“Good afternoon, Professor Baz!”
It’s the best greeting I’ve gotten all day — no, all week. Uganda has proven to be many things but welcoming isn’t one of them; most days I am pleased to get a polite nod from even the hotel concierge, a professional at the art of service with a scowl. This greeting comes from a prisoner, Bafaki Wilson, aka Headmaster Wilson, aka Pastor Boma, all of which means that Wilson is a kind of peer-elected prison official. He’s pastor of the “Boma” block of Luzira [Maximum Security Prison, Kampala] and lord of this library, erected by the London- and Kampala-based NGO African Prisons Project.
“How are you today?” Wilson asks, grinning as he always does, and looking long and hard at me with those eyes, surely the kindest eyes in all of Uganda. At thirty years old, Wilson is an uncanny combination of frail old man and lively little boy. His small, slim stature, unfettered smile, and spirited stare, not to mention floppy sun cap, fashioned from the yellow prison-uniform cloth and much too wide for his narrow face, all of these scream “boy.” But the wizened old man shines through in Wilson’s slow, wounded gait and, most of all, in his style of speech. Every sentence emerges slow and studied, finely crafted with pronouncements, as if lifted from the transcript of a Martin Luther King sermon.
“Wilson, I am well,” I answer. Conjuring up my second smile of the day, this one genuine, I shake his hand. Then I make the rounds, greeting a dozen students with handshakes and broad hellos.
They’re assembled around a wooden table in the center of the blocklike library, scribbling on loose-leaf paper or flipping through random books they aren’t really reading: “Speaking Norwegian,” “Hamlet,” “A Traveller’s Guide to the English Countryside.” Creative writing class is under way. Wilson sits to my left and reads, with studied enunciation, from the Maya Angelou poems I’d handed out yesterday:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
During my first class in Luzira I’d assigned the men personal essays, and Wilson told his tale. From rural Uganda, he was born into a polygamous marriage that produced over sixty children. His mother died when he was a baby and he was abused by his stepmothers, so he ran away. He committed crimes; he was too poor to pay either the fine or the bribe that could get him off the hook for these crimes. So he became one of the 35,000 Ugandans behind bars, living in prisons at six times their capacity — prisons created almost a century ago by former colonizers who used them as a form of social control and intimidation. More than a year later, Wilson has yet to be tried; this is not surprising, considering more than half of Uganda’s prison population consists of pretrial detainees. Wilson took it in stride. He eventually found faith behind bars, transforming himself into Pastor Boma.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Applause. “Baz, I must tell you,” Pastor Boma begins. “This is indeed a beautiful poem. And indeed it speaks to our experience directly here, in this prison.” The other students nod solemnly.
We spend two more hours indulging in pretty words. The class gaily crafts and shares their own poems; Wilson’s, entitled “The Liberator,” is a lament about the dictators who have lorded over East Africa, followed by a declaration of faith in Uganda’s triumphant future. Another student writes a poem that begins, “AIDS, oh AIDS, why have you taken my family?”
When it’s time to go, I gather up my papers and give Wilson another firm handshake, wishing him a good night’s sleep.
“It is never a good night here, Baz. And there is no room to sleep.” He says this with a radiant smile.
I step out of the library and arm myself, emotionally, for the world outside. Crime is a reality in Kampala, but it’s the city’s omnipresent security that really rattles me. East African terrorist organizations, like the one behind a bombing in 2010 that killed seventy-six people, are a persistent threat, so the country can feel like a ticking time bomb, laden with armed guards and military checks. Daily life here often feels like a grand obstacle course. Prison guards, then the dreaded mzungu-walk through the slum. Hoping today’s taximan will show up and not leave me stranded; assuming he does show up, renegotiating a price we’ve already negotiated twice this morning. Kampala traffic, Kampala sweat, Kampala scowls, car-bomb checks, metal detectors. More guards growling and more Uzis and security checks, back at the hotel. Exhale.
No one said this global journey would be smooth.
From “Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World” by Baz Dreisinger. Copyright © 2016 by Baz Dreisinger. Published by Other Press LLC.