I do not think there is any person who has going to prison as an item on their bucket list. It is often a series of background events on one that lead one behind the bars. Samalie Walugembe is not any different. If there was one thing she never thought of her youthful self in 1985, it was going to jail.
She was at home with her brother when they were cordoned off by the army with a search warrant for fire arms that were allegedly in transit under the custodianship of her brother. When the army did not recover any of the said guns, they were both bundled up on the army truck for further interrogation. Little did they know that it would take them ten more years to return to this place they called home.
This has remained as one of Samalie’s defining memories of the month of January ever since. Other events come and go but this particular one has stayed, to date.
On being arrested, Samalie and her brother were taken to Jinja Police Station (JPS) where they were interrogated on charges of illegal possession of guns. However, according to her, the police system was not working at the time and there no questions to be asked upon getting to the station. Instead, they were locked up in an open room within the police station where they joined other people. The faces of their fellow inmates were familiar to Samalie. Not that they were friends or something, most of the other people were famous people holding big public offices. They were told that they were all ‘political prisoners’ much as they were each arrested on different grounds. During the two week stay at the JPS, their sister was equally being hunted by another team.
JPS did not solve the problem of their arrest and they were transferred to the army quarters at Bulange, Mengo. At that time, it was still acting as a military base.
On their way to Bulange along UMA Lugogo, they saw another army truck carrying their sister to Kampala, however, they kept quiet. They did not raise a word about it. While at gate of Bulange, the officers left them alone in the car without cuffs on their hands. Samalie wanted to escape. As she was about to run off, her brother held her hand and said, “Let’s carry the burden for the sake of others.” He thought, if they escaped, there was going to be more chaos with more of their family members arrested or worse killed. They chose to stay.
The two did not last long at Bulange as they were taken off to the Central Police Station (CPS) in the middle of Kampala. There, they were united with their sister who was also now in custody. Still, there was no case set before them. Only that this time round, they were to appear before a church.
There more men in custody than women. In fact, it was only Samalie and her sister in the women’s section. Unfortunately, the prison did not have a women’s cell, they were locked up in one of the rooms on the men’s side and that is where they were to spend four months with other 350 inmates.
Samalie was two months pregnant when she was arrested. While at JPS, she had been kicked by a soldier a number of time narrowly surviving a miscarriage. The situation at CPS was not any better. The space where they were locked up was holding more people than it had been designed. The toilet system had since broken down and the sewer often flooded into the bathrooms. Fresh air was equally as hard to come by. “I lost a lot of weight during that time. I was often sickly and all I ever prayed to God was to keep me and my child alive,” recalls a soft spoken Samalie.
Tired of living under such circumstances for over four months, about forty of the inmates in the men’s cells escaped one night sparking off unrest among the army officers manning the station.
Out of anger, most of the prisoners were sent to Luzira prison the following morning. Samalie was among those left behind. She was to join her siblings and the other prisoners two months later in June.
Being the biggest prison in the country, there were very many inmates that it was difficult to see someone you knew. Every day, there were more inmates brought in from another prison. Unlike at JPS and CPS, the Luzira prison authorities were keener on having the prisoners go to court soon with the intent that those found without a case to answer would be set free.
The first three years (1986-89) were the worst. Every evening they brought in more prisoners than they let out. All other prisons would send their inmates to Luzira. The status of prisoners in the upcountry prisons was worse that they always felt a sigh of relief upon being transferred to Luzira.
This was made worse with the closing of courts in 1988. Courts wanted to put their house in order and they could not be going on with the prevailing chaos. They decided to take off time and improve on their standards. The entire judiciary needed an overhaul.
With the congestion came communicable diseases that spread like a wild fire among inmates. At one time, the Red Cross had to rescue the prisoners by spraying them with a disinfectant. The bad conditions resulted into a strike that lasted for about four days. The tailoring plant was set ablaze and a number of other properties destroyed. After the strike, a number of inmates were transferred to Mbarara. Among those transferred was Samalie’s brother. The only time they got to meet him again was during court sessions.
Samalie had given birth a few months upon reaching Luzira, however, with the conditions at hand, she decided to surrender her baby only a month old to her mother. She was hungry and there was nothing to feed the child. An inmate had lost their child and this had scared her to death. When she met her mother at the court, she asked her to take the little boy away. The next time she saw her son was nine years later when she was out of prison.
One unfortunate Friday evening in April 1994, Samalie together with her sister were called in to pay their last respect to their brother who had passed on in prison. On the Tuesday of the following week, while at the court of appeal, a panel of judges ruled that they had no case to answer and they were to be set free.
“Did the court have to wait for him to first die?” she asks dimly. Three days made a difference between life and death, custody and freedom. What had been longed for had come but he was not there to be a witness.
Upon being set free, the environment was now different. Things were no longer the same old as they had been in the 1980s. There was a lot of stigma to Samalie and her sister as ex-prisoners that they decided to go to exile in Kenya for five years.
On returning to Uganda, Samalie devoted herself wholly towards serving inmates as a merchant of hope. She had seen what it meant being an inmate. She had lived in there. She had spent nights with the bodies of dead inmates as they waited pickup since the prison had no mortuary at the time.
Through the prison fellowship, they were given access to the prisons to share words of hope.
Nelson Mandela writes, in LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, “After one has been in prison, it is the small things that one appreciates; being able to take a walk whenever one wants, going into a shop and buying a newspaper, speaking or choosing to remain silent. The simple act of being able to control one’s person.”
It is the message of those free things that Samalie and a team of fellow ex-prisoners remind of the prisoners that they will enjoy once they have served their terms. It is those small things that they all aspire to have in their lives. However, more than that, ex-prisoners want acceptance. Very few of them have been accepted by their own families and communities. This is why she is teaming up with former prisoners to raise funds and establish a hatchery that will enable them have an income of their own.
image from the internet