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Review of Gathering Seaweed: African Prison Writing 2002


By Susan Nalugwa Kiguli

Gathering Seaweed: African Prison Writing 2002 ed. Jack Mapanje. Heinemann Educational Publishers, Oxford. 328pp. ISBN 0435 91211 9.

The introduction to this anthology opens with a protestation that it does not seek to promote a negative image of Africa, obviously and evidently not! If anything even if those events that led to the writing encountered on these pages are ones Africa could have done without, the prison writing exhibits a spirit of Africa that has never to my knowledge been recorded together in one volume. I propose that this anthology is ground breaking, one that should be prominently on the desks of African high schools, colleges and universities.

The anthology has made a significant contribution to what African scholars such as Ali Mazrui have been campaigning for so long, mainly that African heroines and heroes should be given a voice. It is a sad fact that many of our heroines and heroes in the last century have been incarcerated at one stage in their lives but that has not diminished their heroism or ability to fight for social and political justice. This volume is worthwhile because it exposes issues and spearheads debates that are about the reality of Africa since colonialism. It forms part of the ‘postcolonial’ discourse that centrally speaks to and about Africa and therefore is part of an attempt to erase the marginalisation of Africa that happens even in discourses that herald the ‘colonised other’.

In assembling together the contribution of different prisoners past and present, the book presents measured, thoughtful writing in the now popular genre of prison literature that will definitely speak to and produce important changes in literary and political studies in Africa. It offers a base for readers seeking to understand the historiography of incarceration in Africa since colonial times. It also gives a general but robust sense of the social and political conditions, the treatment, and attitudes toward the imprisoned and jailer. The causes of incarceration in colonial and postcolonial Africa are so clearly presented here. Perhaps some countries and writers appear too often; maybe they were easily available to the editor. A reprint of this anthology will, I hope, try to widen the scope of countries and writers covered. It would be useful to have contributors from countries with a renowned history of incarceration such as Uganda and Namibia.

The seeming key problem encountered by Mapanje in choosing the criteria for grouping the different extracts simultaneously acts as a guiding principle in the analysis of the texts. The fact that a genre such as poetry cannot be easily restricted under one thematic category reveals the driving force behind this anthology, that we are dealing pointedly with human thought and feeling and although shaped in confinement, these cannot be contained within tight boundaries.

I expected overwhelming anger and bitterness in this volume but such has been the sensitivity and understanding of the subject by the editor that as a reader I was compelled to pause with tenderness and pain in poems such as Jeremy Cronin’s Faraway City’.  ‘There…

There in our Cape Town where

They’re smashing down homes

Of the hungry, labouring people

-will you wait for me, my love? (p.92)

The wit and humour particularly in the section of Arrest, Detention and Prison reveal the formidable spirit of resistance that these conditions have produced in the people of the African continent. The memoirs in this section echo others not included here in detail. They reveal the systematic and yet wild means of oppression and suppression used to break dissidents and to keep despots in power. Therefore the anthology would have been even more meaningful had the transition from arrests and detentions by colonialist to those by African governments been made clear. It would have accentuated the irony of jailed turned jailor and elucidated the concept of neo-colonialism even further.

As presented the anthology is very accessible and has a tremendous potential to serve multiple purposes in analysing the political and social situations of contemporary Africa and beyond. Perhaps the inclusion of at least two extracts theorising prison writing would make the critical analysis of the already included concepts in the African liberation process such as Pan Africanism and Black Consciousness even stronger.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 66 (2004), pp. 83-84]

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