This story is taken from the notes and journal of Joseph Nderitu, a Kenyan telecoms professional who was working as the Head of Revenue Assurance and Fraud Management at Vodacom Tanzania when in April 2019 he was wrongfully charged and detained along with four other Vodacom executives including Managing Director Hisham Hendi, after being accused of a fraud they did not commit. The Vodacom Five had no opportunity to ask for bail, and previous cases showed there was no likelihood of an early trial. As a Kenyan, Joseph was denied visits from his family and his only support came from his Tanzanian work colleagues.
When Joseph was imprisoned there were several state-run enterprises in Tanzania that were on the brink of financial collapse and the Tanzanian government needed money in a hurry. Forcing one of Tanzania’s largest businesses to make reparations would provide a quick solution. The Tanzanian government’s treatment of the Vodacom Five mirrors the way they have imprisoned executives at other telcos and other businesses, always on charges of ‘economic’ crimes where bail is not given, never resulting in a court trial as the Director of Public Prosecutions repeatedly demands delays to gather evidence, and always ending with the businesses paying whichever fine the government has demanded.
Preface: Lest We Forget
I dedicate these prison notes to the men and women who are held in Tanzania’s prisons on trumped up charges.
Some have been behind bars for years without getting the right to a fair trial. Their families and friends wait but they do not know for how long they will wait.
In April 2019, I was remanded at Keko prison, in Dar es Salaam, along with four other employees of Vodacom Tanzania. We were detained without bail for participation in an “economic crime”. This tactic is increasingly being used by the government to arm-twist companies into paying hefty fines.
Names have been changed to protect the identity of those who remain in custody. This is otherwise an accurate representation of events, drawn from the journal I maintained in prison.
I have felt just a tiny bit of the pain that other detainees go through. I was among the lucky ones as my brief stay cannot be compared to what most of the detainees have endured and continue to endure.
These injustices occur under the guise of fighting corruption. I hope the Tanzanian people will see through the machinations of the State and will one day celebrate true liberty.
Joseph Nderitu, Nairobi
1: The Benefit of Hindsight
The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed
Steve Bantu Biko
“It would be a pretty screwed up situation to be killed by a ceiling fan after surviving nine days in prison,” I say to Sophie.
We are lying in bed looking up at the ceiling fan. I am supposed to be taking an afternoon nap but Sophie came into the bedroom and we started talking. I am having problems sleeping at night – the nightmares keep coming. So the daytime finds me quite groggy. After lunch, I now prefer to lie down and close my eyes for an hour or two.
The fan has an inexplicable way of increasing its rotation speed by itself. It spins so fast. At its highest speed, it looks as if it just might come off the mounts and behead everybody in the room.
Sophie says it makes her think of a helicopter whirling out of control.
I need the fan. For a few days after being released from prison, the air conditioner makes me cough badly. Dar es Salaam is especially hot this month so the trusted fan, with its mysterious way of working, has to do. December and January are the hottest months but we are in April and the heat just won’t relent.
I look at the fan and I am reminded how the past few days wildly spun out of control. How did I end up in prison in a foreign land, accused of such a serious crime?
2: Come in for a Chat
It is a normal day in the office. Reports are being written, meetings being held, plans being made and reviewed. I am coming from lunch with a couple of colleagues, managers in my team as well as one more department which I work closely with. We have recently discovered a new spot for lunch where the food is great and the service is excellent. It serves as welcome relief from the food in the office canteen.
We are nearing the office building. A colleague receives a phone call and mutters something about the national security service agents looking for the Managing Director. I wonder why the Tanzania Intelligence and Security Service would want the boss of our company.
I get to my desk and I am called to go up to the MD’s office. Apparently the national security people have a letter for the MD and they want him to go down and sign it. Many calls are being made to senior people in government and security agencies to try to get to the bottom of this. Everybody is wondering what this is all about.
Finally, a decision is made to accompany the MD to the police station. By now, the letter has been delivered to his office. It “requests” him to go to the police station accompanied by several managers. I am among the listed ones or rather, my job title is listed.
We drive to the nearby police station, which happens to be at the Oyster Bay area of Dar es Salaam. We have about one hour from the deadline given in the letter. There is a slight drizzle, the heat has dissipated a little. I stand with my colleagues in the rain. We are not so worried. We are all hopeful that this is a matter that will be clarified after meeting with the police. We have cooperated with security forces on many matters.
Sure, we know in the past that executives from other telcos have been arrested and arraigned in court. But we have no reason to expect that will happen to us.
We are instructed to report to another police station, so we drive to the one in Kijitonyama. There is a downpour from the heavens. Some of us stand outside the police station in Kijitonyama, whilst others remain in their cars. It is not clear who we are there to meet; we have been instructed to wait.
3: You Are under Arrest!
A police inspector who looks to be in his early thirties arrives and announces that as at this time, in accordance with some section of the law, we are all under arrest. He informs us that we shall be interrogated, we have the right to call lawyers to be with us during interrogation and that after interrogation, we shall be expected to hand in our cellphones.
The interrogation starts. I am assigned to a policeman who is very bored and looks like he would give anything to be out of here. The line of questioning is odd and I am lost as to why anybody would expect me to have anything to do with the matters being discussed. He asks how Vodacom allocates telephone numbers. Do I know who does it? Do I know the process? Can I give names and/or departments? Of course I also have to give my full name, place of birth, names of parents and siblings, my education background and my professional qualifications and working history.
It is 8pm when we finish and we have to be “processed” before being shown to our cells. Shoes, socks, wallets, jewellery and reading glasses are not allowed in the holding cell. Together with my colleagues, we comply. I feel as if things are moving in slow motion. All I can think is that the cement is cold when your feet are bare.
I pause when I have to remove my wedding band. My mind travels back to three memorable occasions when I have had to remove the wedding band from my finger. Two were very sad situations. The first was when I had to be wheeled in to the operating theatre for an appendectomy. The second was for another operation, to repair the harm done during my appendectomy. I hated going into the theatre, lying on my back and handing over my wedding band to Sophie at the final moment. I would have preferred to walk into the operating theatre, if only to retain a sense of being in control. The third occasion was a happy moment. I had to remove my ring before my family and I swam in a sulphur pool deep in the Kenyan Rift Valley. Now I have to remove my ring and I know it is not for something good.
I give my ring, wallet and belt to one of our colleagues who accompanied us to the station. She looks calm but I cannot help but wonder, when will I get my ring back? That is, if I ever will.
There are 10 of us sharing a cell that is three metres square. Colleagues from the office bring us chicken, chips and soda for supper. They also ensured we had plenty of bottles of water.
4: Accommodation, Courtesy of Taxpayers
It is a long night in the cell at Kijitonyama. We have no watches so telling the time is difficult. The floor is cold, very cold. There are no mattresses. Neither do we have blankets. We spread out on the floor, lying on our backs. Plastic water bottles are now the pillows as they offer some neck support. Mosquitoes are buzzing about. Our Managing Director is asthmatic and the stuffy air in the cell is not doing him any good. The policemen on guard kindly let him stand at the corridor in order to get some fresh air.
There is a man snoring loudly in the neighbouring cell. I have never witnessed such snoring in my life. As we cannot sleep, we while away the time discussing him. We also discuss what awaits us. One of us declares: “We shall either go home quietly tomorrow morning or we shall be hauled off to court and be made famous”.
Morning finally comes. We can hear people moving about. We estimate it is about 8am. The office has sent us some coffee, tea, cookies and sandwiches. We eat silently. We have got some toothbrushes so we brush teeth and wash faces as we wait to face the day. There is water and urine all over the floor of the washroom. There are also some communal bathroom slippers – the government has kindly allowed us to use these. Luckily, we have some medicated wipes so after using the washroom, we all wipe the soles our feet and hope that whatever germs picked up in the toilet are quickly killed.
The door is opened and we are separated into two groups. I fall into a group that has the Managing Director and three others. We are given back our socks and shoes. Our colleagues remain behind. I hope they have better luck than us. I have already sensed the five of us, in the company of the MD, are in for a long rough ride. Detectives are milling around us and they look like they are really anticipating action. I spot some colleagues from the office at the entrance of the police station. They look anxious.
We now know this is the beginning of something that is bigger than we anticipated. Two Land Cruisers are waiting outside. We are herded out of the police station. Two of us enter one vehicle; there are three enter in the other. The child lock has been set on the back doors. With a lot of fanfare, the Inspector sits in the front passenger seat. Two more police officers take their positions next to the rear doors sandwiching us, their prey. We are now passengers travelling under the care of the state, destination unknown.
The detectives exchange jokes.
The cars pull out of the police compound. The driver continually presses the horn; the Inspector authoritatively instructs him to switch on the headlights. We are driving on the wrong side of the road. Cars are getting out of our way and we are picking up speed. I am thinking: what am I guilty of? Could I be guilty without knowing? Maybe I signed a document and framed myself without knowing? Clearly, the state is convinced that I am a dangerous person who has to be swiftly transported somewhere even though I do not know what my offences are. Could this all be a mistake?
We enter the Dar es Salaam Bus Rapid Transit lane which is reserved for “Mwendo Kasi” buses. We are now barreling down this road. It is a clear day in Dar es Salaam, I see people going about their business. There are handcart pushers transporting wares all over town, men and women walking the Dar streets. Life is going on but it seems my life is now in a suspended state.
We arrive at the law courts in Kisutu, near to the city harbour. I breathe a sigh of relief. It seems we will get our day in court. The media is here. My photo has never been in the papers and the only time I was ever on TV is when I was part of a panel discussing mobile money risks in Nairobi in 2018. Now we will be in the papers and on television for some offence or other. Mama, look at me, I am on TV!
We sign in and are led into the courtroom. More photos, more jostling. Then I see a familiar face. Now I know what is happening. One of our corporate clients recently was in trouble for terminating international traffic using a PABX solution that is connected to our network. The Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) enlisted our help in understanding the solution and organizing meetings with the client. Subsequently, two employees of this company were arrested. It seems in some twisted logic, it has been decided that Vodacom also has a case to answer. I now know this is not good for us. The court case against this client is being treated as a case of economic sabotage, which means the the suspects are not entitled to bail. If we are enjoined, we shall also be going away for a long time.
The prosecutors read the charges. It is as I expected but worse. We are also charged with economic sabotage. In the one count, the state prosecutors allege that we five Vodacom employees, in conjunction with the two individuals from the other company, organised and ran a criminal racket which caused the government and TCRA to suffer a pecuniary loss of TZS 5,892,513,000. In another count, the same charge sheet alleges that we caused the TCRA to lose 5,250,237,000. Now that is some good cash, equivalent to millions of US dollars, and this is the level of crime associated with a major league criminal racket. I have never been part of any such racket and I know my colleagues are also innocent. However, at this point, that is irrelevant.
It is also unclear if these two counts are the same offence and if so, why different figures in the same charge sheet. Are we liable for TZS 5.89bn, TZS 5.25bn or the combined TZS 11.1bn? I half expect the judge to ask a question but he does not seem surprised. Neither is the judge surprised when the prosecution realizes that they have in fact charged us under the wrong section of the law. The good lady from the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions perfunctorily informs the court that the wrong statute has been quoted on the ninth count. She corrects it there and then with her pen. I seem to recall something about defective charge sheets from my Introduction to Law unit in University but it seems those rules do not apply here.
No bail can be granted so we find ourselves back in the court’s holding cells. Our next court date is 14 days away. The cells are hot, the air is thick with sweat. Men are walking around bare-chested. Some are seated on newspapers spread out on the floor. We make friends with Paul. He is a businessman and a gentleman. He tells us to prepare ourselves psychologically but he also assures us that it will not be so bad. He is in for economic crime as well. It seems many people are in for economic crime.
Half an hour later we are taken out of the cell and meet our office colleagues in a vacant courtroom so that we can bid them farewell before we start our journey to the remand prison. I can barely hold back my tears as they urge us to be strong. They have sandwiches, water and cookies. We eat but the food is tasteless and swallowing is difficult. I force it down my throat knowing that I will probably not get my next meal for a long time. I take more water and force down some cookies. I sense my life is over. Tears are welling in my eyes all the time but I want to be strong – eating takes my mind off what is to come.
The company lawyers assure us that we shall be okay. They say we shall be moved to a special wing of the jail that is slightly better and which holds some of the top suspects of economic crime including the former Commissioner General of the Tanzania Revenue Authority. Gee, thanks. It seems we are high profile criminals! Silently, I hope the lawyers are right about our lodging arrangements but I know better than to hope. It has been a period of 24 hours of surprise after surprise.
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!”
11: Out Here in the Fields
When the prisoners are in the yard, each group of friends creates an area for themselves. This is known as the maskan. One cannot just show up and sit in another group’s maskan as that would be rude and can be taken as an act of aggression. Prison has boundaries and it is important to be conscious of territories. They may not be marked but they definitely exist. They serve the purpose of maintaining order and keeping us all out of harm.
We are invited by Paul, who we met previously at the holding cells of the law courts in Kisutu. Paul is an old schoolmate of one of the Vodacom crew. His maskan is located behind one of the TV screens in the sheltered yard. Obviously our friend is very influential here. Paul’s maskan is staffed by prisoners who look as if they are on his payroll. They clean it and also wash his utensils. His staff includes expatriates, such as Pakistani drug smugglers, who are also skilled in the art of hospitality. From the first day, they treat us like royalty. Whenever we show up, they quickly pull out buckets from some place or other and we use the buckets as seats. Sometimes they also offer us their heavily spiced tea.
Paul is a gentleman, well read and well travelled. I hit it off with him as soon as I realize he likes Mario Puzo’s work. I think he fancies himself as the Don Corleone, a character that I also admire. Despite working for the Mafia, the Don had plenty of good advice to offer. His ability to see the big picture was something I have admired ever since I read the first book about him. Paul lets me raid his personal library, which is a carton full of books. He also gets daily newspapers and I always visit his maskan to check the dailies.
Paul was thrown into prison because of tax evasion. He explains to me how the Director of Public Prosecutions reached his conclusion, and it seems to me that the DPP’s office can be guilty of some very weird reasoning. Essentially, Paul renegotiated a contract because the cost of implementing a project changed mid-stream. He had not even received the revised payment, at which point he would have remitted the tax portion. When the revenue authority folks showed up and grabbed the revised contract, they compared it to the original contract and accused him of hiding money. That amounted to denying the government revenue and hence economic sabotage.
The maskan is a nice place for watching people. The old Pakistani who cleans the utensils has a young assistant who will graduate from prison as a highly qualified dish washer. There are boys who sit arranging and re-arranging containers of food. I also watch the four Eastern Europeans and the Chinese man who play Scrabble all day. This makes me wonder how fate conspired to have these sojourners meet in an African prison. Who needs more evidence that the world is a global village?
My people-watching pastime is paying off. I have never imagined I would ever meet a reality TV star. Yet here I am sitting next to a former Big Brother Africa contestant who was busted with diamonds in some corner in Tanzania. There is a Muslim cleric who is preaching to young converts and they sit imbibing wisdom from the sage of Keko. Of course, right opposite this religious group is the middle-aged man who reads pornographic magazines in full view of everybody, with his hand caressing his obviously excited member. Who can blame him for preferring alternative entertainment? Maybe God has abandoned him and he has taken to pleasuring himself in the sun. To each his own.
The water-man is in charge of the taps and he reports to ‘work’ at around 2pm. This prisoner has a lot of power. When he turns on the taps, the crowd of water mongers surges forward. He wants them to queue and to maintain order, using a pipe to mock-whip those who are out of line. Those who continue to disrupt will feel the full lash of the pipe across their backs.
The bell ringer is also a very important prisoner. His bell signifies feeding time and it also calls us to go for the final count of the day before we retreat to the cells.
Prison activity never stops. There are 1,400 men moving, shouting, laughing, explaining, protesting, feeding, watching television, sleeping, playing… these are the sights and sounds of Keko and they are consistent from day to day. It is difficult to measure the passage of time. All of the while, the TV is either showing news, movies or sports. The moviegoers are quiet, those who watch news are very pensive, and those who watch sports are rowdy.
I watch flies when I grow tired of watching people. The yard has enough flies, attracted by the morsels of food dropped by prisoners during feeding time. The gutter that surrounds the yard has dirty water and is a favourite place for the flies. Before we go in for the night, a band of prisoners collect the dirt into large sacks – food, empty bottles, banana peels, bottle tops, odd bits of cloth and all manner of dirt.
It is amazing how much trash human beings create. The scavenging band puts the rubbish into two green plastic tanks that stand near the entrance of Block 4. This rubbish remains here all night and will be picked in the morning. I think this rubbish is quite lucky. Whilst we, the human wreckage, remain barricaded behind the iron grille, the rubbish enjoys the fresh air of the yard, waiting to be carted off somewhere tomorrow. And from there it shall rejoin the circle of life. I contemplate putting a message in a plastic bottle and wonder how far it would go. Then I decide that would be nuts. It is better to keep a journal.
12: Dinner with Aristotle and Friends
Once we go back into the cells, those who were lucky to be visited during the day can take their supper. Those who were not visited but kept some leftovers from the prison lunch may also tuck in. Afterwards, the talking in the cells is pretty much the only entertainment we have, although the droning of male voices reduces as the night progresses.
Our cell has the liveliest debates and we have a different topic each day. One evening we are discussing food. Somebody asks, “why do experts advise us to eat fruits and vegetables before the main meal?” From that point, everybody becomes a food expert. Theories of digestion are given. Lining the stomach with roughage is given a possible reason. Somebody suggests the fruits are more nutritious and fill the stomach hence ensuring we do not eat too much. One person says the fruits should be eaten first so that if they have any germs, because they were not properly washed, when we eat the warm food, it will go and kill the germs. This sounds implausible but nobody contradicts him. Sometimes it is better to hear voices from other people because that quietens the voices in your head, which are invariably worse.
We also discuss other topics of interest. One night, the drug dealers tell us about cocaine, heroin and speed. We discuss the markets for these drugs and why cocaine is preferred by the affluent sections of society. Japan is described as a very lucrative market. A kilo of cocaine will fetch upwards of USD 30,000. Transiting the load via Philippines is a good idea; the narcos assure me the drug war being carried out in the Philippines is all make-believe. Well, that is not what I read but who am I to argue with the experts? The selection of drug routes is key. When moving drugs via Africa, the airports and ports of Dar es Salaam used to be the best because of lax security and porous borders as well as a safe intermediate point (inbound and outbound) at Zanzibar. Now with the new president in Tanzania and the new law which has made narcotics offences non-bailable, it is better to go via Nairobi. None of the drug dealers use their own products.
Towards the end of this very enlightening discussion, Tunde summarizes his career solemnly. He says the drug dealer is also an addict. He may not use his own drug but he is addicted to the easy cash and the highs of dealing with thousands of dollars just by hopping on and off a flight. I have never thought of it that way. As I sleep, I have a nightmare where I am sniffing cocaine but it goes in as powder through the nostrils and comes out as blood through the mouth and the more I try to stop sniffing it, the more I lose the battle. From that evening onwards, I do not want stories of drugs at night. Too spooky.
Whenever we have extra food, we share it with the occupants of the cell across the corridor. That requires some coordination. We put the food in a container and tie it to a rope. The free end of the rope is thrown across the corridor. The guys across start pulling the food across slowly, carefully so as not to spill even a morsel. It is also a risky operation because the rope is contraband. We are not supposed to have such things in prison because of the risk of suicide. When you are lying on hard concrete night after night, staring at the lone lightbulb high in the ceiling, suicide becomes an attractive possibility. I don’t ask how the rope got into our cell. This cell has two men accused of trading narcotics across international borders. Smuggling a rope into a cell is probably a walk in the park for them.
After dinner there is some reading and discussion of cases. We collectively formulate defence arguments. Some prisoners come up with better pleadings than their lawyers. The Criminal Procedure Act is memorized here. One must not just be familiar with it. It is important to know it better than the half-assed lawyers who abound in town. High court rulings are perused for precedent. We review the court proceedings contained in the dailies to gain more insights into cases.
13: Thou Shalt Be Known as the Club Man
On Saturday night, I remind my cellmates, “today is Saturday”. They all look at me askance. Chukwu responds, “so you want to go to the club?”. From that point, I assume a new name – the Club Man. I rather like this moniker. It sounds ominously dangerous. When you hear my name, I bet you are not sure which “club” gave me the name. It could be that I like partying. It could be that I am in prison because I like clobbering people to death. Even though nobody is after me, such ambiguity about the origins of my name may one day come handy.
Some of the prison guards are quite nice. Others are very rough. The senior ones are generally polite and we can discuss many things with them. They are very candid. They tell us, “Vodacom just needs to pay up and you can go home. Your innocence does not matter. There is no way you are going home without paying”. They remind us of the cases of Zantel and Halotel – two telcos which found themselves in the same predicament. It is all about the money, they declare.
In the first few days, the junior warders are difficult to deal with. They exert their power by insisting that we squat when talking to them. At first I find it difficult to deal with and I inwardly resent such humiliation. Then I realize it is all a mind game. Those who show resentment are humiliated further. Those who show full acceptance of the system are pretty much left alone. As time goes by, we no longer have to squat when talking to the warders. I am starting to feel very grown up. When colleagues from Vodacom visit, I can smile. I see the worry on their faces and I do not want them to go home worrying.
14: Waiting for Godot
Behind the scenes, tough negotiations have been taking place between Vodacom and the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. We are briefed whenever we meet with office colleagues and the lawyers. The DPP has already indicated that he will oppose bail at all points so Vodacom should not even think about applying.
Days pass. We wait. Nothing happens. We wake up. We bask in the sun all day. We eat. We read. We sleep. We go from mood to mood – sometimes happy, sometimes depressed. All the while, the machine that is Keko Prison runs on schedule. I am reminded of a short story that I read in the anthology Looking for a Rain God and Other Stories. Are we, like the poor sucker in the Prison Monger story, just an unfortunate part of the wreckage that mankind, on its onward march, has left behind?
Finally the lawyers come with the plea bargain. We gather in a meeting room not too far from the Warden’s office. It is a tough moment. We know we did not do the things we have been charged with, but the only way to get out is by admitting we are guilty. That will pave the way for Vodacom to pay the fine so we can go home to our families.
Being a foreigner, I am not allowed visitors. Each day, colleagues from the office visit and they tell me my wife and mother are waiting outside. I hold on to the hope that they will be allowed to see me. Visiting time ends. The hoping continues the following day. Now the only realistic chance I have is signing on the dotted line and putting my thumbprint in the assigned space. If I do that I will be allowed to go home.
This is the toughest decision of my life. Ever since I walked into the world of telecoms, I have dedicated my time to preventing and detecting ways in which telecom companies lose money. By doing this I have done my best to ensure governments receive the tax owed to them. This is because telcos do not pay tax if they lose money. Now, I have to sit here and admit that I am guilty of a fraud that has cost the Tanzanian government over USD 2mn. This amounts to denying my very soul. If I am guilty of this, that would be a small matter. The bigger picture is that committing this crime would mean 13 years of my life have been devoted to a scam.
My mind settles amidst the turmoil and I see things clearly. I decide they can make us sign all types of papers. They can splash our names all over the media because Tanzanian journalists have been cowed into parroting what the government says without any meaningful analysis. They can label us any way they want because if we want to change the narrative we must stay in prison as the court case drags on. They have all the levers in this case but there is one thing they cannot do: they cannot change the truth. And, no matter how long it takes, the truth will come out. With this realization, I am finally calm. We execute the plea bargain. I can even smile. I wonder how many times this charade has played out in rooms like this one. Maybe one day we shall know.
15: A Trip to the Theatre
On our last day in prison we are taken to court in the big green bus. We are inspected before we board. One warder wants to confiscate my prison notes. I anticipated they would attempt this so I have written mostly in shorthand. Interspersed in the notes are quotes from the Bible and I tell the warder that I have been documenting my daily moments with Jesus Christ.
When he scans my notes, I point him to the Bible verses. However, I fear he will look too closely because most of them were made up by myself. You can scour the whole Bible and I guarantee you will not find Matthew Chapter 49! I spot one entry that quotes Matthew 49: 1-2.
Jesus warned the disciples against reading literature from the Pharisees. He told them to walk in light, to pray, fast and call on the name of the Most High.
I make a mental note that next time I am in prison I will quote real Bible verses. Luckily this warder does not read much of the Bible so he looks at me the way one would look at a member of weird cult. I stuff my notes back into my pockets and walk away whistling.
The big green bus crawls in the early morning traffic. Dar es Salaam is as busy as ever. The press awaits us at the law courts in Kisutu. Cameras are thrust into our faces. Their flash is blinding and I feel disoriented. I have a slight dry cough and the open window in the courtroom lets in an uncomfortable breeze which makes my cough worse. I hope the judge will not hold me in contempt for coughing and interrupting proceedings. We sit on the bench and are surrounded by photojournalists who click away for what seems like an eternity.
I look at the journalists and smile inwardly. They are taking photos and writing words but they are either too lazy or too afraid to question the meaning behind what they are doing. In the movie, The Insider, I remember Al Pacino asking a media executive who was scared of publishing a whistleblower story, “are you a newsman or a businessman?” Tanzania media has too many businessmen and too few newsmen.
The charges are read and we take the plea. Standing in front of the judge as we say we are crooks, I look at the lawyers from the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. They studiously avoid looking in our direction. I suppose it is always difficult to knife a man if you are looking into his eyes. I also spot the lawyer from Tanzania’s communications regulator seated alongside the folks from the DPP. He looks content. They all look happy. For them it is a job well done. I start wondering: do they honestly believe in the work they do? I actually feel sorry for them. How do they sleep at night knowing the misery they cause in order to look good in the media and impress the President? What is the conversation at their dinner tables?
“Honey, today we locked up some poor suckers from Vodacom including their Managing Director.”
“Gee darling, you are on a roll. Didn’t you lock up Zantel and Halotel executives last year? Going hard after the big fish, aren’t you?”
“Oh, I am just getting started. By the time I am done, the MD of every telco will shiver at the mention of my name.”
“The President must be so happy with you.”
“No doubt, great things are coming our way. When the President gets reelected, I hope he remembers me.”
“It’s just a few months to the election. You are already in his good books so I know you will be just fine.”
It has become very fashionable for Tanzanian government officials to speak tough, do all manner of vile acts and present their backs to be patted – as long as it appears that they are supporting the President. The President has not made a secret that he thinks the corporate world is just a big thieving set-up. His fights with the mining sector took a very bizarre turn where complaints turned into threats, and threats turned into arrests. It seems the people under him fall upon themselves to prove that corporates are stealing. Yet, the folly of sycophancy is that if His Excellency woke up today and said that corporates are the new age messiahs, these same people would be rushing to shine our shoes. They would be lining up to tell him, “Sir, see what a great job I did with these shoes?” What a farce!
However, I understand. The men and women who serve despotic regimes do not do so because of ignorance. Some are highly educated and are very much aware that the direction the country is taking is not right. They are simply cowards. They are motivated by fear and a sense of self-preservation. This makes them desperate for approval. If their master declares that adding a second set of wings to a dead ostrich would make the bird fly, they would be the first ones out of the door looking for feathers and glue. Reason and knowledge are shunted. Exhibit A: the spineless men and women standing in front of the judge telling lies as part of their daily tasks. As the court proceedings progress, I feel sorry for these people. How empty their lives must be if this is the height of their achievements.
The judge is done with us. He orders that we pay the fine and if we do not pay the fine, we shall be brought back to him for sentencing which will include a custodial stint. He stands up. His potbelly is a thing of wonder and I cannot help staring. It reminds me of a balloon. The buttons are stretched tight. As he walks down the steps from his chair, I feel as if am looking at the black version of Luciano Pavarotti. Can he belt out a tune? It would be nice if he offered us a rendition of Lucky Dube’s Prisoner but instead of a reggae tune, he should mix it up with an opera performance à la Pavarotti. We are in the theatre of the absurd, after all.
We are herded out to a small room at the back of the court whilst Vodacom wires the money. Down the staircase, more photos are taken as we take the walk of shame, only I don’t feel any shame. I feel sorry for the taxpayers who coughed up money to finance this show. I also feel sorry for the shareholders of the companies that are being extorted in this way. Behind these empty and high profile victories, innocent people are losing. The lawyers bring us sandwiches and soda for lunch. We chat with the policemen who are guarding us; they are very charming after we pass the sandwiches around. I feel sorry for them too. Reporting to such a noble job, doing it so diligently, while all along they are just innocent cogs in a mightily screwed up system. Surely a man’s life should count for more than this?
Two hours later, the fine has been paid. Wonder of wonders, the final figure is different – TZS 5.28Bn. I wonder how this was arrived at but my mind is too tired. 5.89Bn, 5.25Bn, 5.28Bn – what does it matter? We, the hostages, are free to go home. As I walk out of the court into the arms of my wife, I know this injustice will be visited upon more people. We were neither the first, nor are we the last. If anything, we are amongst the luckiest ones to have walked this path – our stint in prison was very brief. I also feel I learnt a lot. I do not know for how long this mess will go on and I do not know how many people will be afflicted by this odious malady. I just know it will go on.
I will read our twisted story in the newspaper tomorrow. For now I just need to go home, to be with Sophie and to lay on a bed that has a fan suspended above it instead of a lightbulb that you can never switch off.