In Zimbabwea��s prisons hunger and disease are known as the killer combination. Those who come out of the slammer alive are regarded as heroes.
Such is the case of Nomalanga Ncube. Hers is a story of love, pain and hope.
Ncube stole US$1 000 from her a�?stingya�? boyfriend and that earned her two years in a�?collegea�? . When magistrate Sophie Matimba handed her sentence she could not believe it.
Depression sank in a�� that was the end of her life because of a mere US$1 000, she thought.
a�?I thought I was going for a routine trial but on that day I was slapped with two years. Can you imagine leaving home thinking that you would return? Tears ran down my cheek but you have to take what life brings your way,a�? she said.
Luckily for her when she got to Mlondolozi, the female wing of the Khami Maximum Prison on the outskirts of Bulawayo, she quickly got recognised by prison staff as a potential leader.
a�?By profession I am a secretary and from the look of things I was one of the educated women behind bars. I was made staff receptionist,a�? she said.
In their language a staff receptionist is the person who welcomes new prisoners. Her role is to orient and help one get into the right state of mind in jail.
A staff receptionist also helps one to calculate the number of years one would spend behind bars.
a�?What I liked most was calculating onea��s jail days. For example if you come in with leta��s say 24 months prison cuts a third of that. Therefore if you are given 24 months you end up serving 16 months of your time,a�? she said.
To stay comfortable in prison one needs to have a key responsibility.
a�?If you have no position then you will always be at the mercy of others.
For example there is also kitchen staff a�� those that cook and distribute food, staff dispensary a�� those that give out sanitary wear and so on. You just have to play a key role just like you have to have some influence in the community you live in,a�? she added.
When she got behind bars the only problem with food was the unavailability of meat, most of the time they ate vegetables.
a�?Meat was a problem. We survived mostly on vegetables and that is bad for a balanced diet. We would have meat once in a while. It was so bad that visitors were now allowed to visit anytime because they brought food,a�? she said.
A supplementary diet is imperative and most people with visitors dona��t complain much. However, not everyone gets visitors.
At one time the government mulled the idea of giving inmates elephant meat because they had gone for four years without meat in one of the major prisons.
Ncube indicated that there were educational programmes for inmates.
a�?Behind bars you find people from all walks of life. There are some very educated people who are serving lengthy jail terms and you also find juveniles. What happens now is that the educated prisoners teach the uneducated. Infact there are more educated prisoners than guards,a�? she added.
Falling in love behind bars
Inmates have defied odds and they fall in love.
a�?You find women and men falling in love behind bars. We rarely interact with men but there are some programmes such as theatre arts, sports and church where we interact. That is where we meet and exchange smiles and other gestures, that is how far we would go,a�? she said.
They write each other love letters.
a�?When ita��s time to eat they use dining rooms that are divided by a wall. There is a window and through it prisoners tactically exchange love letters. There are coded names that they give each other a�� that is how letters are identified,a�? she said.
With love in the air such mischievous acts make prisoners forget their misery. Just like in the outside world there are also hard times.
a�?A lot of people are ill behind bars. If the mindset is not prepared you easily die. I remember at one time a woman who was serving a four-year sentence fell so sick and what made it worse was that she thought she was going to die and leave her eight-year-old son orphaned.a�?
a�?We prayed for her and gave her courage to hold on. We told the prison guards that she needed urgent attention and they acted swiftly. She survived,a�? said Ncube.
Ncube has been out of jail for about three months on Presidential Amnesty.