January 23, 2014

Have You Been in Prison?

One of the best stories I got out of last year's reading of Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari was the one told to him by an ex-prisoner in Ethiopia. The man had spent the better part of ten years in jail as a political prisoner and his experience was both heartwarming and harrowing.

Having nothing to read, write with, or write on, he was overjoyed when one day a new prisoner appeared, carrying an undetected copy of Gone with the Wind with him. Reading it became one of his greatest joys for the next six years. Or, rather, reading it for an hour at a time for the next six years, because the other political prisoners in his section, all educated men, made dibs on it too. And so the book made its regular rounds. He eventually decided to translate it, using a smuggled pen to write it down on the backs of a total of three thousand cigarette foils over the course of two years in what I can only imagine must have been very cramped script. The foils eventually made their way out of the prison via other prisoners that were being released, and once he was a free man himself it took him another two years to gather all those scattered foil pieces again, gone (almost) with the wind as they were, and get his translation published. It is now the version read by Ethiopians.

I really like this tale. It reminds me of Nelson Mandela’s story, not so very different. How he wrote the draft of his autobiography on Robben Island, how he buried it somewhere in the garden he tended to avoid detection, and how it was eventually smuggled out to become Long Walk to Freedom.

Paul Theroux, after meeting the Ethiopian ex-prisoner, from then on decided he was going to ask everybody over the age of thirty whether they had been in prison or not. Most had. In our world, having been in prison might be a mark of shame. In Africa, having been in prison can be a badge of honor.

This made me reflect on our time in South Africa, and it made me realize that we had our own stories involving prisoners.

Zax, as part of a school trip to Franschhoek, had the opportunity to visit Victor Verster Prison (now Drakenstein Correctional Centre), the very place where Nelson Mandela spent the waning months of his incarceration. It now mainly houses youthful offenders, and Zax’s group was invited to talk to them. It made a lasting impression and we retain a pretty enamel mug, hand inscripted, as a memory in our kitchen.

Hand--painted mug from Victor Verster Prison

My other prison connection stems from my involvement with Alexandra Baseball. While I have worked with the indefatigable Tedius for years - he is the one running practices, organizing transport for Sunday games, and everything in between - he was not my first contact there. Who first opened the world of Alexandra for me was Lucky. That was his name, even though it turns out in the end he was perhaps not so lucky. Lucky was the one I had that first coffee with, who then told me he'd walked all the way to my "respectable" part of town, who I then drove back into Alexandra though I'd been warned by every South African I'd met until that point that I should never ever do just that, and who proudly showed me the place. He introduced me to Tedius and the other guys, and we took it from there. One day I asked, whatever happened to Lucky? He seemed to have gone AWOL. I got a lot of hemming and hawing but eventually was told that the other guys thought he was probably in prison somewhere in Cape Town on a drug related charge. Almost a year later he reappeared briefly, but only to disappear again, this time with a donated (by me, as it turns out) laptop in tow.

Not much honor to be found in either of those instances. Perhaps because they failed the "over 30 years old" test. But that's okay. Nelson Mandela and his fellow prisoners on Robben Island spread enough honor around South Africa to last a lifetime. I'll now leave you with a reminder to visit the Robben Island Museum if you ever find yourself in Cape Town. Which is, after all, the #1 travel destination for 2014, according to the New York Times.

Keep posted about my upcoming book on my author website, Melusine.