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Books & arts

Prison Literature in Kenya

Kimani wa Wanjiru

2007-02-07, Issue 290

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A literary review of prison literature in Kenya provides the reader with an insight into political dissent in Africa and the irony that imprisonment itself becomes a catalyst for radicalisation of the prisoner.

Prison Literature-namely novels, short stories, poems or plays - that delve into the horrid conditions and experiences in prison, has increased immensely. It is a global phenomenon whose importance in examining the struggles in the society cannot be ignored. It would for instance be fallacious and inadequate to study the body that is African Literature without mentioning prison writings and the writers who have been so prolific in prison.

Like any other artistic venture, prison literature is an indicator of the various parameters that govern and shape society. It can on the one hand be closely linked to the democratisation of our society and an indicator that even jail has not and cannot dampen the fury of the pen, on the other hand. A brief explication of these writings indicates clearly that they can also be used to give an adequate, accurate and comprehensive commentary on the socio-economic, political development of Africa and Kenya for that matter. They are an important resource in showing where we are coming from and what sorts of fragments are scattered along the political, economical and social path that we have used.

Further scrutiny reveals that this body of literature is complex and can be classified differently. The two major classifications are the traditional ones namely-fiction and non-fiction. The non-fiction is further sub-divided into those that are mainly historical or just a diary of events. However, whether fictional or non-fictional, these writings capture vividly the horrid and gruesome experiences in the state corridors of silence. These writings can be traced as far back as colonial days in some countries and have become eminent beacons of many other countries and particularly Kenya's post independence histories.

They generally tell where the continent has come from and reached in its quest for justice, upholding the rule of law and ensuring that the fundamental human rights are respected. Prison writings, whether fictional or non-fictional, have become a major source of a vast body of knowledge that tells the African tale.

Kenya's experience can be traced as far back as during the British rule that saw many militant Kenyans agitating for self-determination thrown into jail and detention camps. Graduates of these jails and detention camps captured their experiences on paper and subtly outlined a path that has been followed by subsequent writers. The late J.M. Kariuki was amongst the first Kenyans to capture their horrid experiences in his non-fictional account Mau Mau in Detention back in 1963. Others soon followed suit. Gakaara wa Wanjau, an established writer and publisher, who had the misfortune of being imprisoned in both the colonial and independent Kenya, documented his experience in the British corridors of silence in his book, Mwandiki wa Mau Mau Ithamerio-ine (Mau Mau Author in Detention).

Independent Kenya has however produced more and better works of art that are indicative of many things. The doors were opened by Abdulatif Abdullah, the first post-independence Kenyan political prisoner. Abdulatif was imprisoned by the Kenyatta regime for four years and hard labour after he wrote an article titled Kenya Twendapi (Kenya Where are we Headed), in reaction to the disbandment of K.P.U. While serving his term, he wrote a collection of poems called Sauti ya Dhiki, which ironically won the second the edition of the erstwhile prestigious Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature.

Other writers were later to follow and each chose a unique way to capture the grisly events in jail. The most famous of these writers is Ngugi wa Thiong'o. His activities in the community theatre in Kamirithu led to his detention in 1977. While in Kamiti, he wrote Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary, which is a diversion from his other fictional works. Others, who have contributed a great wealth in this body, include Maina wa Kinyatti, Koigi wa Wamwere and Wanyiri Kihoro more recently. Maina wa Kinyatti perhaps has the highest number of books that vividly describe his harrowing experience. He has a collection of poems A Season of Blood: Poems from Kenyan Prison (1995), his day-in-day-out recollections, Kenya -A Prison Notebook (1996) and a third one that details events covering his arrest, torture and imprisonment called Mother Africa. Wanyiri Kihoro, the Nyeri Town MP has documented his ordeal in Never Say Die, which another writer, the late Wahome Mutahi described as a brilliant piece of work that was the closest work of art that detailed events that want on at the infamous Nyayo House basement cells.

There are hordes of other works that have been written that are largely fictional. Several others have a thrilling fast-paced drama. The East African Educational Publishers, who have a big collection in this area, have listed them under their Spear series. Most of these writings that are largely confessions of erstwhile crooks like John Kiriamiti's My Life in Crime, Kiggia Kimani's Prison is Not a Holiday Camp or Charles Githae's Comrade Inmate, amongst other offer scintillating narratives but they are all shrouded by the gruesome prison experience and the grotesque Mutahi's is shocking. The late Wahome Mutahi's Three Days on the Cross Karuga Wandai's Mayor in Prison and Benjamin Garth Bundeh's Birds of Kamiti are amongst those listed in the spear series in spite of their strong real life experience. Wahome was arrested a few days after he had submitted his manuscript to the publishers and when he was released, the publishers asked him to revise it incorporate other details of his incarceration.

Bundeh's Birds of Kamiti is a detailed account of his close shave with the hangman's noose. It is a personal account that is gripping and quite emotional. However, these works whether autobiographical or biographical or confessions are representative of pertinent issues. They provide a social commentary that needs consideration. They open new insights for both the authors and society at large. Incarceration did not provide an opportunity for Ngugi to write a prison diary but within this physical prison, Ngugi stumbled upon a non-physical prison, namely language. He sought the refuge in the power of the pen and wrote Detained. He defied the subordination of-physical prison and found refuge in Gikuyu. In cell 16, he wrote Caitaani Mutharabaine (Devil on the Cross) in Gikuyu as a demonstration of his new found freedom and EAEP boss intimated to me that his latest manuscript is being scrutinised.

For others like Maina wa Kinyatti, "writing and reciting poems in solitary confinement under conditions of unendurable physical and psychological torture hardened the heart and steeled the mind to remain steadfast and truthful to the cause". Incarceration has not been limited in Kenya only. Apartheid South Africa jailed writers like Dennis Brutus, who wrote Letters to Martha, the late Alex La Guma amongst others. Jack Mapanje from Malawi, Kofi Awoonor from Ghana, Sherif Hatata and Nawal el Sadaawi from Egypt, and the first African recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Prof. Wole Soyinka have all been imprisoned. They have also served to help raise fundamental questions on the dispensation of justice and the entire process of crime and punishment.

The works, whether biographical like Wanyiri's Never Say Die, which was also nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, or confessions by erstwhile bank robbers or other crooks or other real-life drama experiences, have served as clear indicators that system is rotten and closer scrutiny is necessary.


Could it be the appalling, grotesque, grisly conditions in the state corridors of silence that has kept the number of prison writings growing year in year out or just an insatiable desire to write and keep the tabs? It is certainly this and many other reasons that keeps that pen rolling. A discussion with a number of these writers reveals that it is a combination of these and many other reasons. It is a bottomless pit of stories and the experience cannot be bottled inside. "One normally feels that the story has to be told", comments one writer.

"For many writers", observed the late Wahome Mutahi, who has two books - Three Days on the Cross and Jail Bugs - on prison writing, "Writing about their horrid experiences behind bars is often cathartic". It is a way of telling time to comment on many things that go on both behind bars and outside. Writing is a way of telling the rest of the world, the awful conditions that persist in these places that society places some of its members for correction and punishment. It has been described differently by many writers. It is a place, where like Benjamin Garth Bundeh describes in Birds of Kamiti as a totally new world. "A world of prisoners, of warders, and of the tragic twist of fate. It was a world in which either the spirit was completely broken and degraded, or true courage was born". "When you enter this place", writes Bundeh, "you have to forget everything about the outside world. The dungeon becomes your home and you must survive, smoking is treason here - but we still manage to pass the traffic load of fags and like stone age man, we create fire in these caves". It is a place where the basic instinct of survival reigns supreme.

Writers want to talk about this place where every effort is geared towards removing any trace of humanity that could be remaining to these inmates. Bundeh notes in his non-fictional dossier that after his first night a truer picture started forming. "I saw more people and most of them looked like creatures out of a nightmare. Together with them, we had ceased to be human beings. Our names had been taken away from us. We had been relegated to more numbers in a heap of files. Both the beginning and end of life seemed to have been lost".

They want to narrate about these correctional places that are a law unto them selves. Into the damp mould and stagnation of these tombs, "the warders would from time to time burst in to remind us that unlike free people", inmates "could be tormented again and again, physically and spiritually, subtly and brutally, collectively and individually, day and night. "The warders enjoyed treating us to the choicest of gutter oaths", notes Bundeh. The authorities find several ways to further break and degrade the inmates. There is torture that targets the most vulnerable parts of our bodies and every writer seems to have endured this. The occasional beating is often capped with eating partially cooked food and solitary confinement that many writers argue that it is not different from a shot of L.S.D. or any other hallucinogen. They both degrade people "only that the drugs make one mad more quickly thus removing the utter hopeless".

Besides the deplorable and dehumanising conditions behind bars that most writers want to vividly point out, the other issues that often come out in prison literature appeals to the outside prison conditions. These books, whether fictional or non-fictional all offer important questions that society needs to consider for further scrutiny. In their writings, the writers often want to focus society on the entire system of justice and its dispensation. Many question the whole system of crime and punishment and although some don't ask directly, the effectiveness of the whole system is put to test. Bundeh, who was on the death row and actually witnessed some of his inmates and friends executed packs his narrative with so much energy and emotion that you can feel it deeply and is more direct when he poses these questions.

"I wonder, should any human being be allowed to condemn another human being to death? Should one form of killing be lawful and another one unlawful? Should the law be allowed to take away that which it cannot create? Is there any correlation between the execution of treasonous, murderers or violent robbers and the number of crimes committed? The gallows in Kenya, the guillotine, the electric chair, and firing squads elsewhere - are these deterrents?"

Many books that are non-fictional have a similar trait. The authors are in many instances unwilling guests of the state in their corridors of silence. Most of these authors repeatedly turn to writing as a catharsis. The majority have been thrown behind bars for their political beliefs and in their writings, they have more than once provided new insights into the political machinations of this country. Karuga Wandai, an erstwhile deputy mayor in Thika, provides interesting insights of the "siasa za kumalizana" in the Kenyan political arena in his prison account "Mayor in Prison". Although it is an account of his survival and fight for his freedom, he nonetheless manages to show the country's struggles, transition and some of the central issues that greatly influenced the political under-dealings.

Wanyiri Kihoro, the erstwhile Nyeri Town MP in his biography Never Say Die or Wahome Mutahi's work of fiction Three Days on the Cross capture the dark days in the country's political spectrum. They vividly document their gruesome ordeal in the hands of the state security machinery in the infamous underground cells of Nyayo houses was an experience that couldn't be bottled inside. The other way that many authors have managed to give a commentary on the political manoeuvres has been by giving the politicians central parts in the narratives. They (the characters) have in turn revealed how they manipulated people in society and how laws have been turned to suit a few and how these laws are in turn used against them once they fall out of favour.

* Kimani wa Wanjiru is author of the blog: “Arts and Culure – Kenya” (

* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at

Readers' Comments

Let your voice be heard. Comment on this article.

It is heart breaking to imagine the nasty things that happen to other human beings behind bars....kudos to the writters to bring out these things to the light

carolyne kanyiri jkuat

What amazes me in prison writing, particularly kenyan prison literature is the ability for the writers not to succumb to emotional break down but in stead resort to black humor. I have in mind such writers as maina wa Kinyatti, Wahome Mutahi, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, John Kiriamiti among others. I highly recommend Kiriamiti's My Life in Prison...gruesome yet so hilarious!!!!

Jennifer Musangi- Wits University

Prison writing is definitely a genre that needs to be given more time and space if not anything to lay bare the mode utilised in communicating the excruciating experience of prison and the challenges therein of writing from the other side of the wall.

Larry Ndivo University of Nairobi

I was just wondering whether John Kiriamiti's autobiographical book,My Life in Prison is purely factual without some fictional 'juice' in it because no matter how much I want to believe some parts of it (like instances where inmates kill the cops and eat their [the cops'] brains) are fictional, some inner voice keeps saying, "Come on believe it...things happen in those cells". Please help me out or perhaps kiriamiti has something to say about this?

Jennifer Musangi-Wits University

I have just finished reading Wahome Mutahi's Three Days on the Cross for the fourth time! your commentary is such an insight into the arm of jurisdiction in Moi's era.....yes,crime and Punishment.i think Kenyans should redefine crime and punishment especially when it comes to political crime!!!!Thanks a lot.keep posting.

Jennifer musangi-Wits university

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