic songs; Mau Mau — a Revolution Betrayed and Kenya's Freedom Struggle.