• The isolation experiences bear an uncanny parallel to that of penitentiary institutions
Two months ago, the release in Kampala of Ugandan writer Stella Nyanzi after 18 months in incarceration went almost unnoticed here in Kenya. Indeed, it coincided with the arrival of the first cases of coronavirus infection on the continent and further spread across to our region by early March.
Many from the literary world across the region are familiar with the widely publicised case of Nyanzi. The feminist scholar and activist was sent to Luzira Maximum Security Prison in Uganda in 2018 for alleged cyber harassment and offensive communication against President Yoweri Museveni.
While in prison, she penned prison poetry that has been published recently under the title, No roses from my mouth (2020). This new book of poems belongs to the genre of prison literature. It is typical of what pundits call the protest tradition in modern African literature.
It has caught the eyes of Kenyan critics like Tom Odhiambo of University of Nairobi, who hails it as part of the literature of incarceration. Nyanzi is this year’s winner of 2020 Oxfam/Novib PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression.
Founded a century ago, PEN International is a global association of writers that promotes literature by calling for cooperation among writers of all nations. The PEN international network has been at the forefront of championing the rights of scribes across the world, especially those whose rights are restrained in line of their duties.
Generations of writers using pens to address social justice issues have been part of the membership of the association since its inception a century ago. PEN has national chapters across the continent and the world, including in Kenya.
The Ugandan Chapter, under the leadership of its current president Dr Danson Kahyana of Makerere University, has been vocal in calling for the release of Stella Nyanzi. The chapter has undertaken a broader project of showing how literature can be placed at the service of the society by giving an outlet to inmates in Uganda. It has run several initiatives to this end, including creative writing workshops as part of its campaign for greater appreciation of freedom of expression in Uganda.
As I Stood Dead Before the World: Creative Writing from Luzira Prison (2018) is an example of a publication by PEN Uganda from its literary work with inmates. The book, like that of Nyanzi above, is part of the literature of incarceration in contemporary Uganda. It is edited by Dr Kahyana himself, Bob Kisiki and Beatrice Lamwaka.
The other two are the vice president and general secretary of Uganda PEN chapter, respectively. The anthology is a mixture of haunting short stories, short plays and poems, tackling the topics of guilt, crime, redemption, restrictions of speech and movement.
The two Ugandan books bring home to us Kenyans the therapeutic and rehabilitative power of literature in the wake of social restrictions brought upon us by the pandemic. As we exist today in enclosed spaces of human interaction from quarantine centres, to our homes, to shut neighbourhoods to counties under lockdown, the experiences of our new days draw an uncanny parallel to that of penitentiary institutions.
It can be argued that this is not an accurate comparison. But my general idea here is that great literature can arise even in spaces or locations of confinement. It can come in two formats. There is that kind of self-expressive literature represented by Nyanzi’s poetry collection.
It approaches the prison as a site for articulating grievances against government-made reduced/withdrawn freedoms. Also, there is the second kind of literature, like that of the PEN anthology by Luzira inmates above, whereby convicts capture their own experiences using literature as part of their rehabilitation processes.
Ken Walibora, the recently demised media scholar and famous writer, pointed out that spaces of confinement, such as prisons, can be sites for literary creativity in a unique way. In his book, Narrating Prison Experience in Africa (2014), he studied an array of African literary texts written from restricted access to normal social interactions.
It was clear to him that such moments of need and denial can also be productive moments where literature and muses flourish. Artistic inspiration drawn from experiences of solitude and confinement has produced some of the finest works of our national literature. Prison books by major writers such as Ngugi, Abdilatif Abdalla, Katama Mkangi and Wahome Mutahi prove it.
As we live through these times of alienation from our normal social patterns, restricted freedoms of movement within counties, countries and the region, we should find comfort in the philosophy of prison literature as a genre. Literature can offer us an outlet to our psychological anxieties and experience of social restrictions from Uganda to Kenya and beyond.
In places such as Old Town in Mombasa country and Eastleigh in Nairobi, the imagined and real experiences of lockdown should offer new narratives in due course. The long road from Mombasa to Busia and onwards to Kampala is a throbbing vein of literary creativity in the new heart of East African literature that waits to come to birth.