Monday, October 28, 2013

A Tragedy of Lives and the Nature of Imprisonment

A tragedy of lives and the nature of imprisonment

October 28, 2013 Opinion & Analysis
Elliot Ziwira
Zimbabwe Herald

THE tragic nature of life is not losing it but living it through the whims of others. Like a snail which will never stick out its head as long as it presumes the presence of adversity or a millipede which coils into a ball at the slightest indication of danger, the human mind is not a victim of fear itself but the knowledge of its existence. In as much as acrimony, danger and fear are real, imagining them to be always on the lookout specifically for one makes one a prisoner.

“Cowards die many times before their deaths, but the valiant oft taste of death but once”, so said the Roman general Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; for “danger knows that I am more dangerous than he,” he boasted.

Though this may be said to be an arrogant disposition of a warped mind, it is in no way out of psyche with the reality that if fear is allowed to take control of one’s better judgement, it becomes claustrophobic leaving one in perpetual imprisonment.

It is against this background that the reading of A Tragedy of Lives; Women in Prison in Zimbabwe (2003) edited by Chiedza Musengezi and Irene Stanton is made a unique experience

The book is a collection of former prisoners and prisoners who re-live their experiences before, during and after imprisonment. It gives a fresh insight into the nature of imprisonment in both literal and metaphorical terms.

Divided into nine sections; reproductive health, domestic issues and fear of witchcraft, fraud, commercial sex workers, dangerous drugs, shoplifting, wrongful arrests and the experience of officials, the collection examines the vulnerability of women, their aspirations, disillusionment and despondency as they seek vents of escape from their situations mired by lack of opportunities.

Because of the precarious nature of their situations, the only possible elixir is crime.

Through the use of real life experiences of female prisoners and former prisoners in their own simple and plain language Musengezi and Staunton take the reader on a whirlwind voyage of poverty, suffering, hopelessness and despair as womanhood is portrayed as vulnerable and prone to all forms of oppression and at the same time remaining resolute and responsible.

It is worrisome to note, however, that imprisonment is deeper than physical incarceration behind the high walls of the so-called prisons. Women, as explored in A Tragedy of Lives are imprisoned in a plethora of ways.

Primarily, the very nature of their being exposes them to all forms of fear.

Womanhood itself may be a form of imprisonment, in as much as it creates an element of inadequacy physical, social or otherwise. The responsibilities that burden a mother in a seemingly careless patriarchal and cosmopolitan world create anxiety and fear leading to psychological and emotional imprisonment.

She has to fend for the children as Memory, one of the characters says of her mother: “My mother worked hard in the fields and raised enough money to buy me school uniform and books.”

Martha, also exposed herself to the vagaries of Aids by engaging in prostitution as she says; “I think to myself; what disease could be worse than starving my children to death?” Women, therefore, remain psychologically imprisoned as their actions are mostly driven by their nature – motherhood is a form of incarceration they can never escape from.

Even after raising their own children they remain burdened as they are expected to raise grandchildren as is the case with Rhoda.

As if raising 12 children single-handedly after her husband abandoned her and the children for a younger woman was not enough, she finds her poverty stricken hearth littered with wayward grand children whose misdemeanours led her to prison in her old age after she accidentally threw one of them into a fire.

Poverty, which according to Nelson Mandela is a human creation in the mould of slavery, is also claustrophobic. Most of the characters in A Tragedy of Lives suffer the shackles of poverty which they try to endure but to no avail. The needy are never given opportunities as their lack is often used against them. They are exposed and they cannot help showing that they are.

Mashingaidze Gomo aptly captures this unfortunate reality in his prose poem “Show me an honourable destitute” in his mind blowing offering A Fine Madness when he writes:

Poverty has cold feet
Poverty is gullible
Poverty is the big sell-out . . .
Poverty wears out the moral fabric of a society
To a threadbare see-through clock . . .
Liable to exploitation

Such is the sad reality of poverty which robs humanity in general and women in particular, of choice. As they struggle to eke out an existence in a male dominated society devoid of hope, women find themselves at wit’s end. With voices gagged by poverty and their sixth sense immobilised by the fear of the unknown they cannot help exposing their vulnerability as they seek solace from men either through marriage or prostitution.

Memory tells us that, “I ran away from home to live with my boyfriend” because “he gave me money to buy food and pocket money, about two to three dollars a day” which she thought “was a good beginning.” Elizabeth honestly tells us that; “I married young for I was running away from poverty.”

Marriage seems to be attractive as it offers a form of security. However, as is the case in most marriages, especially those premised on convenience, disasters always lay in wait.

When the inevitable happens either by design or by default, the woman is left even more desperate as is the case with Memory, Viola, Lillian, and Chipo. Because they cannot think beyond the presumed limitations of their sex, they continue to seek comfort in men, not in marriage per se but in mere relationships and prostitution.

So as long as they remain clinging to male ego as a way of escaping from poverty and fear which keeps on whispering in their ears, women will remain not only impoverished but imprisoned.

Profound ignorance may also be said to be a form of imprisonment explored in A Tragedy of Lives. Only one character Mercy has a University Degree and Lillian who is a teacher has a Diploma in Education, little wonder why they were involved in fraud. The majority did not go beyond Form 3.

They are so much imbued with fear and terror to face the real world by themselves as they believe that they could have been better people had they gone far enough in school without doing anything to improve their lot.

Their ignorance in reproductive issues, health, law and the outside world restricts them in their cocoons.

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