Mahere narrates arrest, prison experience

guest column:Fadzayi Mahere

“OURS must always be a story of hope. Of citizens who, knowing how ruthless and repressive this regime is, chose courage over inaction.”

As I was about to part ways with my phone to enter police detention, I sent Cee Musandu, my communications director, this message. She had asked me what she should say. We have been the best of friends since 2016 when we joined #ThisFlag, a citizens’ movement that challenged the poverty, injustice and corruption prevailing under the late President Robert Mugabe. The idea was to inspire an engaged citizenry that held the government to account.

Many amazing and awful things had happened over the last four years but nothing had prepared us for the week that was to come.

It started on a Sunday morning. Two plainclothes police officers in an unmarked vehicle knocked on our gate and asked to see me. When asked what the issue was, they said it was in connection with tweets I had posted protesting police brutality, they were told I had gone to the shops to buy some meds and supplies for the continued lockdown and left.

As soon as I received the news, my heart sank. Courage does not mean you aren’t afraid. It means you act in spite of your fear. Hopewell Chin’ono and Job Sikhala had been arrested by the police days earlier on similar charges. “Go seek refuge at a friend’s house,” my little brother suggested.

I explained to him that you never run away from the police. I quickly went back home, assuming that they would come back. I telephoned David Drury, my old boss, mentor and trusted lawyer of choice. He advised me to stay put and wait for their return.

I waited for what seemed like an eternity. Upon nightfall, Mr Drury said that because the police had not come back, we would have to go to Harare Central Police Station first thing in the morning.

At 9am on Monday morning, we were at the police station. We waited for an hour before being attended to.

They would not immediately confirm or deny whether or why they wanted me pursuant to their visit the day before.

Eventually, they confirmed that I was under arrest for my tweets. By 10.50am, I had signed my warned and cautioned statement. The docket was complete. We figured we would immediately go to court as we were in good time. To our surprise, the detective inspector came in with a detention order and told us to hurry up as we were “behind time.”

She had been ordered to hurry up and take me to the cells. Mr Drury appealed with them to take us to court to avoid unnecessary and potentially unlawful pre-trial detention. (This was the first of many appeals he would make to police, prison and court officers in the ensuing seven days.)

The officer refused and offered no explanation or reasons as to why I had to be jailed if the matter was ripe for court.

I was thrown into the all familiar lice-infested police cell with a drop toilet. The proverbial puddle of urine from last time and all the times before greeted me.

Rather, it slapped my face. I was barefoot, having signed my shoes in upon entry as per procedure.

There was no sanitiser, no facility to flush the loo, no sink and tap, no toilet paper and no sanitary bin. The blankets smelt of old urine. I shared the cell with six other ladies, most of whom were detained for breaching lockdown regulations.

And there was Lisa, an alleged armed robber with whom I would make further contact in days to come. We talked, sighed and laughed then fell asleep on their concrete beds and covered ourselves in stained blankets that smelt of a mix of urine, human excreta and dirt.

The next day, I was bundled into the back of a small police truck escorted by nine police officers who breathed on each other and breathed on me. Some wore masks with others wearing them incorrectly.

An application was made to challenge my placement on remand on the ground that the Constitutional Court had declared the sections under which I was being charged void and on the ground that the initial remand form was insufficient.

The magistrate postponed the handing down of his ruling to Friday. It was Tuesday. I was to be detained at Chikurubi Maximum Prison in the meantime.

As I walked up the prison truck in the rain, I slipped and fell. I quickly got back up because, since I was a child, my mother had taught me to get up immediately after a fall, dust myself up and keep going.

Mr Drury got into the truck to check if I was OK. He brought with him my bucket of supplies — assembled in haste by my siblings. It had all the good stuff — chocolate, candy, nuts, reading material and toiletries most of which I would soon learn were forbidden “inside”.

When we arrived, they told us to eat. Dinner was old sadza and watery beans. I politely declined — partly because I was in no state to eat but mostly because of the rule of caution that I had dished out to many a client when I was on the lawyering end of such an ordeal.

The events of the previous two days had frozen my legal brain as I watched constitutional rights bludgeoned and the supreme law rendered a lifeless museum piece.

I resolved that the only way to make it through this ordeal was to embrace it, follow all orders including the illegal ones and then just make the most of it. “Behave with beauty and dignity at all times,” is the best advice I received that week. We knelt before the prison wardens whom we called “Mbuya”. We had to kneel when talking to them. That was the rule.

They took our details then stripped us of all clothing and our bras and handed us our green prison garb. I had a whole prison number — 38/21. My reading material (a YOU magazine and a NewsDay newspaper) were taken away for “censoring.” I never got the newspaper back.

We were placed in an isolation cell with no window. COVID-19 positive inmates were housed in the cell next to us. We shared a “toilet” outside lock up time. We were locked in our cell and a 5-litre plastic container with its top cut off was placed in the corner of the room for us to relieve ourselves that night.

The next morning, we were moved to another section. It was a mix of remand prisoners and convicted inmates. Convicted inmates wore yellow.

The concrete floor was our mattress. We had to make our beds out of old, dirty, torn, smelly blankets stamped “Parirenyatwa Hospital.” Breakfast was watery porridge and a smidgen of peanut butter with some sugar which inmates had to eat with their fingers because spoons are forbidden.

We went round the room sharing the charges that had brought us in. Curious, I saved my story till last. Murder, murder, murder, murder, armed robbery, theft, armed robbery, lockdown, curfew, lockdown then “tweeting.”

They laughed. So did I. One of the inmates in our section was Chipo who, four years earlier, had axed a man to death in Gutu and started “eating his brain.” She would walk into our cell and pick an inmate up then place her down again.

She would rummage through the bin for food, chase rats “to eat” and sometimes snatch people’s food. It was evident to even an untrained medical eye that she had no mental capacity to commit a crime.

We were ordered to go and weed the garden. No distinction was drawn between those who were “in with labour”, those on remand and a person in my position who was challenging the very placement on remand. I chose happiness and took it as an opportunity to get some much-needed exercise. When the hoe was passed to me, they said “Fadzie, scrape don’t dig. This is weeding.”

I made many friends because humanity is wired towards positivity. People in distress tend to make the most of tough situations.

We are united by our basic human instincts that want dignity, freedom, community and progress. I helped many friends fill out their bail application forms and dished out legal advice on available defences to many who requested it. I encouraged those who had done bad things to live right as soon as they got out. Story after story made me reflect on my own personal circumstances and feel grateful for God’s many mercies.

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