Gathering Seaweed: Anthology gathers African prison literature

Gathering Seaweed

Cover page of the book ‘Gathering Seaweed.’

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • The anthology's principal objective to celebrate the new millennium with some of the last century’s excellent rebel writing.

  • Some of the writers featured in the collection include Kwame Nkrumah, Kenneth Kaunda, Jomo Kenyatta, Agostino Neto and Eddison Zvobgo.

“Here is a pen and some paper. Let the river flow, do not dam it up, let it burst and carry you into the ocean. Good luck, black brother, do a good job.”

You would think that this was said by an award-winning author guiding an up-coming one at a writing workshop in some serene location, somewhere. But nope! This was no book club affair in a pristine site at a sea-side.

Rather, it was a chilling grilling session at a South African prison where Tshenuwani Simon Farisani was being tortured during the brutish apartheid rule. The grim interrogation room, was also known as “truth room” in a South African prison during the apartheid rule.

After hours of intense torture, a brutish police officer ordered Farisani to write a statement, nay confession, on his anti-apartheid role. He told the Dean of Evangelical Lutheran college, to speak the truth. Nothing but the truth, for after all, he was a man of the Bible, and he was in the room of truth!

This is Farisani’s tale of horror and terror in the hands apartheid police as told in his memoir Diary from a South African Prison. The statement quoted above is from a chapter (‘The wait is Over’) extracted from the memoir and published in Gathering Seaweed, an anthology of African prison writing curated by Malawian poet and writer, Jack Mapanje.

Gathering Seaweed is a gathering of over 80 stories and poems by imprisoned writers in at least 16 African countries in the last half of the 20th century. They were arrested and imprisoned for long or short periods principally for their views and beliefs by European colonial administrators, post-colonial African rulers and the repressive Boer regime in South Africa.

The unique anthology, says Mapanje, not only indicts the brutality of European imperialism, colonialism and neocolonialism, apartheid and African dictatorship; but also forms an indelible record of the origins, growth and maturity of the struggle for the restitution of human dignity and integrity, justice and peace on the African continent.

Famous names featured

Its principal objective to celebrate the new millennium with some of the last century’s excellent rebel writing, fervently trusting that in future fewer African dissidents (political, religious, creative, academic or otherwise) may suffer such horrors of incarceration.

The book, mooted by Mapanje’s Literature of Incarceration module students at the University of Leeds, is structured in five thematic parts, namely: Origins; Arrests, detention and prison; Torture, Survival and Release.

Some of the writers featured in the collection include founding fathers of African countries and liberation heroes of independence struggle like Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Kenneth Kaunda (Zambia), Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya), Agostino Neto (Angola) and Eddison Zvobgo (Zimbabwe).

The eerie mosaic easily reflects a pattern in the historical and political development in Africa. First to be incarcerated were the freedom fighters involved in the emancipation struggle in the 1950s to early 1960s, except for those in Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe whose armed struggle against colonial powers stretched into the mid-1970s and early 1980s. The pre-independence detainees were largely fairly educated politicians who wrote autobiographies capturing their experiences in the struggle and detention.

South Africa had a unique yet the vilest and longest detention history. Black South Africans were engaged in a brutal struggle under the minority rule by the Dutch. 1960 saw a series of mass killings, torture and detention of Africans through the cruel enforcement of racial segregation laws. Hence it is no wonder that South Africa leads the literary charts in the number of prison literature per capita.

The country contributes a quarter of the materials in the anthology including the title, Gathering Seaweed, which is borrowed from Nelson Mandela’s memoir, Long Walk to Freedom. Mandela who spent 27 years in prison says in ‘Rivona’ (extracted from the same memoir) as part of their hard labour, they were taken out to the sea to gather seaweed which would be exported to Japan to make fertilizer.

Capital of prison literature

In “That Grim Time,” a foreword by Winnie Mandela to Fatima Meer’s Prison Diary: One hundred and thirteen days, Winnie Mandela lists 19 people, including Steve Biko, who had died in police custody and reported by the authorities as suicide, mostly by hanging. 

Then comes the second generation of detainees, incarcerated mainly by the independence rulers. They are the more educated lot that comprise writers of various literary genres; novelists, poets, playwrights and essayists.

They were imprisoned more for their writing and criticism of the founding governments of their countries. Among this group are Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya), Jack Mapanje (Malawi), Wole Soyinka (Nigeria), Abdellatif Laabi (Morocco), Laila Djabali (Algeria), Nawal El Sa’adawi (Nigeria) et al. Their imprisonment ranged from mid-1970s to late 1980s.

The last and continuing cohort of prison writers are largely journalist and activists. They are persecuted for their roles in informing society and championing various community interest respectively.

Nigeria became the capital of prison literature from 1995 to 1998 under the murderous dictatorship of Gen Sani Abacha. Many activists and journalists were imprisoned, tortured and even executed. Ken Saro Wiwa stands tall amongst this lot. Others are journalists Christine Anyanwu, Kunle Ajibade, Ben Charles Obi and George Mbah who were also rounded up tortured and scattered to different prisons across Nigeria.

Given the trend, it might be just a matter of time before rebel literature begins to flower in our neighbourhood. What with recent crackdown on journalists, activists and politicians in Magufuli’s Tanzania and Museveni’s Uganda.

Ms Mandela was grateful to God that despite the deaths of many comrades in detention, she and others lived to tell the story. The story must be read in commemoration of those martyred during the grim time and in condemnation of all who abated it.

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