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When The Crocodile Smiles: Chapter 8 - A Kindness In Hell

...No account was taken of a prisoner’s age, or the crime he had committed when they were locked away for the night. Vicious, brutal men were mixed with youths who never had a chance.

Many had been imprisoned for longer than they could remember without their cases ever coming to trial. The inefficiency of the criminal justice system in Zungula was such that case notes were lost more often than not, and sometimes intentionally misplaced, thereby ensuring a long incarceration for prisoners whose freedom might prove an embarrassment to the powers that be. In the end perhaps it didn’t matter. Imprisonment at Dedza was a virtual death sentence, particularly for young inmates, as the night rapists passed on their deadly infections...

Middleton, a British citizen who has been flung into Dedza prison, is soon to experience the full horror of hell on earth.

Meanwhile President Chilembe decides that Zungula's Parliament building could be better used as his dwelling place.

Michael Wood's brilliant novel is as shocking as it is entertaining. To read earlier chapters of this vivid narrative please click on When The Crocodile Smiles in the menu on this page.

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BBC World Service: Network Africa
“……arrepotta in Zungula says that the country is in crisis. There are shortfalls in the expected maize harvest, compounding last year’s already serious situation. AIDS and a resurgence of ethnic violence in the north are adding to difficulties faced by hard pressed farming communities……….”

SABC180 Degrees Live in Africa (interviewing Africa Union Representative)
“Surely the food crisis in Zungula, has its roots in the artificial national boundaries created by colonial oppressors?”

Zungula Daily Times
“The nation is celebrating. President Elliot Joseph Chilembe has come home to Dombe. Eschewing the luxury of his Kintyre palace, our great leader has decided that his rightful place is in the capital. The need for Ministers and officials to travel regularly to Kintyre had been dispensed with……”

The state owned Daily Times may have been celebrating but the President was not. His relocation to Dombe was hardly convenient. Kintyre was the centre of his commercial empire. Now that the wretched donors had pressured him to move house and hold, he seemed to be spending a disproportionate amount of time on the telephone, instructing his business lieutenants in the south. It was not the same as being on the spot. Then there was the matter of his new home. He didn’t feel comfortable in the confining interior spaces; the gardens were overlooked if at some distance, by Standard Bank offices, and his evening peace was disturbed by the intolerable screeching of roosting peacocks in a neighbouring property. How could he be expected to attend to his Presidential duties when he was so clearly distracted? No, he thought, this would not do. He wanted better – and something which would make a statement. As he studied the morning newspapers over his light breakfast, Chilembe summoned his Chief of Staff.

“Ask the Ministers of Presidential Affairs and of Finance to join me here for coffee in fifteen minutes.”

* * * * * *

When Lawrence Chitambo had taken Middleton away from the safe refuge of the Residence a week before, he had no intention of respecting the oath he had made as a young officer, to serve and protect. Even if he had given this a moment’s thought, he would have dismissed the idea of fair treatment for an mzungu accused of buggering Zungulan boys.

On the night of his arrest the British teacher had expected to be incarcerated at Police Headquarters and allowed access to a lawyer the following morning, as the High Commissioner indicated would happen. Both were deeply mistaken. As soon as the police Land Rover was out of sight of the Residence, it headed out of town, south. When Middleton asked where he was being taken, the burly sergeant struck him across the lips with the butt of his revolver. “Next time you speak, pehvet, maybe we will donate to you, a bullet.” The Commissioner of Police, his sergeant and the driver found this quip terribly amusing, the sound of their ugly laughter rising above the ancient diesel engine and the wind whistling around the vehicle’s rickety cabin as it sped on.

Once entirely clear of Dombe and into the utter blackness of the night, Middleton’s darkest fears began to take over his imagination. He felt sure he would be murdered, maybe thrown to crocodiles which still inhabited the lower regions of Marimba River. After an hour or more, they again came into an area of habitation. The single street was poorly illuminated, little helped by the Land Rover’s single working headlamp, and there was no sign of life except outside a small bar where a few truck drivers had parked up for the night.

A couple of hundred metres beyond the bar was a road block manned by Defence Force personnel. Two men emerged from a canvas tent and rolled an old oil drum out of the way as the distinctive police vehicle approached. The driver turned off onto a dirt track. All the time Middleton peered out of the rear window, searching for some clue of his whereabouts. Finally the vehicle came to a halt outside an ominous looking building surrounded by walls of more than three metres in height. A grubby sign hung over heavy wooden gates which were triple locked and barred. “YOU ARE ENTERING DEDZA PRISON”. Oh no, Middleton thought, not that. The prison gates were pushed open and the Land Rover moved inside, parking in a dirty cobbled courtyard. The Briton was hauled from the back of the vehicle and marched into a room devoid of furniture. A kerosene lamp hung from a six inch nail on a smoke blackened wall. A prison guard appeared with a coarse uniform of khaki material, folded across his arm.

“Strip, white man. In this place you will be very comfatable. And you must wear this nice beesness suit.”

There was uproarious laughter as Middleton pleaded for dignity.

“What’s wrong Mzungu. You didn’t mind showing your little thing to our school boy. Now strip or we will chop it off and eat it for our bleckfast.”

Middleton shook with fear and from the cold stone which penetrated through his now bare feet.

“Can I please keep my shoes?” he begged.

“Hmm. These look like good wans. Maybe we will look after them for some time. You will not need shoes inside. All our guest rooms are very nice. Just like home, eh Commissioner?”

Chitambo looked at Middleton with a sneer.

“Enjoy your stay at our Hilton Hotel. I think you are going to enjoy it.”

Two guards then pushed the Briton into the courtyard, and propelled him to another grimly bolted wooden door. A guard switched on a torch while the other groped with a set of huge mediaeval looking keys. The door was pulled open. Under the torch light, Middleton had little time to take in the horror within, before he was flung headlong. There were howls and protests from the heaving mass of humanity upon whom he fell. The doors of what was clearly a sort of dungeon, slammed behind him and he was immediately engulfed in impenetrable darkness. Middleton cried and called out for mercy. He could see nothing and was panic stricken. Everywhere he tried to move he stood on someone. The smell of urine and defecation invaded his nostrils. And then the inmates realized from his frenzied confusion and the strangeness of his tongue, that this was a white man. Suddenly there were heavy grunting men all over him – men with animal instincts who were familiar with the absence of light and this hell into which he had been plunged. They were pulling at him, tearing at his uniform, punching his head in their attempts to subdue him. Middleton was screaming for mercy. No one cared.

Until his legs were thrust apart and the raping began, the teacher prayed this might have been a terrible nightmare. But the pain and shock was real as hard flesh ripped into his anus. All the time they battered him, pounding his body until his senses numbed. Until he no longer felt the vileness perpetrated upon him. All night it went on, one man after another, each taking his turn in an established hierarchy. Some returning for more. By the time morning came, Middleton, who had yet to be tried, was no longer conscious.

* * * * * *

President Chilembe was still seated at his dining table when his two Ministers arrived together. He stood to greet them.

“Ah. My good friends. Thank you for coming so swiftly. Gentlemen, can I offer you some breakfast?”

Joe Tembo asked for tea. The Minister for Presidential Affairs was fasting. Chilembe took them outside to the patio where they could sit in more comfort, enjoy the growing warmth of morning sunshine, yet still remain shielded from its full brightness. As there were delicate issues to discuss, the Chief of Staff was asked to return to his office.

“I have three matters I want to go over,” the President began. “First, look around you,” he said with a tone bordering on disgust. “Compared to my accommodations in Kintyre, this place is not suitable for a President. Wouldn’t you agree?”

The Ministers were taken aback as their boss had been party to the decision to occupy the building. No expense had been spared redecorating with the finest wall papers and paints imported from London, in anticipation of his move. Joe Tembo spoke first.

“I agree Sir that it is not as fine as the Kintyre palace. It is however, the best accommodation in the city and the only building with suitable facilities for hosting other Heads of State, for banqueting and such like.”

“Not quite,” the President retorted. His two Ministers looked at one another, clearly at a loss. “You are forgetting surely that my predecessor lived in Dombe and in a place much better suited to the purposes you describe, Joe.”

The Minister for Presidential Affairs was alarmed. “Mr President. If you mean the palace constructed during Dr Mpande’s time, it was you who publicly criticised its existence and instructed that it should be converted for use as our Parliament.”

“You are right Minister. Quite right,” the President replied, nodding his head as if reconsidering. “However that was when I had my home in Kintyre. Now that I am obliged to live in our capital city, I want the Dombe palace back. You understand, I am not debating the matter. It is to be done.”

“Sir. Where will Parliament sit?”

“That, my Minister of Presidential Affairs, is your problem, not mine. As I understand it, only the ballrooms in the palace were substantially altered to accommodate the necessary debating chambers. I want these returned to their original purpose as soon as practicable. Meanwhile, I see no reason why I should not reoccupy the palace’s main residential wing within days, especially as Parliament is currently in recess.”

All three men fell silent while the full implications of the President’s wishes sank in. He then resumed. “The second matter is more mundane but nevertheless has a measure of importance. My official portrait needs updating. With the heavy burdens of State, my appearance has changed in the last few years. How will my people recognize me if we do not keep the portrait fresh? We are a poor country. Very few are lucky enough to have television.”

Joe Tembo understood only too well the financial implications of this request and attempted to shock his boss into withdrawing it. “Mr President, I am sure the exercise will be well worth the expense. Zungulans will be delighted that the portrait is to be renewed. We will need to get new quotations for the printing element of the job, but I imagine, taking account of the need for country wide distribution, this could all be achieved for about two million dollars equivalent.”

Elliot Joseph Chilembe did not flinch. “See to it then. Now gentlemen, the last item on my agenda is sale of our surplus grain. How far have you got with that Joe?”

“Just to be clear Mr President, the maize in our silos is unlikely to be surplus to requirement. Indeed, a poor harvest is predicted again this year. However, Chihana feels confident we can safely sell our reserves, profit from the transaction and guarantee that the donors will rally round in our hour of need.”

“Thanks for the lecture Joe. We have already made the decision to sell. I asked how far you had got with it?”

“The man Phiri has been given his instructions. I have made clear these are to be carried out before the start of the Regional Food Security meeting later this week.”

“Good. And what can we expect to accrue from the sale?”

“Five million dollars, give or take a few hundred thousand.”

“Very well,” said the President. “I will allocate two, to the portraits.”

* * * * * *

At six o’clock in the morning the guards at Dedza prison unlocked each of five separate dungeon doors, out of which spilled into the courtyard an assortment of men and boys whose crimes ranged from murder and rape at one extreme, to the trivial offense of chicken theft on the other. There were about three hundred prisoners in all. Sixty of them were crammed into each identical airless cell. The only ventilation was a tiny space about the size of a single missing brick, close to the ceiling, and well above head height. Floors were cobblestone and of an area inadequate to accommodate so many people, even allowing for the absence of beds. No prisoner had a blanket. Shit lay heaped in several places, as if special areas had been designated for those too desperate to hold themselves until the morning. Some of the boys collected buckets and shovels to clear up the mess. When this was done, others were given a crude disinfectant to slush out the floors. No account was taken of a prisoner’s age, or the crime he had committed when they were locked away for the night. Vicious, brutal men were mixed with youths who never had a chance.

Many had been imprisoned for longer than they could remember without their cases ever coming to trial. The inefficiency of the criminal justice system in Zungula was such that case notes were lost more often than not, and sometimes intentionally misplaced, thereby ensuring a long incarceration for prisoners whose freedom might prove an embarrassment to the powers that be. In the end perhaps it didn’t matter. Imprisonment at Dedza was a virtual death sentence, particularly for young inmates, as the night rapists passed on their deadly infections.

A group of men were allocated the task of lighting a fire in the left hand corner of the courtyard reserved for cooking. Soon an enormous pot of nsima was bubbling away but there was no other nourishment in evidence. Prisoners who weren’t cooking were told to sit on the ground with their legs crossed and arms folded. In threes and fours, they were allowed to get up to visit the latrines and to wash in a shared bucket of ice cold water. Middelton still lay motionless in his cell. The guards could see this but took no action to check on his welfare. Cleaning boys had swept and scrubbed around him. When the nsima was cooked it was cut and apportioned. With three hundred mouths to feed there wasn’t much to go around.

After eating, the prisoners were allowed to gather in groups around the courtyard and to walk about with more freedom. One man asked permission to take a fresh bucket of water to Middleton. This was granted. The man gently bathed the Briton’s head, wiping away the worst of congealed blood. The teacher’s swollen eyes opened. When he saw and understood the state of himself, when his mind flashed back to the previous night’s cruel mutilation, he began to cry in great, pain inducing sobs. “What have they done to me? Oh God, what have they done?”

Noah Bamidele looked down at the severely bruised figure and realized this white man was not yet recovered enough to eat a piece of the nsima he had saved. It would be some time before the man could get up, he reasoned.

“Rest boss,” he said. “Rest and pray God.

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