You don’t know what forgiveness is until you’ve had to forgive the unforgivable; that despite the fact that you were wronged beyond what any human being should ever have to endure, you still found it within you the ability to forgive. You don’t know the meaning of strength until you’ve had to be strong enough to let go of anger and bitterness; that despite the hand that life has dealt you, you had to free yourself from the burden of harbouring anger and bitterness.
I was sentenced to death at 19 years. At 19, most young men are simply looking forward to going to college or learning a trade, some are traveling the world and making a difference, others are content to just help out at home and wait for what life has to offer them. Whatever they chose to do, their whole lives are ahead of them and they have the buoyancy and optimism that only the truly young can muster before life teaches them otherwise. At this tender age, when I was only three months shy of joining college, my life was set to be ended.
I was taking a stroll in the city. Being a country boy, I was eager to know the city like I knew my village. I no longer wanted to get lost or stare in confusion when someone mentioned a particular street or shop, I wanted to be a city boy. Suddenly, I heard gun shots. I’d only ever heard gun shots in movies and the reality of how loud a real gun shot is was very unnerving. A group of people sped past me running as if their very lives depended on it – it did, and I wish I’d known that then. Then people all around me started running in different directions and I joined them, not knowing where I was running to but knowing I had to be on the move. Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain on my side, I tried to continue running but the pain was too intense to be ignored. It felt as if someone was tearing my insides apart bit by bit, I imagined this must be what it feels like to be clawed by a lion, the pain was nothing like I had ever experience. My last conscious thought was me wondering whether this is how it felt like to die.
I woke up to the same indescribable pain totally unaware of my surroundings. I was in the dark, but I could hear voices in the next room. There seemed to be a discussion where one person was saying to the rest, “Let’s finish him and say he fired a shot at us, and we returned fire.” There was a murmur of approval then a lady’s voice interjected saying, “No, let’s take him to the hospital and then let him have his day in court. With all the evidence we have, he will be found guilty so there’s really no reason to kill him.” Apparently, I had been shot by the police and the lady in question was a police officer who had just saved my life by convincing her colleagues not to simply kill me but to take me to hospital then later charge me.
Getting arrested was something I thought only happened to criminals, not people like me. It’s something I had of course only witnessed on TV but the reality of it was far scarier than what the screen portrayed. On TV, an arrest is mostly an orderly affair where the police politely inform you why they are arresting you and they calmly escort you to a waiting vehicle. After I recovered from the gun wound in hospital and was discharged, I was taken to a police station where the policemen pounced on me with kicks, blows and slaps. I was already down but the assault didn’t end, I remember wanting to find my voice and question what was happening, but I was powerless at that point.
What transpired thereafter can only be described as a thriller movie whose plot had grown a life of its own. If I had any inkling of how drastically my life would change, I would have stayed put in the village and never set foot in the city. If I’d even had the slightest suspicion of what would befall me on that fateful day, I’d have never left my house that morning, in fact I would have never left my house ever. In the strangest turn of events, I was charged with robbery with violence. I, a meek country boy who hadn’t even stolen sugar as a small boy, charged with a capital offence. I hoped this was only a mad man’s idea of a bad joke which would soon be cleared, I was wrong.
Someone once said that there’s no case as difficult to defeat as a manufactured case. They were right, I had no hope of ever winning this case. The judge’s pronouncement of the verdict sounded to me like something in a dream – I will never forget his exact words, his tone, the pauses, I’ll never forget anything about that pronouncement that would mark the beginning of another life for me.
You would be forgiven for thinking that the verdict ended my life, that after that I sank into the deep dark hole of anger and bitterness, that after the verdict I was consumed by hatred and ire, that I spent the rest of my life clothed in darkness, doom and despair. I too thought this would be my fate, but life had other ideas.
Back in the day, the justice system was so perverted that only the poor and illiterate found themselves behind bars. They had no way of understanding their cases let alone plotting their defence. Almost all of them had no legal counsel which pronounced automatic defeat for them. With my high school education, I seemed to them as educated as a professor. Armed with only my English, I read and interpreted their cases for them, helping them make sense of what they were facing. This would be my debut into the legal world.
For the next 21 years, I was the resident lawyer. I learned my way around the judicial systems and our country’s legal structure by helping my fellow inmates. In later years, a judge visiting from the UK heard about my work and offered to sponsor my legal education. I now earned the papers for a job I’d been doing for years.
My life’s turning point was the landmark case I and others filed against the death penalty. We won and I was consequently released. Words are inadequate to describe the sweetness of the victory, how can I relay to you the importance of this case that would see me finally taste freedom, how do I make you understand how this second court verdict would again turn my life around. I feel like my life can be simply described as ‘the verdicts’ – for two verdicts sent my life spinning in opposite directions.
I walked into prison a naive, innocent, bewildered 19-year-old and I walked out as a battle hardened, canny, wise, 40-year-old resilient lawyer. What a strange turn.
You would think that I’m hell bent on finding justice for myself, I’m not. In what will shock you, I’m grateful that I discovered my life’s purpose in prison. Yes, I wish I’d not been at the wrong place at the wrong time; yes, I wish I’d never been shot and consequently arrested; yes, I wish I’d never been sentenced. But what was meant to be the end of me turned out to only be the beginning.
My life’s mission is now in helping inmates secure appropriate legal representation for themselves. I dream of a reformed justice system where those sentenced to prison are going to be reformed not forgotten, where a prison sentence is a chance to change for the better not a chance to get more hardened. I dream of a system where the police service, the judiciary, the prisons all work seamlessly to create the society we would all like to live in.
Attending Wellbeing and Resilience sessions with police officers for me is one of the steps that will make my dream come true. I hope this training will be rolled out and attended by each and every law enforcement officer. Such initiatives confirm to me that my dream is shared by many. Surely, in the near future, our dreams for a just society will come true.