In part one of his prison journal, Joseph Nderitu, former Head of RAFM at Vodacom Tanzania, recounted the day he found himself locked in a police cell with Vodacom’s Managing Director and three other senior managers who had seemingly been selected for punishment because of their job titles. Treated like hostages, they knew there was no prospect of release from prison until their employer paid the ransom demanded by Tanzania’s cash-strapped government. Today’s installment describes Joseph’s transfer to Keko Prison and what life is like when you share a cell with murderers but your family is denied permission to see you.
5: Next Stop, Keko
We are ushered into the prison service bus. The driver is safely behind a metallic grill. The five of us sit near the front. The seats are worn out. I spot a fat bedbug crawling across the headrest of the seat in front of us. It quickly goes back into the spongy bit of the seat. I think to myself: it probably has fed enough and does not need any more human blood, for now. We leave the law courts behind.
The wheels of the big green bus go round and round. We cross the city and collect more people from the High Court. This group looks very experienced. They climb into the bus laughing. It is almost as if we are on some wedding party. The early afternoon traffic is evident as we begin our final leg to Keko. Motorists peer into the green bus and look at us. I can almost imagine what they are thinking. I have thought it myself many times in the past when I was a free man. I would look into the prison bus and think: crooks either heading to court or prison. The bus driver looks at us and smiles. He asks: are you guys selling water? He is referring to the bottles of water that we are carrying, leftover from the lunch. I look at him blankly. What can one say?
The drab building that is Keko Prison comes into the view. I notice the gate made of wrought iron and a huge padlock looms into sight. “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Where did I read that?
The few prison warders standing guard are bored but as the bus draws up to the gate, more warders show up with guns and form a cordon round us. We alight from the bus and are ready for another round of processing. We follow the experienced prisoners. There is some sort of holding bay where we all squat in neat lines, each man holding his belongings. Names are called out one by one. As soon as your name is called, you walk into a dark corridor and squat again. We squat two by two. The drill is simple. Shoes off, socks off, pants off, keep holding your clothes as the queue edges forwards. At the final stage, take off every last bit of clothing and stand stark naked for the warders to ascertain that you are indeed male. I keep my mind busy wondering why any lady would go to the trouble of sneaking into this place – the end game of such an adventure is unclear.
This inspection ordeal is over and we dress up and walk into the prison yard. The evening sun is warm on my face. The yard has a strong smell of dirty water mixed with rotting food. I spot the guards at the sentry houses on top of the perimeter walls. I force my mind not to think of anything else. We are called over by some guys who are not in prison uniform and they ask us to squat again. It seems in prison, standing is not encouraged. They ask us what we are in for and we give a brief story of the alleged misdeeds that led us to sharing this space with these esteemed gentlemen. They urge us to accept our fate, otherwise “you will all die of hypertension”.
Somehow, at this point, hypertension sounds like a damn good way to go out, I think to myself.
A warder comes over and escorts us to the office of the Prison Warden. The Warden is a kind bald-headed grandfather. He shakes our hands warmly. He has soft leathery hands and a strong smell of castor oil hangs around him. He almost looks like the rector of this weird fellowship. Well, he is the High Priest of Keko Prison and if I were guilty I would confess to him. Bless me Grandpa, for I have sinned. He introduces himself and peers at us over his glasses. He says it is unfortunate that he has to welcome us to this place but he urges us to follow procedures in order to stay safe. He especially warns us against using cellphones and I cannot help but wonder if this warning is specifically because we are employees of Vodacom. The Warden wishes us all the best and dismisses us with a smile.
We pause again in the prison yard and wonder what to do about the Managing Director. He is Egyptian, easily identifiable, a white face among a sea of black faces and we know tomorrow his face will be across the pages of the daily newspapers. Heck, the evening news will feature him prominently. What will happen to him in the multitude of prisoners once they know he is such a prized target?
We troop back to the small admissions desk and we are lucky to find a very understanding supervisor. He makes a phone call and just like that, it is agreed that the MD will be relocated to the VIP/special section of the prison, which is upstairs and across the hall from the Warden’s office. It is apparently less crowded and holds some prominent people such as university professors who dared to question Tanzania’s regime and directors of some telcos which refused to pay crazy fines. This is such a relief and it is our first good news. Who knew you can find something to celebrate in prison?
It is back to the general side of the prison for the rest of us, where we endure more questions from the warders. They treat us like celebrities. Executives from one of the leading telcos are here and will be guests of the state for the foreseeable future. People really want to hear from us.
Finally, having satisfied their curiosity, they hand us over to Nyapara. Nyapara is a very important prisoner. He is some sort of prefect of the cell. Each cell has one Nyapara who has been selected on account of good behaviour, sense of responsibility and, of course, being in the good books of several warders. We are later to learn that most of them have excellent snitching records.
There are about 20 cells in each block. In total the prison has six blocks. In five of those blocks, the average number of inmates per cell is 10. In the prison block that functions as the sick bay, on average, there are eight prisoners per cell. You do the math. Later we are to learn that the prison was designed for roughly half the number of men it holds. Space is at a premium.
The four of us are allocated to the sick bay. It has better conditions. Of course the risk of picking up some horrible disease is there but eight people in a cell that is 9 feet long and 6 feet wide is better than 10 people living in the same space. Two colleagues move into a cell close to the main door of the block. I find myself with the third colleague in a cell located at the end of the block. My new address is Keko Prison, Dar es Salaam, United Republic of Tanzania.
6: Settling In
I am a guest of the state, facing serious charges in a foreign land and it will take some miracle to get me out of here. From this point on, the government, on behalf of the people of this republic, will control where I go, what I do, and how I sleep.
It is dark as we move into the cells. I hate the dark, I feel as if somebody could jump me at any time. The cell is self-contained; the corner to shower and the poop hole is surrounded by a curtain made of sacks. The walls of the cell are around 15 feet high. There are small cubby holes above the doors. Most of them are stuffed with pairs of shoes. The door is a heavy grill. The air is thick and there is a strong smell of urine, which is difficult to get used to. I convince myself this is home now and the smell is not going anywhere.
The lights are only switched on after the final rollcall of the day. Meanwhile, we settle in and get to meet our new Nyapara, who is called Tunde. Tunde is a lanky bald-headed Nigerian. He talks really fast and reminds me of a bird. His first sacred duty is to take our shoes and stow them in the few vacant cubby holes high above us. This is done for security. If shoes are left lying around, they start walking. And they do not come back. From now on, unless we are going to court, our footwear will be bathroom slippers.
Tunde is in for narcotics. He later tells us that he was nabbed at the Dar es Salaam airport trying to exit the country with a kilo of cocaine, destined for Amsterdam. He narrates his capture in such a cool manner that I suspect he knew it was only a matter of time before he was caught.
There is another Nigerian, called Chukwu, in the cell. Chukwu is also in for narcotics. Over the course of the next few days, I will discover that Tunde and Chukwu are now devout Christians and they do their prayers at 7pm, 3am and 6am. I regard them with a lot of curiosity. I can feel their passion in this place. It is good that they have something to occupy themselves. They seem to be settled in this place. They have accepted they are not going anywhere soon. Maybe I can also achieve that level of calm amidst the storm. I am tempted to ask Tunde and Chukwu if they will continue with the narcotics trade when they are released but, on second thoughts, I decide it would be impolite to ask a man to disclose his long term plans. I would be pissed off if they asked me if I plan to go back to back into telecoms when I get out of here. What if I am here for the next 15 years? I can only wonder how many telcos would have a vacancy for a jailbird after all that time.
Prison runs on a tight schedule. Tunde instructs us to go back to the admission block for the evening roll call. Okay, it is not roll call as such. The warders just count the prisoners, like kids counting beans into beanbags. It is our first day, and newbies are counted at the admissions block on their first day. From tomorrow, we shall be promoted and will henceforth be counted with the rest of the “men”. The men have already fed so after the count, we all troop back into our cells. It is 5pm and we shall be out of the cells tomorrow 6am for the morning count. It is going to be a long night.
7: Meet the Neighbours
Being our first night, we now come face to face with the rest of our inmates. I have already described Tunde and Chukwu. The rest of the inmates are an interesting bunch and we shall be spending the night in distinguished company.
Ali is dark, thin and bears a scraggy beard. He reminds me of a cartoon character from Scooby Doo. He is from Sumbawanga and he is in for double homicide. He killed his wife and her brother, and admits it freely. The two were in an incestuous relationship; Ali was told about it by his son. Purposely arriving early from a business trip, Ali surveyed the horrible pair as they watched a football match on the TV that he had bought from his sweat. He was watching them through the window. Then they went to his bed and started making love.
Wielding a big stick, Ali burst through the door and clobbered his wife and brother-in-law to death within a matter of minutes. He then went to his second wife’s house a few kilometers away, took a shower and slept. The following day, he was arrested as he made his escape to a different town. A crowd descended on him shouting: “he who has killed must be killed”. Police rescued him and delivered him into the arms of Tanzania’s prison service. Ali narrates the murder with such ease that I am convinced he would do it again, in a heartbeat. I make a point never to annoy him. He also carries some witchcraft regalia. Before we sleep, he slips in some wrapped “thingy” under the mattress that I share with him. I suppose he is just protecting himself. Who am I to judge him?
Ali is nice to me. Each morning from now on, he smiles and tells me, “it will get better with time”. I always smile back but tears are burning under my eyelids.
Mwakipesile is 67 years old. He is clean shaven and heavily oiled. I find his skin too shiny – it is almost as if he applies shoe polish to his body. All his life, he has been a hunter in a forest near Bagamoyo. One day, coming from an unsuccessful hunting expedition, his dog ran ahead of him. It had been a cold night and Mwakipesile was going empty-handed, prodding along despondently. He was already disappointed as he had not caught anything. A young man who was walking in the woods started attacking Mwakipesile’s dog. Mwakipesile does not know why.
He only remembers that this young man had slashed the dog badly with a machete by the time Mwakipesile reached him. Mwakipesile took a look at the young man who was destroying the loyal dog that helped him track animals and he could not take it anymore. This young man, by killing the dog, was also killing Mwakipesile. So Mwakipesile took his spear and thrust it deep into the young man’s heart. As the lad fell, Mwakipesile slashed him with a machete twice and severed the head off the body. He makes a gesture showing how he did it.
Mwakipesile went home and started peeling cassava for his next meal. Obviously this meal would be without meat stew. He did not get to cook the cassava as the long arm of the law caught up with him swiftly. He has been shuttled across a number of Tanzania’s prisons whilst still under remand. He has pleaded temporary insanity and hopes to be released. I am convinced he is permanently insane. Murderous geriatric!
Suleiman is the most quiet in this cell. He poisoned the wife of the village pastor. I know I should not judge, lest I also be judged, but one look at him and I am convinced he did it. A certain woman wanted to marry the village pastor. However, the pastor was already married and, of course, the church frowns upon bigamy. Suleiman is a witchdoctor and so the love-struck lady approached him to “do his thing” and eliminate Mrs. Pastor. Unfortunately, despite his efforts, Suleiman’s “thing” was not effective. He had already taken the money for this gig. I had no idea that the priests of dark magic bill 100% in advance. That is some smart revenue assurance going on there: a fully prepaid model for witchcraft! So now Suleiman had to deliver because he takes customer service seriously.
To complete his contract, Suleiman adopted the trusted method of poisoning Mrs. Pastor. He does not venture into details of how he did it and how he got arrested. Personally I do not want to ask him. He has a dark mien around him and when he answers a question, he does it looking so agitated that you almost expect him to slap you.
Much of Suleiman’s story is actually narrated by Tunde, who seems to know everybody’s crime. I am tempted to ask Tunde how he knows all this but I decide not to let my questions get in the way of a good story. Nights are long and boring, after all. I am afraid Suleiman might “do his thing” on us and if it does not work, maybe he will poison us. On the rare occasions when he responds to questions, the answers are snarls and his eye has a frightening glint. At night, Suleiman also farts loudly. Suffice it to say he is not my favourite cellmate.
Farhad is an old Iranian man who was nabbed in a fishing boat that was captured in Tanzanian waters. The problem is that the boat had a false bottom stashed with high grade narcotics. Fishing was just a cover for smuggling. The captain of the boat explained that the manual laborers like Farhad had no clue about the cargo, but everybody was carted off to Keko Prison. That captain died whilst on remand, with a suspected case of malaria. Tunde narrates the story as Farhad speaks neither English nor Kiswahili.
At this point Tunde pauses and looks at us pointedly, “if you poor suckers die here, your folks will be told you died of malaria. No other diagnosis.” I guess it would be wise not to die here.
In subsequent days, each morning, I say “Asalaam Aleikum” to Farhad. And he always cheerily responds, “Aleikum Salaam”. I cannot help but think he will die here too, just like his captain. I can already write his diagnosis: malaria.
In a sense, I sleep in a protected field and I have a feeling that not even malaria can get to me. On the one side, Ali with his witchcraft regalia and on the other side, the devout prayers of our two esteemed narcos from the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Mwakipesile and Suleiman curl up against the wall; they sleep next to the poop hole but they look so comfortable. Every time I look in their direction, I think: bloody murderers!
I don’t sleep much so I spend time thinking about what our team can accomplish. If somebody was intending to do us harm, Mwakipesile would attack him and if that did not work, Suleiman would bewitch him and if that did not work the drug dealers would give him a nice high, either from their narcotics or from their religion. Meanwhile Farhad would get us a boat and we would be on our way to a secure island where the Vodacom crew would activate roaming on SIM cards hidden in Ali’s witchcraft paraphernalia. What more security can I ask for?
My Vodacom colleague and I sleep in the middle of the room. The room is balanced. We are from the telecommunications sector. It is only fair that we are the ones connecting different nationalities and different crimes. Farhad sleeps next to the wall with his legs facing the door. It looks like he is preparing to go on a journey. I suppose it is the seafarer in him. Maybe that is how they will carry him out of the cell when malaria finally strikes him – feet first. He does not look like he is getting out of here soon.
This first night, I cannot help but think that I will need years of therapy if I ever get out of this place! Little do I appreciate that within a few days I will get used to life in this suspended state. During subsequent nights I feel quite safe. That sense of assurance is shocking to me. I have read stories of institutionalization. Perhaps this is how it starts?
It is hot during this first night. We are crammed together like sardines. Turning is a problem. Sweat drips down the body and soaks the thin mattress. As I am sleeping in the middle of the cell, I have drawn the sodden luck of being directly under the bright bulb that hangs high above us. I prefer sleeping on my back but the light is such a bother. I improvise a tight blindfold from my t-shirt and this gives me some respite from the glare. The hot Dar es Salaam air, the tiny vents of the cell and the hot air that all of us are breathing out combine to create stuffy atmosphere. It feels as if I am drawing porridge through the nostrils and expelling hotter porridge.
One night passes, more nights will pass. Each subsequent night is better than the previous.
We wake at 6am. The first task is to fold the beddings and neatly stack them. Our cellmates were kind enough to share the beddings with us as we wait for our families to make arrangements for our own. We wait for the doors to be opened. A few of the inmates will use the poop hole in the cell at this point but this must be done quickly. If the warders open the room and find a prisoner squatting they will be offended, and that is not a good way to start the morning. Relieving oneself in sight of a prison official is extremely disrespectful.
Sometimes there is lots of traffic at the poop hole and we studiously avoid looking uncomfortable with each other. The hole is partly shielded by a curtain made of sacks. Beside the hole there are buckets of water stacked high. As a rule, I note we are supposed to squat to pee. No briefing was given but after a few disastrous starts, it dawned on me that this is because it is extremely difficult to aim at the hole when standing. The place is dimly lit, the space is not enough and managing these two variables is not easy.
8: A Day at the Office
When the doors of the cell open, we troop out to the laundry area. Each prison block has one. This is the first count of the day. The warders stand and count from the entrance to the prison block. We inhale deeply. The early morning air is fresh. We have just come from the stale and thick air of the cells. When the count is over, it is time to go back to the cells to shower and brush teeth. Bathing is done from a bucket in turns.
After the morning bath, it is important to smear oneself with a mixture of coconut oil and very pungent disinfectant. This concoction is sold in prison and comes in small plastic bottles. The veterans of this place swear it is very effective in killing bacteria and fungi (one would imagine such microbes are not in short supply here). Tunde instructs us to especially smear a lot of this “Keko anointing oil” on our private parts. Of course, being Tunde, his sense of drama is never too far so he has to deliver the instruction with an ominous warning. “Otherwise your things will fall off by the time you get out of here” I have no option but to obey. Who would want his things to fall off? At the back of my mind, I am worried about trusting my hygiene and wellness to a formulation whose ingredients I have not the foggiest clue but I figure it is safer than catching some sort of infection.
Breakfast follows. This will be some tea and bread for those who were lucky to be visited by family and friends the previous day. Hot water for making tea and coffee is fetched from the kitchen in plastic bottles. Blankets are wrapped tightly around the bottles to keep the water warm. Standard prison breakfast is white porridge, served at the kitchen entrance. Tunde tells me with a straight face that the porridge is inspected by a cohort of highly trained German doctors. So far I have not seen any German in this compound. I wonder why.
9: Our Daily Foreign Bread
In addition to the porridge, the prison breakfast can also feature something called foreigner bread. Through some strange prison rule, all prisoners who are not of Tanzanian origin are entitled to a loaf of bread in the morning. It makes absolutely no sense to me. I cannot unravel the reasoning behind it even after several days in prison. I finally decide it must be something to do with a hidden scheme. I have always maintained that if you see something that does not make (economic) sense in Africa, rest assured it makes sense to some big fish somewhere. My guess is somebody senior somewhere successfully convinced Tanzanian prison authorities of the need to provide bread and then he or she landed a procurement deal with some kickbacks to somebody else. Our mysterious godfather, give us this morning our daily foreign bread.
As our stay here progresses, the kitchen starts serving another important function for me. It tells me the time at night. We are allowed neither phones nor watches. During the day, you can ask the warder for time but at night, that is not possible. At night, the heavy padlock and the chain emit a rattling sound when kitchen staff report. That means it is 3am and in another three hours we will be let out of our coop.
When breakfast is done it is time to clean the cells. Some prisoners offer cleaning services to other inmates at a fee. No cash is allowed. All transactions involve the exchange of soda. A bottle of soda is equivalent to 1000 Tanzanian shillings (40 US cents) and is enough to hire a cleaner. More soda will get the standard supply of eight water buckets carried safely to the cell. This latter service is provided by a select breed of inmates who specialize in fetching water from the main tank in the yard. As a consequence of the prison economy, all visitors are encouraged to bring soda. A man with a crate of soda is a don here. You must approach such a man with reverence because he is truly loaded and he calls the shots. You may be talking to The Elon Musk of musky Keko.
At 9am cells are locked and most prisoners must hang out in the yard. However, the sick bay is the exception to this rule, and as we are the lucky inhabitants of this block we may come and go as we please during the day. The size of the yard is roughly a quarter of a football field. It contains two shelters which have raised concrete floors. In the shelters there are two TV screens. We follow news and sports religiously. There are newspapers and books to be read. I sometimes retreat to the cell and chat with the man from Segerea and his crew of Nigerian friends.
10: The Man from Segerea
The man from Segerea is a curious character. Segerea is another prison in Dar es Salaam and this guy spent months there. He is a very close friend of Tunde and Chukwu. I am sure by now you have guessed that he is also Nigerian and his crime also involves narcotics. He speaks impeccable English and is always dressed in very clean clothes. Tunde introduces me to him the second morning. From that point, I greet him every day, “Good morning, man from Segerea!” and he responds, “Good morning, man from Kenya!”
I do not know why he prefers to shower in our cell but every morning, he shows up and takes his place in the queue. He sings joyfully as he showers. He brushes his teeth and dresses up. Then he comes out and says to me, “Man from Kenya!”
Our daily greetings make me wonder: If I stay here long enough and I happen to be transferred to another prison, people will forget my nationality and my crime. They will start greeting me with “good morning, man from Keko!”
In the final installment of Joseph’s prison journal, to be published next Wednesday, he tells us about the plea bargain negotiated by Vodacom’s lawyers and the anguish of being told to plead guilty when you know you are innocent.