No snowflakes in the torture chamber

‘We don’t want to hear it’ is a cry shared by
over-sensitive souls and despots

In these days of hurt feelings, so-called snowflakes, the perpetually offended and those who see a slight or an infringement of their rights at every turn, it is sobering to reflect on the experiences of lives in less tolerant societies where issues such as freedom of expression or no-platforming are entirely in the hands of a government or military regime rather than a disgruntled student body or an online petition.

As the pressure group PEN International points out, writers and journalists around the world are targeted – and in some cases hounded and murdered – for their peaceful pursuit of free expression.

“Authoritarian governments are becoming increasingly emboldened and are targeting writers and journalists in ever greater numbers. Some are paying a heavy price for merely carrying out their work,” said Salients Tripathi, Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee.

I’ve been researching this topic after reading about the experiences of a Kenyan who was incarcerated, tortured and jailed on a trumped up charge fundamentally because his attitude didn’t tally with that of the authorities.

Wahome Mutahi’s Three Days on the Cross, published in October 1991, is presented as a fictional account of everyday brutality by the security forces in Moi regime Kenya. But the scenes of torture at the hands of members of the notorious Special Branch are drawn directly from the author’s own experience following his arrest in October 1986.

Mutahi (1954 – 2003), a journalist and novelist widely read in East Africa, was known to be opposed to the brutal regime of his country. In 1986, during a clampdown on Wahome Mutahiintellectual activities he was arrested and jailed. He was charged with neglecting to report a felony thus being guilty of sedition.

His captors said he knew people who were publishing seditious material – material critical of the government. The allegations were false; he didn’t know anyone engaged in such activities – he was a journalist on The Nation, just writing.

Special Branch officers went to his Nairobi office one Sunday morning and took him to the city’s Nyayo House, a respectable-looking office building for the police. But in its basement were interrogation rooms, cells and barbaric torture chambers. He was held there for 30 days accused of being involved in an organised movement.

In conversation with Paul Theroux (recounted in Dark Star Safari), Mutahi recalled telling his accusers: “If you have evidence against me, take me to court. That made them very angry. They stopped talking to me. They stripped me naked and beat me – three men with pieces of wood. They demanded that I confess.

“Then they stood me in my cell and sprayed me with water. My cell was about the size of a mattress. They soaked me – water was everywhere. Then they locked the door and left me.”

In the windowless cell Mutahi could not tell if it was day or night. “I was still naked and really cold, standing in the water, in the darkness. I don’t know how much time passed – maybe 12 or 15 hours.”

Then the door suddenly opened and he was brusquely asked if he had anything to say. He said no and was left again for a long time before the door opened once more and the same question was fired at him, eliciting the same response.

“I came to a situation where I was living in a nightmare. I hallucinated. I saw food in patches on the floor.” Waking from a fitful, troubled sleep, Mutahi was desolated to find himself ankle deep in water and shivering, not able to stand or sit. “My feet were rotting. I was on the point of a breakdown. I thought of suicide. When a week passed they must have thought I was dying because they put me in a dry cell.”

Three Days on the Cross by Wahome MutahiBut the interrogation continued. He was blindfolded and taken to another room. After many sessions, Mutahi realised he was weakening and that he would rather serve a specific sentence than suffer not knowing when his confinement would end. And so he signed a ‘confession’. “I was given 15 months. It was something definite – not torture any more.”

Everyone who found themselves in such situations, said Mutahi, eventually pleaded guilty under interrogation, “provided they didn’t go insane first.”

The term ‘snowflake’ is pejorative and unhelpful especially when applied generally to students and millennials (though some of the more extreme proponents of safe spaces and no-platforming perhaps deserve a little ribbing).

Nevertheless it’s clear that there is an increasing tendency to shy away from some of the less pleasant realities: law students excused lectures on sexual abuse for example or medical trainees allowed to opt out of witnessing distressing procedures.

Such over-sensitive souls refuse to hear an opinion contrary to their own and in this, in a horrible irony, they link to those despots around the world who find ideas with which they disagree frightening and threatening. They don’t want to hear – and for them the solution is not a safe space but a torture chamber.

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About Edward Colley

A lifetime working with words and I'm still moved by them – or rather by what good writers can do with the slippery monkeys. A book can be a refuge, an escape, an adventure, a laugh ('I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.'), a heart-breaker (poor Tess!) ... I can't imagine life without a book (or two) on the go. My favourite read, by a mile, in the past 12 months: East of Eden by John Steinbeck. An epic masterpiece. Runner-up: The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings. Hefty but not heavy.

Posted on July 9, 2019, in African authors, Kenyan authors and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I like your conclusion here Edward.

  2. That’s valuable work. Well done Lisa.

  3. So true. I have been a member of Melbourne PEN for years now, and I have a massive correspondence file of letters to government authorities in 40 countries all over the world, including some you might not expect like Israel, Peru and Turkey. Sometimes it feels like a fruitless effort, but then someone will released, or we will hear that the treatment in gaol has miraculously improved, and that makes it all worthwhile.
    For all the flaws in our democracies, we have no idea how lucky we are

    • This is something I’ve been thinking about doing Lisa. I need to look into it further to understand how it works, I bet it’s not just a simple matter of getting the government address and firing off a letter.
      You mention that sometimes the individual is released or is treated better. Are there cases where a letter might actually make things worse for the prisoner?
      Karen

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