To mark World Book Night and raise awareness of our Books for Prisoners campaign, English PEN has asked international writers and former prisoners of conscience about the value of reading in detention. In this remarkable piece, Nigerian editor Kunle Ajibade explains how books became his lifeline during his time in Makurdi prison
I was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1995 by General Sani Abacha who hanged the writer and environmentalist, Ken Saro-Wiwa. Following international outcry, my sentence was commuted to fifteen years. But I spent three and half years in prison because Abacha suddenly died at the height of his reign of terror. My imprisonment was on account of a story published in TheNEWS magazine exonerating about fifty military officers who were accused of plotting to overthrow General Abacha. Those officers included General Olusegun Obasanjo who later became a post military democratically elected president.
Makurdi prison, where I languished, looked like the worst of shanties. A compact, menacing abnormality enclosed with concrete walls. Built in the 1930s for labour conscripts by the British colonialists, Makurdi prison, in the ranking of prisons, fell in the category of a lock-up. When I was there, more than half of the inmates were armed robbery suspects awaiting trial. There were petty thieves and rapists. There were two madmen. Some of the prisoners were products of broken homes. Some were children of frustrated soldiers arbitrarily laid off. There were kleptomaniacs who were caught several times stealing in jail. Each time I had a word with them they would tell several versions of their single stories and would come out of them chivalrous.
For the habitual criminals, spending time in jail was part of the hazard of their own job. For those of them who did not have a place to lay their heads in the city or village, prison was a haven. The jailbirds kept coming back to this edge of abyss. When I read in The Same River Twice by Alice Walker that ‘Death is easily preferred to imprisonment of any kind’, I said no, no. Not for these boys. Imprisonment was preferred to death itself. It was preferred to hunger on the streets. It was preferred to the burden of being regarded as outcasts. Like the palms of their hands, they knew so many prisons in Nigeria inside out. They talked glowingly of the ones they hated. For so many of the gang leaders, this prison was a fertile place of recruitment. It was also a training ground for new criminals.
Makurdi prison stank. It stank of rotten flesh, of excrement, of rat urine. It stank of many dirty mouths. It stank of corruption as well. Could this be why so many prisoners and warders spat phlegm copiously here? Marooned in this place as the only political prisoner, I would stay up all night in a Yoga pose, gazing at the night crawlers: rats that scurried in and out of my cell, spiders and bed bugs that were bold enough to disregard my presence. Roaches and more roaches. Roaches that came straight from the open sewer behind my cell. I would think of Wole Soyinka, the imprisoned writer in The Man Died who held talks with the roaches in his solitary confinement. How did he pull through?
To ward off the pains of this unbearable solitude, I needed a lifeline. Books became my inner light in this darkness. So I holed up, devouring books. Reading was the only means I used to lubricate and preserve my mind from shrinking to fit the smallness of Makurdi prison. Books gave me the necessary energy with which I pushed against the silence and gloom imposed upon me. I read and reread Pat Barker, Toni Morison, James Baldwin, Hermann Hess, Nadine Gordimer, Pablo Neruda, Gunter Grass, J.M. Coetzee, William Faulkner, Ian McEwan, Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie, Alice Walker, Wole Soyinka, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, among others.
Apart from books which my wife brought from my library, Mrs Gbemi Tejuoso of Glendora Books in Lagos was kind enough to send some memoirs. Members of Amnesty International and PEN centres all over the world also sent many books. My life was enriched by my contact with a lot of people through their writings. Shortly after I read Martha Gellhorn’s gripping essay, The Invasion of Panama, which Rosemary Friedman, a member of English PEN, sent, I smuggled out a note to her asking for everything that the late author had written. Anne Sebba got to hear about my request, and graciously got me an autographed copy of The View from the Ground which contains the essay and other award-winning ones. Signing the copy, I understand, was one of the last memorable things that the irrepressible investigative journalist and author did just before she died. That book remains one of the treasures in my library.
If I did not read extensively my mind would have been damaged. Those writers were far away yet they were so near. Their voices were smooth, raucous, eloquent and loud in my ears. I argued with them. I took copious notes which I still use in my writings. So: I bear witness to the therapy that books give in moments of gloom. Why would anyone who truly cares for humanity want to deny a prisoner a mind builder? When a willing reader–whether besieged or free–is prevented from consuming books, his hunger will feed on chaos. I believe that one single reader of books in prison is far better than a hundred philistines in freedom. The mindless soldiers of book restrictions to prison must be halted now, otherwise they will trample on other things of value to human civilisation.
About the author
Nigerian editor and journalist arrested 1995 and given a life sentence on charges of being an accessory to treason. He was released in 1998, and is now the Executive Editor and Director of TheNEWS / P.M.News.