"South & East Africa 2011" story # 14

Maseru, Lesotho           May 21, 2011

My first night in prison came to an end.
     At some point during the night, I'd noticed some graffiti on my cell wall which could've been artistic. It read:


Sello meant "crying" in Sotho. (But, it was also a common first name in Lesotho, so the graffiti may've just been a signature.)
     Around six a.m., the hustle and bustle of arriving police officers could be heard outside my cell. An officer opened the door to check on me. He sounded kind when he informed me they were going to get me some food shortly.
     "Could I have some bacon? ... and some pancakes?"
     No, I didn't say that. I would've said that. I just didn't think of it quickly enough.
     A while later, the door opened, and I was asked why I hadn't gone outdoors with the other prisoners. Gee, I thought, they must've forgotten to invite me to their party. I'll bet they were having cake without me! As soon as I learned how to walk through walls, I was going to be outdoors with them.
     The policeman led me outdoors. For the first time, I saw the other prisoners. In the cold late autumn morning, they washed themselves and got water from a tap.
     All of them men, they looked thin and hungry and perhaps unhealthy. Few were tall; some looked like mere boys. Some wore tattered clothing; others wore newer clothes, but none of them would've been mistaken for an office worker.
     The most alluring prisoner was a tall man with a beautifully shaven, caramel bald head and moustache. He, like many, wore a bright-colored blanket around his shoulders.
     We were led back to our cells. To my surprise, the other captives - about twenty of them - filed into a single cell. I guessed it was about the same size as mine. They must've been cramped!
     I was rather relieved to have my own cell. I asked myself, could I handle the treatment the other prisoners were being given?
     A short while later, the door to my cell was opened so I could! come ou t and have breakfast. The other prisoners stood in the hall, too. Again, they'd gotten a headstart on me. They ate meat and papa out of a dozen take-away boxes. I wondered, had they bought that food with their own money? As for me, I was only given a loaf of bread to eat from.
     I saw a large and fat policeman standing watch over the prisoners. I wondered, what were the differences between the officers and the prisoners? If forced to choose, which group would I have trusted the most? I was sure that some of the more brutish policemen had probably had much greater negative influences on humanity than the prisoners.
     A thin, forty-something prisoner smiled and offered me the rest of his coffee. It tasted atrocious. But, I drank it all and enjoyed this man's generosity.
     We prisoners were returned to our cells. It saddened me to see that the law enforcement resources were cramming these poor people into dark pits, rather than teaching them to live better lives in freedom.
     My inspirational friend Zach, from back in Michigan, had once made it his New Year's Resolution to "Start a prison symphony." (He was unable to fulfill this, though, because he realized it would be a bad idea to arm prisoners with potential weapons.)
     More recently, my local friend Maple had written her final university paper on "restorative justice". This type of justice sought to reconcile criminals with their victims and communities, so they could understand their mistakes and emerge to be offered new opportunities.
     I sat in my cell and wrote a letter to my grandparents. At around 8:30, the somewhat-handsome-looking officer from the previous night showed up with my passport. He let me out of my cell. He said I was still responsible for correcting my breach of law. He and a driver accompanied me to the local American Embassy, to see if it could help me.
     The police handed me and my passport over to the embassy. I was escorted into the embassy's spacious living room! with it s plush couches. I felt like things were going to go well here.
     For the first time in months, I came face-to-face with cute little American Carla. She talked to me through a microphone from behind a thick soundproof glass. Oh, American hospitality! I hadn't seen her since she'd informed me that Lesotho's crime situation was considered "critical".
     I didn't really trust embassies - let alone American ones. While in Lesotho, I'd commonly been asked by locals: "Why don't you go to your embassy? Can't they help you with things?" I said they'd probably only help me in an emergency.
     Before we broached the subject of today's emergency, Carla reminded me that I'd never registered with her embassy like she'd suggested I do. I kind of apologized.
     Carla was nice to me, behind her bullet-proof shield. She said she was going to make some phone calls to find out how Lesotho planned on punishing me. I told her that, if Lesotho planned on fining me, I might choose not to pay it.
     She gave me a paper on which I was to write phone numbers of people whom I wanted contacted in case I'd be imprisoned longer. I wrote my parents' and grandparents' phone numbers. I sat on the plush couch, while Carla made phone calls.
     She called me to her window. She said I faced a fine of about 1600 rand ($230). Wow.
     She told me my options. "You can either pay the fine ... or, you can choose not to pay it. If you choose not to pay it, then you'll be deported. You'll have to sit in jail until your deportation hearing comes up, though, and that'll probably take a few months."
     She went on to tell me that a big part of her job was to observe the prison conditions in foreign countries. She said Lesotho's prisons, in comparison to those of other countries, were more or less the worst. I wouldn't be getting a cell to myself.
     Horror struck through me. That usually happened when I talked to Carla.
     "So, what do you want to do?" she said.
     I thought hard and answered, "I'm leaning towards being imprisoned."
     Carla frowned.
     She asked, "Why? Is it due to financial difficulty?"
     "No," I said. "It's the principal."
     I asked her, "Why is it 1600 rand? In the Immigration Office, it said the fine for overstaying one's visa was 50 rand a month."
     Carla said that, on April 8th, the fine had gone up from 50 rand a month to 200 rand a week. A 1500% increase! (I would later hear that other government-imposed fees, including birth registrations, had risen a comparable percentage recently.)
     Carla asked why I hadn't extended my visa while I'd been in the office. I said truthfully that I'd waited until ten minutes after the office lunch period had ended, and the office workers still hadn't begun attending to people, so I left.
     Carla didn't tell me to go to jail just yet. She said she'd make some more phone calls.
     I sat on the incredibly comfortable couch while I accustomed myself to the idea that I'd be spending the next two-plus months in confined hell.
     I retrieved the paper which Carla had earlier given me. I added Delphina's and Maple's names to the list of "people to be notified". I added the name of a local journalist who'd written an article about me, as well as that of a friend in local parliament.
     I thought. If I should pay the fine, then I would have to go home now as a loser. If I chose not to pay the fine, I would still probably go home after being released from prison; but, my ideals would be intact.
     If Maple would've been waiting for me back in Roma, I probably would've paid the fine and gone to see her. But, I was alone now and faithful to my ideals.
     Just then, I got an idea. Outside of the embassy was a golf course. If I could get away from the police when they came to take me away, I could run across the golf course, descend to the Caledon River that marked the border between Lesotho and South Africa, and swim to freedom. I began ! preparin g for this by waterproofing my flash-drive, camera, and papers.
     Just then, Carla called me up. She was smiling.
     She said Lesotho's immigration department had decided they'd just give me one more week in their country. They'd stamp my passport and let me go. And they wouldn't charge me any money.
     Carla, who was able to access my previous run-ins with foreign law, saw that I'd also narrowly escaped a fine while in Laos.
     She said, "It looks like you have good luck."
     I couldn't help but smile.

More travels to come.
Modern Oddyseus.

"When the fear of jail disappears, repression puts heart into the people." - Gandhi

"This isn't a game." - the police

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