By George Obama and Damien Lewis
George Hussein Onyango Obama is the youngest son of the Obama clan, born to a Luo mother and the father he shares with the US President. George's father died when he was barely six months old, and he spent his infant years growing up in his mother Jael's extended family. When George was aged six his beautiful and spirited mother met and married a French aid worker, called Christian. George and family went to live with Christian in the well-to-do Umoja Estate, a suburb of Kenya's capital city, Nairobi. Umoja is a place of white-painted bungalows and leafy, sun-dappled streets. As Christian was the only white person living on the estate, George soon became notorious as being the 'kid with the mzungu father' - mzungu being Swahili for white person.
Young George knew this made him different somehow. Still, he and Christian bonded over drives into the wild Kenyan bush, and games of Scrabble, Monopoly and Chess at home. And over time, generous, peaceable Christian became the father that George had never had. At age nine George was sent to attend a boarding school in the foothills around Mount Kenya. Modelled on the British fee-paying school system, this was a place of starched uniforms, regimented discipline and keen learning. After initial homesickness George thrived and he became a star pupil. He regularly came within the top five in his academic year, and his swiftness of foot earned him a coveted place on the school rugby team. Holidays were spent at home in Nairobi, where George could look forward to the presents that Christian had bought him whilst visiting his native France.
But when George turned fifteen Christian and his mother separated. By now George was attending the prestigious Dagoretti High School, a colonial-era boarding establishment in Nairobi. George reacted badly to the loss of his father figure. He began truanting, and his mother could do little to discipline her strong and wilful son. George drifted into the gang on his estate – smoking pot, and drinking. To fund his new lifestyle he resorted to petty crime. When the Kenyan police arrested George for a street robbery, Jael was beyond despair. Ashamed of how he had let his mother down, George drifted away from home – first to live with the Nairobi street kids, and then into the vast sink of the city slums. He lost himself in the sprawling chaos of the ghetto – a lawless tin-and-waste-wood shantytown that is home to two million dispossessed. Closed and dangerous to outsiders, the ghetto welcomed in this restless and troubled young man, and offered him a community and a home.
Over time George's crimes became more audacious, as he stole to get money to share with his newfound ghetto family. The extremes of wealth in Nairobi are shocking to behold: sumptuous, gated villas sit back-to-back with the stinking shantytowns. The ghetto is rife with drugs and illegally-brewed changa'a alcohol – which offer temporary respite from the harsh reality of life in the slums. With his new life of crime George told himself that he was taking from the rich to help his people, the poorest of the poor. By the time he had turned twenty he was using a gun and carjacking. Targeted by the Kenyan police, George was arrested and framed for an armed robbery that he did not commit. Thrown into the brutal hell of a Nairobi gaol, George was too proud and stubborn to turn to his family for help in getting a lawyer, and securing bail. Instead he chose to spend nine months on remand, locked away in the inhuman conditions of that hellhole of a Nairobi gaol.
An excellent English speaker, George went on to argue his own case at trial, electrifying the court with his performance over three hearings. In an extraordinary turn of events he went on to win his case and his freedom. But prison had changed him forever. 'Those were the darkest days of my life,' George remarks of the months behind bars. He vowed to turn his life around. He felt certain that if he did not, he would end up dead, as many of his friends had done. Unlike most slum-dwellers, George was still able to turn to his family – both in Kenya and the USA - in his hour of greatest need. He asked for, and was given, a second chance, and was able to restart his studies. Aware of how this set him apart from those born and bred in the slums, George decided to give something back to the ghetto. He joined youth, community and charity groups, in an effort to bring hope into the lives of the slum children – those who'd never had the kind of chances that he had. Through football, photography, video work and other, truly innovative schemes, he found a way to empower the most powerless – the children of the ghetto.
George had first met his American brother, Barack Obama, when he was five years old. Barack Obama had paid a visit to George's Nairobi school, to reach out to the youngest sibling in the Obama clan. In 2006 George met him again, at a time when Barack Obama was a Senator and already turning his eyes towards the challenge and promise of the US presidential elections. They travelled to their shared ancestral homeland, so both could rediscover the father they had barely known. Death had taken George's father during the first months of George's life; it was the separation of continents that had kept his American brother's father from him. But for both men, rediscovering their father was a vital part of rediscovering their own identities.
From some in the African Obama clan George detected a sense that he wasn't entirely welcome within their number. He was the 'black sheep' of the family, the ex-prison convict who hailed from the ghetto. To them he was far from being the ideal brother for an American Senator, and something of an embarrassment. But George never detected such sentiment from Barack Obama. Instead, he sensed a deep curiosity within his American brother – a desire to reach out to George and learn more about the extraordinary and unorthodox life that he had led. How had he survived? How had he persevered and overcome, and turned his life around? And what had he learned along the way?
Like many Africans, George was proud of Barack Obama's towering ambition - only more so, for they were brothers. George celebrated his American brother's presidential aspirations, and saw in them an inverse reflection of his own calling. In the slum children in particular George recognised an extraordinary energy and potential. Kids born and brought up in the ghetto were just crying out to be given a chance. Whereas his American brother aspired to become the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, George would become an advocate for the most powerless – the people of his slum homeland.
Media & Press
"Hope – it’s an idea my brother talked about a lot. But it’s only recently that I learned again what it means to feel the true spirit of that word. Here a little goes a long way." George Obama writing in Newsweek
"His words and examples touch the lives of rich and poor alike," Alaska Dispatch
"The memoir stands on its own as a coming of age story set in an African nation." Christian Science Monitor
Chapter Seventeen: Absolute Zero
The four of us were led to a cellblock at the far end of the prison. It was one of two, massive edifices kept for the remand prisoners. Each consisted of a three-storey, brick-built building, with three wings set on either side of a metal stairwell. The stairs zigzagged down to floor level and the eating area, with each wing above being accessed by a cement landing. The smell here was the same as it had been in the prison compound, only there was something else - the reek of stale sweat and unwashed bodies, and of fear.
We were marched to the top floor of the wing that faced the sick bay and the block that housed the insane, and propelled down the echoing landing. A door was flung open and the first thing that stuck me was the heat and the bodies. The room was more like a dormitory than a cell. Ranks of fluorescent strip lights marched across the ceiling, revealing a sea of comatose forms. There had to be one hundred prisoners in there, and all seemed to be stripped to their underclothes due to the baking, suffocating heat.
The remorseless African sun had been beating down on that room all day long. That combined with the press of the human flesh, the strip lighting and the lack of any ventilation to make a scorching, oppressive atmosphere, like an oven door had been thrown open. And the heat had baked the air in there to an even riper stench than it was on the landing outside.
Without a word the warders shoved the four of us forward and slammed shut the door. There were disgruntled grunts and mutterings as we tried to claim a patch of standing room on the bare cement floor. I glanced around me. The walls may have been black once, but great, dirty grey gashes showed where the paint had peeled and the plaster behind was crumbling onto the floor. Wary, hostile faces gazed out at me; blank expressions; predatory ones; the vacant stare of hopelessness; those were the eyes that met my gaze.
Everyone seemed to be laid out in the stultifying heat, and not a bare patch of floor was visible. For a few moments we stood there, the four of us rooted to the spot like idiots announcing our arrival as the new kids on the block, and then we were saved by the appearance of a warder.
'Roll call!' he yelled out, banging his baton on the bars of the door. 'Roll call!'
There was a fetid shifting amongst the prostrate forms, as prisoners galvanised themselves into some ill-defined, half-hearted action, but I didn't know what we were supposed to do. At Mosocho and Dagoretti the nearest to roll call had been the daily register, where matron or teacher called out the names to check all were present. Was it the same here, I wondered?
'You're new,' a voice on the floor muttered. 'Come on, you can make a five with me. Here.'
The speaker was an older looking guy, with hair going grey around the temples. He had a wide-eyed, permanently surprised looking expression on his face, as if he couldn't understand how life had dealt him the hand that it had. He was painfully thin, and I guessed he had been here for some time.
'Make a five with me,' he repeated, shifting to make a little space. 'Squat. They count us like that - in fives.'
Sure enough a pair of wardens started to make their rounds, marking off each group of five prisoners. We huddled down with the old man. He muttered something to us.
'There's one hundred and twenty … Makes one hundred and twenty five what with you and the other new guy. That's less space for the rest of us, and less air to breathe, not that you can breathe in here. So no one will be too pleased …'
'Is it always this hot?' I asked.
The old man shrugged. 'Pretty much. They leave the lights on all night long. It's supposed to help stop … you know … trouble. But there's nothing will stop that, so better get used to it.'
I nodded. 'Get a lot of trouble, do you?'
'Some. More than enough. Not so much for an old one like me. You young guys need to watch yourselves …' The man nodded his head in the direction of the door. There were four bulky looking prisoners grouped around a fifth man, who had an indefinable air of authority about him. 'See that guy – that's Charge. He's the top dog. He runs things in here. You getting too much trouble, you might want to have a word with Charge. He runs all the rackets in here – cigarettes, food, weed, the usual. You need something, Charge can sort it.'
'Thanks, it's appreciated.'
'You got any cash on you?' the old man queried.
'Some. Maybe. Why?'
'You might want to buy yourself a space by the wall. It's up to you, but … Your first night in prison, is it?'
'Take the advice of an old man who's been here a while – buy yourself a space by the wall. Charge can sort it. That's what I did when I first got here, before the money ran dry.'
The old man glanced at me with that wide-eyed expression of his. 'What you here for?'
I thought for a second of adding that we didn't do it, that we'd been stitched up, but I figured that had to be bad form in here. In here you wouldn't deny your crimes, and the more extreme they were the more respect I figured you'd garner.
'What about you?' I asked the old man.
'Squatting on police property,' he replied.
'I rented a house off a landlord,' he explained, tiredly. 'The house was owned by a cop. The cop and the landlord had a falling out, and so the cop got me arrested and charged with 'squatting on police property'.'
'So how long have you been here?'
The old man shrugged. 'I lost track of the time. A year maybe. Day-by-day, month-by-month, nothing ever happens. There's no way to count the days …'
That evening we used a little of the money we had hidden on our person to purchase a sleeping place by the wall. For a few shillings more Charge found Ramjo and I a thin and stained mattress, and another for Mandeka and Stevo. As Ramjo and I slumped down on our jail bedding, a smell rose from the mattress of stale sweat, stale urine and worse, yet still I counted our blessings.
Those sleeping away from the walls were packed like sardines in a tin, bodies pressed onto the hard, bare floor. As one moved all would have to move, for otherwise there was not even the space to roll over. Being in here was like putting a dog in a cage, I reflected, and throwing away the key. In fact it was worse than that, for when was a dog ever locked into a cage along with 120 other dogs?
In the heat and the harsh light I began to sweat. I felt rivulets running down my face and my shoulders, and I began to itch as well. It was then that I realised the mattress was alive. It was crawling with lice, and they had decided to feast on the newly arrived occupants of their home – us. That was another reason why the prisoners stayed in their underclothes – it was in an effort to keep their one set of clothes lice-free, so that they might have something vaguely respectable to wear at their next court hearing.
I thought back over my life, and wondered how it could have come to this. What had happened to the dreamy kid who'd listened to stories of far off times on Grandma Dorcas's knee? From the best private schools in Kenya, I had ended up here - crammed into a lice-ridden cell with one hundred other absolute zeros. From star maths pupil and rugby ace I had come to this – arraigned on charges of robbery and facing up to fourteen years. From the promise of a golden career as an international airline pilot, I had come to praying for an ageing magistrate to gift me freedom, and a second chance.
Once I had had a world of opportunity before me, yet I had burned it all for this. In a rare moment of absolute clarity I knew that I was the author of my own destiny, as are we all. Much that I might blame my absent or dead fathers for my fate, I knew in reality I only had myself to blame. I had put myself here. Through my own aimless rebellion and misguided arrogance, and the quest for notoriety, life had been brought to this.
My train of thought was broken by a blow to the small of my back. It sent a jolt of agony up my spine. Ramjo had taken the space on the mattress next to the wall, I the outside.
'Get the fuck out of my space!' a voice at my back snarled.
I spun over to face him. 'What did you say?'
The guy got to his feet. 'I said: get the fuck out of my space. I need the bathroom, so get the fuck out of my way.'
He went to tread on my side of the mattress - on me - but by now I was on my feet. I could feel Ramjo at my shoulder, tensed and ready. The prisoner had his back towards me and he was heading for the toilet block, at the far end of the cell. He was a tall, bulky guy, and doubtless one of the 'big men' in our cell; the kind of guy who liked causing trouble; the kind of guy the old man had warned me about.
'Hey, hold up,' I called after him.
He spun around 'What the hell does a new fuck …'
He didn't get to finish the sentence. Without warning I punched him twice with all my force in the face. The guy went down amongst a crush of bodies and all hell broke loose. I had used the element of surprise to fell that prisoner, for he hadn't been expecting to be hit like that from a new guy. My speciality had always been the 'start and stop' fight, which was pretty much how this had gone.
It took Charge and his band of strongmen to break up the melee, and pull me off of the prisoner, whereupon we both were marched to Charge's end of the cell. Charge got the two of us facing him, with his bruisers on hand to stop any further trouble. Charge wasn't an overly big guy, but I sensed a keen intelligence and a ruthlessness behind his eyes.
'You're a new guy,' Charge announced. 'What's your name?'
'Hussein,' I answered.
'Well, Hussein, you may have heard – I'm the Charge and I run things around here. And I don't take kindly to fighting. Take a look around yourself, Hussein. You see how packed it is in here. I don't like fighting cause there's no room for it, you see that?'
'I see it,' I confirmed.
'So, you better have a good story for me, Hussein.' He nodded in the direction of the other prisoner. 'You pretty much KO'd Charley there. Put him down. Messed up a load of the brother's sleep. So what's the reason, Hussein? And don't tell me it's 'cause you like fighting, 'cause then you're the kind of punk I don't want in here. Then you're the kind of guy we put in the sick bay, or the wing for the insane, and you really don't want to go there, Hussein, you really do not. So why the fighting?'
'My buddy Ramjo got a mattress from you and a place by the wall,' I replied. 'I'm lying there and this guy punches me in the back, and starts bad-mouthing me. I ask him what the trouble is and he tells me to get the fuck out of his way. He walks all over our mattress, the one Ramjo just paid you good money for, and bad mouths me some more. I don't take that kind of shit from no one. It's unnecessary. So I hit him.'
Charge turned his gaze on the prisoner beside me. 'Charley, there any truth to what the new guy's saying.'
'Yeah, but he's a new guy, Charge. You just don't expect that kind of attitude from a new guy … You expect a bit of cooperation, a bit of respect. I been here a year or more and hell, Charge, all I wanted was him out of my way so I could make the bathroom …'
'I don't like what I'm hearing, Charley,' the Charge cut in. 'The new guy paid good money for that mattress. You disrespect the mattress, you disrespecting me.'
'Ramjo bought the wall space, and Ramjo saw the whole thing,' I added, before Charley could say anymore. 'Ask Ramjo - he'll confirm what I'm saying. I'll respect a fellow prisoner, Charge, but I won't take shit off anyone for no reason.'
'Charley, you want respect you got to earn it, even from the new guys,' the Charge announced. 'But most of all you never disrespect my business, you got it?'
'Sure, Charge, I got it,' Charley muttered.
'You got punishment duty, Charley. You're on the toilet rota for a week. That's the end of the matter, Charley. It ends here and now with what I say, okay?'
'Okay, Charge,' Charley muttered. 'No problem.'
'Okay, you go use the bathroom.'
The Charge turned to me. 'I run a tight ship, Hussein. You seem like a smart guy. Stay out of trouble. And you need anything – weed, tobacco, all that shit - you come to me, okay? You tell Ramjo and your brothers - they need anything, I'm the man.'
There was a strange kind of democracy that had developed in that cell, which made the unbearable slightly less hellish that it might have been. The Charge ran things with the threat of muscle behind him. He ran all the rackets with the cooperation of the bent prison guards, who took a cut from the money so made. But actually Charge had been elected by his fellow cellmates. If Charge was convicted or released, a new man would be elected in his place. Without that kind of iron system in place, the cell would descend into anarchy. God knows it was bad enough as it was.
The following morning there was roll call at six sharp. I'd slept fitfully, tortured by the lice, my body a mass of crawling and biting. I could feel them in my clothes and my groin and my hair, and I was covered in their red and itchy bite marks. The urge to scratch and to scratch my skin until it was raw was all but irresistible. I couldn't imagine how I was going to endure their incessant chomping. Three months of that alone would be enough to send me to the wing for the insane.
The first to be called for breakfast were those scheduled to appear in court that day. Then the rest of us followed, a human mass surging down the zigzag stairwells in an effort to be first in line. Breakfast turned out to be a pint of watery porridge. But this wasn't the porridge of The Academy – oats cooked in water and milk with sugar and salt to taste. This was a thin gruel of boiled maize flour. It was gritty and tasteless, but my hunger drove me to eat. I managed half of it before my stomach started to revolt.
After eating we were marched back to our cell. There were none of the luxuries here of a prison in the West: no exercise time; no gymnasium or TV room; no movies; no prison bands or theatre groups; no library or career development or study opportunities or computer rooms. Apart from the mindlessness of the lockdown, there was purely and simply nothing. You were locked into that cramped and baking cell all day long and left to grapple with the stultifying boredom, and the complete pointlessness of what your life had become.
If prison was about punishment, then this was the ultimate.
During the day it wasn't the guards who locked you in – it was fellow prisoners. These were the equivalent of the school snitches, and here their way to feel the thrill of a little power was to act guard on their fellow prisoners. The rest of the inmates called them the 'Loud Mouths' – for they were invariably the guys who loved the sound of their own voices, but were soft as shit if it came to a showdown with a fellow inmate.
That first day I tried to observe things, and to work out how the cell ran itself. Pretty quickly it was obvious that the lock down was selective. The Loud Mouths had certain individuals they seemed to let come and go as they pleased. Of course Charge was exempt from the lock down, for he had to be free to do his deals with the guards. I figured we'd have to secure for ourselves the same kind of freedoms, if we were to have any chance of remaining sane.
We had one big advantage in getting what we wanted: we were a gang of four. Apart from Charge and his bruisers, there were few other recognisable groups as far as I could tell. Prisoners likely arrived in ones and twos, and largely with no prior history between them. The four of us had bonded over the years spent in Huruma, and I reckoned there would be few willing to take us on. The least we should be able to do was muscle our way past the Loud Mouths.
I was sharing some of my observations with Ramjo and the others, when I felt the first griping pains in my stomach. Whatever they had put in that porridge I was cramping up real bad. I made a dash for the echoing space of the toilet block and washroom, and jammed myself into one of the cubicles, crouching over the squat down toilet. The smell in there made me gag, but no more so than the stench of what I was voiding from my bowels.
I hadn't had time to shut the cubicle door, but it looked to be unusable anyway. It was half smashed up and hanging from its hinges. I'd been there barely a minute when two figures arrived at the far end of the line of cubicles. I heard them before I saw them.
'New boy in here with a cute little ass,' a voice growled. 'Where the hell's that new guy hiding?'
'Bend and pick up the soap, new guy,' a second voice rumbled. 'Bend and take the soap …'
I heard the pad of bare footsteps across the bare cement floor. What the hell was I going to do? All I could think of doing was unleashing unlimited violence on whoever had pursued me in here, in the hope that the shock and surprise would buy me the chance to escape. I grabbed at my trousers and prepared to spring, when I heard a familiar voice echoing across the bare expanse of the toilet block.
'You looking for someone, brothers?' It was Ramjo. 'You got a friend in here or something?'
'Who's asking?' the voice that had told me to grab the soap answered. 'I don't seen you around before.'
'Our friends is our own business,' the other figure added, menacingly. 'New guys got to learn some respect. And fast.'
I emerged from the cubicle to see Ramjo, Mandeka and Stevo facing off against two bulky prisoners.
Ramjo glanced past them to me. 'Hussein, brother, you know these jerks, or something? They friends of yours?'
'I never saw them around, brother.'
Ramjo fixed the two guys with an iron stare. 'Hussein says he doesn't know you, and The Mamba never lies. And we don't want to know you. So get the hell out of here.'
The guys were bigger than Ramjo, but I'd never seen him back down in front of anyone. He was slower to anger than me, but his skill as a boxer meant he was a street fighter par excellence, and he seemed to know no fear. He had this aura about him of calm invincibility, and I could tell that it had the two prisoners spooked.
The bigger of the two licked his lips. 'You hear that? New guy's ordering us out of our own bathroom. Trouble is we like it in here. This is where we bring us friends, like Huss …'
He didn't get to finish speaking my name, before Ramjo's fist made contact with his jaw. The guy went down hard, the back of his head smashing into a cubicle door.
'I guess you didn't hear right, arsehole,' Ramjo snarled. 'Hussein said he doesn't know you.'
The guy on the ground was barely conscious and he didn't seem in any hurry to get up again. Now it was one of them against the four of us, and the guy who had ordered me to pick up the soap clearly didn't fancy his chances. We left him in the bathroom to clear up the mess Ramjo had made of his brother, and returned to our space by the wall.
Rambo and I had been pretty inseparable before prison; we had been like brothers. This brought us closer still. We would share that one mattress by the wall of the cell, and we would fight back to back for as long as it took to get us out of here. That was the brotherhood.
In the coming days we went about trying to establish some kind of regime that would keep us sane. Word had got around pretty quickly that the four of us would look after our own, and few seemed keen to take us on. That was fine by us. We didn't want trouble. All we wanted was to be left to our own devices for the three months it would take our case to come to trial, at which point we intended to get the hell out of here.
The four of us kept ourselves pretty much to ourselves. We ate together, shared any cigarettes we might have, and if we had none we didn't beg or scrounge from the others. We kept our self-respect. We knew if we started borrowing from other prisoners then that would give them an opening to invade our space, and we didn't want that. We were civil to others, but we kept our own counsel. We four were different, and we wanted to be left alone. Respect that, and we'd behave. Cross us, and we'd take no prisoners.
The Charge seemed to notice this difference, and he chose to respect it. The Loud Mouths soon got to understand that we expected free passage during the day. Outside the cellblock we could sit in the shade of the prison wall, and the relative cool of the 'fresh' air, and while away the hours. We'd take our two mattresses outside, and try to get the air and the sun into them, both to blow away some of the stench and to rid them of the worst of the lice.
We made a game of Ludo, crafting a dice from a chunk of cow bone that one of us had found in our stew, and using a flattened cardboard box as the board. We drew a cross on the board, the aim of the game being to roll the dice and race your board pieces towards the centre of the cross. In time our Ludo matches took on epic proportions, with many of the prisoners betting cigarettes, money and food on the outcome. They'd gamble recklessly on combined poker and Ludo matches and lose everything in the process.
By contrast, Ramjo would ensure that play on our side was strictly disciplined. We played to win, and we had a system of 'watchers' and 'signallers' put in place amongst the four of us to ensure that we rarely lost. We'd scrutinise another poker player's hand, and signal the details to his opponent on our side. We were cheating, but we were doing so to look after our own, and in any case we reckoned all was fair in the dog-eat-dog world of the jail.
With the help of corrupt guards people smuggled anything and everything in to that jail. There were bottles of Kenyan gin and whisky; bags of weed; pills by the bucket load; and even bundles of fresh mira – or qat, a local plant that is chewed as a speed-like drug. People gambled all of this on the poker and the Ludo games. They even gambled their clothes, and that was how we acquired extra boxer shorts and vests, so we could keep our main clothing relatively clean and lice-free for our pending court hearing.
And we were using none of the drink and the drugs. We went dry in that jail. Anything we earned from our gambling was used to barter for sleeping space on a wall-side mattress, or better food from the kitchens. Those were the things that would keep us sane over the next three months. And rest and sustenance were the things that might provide me with the energy and space to work out just how I was going to argue our defence at trial.
The only thing we had to make sure of when we spent time outside was to be back in the cell for the seven o'clock roll call. If not, the numbers wouldn't add up, and that would spell trouble. Guards would turn a blind eye to select prisoners being out of their cells, but only for so long. After I'd witnessed a few prisoner beatings by the wardens, I realised I really did not want to be on the receiving end of the same.
One lunchtime the queue was moving forwards in its usual, sullen silence, when the guy at the front complained that he hadn't got his full ration. The con serving had ladled it out, but half had missed his bowl. Lunch was invariably sukuma-wikki, a boiled spinach-like green, but unless you had a man on the inside of the kitchens, all you'd get was a bowl of boiled water left over from the greens. Even so, the prisoner seemed determined to argue for his full ration.
'Give me my fair share,' he demanded of the server.
'Move on,' the server countered. 'I have all these behind you.'
'Not a half ladle!' the prisoner insisted. 'A full share!'
I noticed a group of three guards moving in from the sides.
'I'm not moving 'til I get my full share!' the prisoner yelled.
The voice sounded familiar and I shifted slightly so I could see who it was. It was the old guy with grey hair who'd given us the advice on our first night in the cells.
'Just move on,' the server repeated, refusing to give him any more.
'I haven't had my …' the prisoner's last words were lost in the crash of a baton smashing against his metal bowl.
It went flying out of his hands, the contents spilling across the floor.
'Trying to get a double helping!' the guard yelled.
The baton came swinging down again, this time connecting with the prisoner's head. It made a horrible, hollow, wounding crack, as the bewildered older man collapsed to his knees. His hands went up to shield his face, as the three warders set upon him. Each savage blow of the batons was punctuated by a screamed insult.
'We'll teach you old man …'
'Crafty bastard needs a good lesson …'
'A lesson …'
'You'll never …'
As the three guards beat the prisoner to a semi-conscious heap, a fourth guard came forwards and started taking photos on his mobile phone.
'Nice work,' he remarked to the others. 'He was an ugly old dog. Re-shape his face a little …Hold it.' A beat. 'Click. There – something to remember him by …'
It was sickening, for this was the defenceless getting brutalised by those with absolute power, but I knew that if any of us tried to intervene we'd get savagely beaten. And I knew that there was worse the guards could do to prisoners. This was nothing – just a little spontaneous violence to keep the lunch queue in line. If they took you off for a private, bespoke beating they'd use bamboo poles and plastic strips to flay you alive.
Food was the trigger for everything in that prison. Unless you had an inside track in the kitchens the meals you were given couldn't keep a grown man alive. Lunch was boiled vegetable water, and the fat and the oil and the solid greens would never make it onto your plate. Every Thursday there was a meat ration, but without a guy in the kitchen you'd get a single chunk about the size of a cigarette butt. The first few times I can remember sucking and sucking on that meaty morsel, making it last for as long as I could.
Luckily, I've always been a small eater, but still I found myself dreaming about food.
'If you had cash and freedom, what would you buy to eat?' I'd ask Ramjo and the others. 'Anything. You can go anywhere and afford anything. What'd it be?'
'Pilau,' Ramjo would answer. 'Every time, no contest, it has to be pilau.'
Pilau was a kind of fried rice flavoured with spices and with chunks of meat or chicken thrown in. It was one of our favourite meals when we had money and were out on the town.
'Nah, matoke,' I'd counter. 'Has to be matoke. Nothing fills your belly like matoke.'
Matoke was a traditional, thick Kenyan stew made of cooked bananas (plantains), potato and meat.
'Stop going on about food!' Stevo would complain.
'Matoke and pilau …' Mandeka would moan. 'You're just reminding me how hungry I am!'
I'd never appreciated the power of hunger before, and what it could do to a man. During those first few weeks I was always hungry, and the pain gnawed away at my insides. With a number of the prisoners the hunger broke them, destroying their sense of self and respect. Some of the younger inmates were selling their bodies for a little extra food. They were getting sodomised by the 'big men', those who could use their money or their muscle to work some extra rations out of the kitchens.
The big men called those prisoners their 'wives'. Openly, like it was no secret what was going on and what they were doing to them. And some of those 'wives' adopted 'feminine' ways – the high-pitched voices, the lady-boy walk – as if they were embracing the role the big men had assigned to them. They went into the prison pretty much as normal young men; they came our completely broken, with their self-respect and their confidence smashed beyond repair. Or they'd try to kill themselves, or they'd end up in the insane wing, which in itself was pretty much a death sentence.
Two weeks into this brutal regime and I reckoned we could survive. We'd last the three months and it wouldn't break us. It hadn't taken long for me to stop thinking about home - Huruma, Umoja, wherever. Instead, for better or worse this place had become home. If you learned to forget life on the outside you could survive here. If you kept lamenting all you had lost in the world, then this place would break you apart.
At the end of those two weeks our names were called at dawn roll call to be first down to breakfast. This was the day of our Mention, and we would be going back to the courts. We took our best clothes – the ones that we kept tied up in a plastic bag – and donned those for our court appearance. Our plan was to see who turned up from the prosecution's side, and what they might have to say against us. None of us were changing our plea, of that we were certain, but it might be an opportunity to help build our case for trial.
The rear of the prison truck had a wire mesh top, and the tall guys like me could see out. As we pulled away from the prison gates I slipped my fingers through the wire, and gazed out at the teeming city. There were dozens of us crammed in there, and the shorter guys were half suffocating. I raised my face to the wind of the truck's slipstream and inhaled deeply. I could smell the freedom out there. I could see the riot of life going on all around me, the people on the streets experiencing all that I was craving. I could almost touch the magic of it all. So near and yet so far. It was like torture.
The journey from the prison to the Law Courts followed a similar route to that used by the matatus serving Umoja. I knew most of the drivers, from my time spent touting for them. As the prison truck snorted and gasped its way through the chaotic Nairobi traffic I saw faces that I recognised. But not a person amongst them knew that I was here, in this truck, in that prison, or what my life had become. The city which had for so long been my own was now lost to me. This was as I wanted; I didn't want anyone knowing. But that didn't make it any the less unsettling.
At the Law Courts it was a repeat of our first appearance, as we were processed to go before the judge. I don't know what exactly I had been expecting from this Mention – perhaps a mini-trial or something. In fact, it was nothing of the sort. There were no prosecution witnesses; no statements from the police; no case presented against us at all. With little or no preamble the four of us were shoved before the judge.
'The Republic versus Obama and Others,' he announced, tiredly. 'At your last appearance you pleaded not guilty. Have you changed your plea?'
I shook my head. A part of me was tempted to ask him - why would we have changed our plea? We've been stuck in that hellhole for two weeks – how would that ever have made us change our minds?
Instead, I answered respectfully. 'No, your honour.'
'You still plead not guilty?' he queried.
'Yes, your honour.'
The judge repeated the process with Ramjo, Stevo and Mandeka, and all confirmed their not guilty pleas.
'Very well,' he announced. 'The defendants in The Republic versus Obama and Others plead not guilty.'
And that was it. We were bundled into the prison truck and driven back to jail. Every two weeks we had to appear for another Mention, which was the exact repeat of the one before. Each drive through the teeming city was a reminder of all that we had lost, and it was like psychological torture. I witnessed inmates change their plea to one of 'guilty' out of sheer desperation - at which moment they were given their sentence, which got them out of the Industrial Area Prison and into a place where they could serve their time.
In our prison people had been on remand for years and years; imagine the sheer willpower needed to plead not guilty every two weeks for five years, when each time you knew it would send you back into the remand prison – a place close to hell. If I could have opted not to go to those Mentions I would have done so, for they were a pointless exercise. Worse, they were designed to break you and destroy any sense of hope you might have, so forcing you to change your plea to guilty.
We could have changed our plea, and banked on the fact that as first time offenders the judge would show clemency and grant us a light sentence. A few years and we would be out. It was tempting, but I told myself I had to keep some faith in the justice system and those who presided over it.
Surely, the system had to balance the prosecutor's case with that of the defence, and in our case, like most others, we would be defending ourselves. The judge would be aware that he had the four of us with no legal training facing a state prosecutor, and surely he would balance that in the scales of justice, and try to find where the truth lay. We had to live in hope, and the hope was that the judge would hear us. He seemed a reasonable enough guy, and who else were we to pin our hopes on?
For without faith in something all hope dies.