Friday, 14 October 2011

The Case of the Prison-Monger

Hama Tuma

Great Expectations make frustrated men. Our parents, being realists, teach us from the outset not to yearn for big things – when you stretch up to reach higher things you drop what you had under your arms. Moral of the saying? Hold on to what you have and be satisfied. The more you want, the more chance you will lose what little you already have.
Still, we produce ambitious men. Anomalies, actually; a handful among millions. However, try to keep what you have is a standing order for all. Without exception. This is why an Ethiopian is surprised, even if opposed, at the extent to which the State goes to protect itself. Or, say, the Great Chairman himself. He has liquidated many of his close friends, he has struck alliances which change swiftly, he has ordered Terror and Massacres (what we call the TM diet) against the people, he has peddled the country’s sovereignty to the highest bidder (in this case none other than Russia which came big and fast with the item the Chairman needed most at the time – arms). From a rabid anti-socialist he has metamorphosed himself into the symbol of socialism in Africa (even if many say it is play-acting). All in order to keep what he has – absolute power.
The wife who expects affection and not love lives happily ever after with her husband who, like all husbands, spreads his love around. Parents who expect some consideration from their children and no more end up with disappointment. Pray to God but don’t expect miracles. Watch your health, but you may die soon. The less you expect, the less you get frustrated, and the greater is your happiness if you get more.
It is a philosophy of poverty and servility, you may say. Perhaps. Actually, it was expounded in a coherent form for the first time in the eighteenth-century manuscript by St Gebre the Poor. The manuscript, which read like a ‘How-to-live-satisfied-with-an-empty-stomach’ manual, could have sold well in the present weight-and-diet-conscious western world. It dealt not only with the filling capacities of a one-fruit-a-day-meal and warned how one can get fat and lazy by not exercising the mind, but it also advised believers on how to let ambition steam in its own pot and how to realize happiness through deprivation. A Chinese philosopher said to have plenty is to be confused. St Gebre said to want plenty is more than being confused, it is to court frustration, sin and eternal damnation. Next to Zarayacob, St Gebre is our only philosopher – and in themselves the two are also anomalies in this society of ours which looks at mental exercise with extreme contempt.
Over the years, the art of wanting little or being satisfied with what we have has become part of our culture. We do not even think about it, we just act by reflex. Contradictions and wars arise when our rulers want more. Take the late king. He raised the price of food and petrol. There we were, enjoying our starvation and famine, when he pops out with his price increase measures to take even the little we had left. He was reaching for more money, we rebelled and he lost what he had. A simplified but precise rendition of the revolution we had. Take the guerillas in the rural areas. They are seeking higher things like freedom, equality, peace and democracy. They want more than the slavery they have. The result? They lead a hard life of war and suffering, facing death and the TM diet. St Gebre wouldn’t have approved for sure.
Let it be said, however, that not all Ethiopians subscribe to the teachings of St Gebre. This is why we have upheavals, mutiny, unrest, wars and destruction. But the adherents of reduced expectations are still in the millions. It’s the only way to survive. When you live in the valley of the shadow of death you cherish life even if it is a mere existence.
The case of the prison-monger was a good example of the philosophy of satisfaction with poverty. In my opinion, the man should have been given a medal (if not the Lenin Prize or the Chairman’s Medal of Valor, at least the Medal of Ingenuity in Accordance with the Teachings of Our Great Chairman). But let me not rush you…
‘Look at the accused,’ said the prosecutor pointing at the man in the Cage. ‘He’s young, I believe somewhere in his early thirties. He is robust, he is healthy. He could contribute to the building of the New Ethiopia. But no! For the last ten years, he has been continuously in and out of jails and prisons. As soon as he serves one sentence out he goes to commit another crime and to come back again. And each time he deliberately makes sure that the crime he commits does not get him the death sentence. He is an expert of the Articles of our Penal Code. He readily admits his crime every time he gets, or rather lets himself be, arrested. He has shown great inventiveness in managing to get himself behind bars. He is a prison addict, a real prison-monger. While in prison he studies via a correspondence school and is now in his third year of law. Can you imagine!?’
‘Our prisons are congested: we want to empty them. This prison-monger must, however, be punished. Up to now he has been arrested six times; if he reached the legal limit of ten then he would automatically get death, whatever the gravity of his crime. But he also knows this. I suspect he has plans to go up to the ninth with his petty crimes and prison sejours. How do we punish him? Do we send him back to prison? He wants that. To labour camps? He would be pleased. I think the best punishment is to set him free. If he goes to commit another crime, he should be arrested and set free again till he reaches his tenth arrest. Then we shall execute him. We want the prisoner freed, Comrade Major Judge.’
‘Objection, Your Honour!’ said the defence lawyer. ‘The accused admits his guilt. He has confessed to his crime and wants to pay for it. He has the right to be punished. , he has the duty to receive punishment. The law demands it. We can’t just set him free.’
‘I agree,’ said the judge. ‘The prosecutor must realize that this is an open court with its own message to our enemies. So, we must hear what the accused has to say, at least. And then give him the necessary punishment. Proceed,’ he added to the defence counsel.
‘Thank you, Your Honour. I shall call the accused to the witness stand.’
The accused walked briskly to the witness stand – a healthy, athletic figure indeed.
‘You are Matteos Gudu?’
‘Yes.’ A firm voice.
‘Is it true you have been in jail six times?’
‘Very true.’
‘What have you done this time?’
‘Do you admit it?’
‘Are you a kleptomaniac?’
‘No. But I am a prisonomaniac. I love prison.’
‘I was born poor. I lived with my family – all eight of us – in one single room which was so small that my friends used to joke about it, by saying that every time I turned over in my sleep I left the room. As a result, big rooms and open space suffocate me. Reverse claustrophobia you can call it. In prison, where close to seventy of us are stacked in a room fit for twenty, I feel alive and at peace.’
‘Come now! We know that even if you stay outside you can easily get a small room to rent. In fact, that is the only thing you can get if you are lucky.’
‘Yes, I know that. It brings us to the second reason why I love prison. Money.’
‘You see, after my first stint in prison, I looked desperately for work. I couldn’t get any. I had lodging problems as well; you must know that I haven’t had any living relatives in this city for a dozen years or so. Broke, hungry, sleeping on the pavement – I was destined to be a guttersnipe. I refused to submit to this. I stole again and got back to prison. This time for a year. No lodging problem, food was little but regular and even if it does not arrive, you can do nothing about it really. So you don’t worry. In prison, you could say, I found happiness and calm. When they came to release me, I begged them to let me stay but they refused. But I went out and came back again.’
‘Prison is a punishment. How could you not feel the lack of freedom? Being cooped up in a little hole? Being unable to move around as you desire?’
‘What is freedom, I ask you?' said the prison-monger. ‘Who is he who can roam freely in our country nowadays? You need permission. When you are hungry, worried about it,  broke and with no place to sleep, freedom is an illusion. Your aching stomach does not enable you to sing with the birds or to roam like a well-fed ibex. You suffer and writhe, that’s all you get. But in prison, I found freedom even if I was hungry. My mind was at rest.’
‘But you studied?’
‘That’s another thing which made prison lovely. In prison, I found a lot of intellectuals. They were ready to help me continue the studied I had interrupted a long time ago. I threw myself into books, I finished the school leaving certificate exams with honours and qualified for the university. I chose law since I am interested in this field. I am now in my third year.’
‘Your teachers are anarchist?’
‘They are political prisoners. We don’t discuss politics; I am not interested in it. But they are capable teachers and as you know the students who get the highest grades in the national exams are the ones in prison.’
‘Theirs is a wasted life. Why do you fashion yours accordingly?’
‘They are in prison for what they believe in. That’s their life. Mine: it would have been wasted on the outside. Can you guarantee me work? Do that and I will leave prison with joy.’
‘I am a lawyer, not an employment agent. Maybe when you finish your studies, I could see. Anyway, don’t you feel ashamed to be a burden on the State?’
‘I am not a burden on nobody. The State sends me to prison to punish me. I receive this willingly. Once in prison, I work, and I am now one of the best carpenters in the prison workshop.’
‘You found no job as a carpenter outside prison?’
‘Are you joking? There are hundreds of more able carpenters who are unemployed.’
‘What about as a domestic servant? Or maybe you think that’s a lowly job?’
‘No job is lowly if you need it. The servant field is saturated. Besides, not many people can afford servants these days. Others think maids and servants are becoming spies and are troublesome. So, no job.’
‘Doesn’t it bother you to spend ten years of the prime of your life behind prison walls?’
‘I told you no. you are in prison if you believe it to be so. Your house can be your prison. A palace can be a gilded prison for a king. The monk who shuts himself up in total isolation in a cave is not in prison. In prison, I met very many really free people.’
‘Do you expect us to believe this?’
‘I believe it.’
‘What you want from life seems to be very little.’
‘I yearn not for riches or high positions.’
‘Commendable, indeed. But by being in prison, you try to escape the anguish and pain which gives life its salt.’
‘Life has its miseries wherever you may be. King or beggar, free or a slave – each will get his share, though not equally.’
‘Into each life some rain must fall…’
‘It floods onto the poor. They try to dam it somewhat. My prison is such an attempt.’
‘What sentence do you now expect for your crime?’
‘I should be sent to prison for five years as Article 689 of the Penal Code states.’
‘What if you are set free?’
‘That will be a crime!’ The accused looked really shocked. ‘I have violated the law and I should be punished.’
‘But if you are set free, would you commit a crime again?’
‘I couldn’t avoid it. For the public good and mine, I belong in prison. To finish my studies as well. You know I can’t go to college on the outside with thousands of eligible students still on the university waiting list.’
‘If you commit three more crimes, you will be killed.’
‘Then death will be a relief indeed. Not punishment but real salvation.’ The prosecutor looked pensive.
‘You can cross-examine him,’ said the lawyer to the prosecutor.
‘I think you are insane!’ the prosecutor shot at the accused. The accused kept quiet.
‘I think you are a no-good lazy person,’ the prosecutor added. The accused remained silent.
‘I think you are a parasite who likes being one,’ stated the prosecutor. The accused said nothing.
‘I think you are a fellow-traveler of anarchists and a shame on your country,’ said the prosecutor. The accused just looked back at him.
‘I think being set free will fry your testicles to ashes,’ the prosecutor added in a matter-of-fact way. The accused looked startled but remained silent.
‘I think, Your Honour, I have no more questions,’ concluded the prosecutor.
Judge Aytenfistu exhaled a lot of air and cleared his throat. The ritual over, he spoke.
‘You, the accused, you are a no-good, fast-talking, lazy, strange, crazy person. As the prosecutor said you are a parasite. You are also dangerous. Whoever finds joy in prison, whoever feels free in our jails goes against the order of things, goes against the expected. A cow can’t give birth to a puppy. Prison is punishment, not a source of calm and freedom. If such feelings as yours spread, our society will be in chaos. I agree with the prosecutor, you are hereby sentenced to immediate freedom.’
‘But Judge…’ the accused began to protest.
‘No more! You are freed! Case dismissed!’
‘You can’t do this! You must send me back to prison!’ the accused screamed.
‘Take him away!’ the judge ordered the policeman.
As the policeman signaled the accused to get moving back to the Cage, the latter seemed to be struck by a revelation. He turned to the judge and what came out from his throat paralysed the whole court.
‘You call yourself a judge, you fat pig! You are an ignorant fool! Half the time you sleep on your bench! Your only qualification is your stupidity. I bet you are an impotent sissy. You…’
‘SHUT UP!’ The scream came from the judge as well as from the prosecutor and the defense council.
‘You motherless squit!’ the judge fumed. ‘I will show you who is impotent. You castrated parasite! You can’t insult a judge and get off scot-free. I sentence you immediately to ten years of hard labour in the Robi Desert state farm. Take this dog away at once!’ the judge was beside himself.
‘Your Honour! That’s what he wants!’ protested the prosecutor.
‘That’s what this foul-mouthed son of a slut is going to get! Case dismissed. Court recess for ten minutes!’ The judge got up and walked out of the court angrily.
Well, what can I say? The prosecutor growled at the accused, the defense lawyer did the same, the audience just stared. The policemen manhandled him. And the accused? If I ever saw a smile of happiness and satisfaction, there it was on his face. I wonder if St Gebre would have approved of such unorthodox methods to keep what little one has. The prison-monger went back, not to prison but to a state farm, and no one who knows state farms will say that they are not worse than prisons. The accused will even get anarchist teachers there. What more could he ask – a small over-filled room to sleep in, a piece of bread  or two for the day, backbreaking work, possibility of study, no worrying, freedom. He had it made, the lucky prison-monger. Still, I wouldn’t trade places with him. I will cling to my own little world. Who is free; me or the prison-monger? As St Gebre said centuries ago, it’s a world of relative freedom and relative bondage.


  1. This is the best African short story ever written, challenged only by Ken Saro-Wiwa's Africa Kills Her Sun...

    1. I totally agree and I read it over 18 years ago.

    2. Our set book in High School. One of the best reads then

  2. Thank you for uploading beautiful African literature on your blog. You are fantastic for taking time to do this. Blessings!

  3. I like the lifestyle of Matteos Gudu.

  4. I like the lifestyle of Matteos Gudu.

  5. I like the lifestyle of Matteos Gudu.

  6. I'm enjoying the literary piecies uploaded on this blog.......#thumbs up

  7. gives me good memories of my high school literature class....well written piece

  8. This story is intriguing and thought provoking.It speaks of the African lived realities of 'freedoom' and mirage-like independence - a mere respite from war. [Walter Kudzai Barure]

  9. This essay depicts exactly the current political situation in kenya.Other people want change. But is it not best to live the way we are used to?

  10. one of the best piece of writing ever came across on earth,that tells me ,we can still find good things on planet Earth.

  11. Such an inspiring Philosophical text that remains relevant in today's world.

  12. Great expectations make frustrated men indeed. What an awesome philosophical peace. I like the reverse-claustrophobia bit alot.

  13. It's a great piece of literature that I've ever come across, I read it time and another. The character of Matheos Gudu is outstanding. Thumbs up

  14. this is a great piece of literature works

  15. Wow! I've never been so amused and at the same time thought provoked.

  16. Master piece, love can one get other stories by ian godon online

  17. Looking for the rain god was our set book in 2001...
    A geatgrset of stories this one taking the drivers seat

  18. Many graduates in Kenya are committing suicide as a result of frustrations of life. The expectations of easy life after education is not achieved. This piece is an epitome of the Kenyan experience

  19. my set book story yr 2002 i remember my literature teacher then saying hold on to what you have and be satisfied(state of the nation).

  20. This is good product of Africa
    I like and love this story

  21. This is good product of Africa
    I like and love this story

  22. I have read this book severally, It is a book you would like to watch being acted in real situation.

  23. The political satire is just amazing. True state of affairs in many African states even in this 21st century.