Letters to my daughters: Anyone can end up in jail


With Rohey Samba

Someone once said, awful prisons belong to awful governments. This reflects what Serign Abdul Aziz Sy Junior, my favourite marabout after his namesake Dabakh, once said in a sermon. Junior, may his soul rest in peace, remarked that you know how advanced a nation is by the way it treats its women and prisoners. I am just paraphrasing.
Anyone can finish up in prison – by a legal mistake, through injustice, or through their own mistakes. Every day we wake up is a day closer to committing a crime, whether by inadvertently hitting another human being with our own cars, who is walking in the streets instead of the sidewalks, or fatally knocking out a verbally abusive comrade for unreasonably annoying us. The probability is always there.

Gambians in the urban areas live by unwritten rules. Each day that you drive along a busy road, especially one shared by pedestrians, is a day you learn a little bit more about the intricate dynamics of willful interference with free passage of vehicles. With no primers on the rules of pedestrian crossing, you just ought to travel around Serekunda or Brikama markets to understand how easily one can end up in jail in this country.


“If you dare hit me!” a middle-aged woman threatened the man driving the vehicle in front of me as I watched on, brakes pressed down abruptly to avoid bumping into his car. The vehicle’s bumper had slightly missed the woman’s torso and she was visibly shaken. She had flared up at the man once she was able to find her voice.

“If the vehicle hits you, you will die a miserable death or be invalid for the rest of your life,” I wanted to say. But since the driver in front of me refused to address her, for fear of reprisal or just plain fear of women in general, you know some men really fear women…well, I also chose to press my mute button on. Who am I to fight his fight by the way?
So there it goes, every day bringing us closer to a day we may end up in prison. Every little decision that may put us behind bars presenting itself in beguiling fashion. Seeking to instigate our presence of mind about the future while the truth sits right under our noses.

For the larger share of mistakes that get us locked behind bars is directly attributable to our inability to see it coming. The point being that certainty has no place in a man’s life. We need to re-look the state of society, our immediate environs and our circumstances every time we leave the recesses of our home without wearing those rose-tinted glasses.
Moreover, it wouldn’t be a terrible thing if authorities treated inmates with more empathy and basic human consideration. Everyday, every action we take, every move we make as human beings, is a choice. Life is a series of choices. Intuitively, success or failure is derived from the kind of discomfort we choose for the moment. Albert Camus said, “in the midst of an intense winter I found an invincible summer”. Similarly, in the midst of people accused/ guilty of inhuman acts, you found immense humanity. In my experience, and from what I observe, not every prisoner is a criminal.

The pastor of a born-again church that operated in my street, adjacent my house, was incarcerated for murder some three years ago. For many of my Muslim neighbours, who detested the vibrant gospel music and endless prayers that came from his church, the incarceration was karma. A well-deserved punishment for keeping everyone in the neighborhood awake through most of the nights, they chose to have night prayers.

Having spent time in predominantly Christian neighborhoods both in Accra and Lagos, I can loudly say, the born-again church in my street was a subtle version of what I used to hear emanating from those churches at night. Moreover, it was just as distracting to me as the endless chants and drum beatings of the ‘Baye Fall’, a sub-sect of the Mouride Muslim brotherhood, I used to hear through countless nights spent in Banjul from 2008 to 2012.

I think if we all take a look at ourselves and our situation with honesty, we will do away with some of our ethnic and religious prejudices that shroud our thinking and perspectives. We will understand that whether we agree or disagree with someone, the world still spins and we are a small element in the wider scheme of things, however big we may feel about ourselves. We will learn to own our discomfort upfront and feel uneasy for a short while then garner reward for our persistence in the long run. After all, nothing lasts forever.

Back to the pastor and how fate decided his course. Pastor X as I would call him, was well-known for his disciplinarian streak. So when his sister’s son became too much to bear in his home town in Nigeria, the teenage boy was brought to his uncle to learn some discipline.
Inevitably, the boy’s stubborn streak clashed seriously with his uncle’s strict ways. Realising how much life suck with his uncle, the boy devolved new ways to keep his uncle on edge. Perhaps he sought to push him to a point where his uncle would get fed up and return him to his own mum. The uncle however, responded to his defiance with capital punishment, often beating the boy unconscious. One day, the boy fell unconscious and never woke up again. Imprisoned for manslaughter, the pastor was given a three-year jail sentence.

Almost every time life tests us or other people, we fail to find the opportunity in it, rather seeking out our own prejudices to justify the hardship life presents. Yes, there are neighbourly rights and all. But there are also anti-loitering laws that pedestrians must keep away from the traffic. People are so vested in their rights nowadays, we fail to recognise our responsibilities and other people’s limitations. We fail to realise our humanity…
For me, when I got wind of the story, the fact that his family struggled to make ends meet after he was jailed and had to return back to Nigeria was not as painful as the error made by his sister to give his stubborn child to be fostered by another, even her own brother. African society is replete with this fostering culture, but it never ends well.

The error is to think that eventually, your deviant son or your naughty daughter will be changed in a fundamental way by someone else. It is a perennial problem in our society, where parents give their children away as an escape from life’s problems. They figure that by giving their children they are providing them positive experiences in life, that may change them for the better. What bullshit! A child’s place is by his parents’ side, whether his mother or his father or both, to be nurtured and raised in the means they can provide for him or her. That is the child’s inherent right, unless there is force majeure.

When I first announced my desire to visit Pastor X, it was received with scepticism, disbelief and confusion. This was totally fine by me. I did not expect otherwise. To say I was controversial, weird or different, which is what kinder folks tell me, was repeating what I know to be true since I learnt to read “This is Peter. This is Jane. Here is Peter and here is Jane”.

The skepticism almost stirred my sense of doubt. But I resolved to ignore it. If I failed, I failed. It wouldn’t be the end of the world. People have failed since the beginning of time, and the earth is still spinning. Life is really a matter of choice. And everything in life too is a choice.

Some people think that being imprisoned is being incarcerated and put behind bars. This is the worst of it. But many people live in prisons they devise by choice. A case in point is an unhappily married wife, provided with all the trappings and gifts that money can buy, but who never has the love of her husband. She lives in a dream house, drives a dream car and travels round the world, but she is imprisoned for lack of love and further imprisoned by her primal fear of losing everything if she leaves her unloving husband.

This is also the sad case of some foster children who are adopted and raised in mansions, who never belong to these mansions because they will always be second place to the mansions owners’ kids. Now, even a three-year-old child knows when he or she is loved or wanted. Many people, women and men alike, cannot raise their own children properly let alone others’ children. They are too damaged by their circumstances, by the way they were brought up, by their own limitations, in short, they are incapable of fellow-feeling and love for their own child, not to mention, know how to care for another human child appropriately.

Hoisting a foster child on this kind of person is naïve, if not heinous by default. Religion or tribe or race or even sex does not determine the character of a person. Otherwise we won’t hear about religious leaders committing crimes against the people who trust them with their own lives.

And indeed, some foster parents will do everything right by their foster children but will shun any goodwill towards them once they succeed as adults because for them success is supposed to be the remit of their own children. Regrettably, life does not promise us anything. Shelling oneself in the prison of one’s thoughts of entitlement is sad. Very sad.
The beauty in the struggle of life is one we share as a common thread, we humans, it is our unpredictability and our fallibility. Realising the world will constantly test us, removes the element of surprise and prepares us to the next steps forward.

In every adversity, there is a lesson we must learn if we wish to succeed in this life. Yes, pain and hardship sucks. Poverty and cruelty are the bane of society. Yet the opportunity that hardship brings is to transform pain into purpose and carve a way forward for steps to positivity.

That mansion we are raised in is no more than a prison, if we can’t find warmth, comfort and understanding within its walls. There are many reasons why what prison conditions show is vile to me. The little things called boundaries do not exist to many people. Moreover, the sad excuses of human beings making all inflammatory remarks about inmates tend to amplify their sense of misinformation.

A quiet, self-effacing man murdered a woman on the game, what we call a prostitute, five years ago. I knew about the case because it happened at a co-worker’s residence and she was called by the police to give a statement on a work day.
The guy who committed murder was a virtual saint, very pious, humble and cheerful. In fact, he was known to be good friends with the girl he accidentally killed and ran away. It happened that after availing himself to the services of the escort, he playfully refused to pay the girl, who did not find it funny and started to make a scene.

By trying to shut up the girl, holding back her head and using his strong arms to cover his mouth, the girl got belligerent making him use more force to stop her from shouting, which ended up breaking her neck. Panicking, the guy took off with what he could and ran away from the murder scene. He was caught a few months later, and given life in prison. If I am not mistaken, I think the man was so remorseful after what had done that he came back and gave himself up to the police.

People work hard to restore what was broken. They must be appreciated for that. Maybe we should all think twice before we begin to conclude on why certain things happen to certain people, because they could have happened to anyone of us. Blaming people isn’t a strategy. It does nothing to make things better. It does not even out the scales of justice.
The same energy we use to blame or talk down on others should be used to reflect on the odds that it could have been you or me or anybody else in that situation. Society isn’t fair. Life sometimes seems unfair. Anyone who amounts to anything in this society has people who like him or her and people who dislike him or her. Everything that goes on public scrutiny is a hotbed for criticism, including my articles.

Someone said to me, “I hate it when you belittle men in your writings”. At another period of time in my life, I would have fumbled some excuse and try to explain how I did not mean to hurt men, or even deny ever writing anything negative about men. Not now.
I told him, “Why don’t you write your own column where you put your own thoughts together about how grand men are in the world we live today.” His lizard brain doesn’t want the emasculation of men. He forgot completely that women danced to the tune, “It’s a man’s world,” for decades and did not begrudge men of their presumption!
In all, if you apply experience to other people, you realise that people’s opinions matter little on the grand scheme of things. That really successful people do not focus time or too much attention on other people’s actions or words. In fact, if the words of the writer, Tim Grover, are anything to go by, “Being the best means engineering your life so you never stop until you get what you want, and then you keep going until you get what’s next. And then you go for even more.”

So upon all the chastisements and reticence, I found the courage to visit Pastor X. I needed to understand his anger. What made him beat so harshly. It was not about religion. I knew that for sure. It was not about tribe either. I wanted to see him eye-to-eye about the essence of his character. What made him click, per se? I went ahead and I saw him. And we discussed. He was glad. I was satisfied. Grateful. And enlightened. It added to my repertoire.

My daughters, I am a writer. Writing is my hiding place. Knowing people. Connecting with people. Studying people. This is what inspires my creativity. I never mean any harm.
P.S: Your Mother.