They said she was dead, Katherine Adamu thought, sitting on the edge of the bunk and staring into the gloom of the Benin City cell. Dead because they wanted her dead. Dead because they wanted the malaria in her body and the hunger in her stomach to continue until she was dead. She shut her eyes against the darkness of the cell, rolled to her side, lay on the bed, and shivered. A wave of pain from the malaria shot through her head and she moaned.
The cell in the March night was hot and airless, stagnant and dark, suffocating in the still air, sprouting smells which hung solid in the gloom, radiating a heat which was trapped between the thick walls. The night divulged insects, some of them bugs. The mosquitoes were busy at play, the ants crawled over the floor and beds, and a few fireflies were drifting in the heavy blanket of the solemn night.
Somebody stirred on the bunk beside her own. Forgetting about thoughts of death, Katherine stared in the direction. That must be Tina, she thought.
Tina, her co-sufferer in the cell of death; Tina, her best friend in the past six months of tribulation.
“Warder Benson will come for you,” Tina said in the darkness. “You must follow him.”
“What can he do?” Katherine said moodily. “He’s only a junior warder. He’ll only get himself in trouble.”
“Don’t speak that way,” Tina said. “You must try to get to the foyer. Benson says the Chief Judge wants to see you. He wants to grant you an amnesty.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Don’t think about it,” Tina said. “Act it. Staying here means death, just like other inmates dumped here have died.”
“When Benson comes, I’ll go with him,” Katherine said. “But it’s a hopeless case. It’s difficult for a junior warder to get a forgotten inmate like me out of a Benin City cell.”
Forgotten inmate, that was what one warder had called her, Katherine thought. Better she was called forgotten soul. Or forgotten victim. Her journey to become a forgotten inmate began one September evening when policemen descended on her street, arrested the unemployed youths and others hanging around, and accused them of wandering. Katherine had been standing on the street in front of her house after a stroll to console herself over losing her job. There was a movement in the darkness, the sound of quick footsteps, a shout, and suddenly hands held her. At the police station, she was charged with wandering, accused of being a prostitute, and clamped into a cell. The next day, she was taken to court. The Magistrate demanded her file, couldn’t get the police to get it, and ordered her to be clamped in prison until the file was brought before her. Katherine had no one to bribe the police to get her out, so she had been in jail since then.
Sighing about her travail, she turned on the bunk and stared at the ceiling of the cell. The January wind blew in through the window, hot and blustery, bringing in a litany of odours. This place smelled worse than a toilet, Katherine thought. A smell of waste, whether from man or beast, had settled in the cell; a smell that also reeked of the scent of dead bodies, urine, and unwashed skin; the odour of stale sweat and rot and rags and soil and sickness all mingled together. Pressing her nostrils against each other with her fingers, she fell asleep.
She woke up to the sound of chains and padlock clanging against the lock of the cell door. Warder Benson coming to take the female prisoners to the toilet, she thought. She got out of the bed and stood on the floor, tottering on her feet. She was ill. She was seriously ill. She was terribly ill. Hearing footsteps leaving the cell, she put away her thoughts and followed Tina and the other prisoners to the toilet at the end of the female block. As she trudged on, she heard the unearthly sounds coming from the prisoners holed up in the block of those condemned to die, and she tried to quicken her footsteps. After going to the toilet, she felt Warder Benson pull her hand, and she stood in front of him. He was a tall slim man in his thick brown khaki uniform, a man in his fifties. You’re not tough enough for this, Katherine thought. Why do you want to get into trouble?
“Get ready to go to the foyer,” Benson said. “The Chief Judge wants to grant you an amnesty.”
“But Warder John has told him that I’m dead,” Katherine said.
“Warder John has had an accident,” Benson said. “He can’t stop you from seeing the judge. I’m taking you to the foyer to wait for him.”
“But why are you helping me?” Katherine asked. “All the warders, except you, want me dead.”
“You look so much like my dead daughter,” Benson said. “I can’t allow my daughter to suffer. Besides, if you stay here, you’ll die, like other inmates whose files could not be traced.” He turned to Tina. “Follow us to the foyer.”
After locking the cell door, Warder Benson walked down the corridor towards the adjoining block, Katherine and Tina following him. Katherine felt the ache from her malaria running through her head, through her thighs, through her legs, through her drooping shoulders, and through the muscles of her arms. Mixing with the pain from her illness, the variegated smell of the prison drifted into her nose, choking and stifling her breath, making every lining in her stomach, every sensation in her chest, each individual strand in her throat try to rebel, to resist, and to repel the scent. Walk on, she told herself. On and on, despite the malaria, despite not having eaten any since the previous day. When they got to the end of the corridor, Katherine saw Warder Moses Ugbesia, John’s assistant, coming to stop in front of them.
Leave Moses to Benson, Katherine thought. She didn’t want to confront Moses. When she saw the suspicious look that came into his eyes, she looked away. In his eyes, all prisoners were equal to a band of felons, she thought. But in her eyes, most prisoners were equal to a band of victims.
Moses was pointing at her.
“Where are you taking this witch to?” he asked Benson.
“Medical check up,” Benson said, and Katherine winced. Why was Benson being defensive? she thought.
“Has she paid the money for that?” Moses asked Benson.
“She doesn’t have any money,” Benson replied.
“She never has any money,” Moses said in a bitter voice. “She has never had any money. If I were you, I would take her back to the cell. Let her die there.”
Katherine wanted to make a cutting remark, put him on the defensive, but she stopped herself. Benson should handle him, she thought.
“I think you should try to understand…” Benson began.
“Understand what?” Moses said in a loud voice. “She’s not here to enjoy free medical service, free everything. She’s here to pay for the crimes she committed against humanity. John must not hear of this.” And he marched away.
Katherine stared at the sand-strewn floor of the corridor. Moses had said she wanted everything free. Did he know anything about having nothing; did he know anything about suffering? Did Moses know anything about being imprisoned when one was innocent of a crime; anything about having no one to save one when one fell into trouble; anything about hunger, illness, and poverty? Staring from the floor, she looked at Benson and saw the hesitant look in his eyes.
“Let’s go back to the cell,” he said. “I’ll think of a way to get out of this situation.”
The three of them began to walk back towards the cell. The distance seemed far to Katherine, but she walked on. A flight of steps soon blocked her path. Could she climb this? she asked herself. Could she climb these when her legs felt as heavy as lead, her arms felt as heavy as lead, her feet felt like lead. As she placed her leg on the bottom step, the muscles of her ankle shifted, and she fell on the ground. Was she about to die? No! She felt hands on her arms, hands on her shoulder, and she was lifted to her feet, but she couldn’t climb the steps. She was too hungry and too ill to move. Sitting on the ground, she waited to gather her strength. As she sat staring at the field in the middle of the prison yard, Samuel Agho, a warder friend of Moses, waddled towards them.
“Benson, can’t you see that this girl is hungry?” he said. “Get her something to eat for Christ’s sake”
“If Moses sees me, he’ll tell John,” Benson said.
“Forget Moses,” the warder said. “He’s too occupied to tell John about anything. Besides, John is off duty. Take the girl to the kitchen.” He climbed down the steps and waddled away.
Katherine felt Tina’s hand on her arm, and she was lifted up. Seeing that Benson nodded his head down the block, Katherine moved in the direction, assisted by Tina. When they got to the adjoining block, the corridor of the row of cells containing the death row prisoners stretched out before them.
The stench of sickness and human waste and urine filled the corridor, leaving upon the scene only the sense of decay, death, and hopelessness, not the presence of life. The prisoners inside the cells rushed to the windows, pushing forward, pulling backwards, shouting and howling, half-dead figures without the hope of salvation. As the smell from the cells choked at Katherine’s nostrils, she let out a gagging sound and tried to vomit on the verge of grass that fringed the corridor. But nothing came out of her mouth. She stayed still, clutched her stomach for several seconds, then raised her head up. Can’t bear this place, she thought. Can’t bear the smell, can’t bear the sense of death. Biting down on her lower lip, she willed herself to trudge away from the place, Tina holding her elbow to steady her movements. Well away from the block in which the death row prisoners were camped, she heaved a sigh of relief. The cell was filled with people suffering from hunger, she thought. The death row was filled with people suffering from madness. While she ruminated on this, she reached the door leading to the kitchen.
Benson nudged her towards the door, and she entered the kitchen, along with Tina. Coming towards them was Madam Angela, a fat woman in her late forties. She wore a dirty white apron, and a puzzled look was on her face. Be kind, Katherine thought. Give me only a plate of food without any confrontation. Don’t have a stony heart, lying tongue, a granite soul, and a wicked spirit. But when Madam Angela’s puzzled look was replaced by a scowl, Katherine’s heart fell. She would as soon give a leper a plate of beans as give one to her.
“What’s it again, Benson?” she demanded. “There’s no extra food here.”
“Just something in their stomachs while they wait for the Chief Judge,” Benson pleaded.
“The government has not provided for extra food,” Madam Angela said. “If I give to them, I’ll be cutting into my profit.”
At that moment, Katherine heard footsteps behind her, and she turned. A warder had entered the kitchen, a man whose stomach bulged under his uniform. He had a plate of beans on his left palm, spooning from it with his right hand. The warder in charge of food, Katherine thought. She watched him belch and saw the frown that came to his face when his gaze took in Katherine.
“No extra food for inmates here,” he said in a belligerent voice. “There’s no provision for that.”
“They’re being given amnesty today,” Benson said in a weak voice. “Do you want the Chief Judge to see them like this, hungry and sick?”
“Why should I care?” the warder said, spittle flying from his mouth. “It’s not my fault that the government hasn’t provided for them.” He turned a stern eye on Katherine and Tina. “Now, both of you, get out of here!”
Before she turned to leave, Katherine saw a plate of beans on a table fifty yards away from her. The food would have stemmed her hunger, and she could easily have grabbed it and stuffed it down her throat, but she shook her head. Let Benson take control. Let him tell her what to do.
They trekked out of the kitchen and stood on the corridor of the block in which it was located. From where she stood, Katherine saw the sun rising up in the sky, a yellow ball speeding through a landscape of blue and white, sending a harsh light over the prison yard. Thank God! she thought, smiling. The prison smell was being blown away by the morning breeze, and she discovered that she could now breathe, even if for a few seconds. Thank God! The daily deadly dose of malaria usually disappeared with the sun and the breeze.
“Not yet in the cell?” she heard Warden Moses’ voice behind her. She saw him come to stand in front of Benson. “Why do you want to put yourself in trouble, Benson?” he asked.
“You don’t understand the situation, Moses,” Benson said.
Moses hitched up his trousers.
“I understand the situation,” he declared. Pointing at Katherine, he said: “All the forgotten inmates pay homage to us except her. All of them obey the rules of the cell except her. She keeps saying she has no money. Will that feed my family? Don’t you know that is why John hates her?”
Katherine wished she could swing a karate chop at his face, the chop her teacher taught her at the karate class. But she didn’t swing the blow. She would put herself at the mercy of Benson. It was his job to control the situation.
“You get it all wrong,” she heard Benson tell Moses.
“You’re the one getting it wrong!” Moses shouted at Benson. “This is what I’m going to do. If you don’t take her back to the cell now, John will hear of this.”
Katherine saw Benson hesitate. He was going to give in, she thought. He always gave in. Would this lead her back to the cell, back to hell? She saw Benson stare in the direction of the foyer, rub his jaw, his thoughts far. He couldn’t sustain rebellion, Katherine thought with growing strength. With a superior officer or one close to the boss, he would back down, had always backed down, would always back down. While these thought went on in her mind, Benson coughed and focused on Moses.
“The Controller said I should bring her to the foyer,” he said finally. “And that is what I’m going to do.”
“Please yourself,” Moses said. “But be prepared for the consequences.”
Katherine watched him walk away and nodded her head. Benson was fighting back for once, she thought. Following him and Tina, she staggered as she tried to match their pace. Ahead of her, she spied the bleached white wall of the foyer and the group of prisoners being ushered into it by two warders. Prisoners for the amnesty, Katherine thought, feeling stronger. Depends on their offences: petty stealing, petty conspiracy, petty crime, jailed without trial, forgotten inmates, slam of the Chief Judges gavel – amnesty for them. She gave a grim smile as this went through her mind. What about amnesty for her? She grimaced. She should forget that, or so John seemed to think. Katherine was dead, that was what he told the Chief Judge. Dead and buried. Buried and forgotten. Those were the exact word related to her. His prophesy must not come true! As she mused on this, she, Benson and Tina got to the end of the block. Someone stepped from the yard beside the compound and stood in their path. Warder John!
He was a tall man in his late fifties. His left arm was thickly bandaged and was in a sling. There was anger clearly written on his face.
“What do you think you’re doing, Benson?” he demanded.
“The Controller told me to bring her to the foyer,” Benson said, trembling.
“Liar!” John shouted. “I told him she’s dead. There’s no way he could send for her when he thinks she’s dead. Do you want him to think that I’m a liar?”
Benson said nothing.
John looked at Katherine and spat on the grass that fringed the corridor of the block. He looked at Benson. “You’re doing this because of this thing?” he asked, gesturing at Katherine. “This thing that always complains of having no money?”
“It’s not my fault,” Katherine said. “I’ve been sacked from work. My family is poor. There’s no money to be given out.”
“Will that feed my family?” John asked her. “Will that pay the school fees of my three children?”
“Excuse me, sir, I…” Benson began.
John lifted his good hand and pointed down the corridor. “Take her back to the cell,” he commanded. “You can take Tina to the foyer.”
“Please, sir,” Tina said, dropping to her knees. “Have pity on Katherine. She’s been my elder sister here.”
“She must go back to the cell,” John said. “Benson, take her back to the cell.”
Seeing that Benson was going to back down this time, Katherine went to sit on the grass by the corridor. Go back to that cell? she asked herself. If she did, John’s men would be cruel to her, kill her, brutalise her – with iron claws, stony hearts. She would be their rat, an endangered rat, at the mercy of their clubs. They would chase her, shout at her, John standing by the door, cudgel in hand, howling: “Kill the rat!”
She clambered to her feet.
Hated, chased, cornered, yet innocent, she thought. Imprisoned for wandering, yet obeying the law: standing in front of her home. Labeled habitual criminal, yet never been in a police cell throughout her thirty years. Kept in jail for six months – a hateful life that filled her with hate – yet sentenced for loitering a week. A forgotten inmate, her case file missing, yet still imprisoned. John must not have his way! she thought. John must not have his way. Benson either. He must not have control. Or she would die, perish in the cell, an insignificant number in the graveyard of the prison. What should she do?
At that moment, people started to shout in the prison yard. Katherine stared in the direction of the voices. The Chief Judge, followed by the Controller of Prisons, her lawyer, and other prison officials, were walking towards the foyer. She watched them as they climbed the steps leading to the foyer and disappeared.
The cell was a graveyard, she thought, a dungeon, a theatre to contact malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS; a cemetery of forgotten inmates; a hell of heat, diseases, and tragedy. Going back was inconcievable. Going back was unthinkable. Going back must be resisted. How? She thought for a moment then nodded her head. Simple. Resist going back. Let John punch her. Let him flog her. Let him beat her. Going back must be resisted. No need to wait for Benson to take control. She would take control!
She stared at John and Benson. Benson was nodding his head in agreement to John’s instructions.
“Now, take her back to the cell,” John commanded. “This very second.”
“Yes, sir,” Benson said.
“No, sir!” Katherine said in a bold voice, and started to move towards the foyer, the corner of one of her eyes on John’s bandaged arm.
“What did you say?” John asked.
“I said I’m not going back to the cell.”
“Foolish criminal!” John swore at her.
He grabbed her with his good hand and pulled back in anger. She staggered past him, slammed her back against the wall of the block, and slid to the grass. As he advanced towards her, she started to scramble to her feet. “I’m not going back to the cell!” she shouted. “I’m not going back to the cell!” John reached her, grasped her by her hair, and swinging his leg, he swept her off her feet. As she fell down hard on the soil, she dimly heard voices shouting over the fight from the cells in the yard. She blocked this from her mind and struggled to her feet. As John moved towards her, she let out a yell and jumped into the air, giving her assailant a karate chop on the bandaged hand. John yelled, clutching at his arm.
Run! Katherine told herself. With the remaining strength in her, she ran past John and started to stagger towards the foyer, to the sound of jubilation from the prisoners in the cell. She heard John roar at her and heard feet starting in a run after her. Faster, she told herself. She sprinted from the man who was bent on seeing her blood, bent on dying unless he saw her dead. She knew being caught could mean her defeat, her disgrace, and her death. But she was weak from the hunger and her sickness. John caught up with her as she fell in front of the doorway of the foyer. As he lifted her up, she saw the crowd of prison officials and others that had gathered by the door of the foyer.
“I’ll kill you!” John yelled.
“Warder John!” a voice shouted from inside the foyer. The controller’s voice, Katherine thought. “Why are you treating the inmate like that?”
“She doesn’t want to go back to the cell,” John said.
Katherine saw the Controller detach himself from the crowd and come towards her. Come, she thought. She wanted him to see the woman whom they said was dead. She wanted him to know that she was being lied about, was being hunted like a rat, was being shouted upon like a slave, was being harassed by brutes like John who said she must rot and perish in the cell and her dead body thrown to a pack of hungry dogs as an afternoon meal. Behind the controller, she saw the Chief Judge and her lawyer coming forward to see the cause of the commotion. She saw the look of surprise in her lawyer’s eyes when he saw her, and she saw him whisper something to the Chief Judge. She saw both of them as they started to move towards her. Katherine was wiping her lips when the Controller lifted up her face and looked into her eyes. She saw his look of surprise.
“Is this not the inmate you said was dead, John?” he asked.
“No, sir,” John said.
“Yes, sir,” said Katherine’s lawyer, who had reached the scene. “I was there when he said she was dead.”
Say something, Katherine told herself.
“He said I was dead because I refused to give him a bribe.”
“I see,” said the Chief Judge, nodding his head and staring at John. “I see.” He paused, then said: “Let’s go back to the foyer. This girl must receive her amnesty. I’ll make sure that those who have erred on this issue receive their punishments.”
He turned and began to lumber towards the foyer, followed by the Controller and Katherine’s lawyer. Benson nudged Katherine towards them, and she started to stumble in their direction. Amnesty was freedom from jail, she thought, even when the freedom could mean starvation on the streets. She stepped into the foyer and moved unsteadily towards the high table, behind which the Chief Judge had sat down to begin his judgment.