writer & editor

A Safe Place

Langata Prison, Nairobi, December 2008

Kay slept on a thin mattress with a torn blanket to cover her. In the corner of her cell was a steel bucket and a brown sponge for wiping both her body and the rough walls finished with gloss grey. The bulb hanging from the corrugated iron roof was never turned on. The only light coming in was through the barbed wire in the narrow ventilation gap between the roof and walls. Her cell, at the end of a long, wide corridor, had a small internal window with bars which overlooked the passageway lined with other cells on either side. These were shared by five or six women. Once a day, before they were marched out to the fields, they ate together in the passage seated on low stools. Kay slept and ate on her own.

‘Oi,’ she shouted, ‘there’s a cockroach in here.’

‘What is it this time, Mchawi?’ the warden said, standing outside the door of Kay’s cell.

‘My name’s not Mchawi, you know that.’

‘We can call you what we like, witch. In here you’re Mchawi.’

The warden pushed a Bible between the bars. ‘Read this.’

‘Vermin are everywhere. Don’t you see them?’ Kay said. ‘Even God can’t help.’

‘What are you talking about? Jesus forgives everyone, even sinners like you.’

‘I’m not a sinner. I’m the same as you.’

‘You’re a witch; internally displaced.’ The warden adjusted the brass buckle on her green and brown trousers and rolled up the sleeves of her khaki sweater. ‘We are not the same.’

‘I keep telling you, I’m not a witch.’

‘I know what I’ve been told, and why you’re in solitary confinement. And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll shut up. Here are your supplies.’ Six boiled sweets, a box of Nice biscuits and a packet of sanitary towels landed on the cell floor.

‘Look at this,’ Kay said picking up the pads. ‘Clin & Cleer. Made in China. Fully absorbent. We need Clean and Clear in Kenya.’

‘Mchawi don’t be smart with me.’

Through the small barred window she could see in the corner of the corridor, a black and white television encased in a steel cage suspended from the roof.

‘Can you turn that blasted screen this way?’ she shouted. ‘I want to know what’s going on outside.’

‘Wewe, Mchawi, nyamaza,’ the warden said. ‘Keep quiet and read the Bible. This isn’t your husband’s house.’


It had all started on her last birthday. She didn’t know how long ago that was. She and El were living in the UK then, and they’d arranged a special dinner together, but at the last minute he’d called to say he had an urgent meeting. Kay spent the evening on her own and when El returned, he told her he must go back to Kenya to organise some important projects. He asked her to go with him. After their return home, she’d been preoccupied with settling down in their new house and starting work at the school close by and it had taken her awhile to notice that El was always in his study with the door shut. She’d asked him what the big secret was, and he always replied, ‘Is that coffee I smell?’ He would hug her and she would forget to pursue her question.


Hearing the clanging of gates in the corridor, Kay got up from the mattress and went to the window. A shaft of sunlight fell across the floor. Two dozen women in blue and white uniforms like her own, trudged past, back from their planting.

‘Hello,’ she shouted. She picked up one of the sweets and flung it through the bars. It hit one of the women, who turned and snapped.

‘You bitch, Mchawi? What’s your problem?’

Kay picked up the Bible and hurled it through the window, just missing the woman’s shoulder. Five women gathered around the door.

‘Mchawi, nobody loves you,’ one said.

‘Not true,’ she said. ‘My husband loves me. He’s coming to take me home tomorrow.’

‘He doesn’t love you,’ the woman taunted. ‘If he did, he wouldn’t have brought you here.’

The warden appeared. ‘What’s going on?’ She picked up the Bible. ‘Mchawi is a curse on everyone. Outside and in here.’ She tapped the woman on the shoulder with her baton. ‘Get back into your cell,’ she ordered, and turned to Kay. ‘Who do you talk to all the time, Mchawi, walking up and down and waving your hands like this and like that?’

‘Right now I’m talking to you,’ she said. ‘And when you’re not here, I talk to my children. Do you have children?’

‘I do, but what’s it to you?’

‘I did too. See, I’m just like you.’

The inmates were still in the corridor staring at Kay.

‘What are you gawping at?’ she shouted.

‘Get back to your cells,’ the warden said. ‘I’ve told you before, no one’s allowed to talk to Mchawi.’

She lay down on the mattress and hugged her blanket against the cold and damp. She shut her eyes blocking out the grey. What did these stupid women understand about love? She turned onto her side. El had promised to come and see her and bring whatever she needed. She stared at the cement floor, its crevices filled with crumbs of rotting food and filth. A cockroach almost the size of her forefinger darted out of the corner and stopped at the edge of the mattress, near her feet, its feelers moving up and down. She watched as it advanced slowly on to the mattress and up the blanket towards her arm, stopping by her wrist. She opened her palm. The insect climbed on to her hand and ran up her left arm. She brought her right palm down sharply, but the roach jumped onto the blanker and scuttled off. She chased after it, but there was no trace. She shook the blanket and lay down again.


That morning they’d been late for school. When they reached the gates, Kay saw billows of black smoke surrounding the main academic block. She shouted to El to phone for help. Dozens of villagers gathered around with buckets of water. From the building came the screams of children. An hour went by and no one came to the rescue.

‘Who could have done such a thing?’ she asked, later. ‘And to the children?’ ‘Don’t ask too many questions,’ El said.

‘I’ll ask until I get answers.’

‘Your stubbornness will cost us.’

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

‘This is about my loyalty to The Party. They are my people. They have looked after me, paid for my education abroad, gave me money and now I have a place in the new government. I owe them. Try and understand.’

‘It’s you who must understand, El,’ she said. ‘You belong to me and I belong with you.’

‘Stop right there Kay,’ he said. ‘I’ve heard enough of your childish, romantic nonsense.’

And after that he refused to speak to her until the following morning when he said,‘Kay, it’s been decided it’s not safe for you here anymore. It’s best you go away, best for the campaign, best for us, for everyone.’


Kay kicked off the blanket and propped herself on her elbow. She scratched her arm, then her head and peered at the cracks in the floor. El said his friends would take her to a safe place. There’d been a mistake. He didn’t know where she was, that’s why he hadn’t come to see her. She gazed at the gaps and fractures. Where was the damn thing hiding?

The silence was broken by shouting in the corridor. She got up and looked through the window. The inmates were arguing in different languages. The Luos didn’t want to use the same wash buckets as the Kikuyus or Kalenjins, and the Kikuyus refused to sleep in the same cell as anyone from a different tribe.

‘Who wants to share with me?’ she shouted. ‘I don’t mind.’

‘Shut up, you witch,’ the warden intervened. ‘No one was talking to you.’ She threatened to lock the women together for a week with no planting, no extra-curricular activities, no gifts and no visitors. They swore as they were herded into their cells.

‘What’s your problem, Mchawi?’ the warden said, coming over to Kay’s door. ‘Why do you incite the women?’

‘Look how my scalp flakes and my skin itches. See how dry it is.’ Kay scratched the word BASTARD on her arm with her nails. ‘I need body lotion, I can’t meet my husband like this. He loves my soft skin.’

The warden opened the door and placed a plate on the floor.

‘I’m not hungry,’ she said.

‘Shut up and eat, I don’t want problems from you.’ The warden locked the door behind her and stayed by the window.

Kay sat on the mattress with the plate on her lap. She crumbled the usual white mound of ugali in her fingers. She tasted a clump, choked on the unsalted, powdery chunk and spat it out. Taking some more, she rolled it into a ball and placed it on the floor. She repeated this until she’d finished all the dough. Then she arranged the balls in a circle putting the sukuma between them. Wiping her hands on her uniform, she surveyed her design. White ball, green leaf, white ball, green leaf. El loved ugali, she’d make it for him every week and after dinner, they’d talk until the early hours of the morning, eating mandazi’s and drinking tea. Every day at noon, he’d phone her.

‘My coffee reminds me of you, Kay.’

‘Why?’ she’d ask, knowing the answer.

‘It’s strong, dark and sweet.’

What did El think of now when he smelt coffee? Of course he missed her. Tomorrow she’d go home and everything would be all right. She picked up the balls and crushed them. Then scooping up the crumbs, she scattered them around the room. He’d been looking for her all this time, and now at last he’d found her and was coming to take her home. She went on her knees, inspected a crack and filled it with scraps of ugali.

She lay on the mattress and gazed up at the bulb.

The next morning, Kay folded the blanket and shook out the mattress. As she arranged them in the corner, something black scurried out and disappeared again. She knelt and examined the fissures.

There was a rap on the door. ‘Wewe, Mchawi, what are you looking for?’

She got up. ‘Vermin.’

The warden threw in four pairs of knickers; red nylon, white cotton, frilly pink and black lace. ‘Because your husband is coming,’ she said. ‘The NGO brought them yesterday.’

She held a pair to her waist and stretched them. ‘But they’re too small. I wear large.’

‘Be grateful for what you get, Mchawi.’

She raised the knickers to her face, rubbing them against her nose and cheeks. Two inmates were watching at the window.

‘Mchawi, what are you doing?’ one said.

She waved the knickers. ‘My husband’s coming today. I’m going home.’

‘Which ones will you wear?’

She lifted her uniform and without taking her eyes off the women, put on the red pair, then the black, then the white. ‘Look,’ she said. ‘I’m wearing the colours of our flag.’

The women giggled. ‘You’re missing green.’

‘Take these and give me green,’ Kay said, throwing the pink knickers at the window. A skinny hand shot through the bars and caught them.

‘You’re Mchawi,’ one woman said. ‘You weren’t loyal to your husband or your country; you don’t deserve to wear our flag.’

‘I was,’ she said. ‘And I do. I’m just like you.’

The women stared and turned away.

She sat on the floor. The tight elastic of the knickers bit into her skin, around her upper thighs and waist. She pulled off the white pair and then the red. El liked black lace.

She lay down on the mattress and tucked the knickers under her cheek, humming By the Rivers of Babylon. El loved Boney M. He’d grab a wooden spoon from the kitchen drawer and use it as a mic. Together, they’d sing their guts out, ‘Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song, in a strange land? Yeah, yeah, yeah.’

Tears fell onto the silky fabric. ‘Ye-ah, we wept.’

The warden unlocked the door. ‘Your visitor, your Bwana is here. Dadika kumi, ten minutes and no more.’ She stepped aside and El entered.

‘Hello Kay.’ He looked around the cell, adjusted his tie and put his hands in his pockets. His cheeks were chubbier and a paunch showed under the grey pinstriped suit. A hint of familiar aftershave filled the stale air.

Kay got up. ‘How kind of you to find the time to come and see me.’

He held out a white box. ‘These are for you.’

Kay grabbed it and flung it at the wall. ‘Where the hell have you been?’

‘Wewe, Mchawi,’ the warden shouted through the window. ‘Chunga. Don’t make trouble.’

‘You shut up, this is my husband and I’ll say what I like to him.’ She turned to El. ‘I’ve been waiting six fucking months.’

He took a tissue from his pocket and wiped his forehead. ‘Kay, I can explain.’

‘You said you were sending me to a safe place.’

‘I didn’t have a choice.’

‘Why did they bring me here?’

‘Try to understand. It’s not so simple.’

‘Why did they burn my school down? And what about my students?’

‘Your memory is confused, I’ve explained it all before.’

She clutched at his lapels. ‘Explain it to me again, at home.’

He took her hands, pushed her back gently and smoothed down his jacket. ‘Your problem Kay, is you’ve never understood. If you had, we wouldn’t be in this mess. The Party saw you as a threat with all your questions, and said you’re not our kabila. I couldn’t risk losing their trust.’

‘So, this is your idea of a safe place?’ She went over to the window and gripped the bars. ‘Let us out,’ she yelled. ‘We’re going home.’

The warden rapped on the door with her baton. ‘Do you need help, Mzee?’

‘Yes,’ Kay said. ‘Open the door.’ She turned to El. ‘Tell her to let us out.’

El wiped his forehead with his sleeve. ‘Kay, try to understand.’

‘What’s going on?’ She seized his jacket and shook him. ‘I understand everything. Just take me home.’

‘You don’t get it, do you Kay?’


‘It’s not safe for you out there.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I owe them. The Party.’

‘What are you talking about? I don’t care about The Party. Just get me out of here.’

‘I can’t allow it; you’re not one of us.’

She fell on her knees and grabbed his leg. ‘I’m your wife.’

He staggered back. ‘Let go of me.’

She clutched his trousers. ‘Take me home.’

The warden knocked on the bars. ‘Saa ame fika. Time’s up.’ She opened the door, pulled Kay away from El and slapped her face. ‘Oi, Mchawi! Leave him alone.’

‘Don’t touch me.’ Kay rubbed her cheek. ‘You’re a jerk El. Why are you here, then?’

He took a brown envelope from his jacket. ‘I need you to sign these.’

‘What are they?’

‘Our divorce would prove my total allegiance to The Party.’ He held out a pen. ‘I have to stick with their agenda.’

She opened the cover and took out the papers. ‘I deserted you, did I?’ she said, slowly, turning the pages.

‘You did Kay. You weren’t loyal to The Party.’

You abandoned me.’

‘There’s no point in arguing.’

She moved nearer to him and looked directly into his eyes. ‘So you need my help now, do you?’ She brought her face very close to his and smelt his aftershave and sweat. ‘Why should I sign?’

He jerked his head back. ‘You’ve damaged The Party enough. It’s the least you could do.’

She waved the papers in his face. ‘Get me out of here and I’ll sign.’

‘The Party order is clear. It must be a clean break.’

‘You hear that?’ Kay yelled to the warden. ‘Clean and clear in Kenya.’ She tore up the papers and threw them at him.

‘I’ll be back until you give in.’

‘Get out.’ She began to laugh. ‘I’ll never sign.’

‘We’ll see.’ He bent to pick up the papers. ‘The Party comes first.’

‘Fuck The Party.’

El took a wad of notes from his pocket and gave them to the warden. ‘Give her shampoo, soap and a towel; it smells like a sick dog in here.’

‘You’re the sick dog,’ Kay said.

‘Think about the papers,’ he said.

The warden thumbed the notes. ‘She was complaining her skin is too dry.’

‘And no visitors,’ El said. ‘She’s unstable and we don’t want to upset her.’

‘Sawa, sawa. No visitors. No problem.’ The warden put the money in her pocket. ‘She walks up and down, singing and talking to herself. Sometimes she sleeps. But she doesn’t eat. She likes to be alone; ni mchawi.

El walked towards the door. ‘Poor Kay,’ he said, ‘you’ve always had issues.’

‘Mchawi,’ the warden said. ‘Do you hear that? Even your husband says you have issues.’ She tucked her baton under her arm. ‘You see how she refuses to cooperate, Mzee. Anya kataa kila kitu. And she provokes the other inmates. She’s a witch.’

‘Usi jali,’ El said. ‘Don’t worry, she’s safe in here.’ He turned to Kay. ‘Bye Kay, try and be good.’ The warden escorted him out and locked the door.

Kay picked up the red and white knickers and hurled them at the door. ‘I’ll never sign,’ she shouted. She sank to the floor and scratched BASTARD into her arm until it bled.

Several hours later, hearing music, Kay got up and went to the window. The warden was rounding up the inmates.

‘The children are here,’ she said. ‘Remember, no fighting. Let’s try and have a peaceful Christmas party.’

‘Can I come?’ Kay said.

‘You don’t qualify. This is for women in here, who have children out there. The kids have come to visit. You don’t have children, Mchawi.’

‘Those students were my children.’

‘Read your Bible, maybe the Lord will inspire you today.’ The warden marched the women in a single file towards the exit and pushed open the door, letting the sunlight fall across the floor. They trooped out and the warden locked the door. All was quiet and dark.

Kay sat down on the mattress and flipped through the Bible without reading, then began to tear out each page, one by one. She shredded the leaves into small pieces and arranged them in a mound, singing softly.

‘Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange place?’ She blew on the pile sending the bits of paper scattering. She stared at the litter and large cracks in the floor, listening to the sound of children cheering in the distance. Then she went down on her hands and knees and began to scrape the filth out of each crack with her nails, peering into the crevices. The white box from El was on the floor by the door, and she ripped it open. Inside were twelve triangular doughnuts, mandazis, her favourite. She laughed as she arranged them in a circle around her.

‘Brown girl in the ring tra la la la, la,’ she sang, rocking herself. ‘She looks like a sugar in a plum, plum, plum.’

She sat waiting.