Panel discussion: Prison Stories and Literature of Resistance By Lucia Edafioka

Panelist- Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kunle Ajibade

Moderator- Molara Wood

Prison Stories and Literature of Resistance was the first panel for the last day of the 2016 Ake Festival.

To set the tone of the discussion, moderator Molara Wood, introduced both panellists who had been imprisoned by authoritarian governments- Prof Ngugi was imprisoned by Jomo Kenyatta for his writings, Kunle Ajibade was imprisoned by one of Nigeria’s most cruel dictators, Sani Abacha for being part of a coup to topple his government and they read excerpts from the their prison memoirs.

 Ngugi wa Thiong’o read ‘Writing on Toilet Paper’ a chapter from his prison memoir, while Kunle Ajibaje read ‘I am digging for Gold’ off his memoir.

“Was prison writing your way of starting struggle writing in literature?” Molara Wood asked Prof Ngugi after the readings. “In prison I pondered about why I was put in prison for writing a play in a Kenyan language, Gikuyu, the same language with Jomo Kenyatta. I understood the politics of language in prison. When people conquer another, they impose their language on them. For example, when Japan colonised Korea they imposed their language and names on them. We must all complain about the criminalization of African language in our schools. We should stop it.” For Ajibaje who was jailed at the Makurdi prisons built by the colonial masters during the 1930s, he said “I started writing after General Yar’adua was found dead in prison, I began to think I will not make it out of prison.”

On how they both managed to read and write in prison, Ajibade said, “Reading and writing in jail was a freedom we fought for. For my first year in prison, I was treated like a hardened criminal. I was only allowed to read the Bible/Quran. After the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 9, human rights organisations clamped down on Nigeria. I gained the freedom to read after I wrote a letter to the warden who said, why not? Part of the responsibility of our occupation is to speak out for the masses.”

The discussion moved on to finding God and faith while in prison. To this, Ajibade said, “I have always been godly long before prison but not religious. The Bible and the Quran are wonderful books. I have always recommended them. If there's any take away from the punishment of prison, it's by reading those books (Bible and Quran) thoroughly.”

Apart from being shared by government authorities, another thing both panellists had in common was the fact that they both had children while in jail. Kunle Ajibade had a son, Professor Ngugi had a daughter, and they both agreed that the birth of their children gave them courage to persevere. Still on faith in prison, Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o said, “In Prison I always looked forward to the muslim prayers because of the powerful singing. Writers are a part of the prophetic tradition of the Bible.”

Looking at the democracy in both Kenya and Nigeria, apart from the literary pieces was prison worth it? A member of the audience asked the panellists. Ajibade answered: “We pray too much in Nigeria. There's nothing in this life you can get without struggling. You just have to be vigilant and resilient. So yes, prison was worth it.” Prof Ngugi chipped in that, “Life in itself is a struggle. You only stop struggling when you die.”

In the end, “stories will always outlast jailers,” Molara Wood said, as the panel rounded up.

Lucia Edafioka is a writer, music junkie, historian and art lover. She's the staff editor at sabinews.com.