Tilda Bowden describes her experience of leading creative writing workshops with women from Langata’s Maximum-Security Prison in Kenya.
Faces look at me expectantly, some wary of who I am and what I may have come to peddle. Will I be yet another do-gooder who passes through, full of excitement, hope, and then is gone? Is it even worth learning her name? Names are important in this place, first names, and the whisper of the news headlines behind each one. They have numbers, but the popular myth of exchanging a name for a number doesn’t prevail here.
And what am I peddling? A good question to ask and ponder as I sit stuck in the smoke-filled morning traffic on my way to Langata Women’s Maximum-Security Prison. I park my car and reluctantly leave behind my phone, my coffee, even water. I face the resolute metal gates, painted with layers or years of whatever green paint was available. I prod the tiny envelope-sized flap that acts as a doorbell and while it still rattles a door within the gates opens. The officers – known as madams – do not smile. They don’t joke or try to put me at my ease while they search my bag and pat down my pockets. I pull out a War and Peace-sized stack of chocolate bars; the price of admission I have been told. In her overly shined boots and khaki uniform pulled tight over her considerable figure, she takes two and returns the remaining bars to my bag.
My bag, my security blanket with tissues, lip balm, hand cream is now empty except for a pen and a notebook, a book of William Blake, and the diminished chocolate stash. I am led to the library by another saluting madam who refuses to discuss the weather with me, or the prison cats that run alongside us, or even politics; Kenya’s favourite subject. Mwalimu, the madam calls me, but without the inherent honorific teacher usually implies. Teacher of what her eyes ask rhetorically.
The class waits, no more impressed by this pale-faced mwalimu than the prison guard. No one is interested in the snarled traffic that delayed me – my petty struggles irrelevant – there is no easy journey into prison. My prepared lesson about the dangers of adverbs, the difference between the present participle and the much-maligned gerund, seems ridiculous as I look at the women in my class. I want to hear their stories – adverbs and gerunds be damned – I want to hear how they got into this place in whatever language they want. It is the stories, not the language, that interests me. I recognise some of the inmates from high-profile stories of fraud, drug-trafficking, or violence. The blank faces in the court photographs are different from the questioning eyes that scan me and pry beneath all my logic to ask: who are you and why are you here?
I no longer trust the knowledge of my planned lesson and pull out the pretty, illustrated copy of Blake from my bag. The yawns are unmistakable as I read about lambs and babbling brooks; more fancy-worded nonsense from this over-qualified teacher of nothing. ‘Teacher – I don’t like poetry,’ says a voice from the orange and black striped class. ‘I will never write any of that poetry rubbish,’ another says. I feel the tolerance of the class slide away from me. I think about buying their approval with squares of the chocolate stash in my bag but recoil from such crass bribery. I promise the class a break after one more poem and they sigh as one, only to to humour me, pass the time. They are good at passing time.
I remember the first time I heard The Tyger as a small child. Once its simple rhyme took hold my memory never let it go.Would the class of murderers and fraudsters get past Blake’s anachronisms of 1794, beyond his thy’s and thee’s? As I read aloud, I noticed that my body was twisted and folded up with doubt. My two-years spent in Cambridge libraries, my earnest desire to share my learning with the less fortunate, my belief in art for social change felt faintly ridiculous in this notorious Kenyan prison: dare frame thy symmetry indeed.
One of the inmates, Ruth, an infamous 24-year old death-row murderer, spoke up. ‘Tilda– this tiger thing is good.’ The class murmured and their thoughts and responses bubbled. The discussion that followed did not cover the usual lit crit discussion, but their varied reactions and the strange relevance of Blake’s words across time to these women in a Kenyan prison was entirely unexpected. Apart from one girl, Thea, who remained quiet, the class spoke eloquently about the forgiveness of Blake’s vision, how the world was made up of many contradictions, but most importantly, they talked a lot.
They talked about innocence and experience, not guilt. ‘If they, outside, knew our experiences, they would see our so-called guilt differently. It is never that simple,’ they said.
The debate ended abruptly when the click of a madam’s shiny boots sounded on the library stairs; the lesson was over, time had flown by. The inmates asked me to bring ‘more of that tyger-stuff.’ As we filed out following the madam at the front of our shuffling line, Thea, the self-proclaimed poetry-doubter handed me a piece of paper. ‘Read it later,’ she said. Intrigued, I unfolded the sheet of cheap, grey lined paper as soon as I reached my car outside the prison gates. It read, ‘My First Poem – For I was Made by Thee by Thea (poet).’
I went back the following Thursday. My journey to prison was easier, the traffic more forgiving, and the guards a little more friendly. Thea waited for me near the library. ‘I have something for you,’ she said. She handed me a sheaf of twenty poems and two short stories she had written since the previous class a week earlier.
The faces of my first class have become names as they write and share their stories in our lessons together. They have embraced metaphor without any instruction; Kenyan stories and parables are rich in imagery and their show not tell stories only needed to be given the slightest of nudges to develop and flourish. In class,one inmate wrote about a giant stalking her village, even the elders powerless to protect them from it. Without any details, her writing told us of the dread fear of the giant – FGM – a cultural practice of her childhood village.
I have given up all attempt to teach, aware I learn more than they do each week. They now call me Tilda, not mwalimu. We talk, write, share and learn from each other, and savour the chocolate I manage to get through the gates, smuggled in-between the pages of poetry I bring in each week. The women’s hunger for poetry seems boundless as they rapidly work through my paltry supply.
Yesterday, one of the women said to the group, ‘I don’t want to talk about what happened then – it was just a moment that I don’t recognise myself in. I want to talk about today, tomorrow and beyond this place. I want to be a writer not a prisoner bound to her crime forever.’ She recognised and expressed perfectly what I had hoped to peddle in prison. The class nodded as they heard her, and we silently agreed that writing could be a way beyond the prison bars; whatever the prison one is in.
And entirely beyond the many bloody and meaty moments that got them into prison, I see the gentleness of these women. Their compassion and patience as we listen to each other in the hardest of places is indeed, truly radical.
A link to Tilda’s tyger-inspired poem is on her blog. Tilda has set up a creative writing competition called Beyond the Sentence for the inmates and officers of Langata Women’s prison. She plans to launch a podcast and blog for the creative writing of the inmates in early 2019. For more information, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org