Writing Out of Prison
The following is from PEN Canada’s Fall 1998 newsletter. In May 1995, Nigerian journalist Christiana Anyanwu was arrested for publishing a story about an alleged coup d’état attempt against the government of Sani Abacha. She was given a sentence of life in prison, which was then reduced to 15 years. Following the death of President Abacha, and with the help of organizations like PEN Canada, Anyanwu was released in June 1998.
In September 1998, months after her release, Anyanwu visited Toronto to speak at the annual meeting of the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists. During her stay she sat down with PEN Canada’s then-executive directors Isobel Harry and Margaret Purcell, minder Mickey Turnbull and board member John Lorinc. The conversation that follows has been condensed.
Anyanwu: I am very, very pleased to be here. This is something that I have wanted to do very much in the past three years. Actually, my spirit has been visiting places like Canada, the streets of New York. Sometimes I find myself inside the bank, sometimes at international conferences. I will notice everybody, but nobody will notice me.
I am so glad I am no longer flying around the world in spirit, in the dream state, that I am here in person. You wouldn’t believe what a good feeling it is to see how you did so much for me. Without your work, I would not be here.
You wouldn’t believe what a good feeling it is to see how you did so much for me. Without your work, I would not be here
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your experiences in prison?
Anyanwu: What happened to me is a whole lifetime of stories. One thing I did do was to disobey the rule for writing. When I got there, I could not write, I could not read anything except the Bible. I read the Bible from the beginning to the end three times.
Q: Why the Bible?
Anyanwu: In the prison service, they don’t want you to read anything they think might disturb you. You should just study about God and then you will become reformed. There are no psychiatrists that come [to visit the inmates], there are no psychologists. Nothing to act as a buffer, psychologically, and they feel that only God can save you, so you better learn about God.
After three or four months, I went to the officer in charge one day and I saw a dictionary [on his desk], and I said, “Can I borrow your dictionary?” And that was a big thing, for him to let go of his dictionary, because it was breaking the rule. He let me have it, and I kept it for three months. I studied the dictionary from the first page to the last page. I wrote down in exercise books – they didn’t know I was writing, I had to write everything in hiding – I wrote down the words that I didn’t know, and I studied them. That kept me busy, and I felt I was accomplishing something, improving my word power.
Q: What did you write?
Anyanwu: I wrote poems. I wrote how I was feeling, how I was relating to people. The things I was hearing, when the killings came. It was me, here, on the inside, looking at the world outside, experiencing the whole thing.
I studied the dictionary from the first page to the last page. I had to write everything in hiding. I wrote down the words that I didn’t know, and I studied them. I was accomplishing something
Q: How did you hear about those incidents?
Anyanwu: It was like birds, perching by the window and whispering something. They would transfer people, take their jobs, if they heard them speak to me. Occasionally the workers would whisper something.
Q: Did you ever get any of the things you wrote out?
Anyanwu: It was a whole enterprise trying to hide them because they would conduct searches quite often. Sometimes I wrote on toilet paper, on table napkins, because my sister would bring me table napkins. I would write on them and squeeze them and put them in my pocket.
Q: Where did they take you?
Anyanwu: I went to eight places. They didn’t want you to be in one place for a long time. You can pass information out, you can get a bit comfortable. They didn’t want it to be easy on me. You have to be always struggling. I knew that what they wanted was to break me. You just had to relax and do whatever they wanted you to do, because if you got upset, you helped them achieve their objectives. The thing was not to let them. Keep calm, chill.
Q: How did you know to do that? Most people would panic in a situation like that…
Anyanwu: I had absolutely no preparation. I had never seen a prison before. There had been some journalists who had been arrested before, one was killed. But these were not things that nice girls experienced. In retrospect, I think I didn’t take enough interest in these [arrests], particularly with my colleagues. If I had spoken to them after their experiences, perhaps I would have known one or two things. But I never did.
Q: Did you have visitors on a regular basis?
Anyanwu: They didn’t want me near [the Nigerian capital] Lagos, near my colleagues, so the world would hear what was going on. They wanted me out of the world. This place, for me to get a visitor, they had to fly from Lagos to Jos [a city about 700 km to the north-east]. From Jos, they’d take a taxi and drive about seven hours. It would take two days to get there. About five, six times, my sisters came, packed up provisions, food, money. And they would stand in front of that prison and they would cry and weep. It took the government about three or four months to get around to allowing me a visitor. They said it had to be my daughter.
Q: How old is your daughter?
Anyanwu: That’s just it. I said to them, “What if I don’t have a daughter? You are assuming I have a daughter. If l don’t have a daughter, who else can visit me?” They said it had to be my daughter or my son. In the end, the prison officer said, “look, this is semantics. Choose one person and let’s say that is your daughter.” So I selected my sister and I sent her name as my daughter. They allowed visits once every three months, and after a while, once every month.
Q: How do you account for these little gestures on the part of the prison officials, who were quietly subverting the system?
Anyanwu: It taught me Nigerians are beautiful people. In their hearts, even those who had to carry out those instructions did not agree with them. You would see a few zealots, but the majority of them were not in agreement. The prison workers weren’t paid, sometimes three or four months. They, too, were suffering. At the beginning, most of them [said], okay, these are troublemakers. She’s a journalist. They were told I was the most dangerous woman in the whole country. Don’t give her any breathing space. After a while, they began to quietly subvert. If they cooperated with Abacha in all the things he wanted done to us, very few of us would have come out alive.
In 2007 Chris Anyanwu was elected to the Nigerian Senate, where she now sits as a member of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA).
Photo credits: Bird in window – http://www.freewordonline.com/content/2012/02/unlocked-the-crisis-in-prisons/