Trinkets of Power and Fear

Of all the colonial experiences I endured, one which recurred every year was the arrival of a pair of police officers on patrol in the village. We, the young boys, scampered into the bush and the hills, dragging dogs on the leash in case they came for purposes of tax collection.

The two officers, one white, a mujoni, or officer, the other, a black constable who also doubled as translator and occasional torturer when necessary, always invaded the village like seasonal locusts. The constable took particular pleasure in the art of torture to extract all sorts of information from whoever he chose.

He knew the softest parts of his own people, so the white officer believed. And the constable’s major criteria for recruitment into the job was his height which instilled fear in the hearts of all who encountered him.

Dangling by the right side of their hips was a pair of shiny, well-polished handcuffs. The two gentlemen made sure the instruments were clearly visible, dangling their fear in the hearts of those assembled, including us the children. The idea of being demobilized with handcuffs sent chills down everyone’s spine.

Of all colonial inheritances, handcuffs are one instrument which African dictators and tyrants are fully grateful to our colonial masters. That the victim is demobilized and left at the mercy of the captor brings out wrinkles and grimaces of joy on the face of African rulers whose power is, in this case, symbolized by the tall and imposing police officer.

A handcuffed man becomes totally powerless, worthless, reduced to the lowest level of victimhood. A police officer can, if he so wishes, spit into the victim’s face while the ‘prisoner’ (musungwa – the tied one) is too incapacitated to wipe the hateful saliva from his degraded face. The musungwa is supposed to be humiliated to the level of a beast of burden.

I vividly remember how one detective constable handcuffed his victim, a thief who regularly stole from my father’s shop and gleefully kicked the ‘prisoner’ on the head whenever he wished. At one point he called some boys to take sticks and whip the man in the back. Some boys took much pleasure in thrashing the adult as if he was a child their age. Muzemba, the prisoner, would groan with pain, all the time looking piercingly into the eyes of his little sporting torturers. For the children, it was such a joy to raise their sticks and whip an adult. It was a revenge festival. For, the distribution of power had been reversed by this pair of sharp-toothed instruments, the trinkets of power.

With a handcuff on your wrists, you lose all sense of humanity or authority over your own children. As an adult working in Chiredzi a few years before independence, I met a policeman who prided himself in his skill and expertise of handcuffing his victims. It was said he recited a poetic chant as he threw the shiny instruments to grip your wrists from an unbelievable distance.

Any attempt to resist was followed by the second level of his expertise: tightening the handcuffs to eat into the victim’s flesh until he roared loud like a caged lion.

And when he felt the possibility of losing his priviledge and joy of handcuffing his victim, he skilfully persuaded his fierce-looking victim, promising him heaven in a police cell since he was a gentlemanly offender. But as soon as he had handcuffed the prisoner, hell broke loose.

He mercilessly slapped his victim in the face, stamped on the poor man’s toes with thick boots, or urinated into the victim’s face, just to inflict maximum humiliation. To further taunt his victim, he would dangle the keys of the handcuffs in the victim’s face as he walked the ‘prisoner’ around the village for all to deride.

‘With a handcuff on your wrists, you lose all sense of humanity or authority over your own children’

Such is the humiliation which the instruments called ‘handcuffs’ pour on the victim. African rulers must be forever grateful to their colonial bosses for inventing handcuffs. Our tyrants and dictators would rather have the nation starve to death for shortage of food than run short of handcuffs. They cherish the opportunity of disabling their political opponents right unto death.

Handcuffs are small instruments of massive domination and humiliation, reducing a once virile man to total impotence. I will never forget all those times I have seen strong men resisting arrest viciously, but once the handcuffs are installed on his wrists, he only sheds tears of submission.

The other colonial inheritance for which African leaders thank their masters is the prison cell where the handcuffed man is physically thrown in there, handcuffs removed, and then a heavy lock tinkles as the officer locks the cage.

Now, our prisoner is an animal, not in a zoo, but in a cage, with limited movement, nothing else around him except a hard, filthy floor with four walls and a roof which are usually painted the dullest of colours. Everything in this cage is irritating, meant to drive the victim crazy, breaking down both his body and spirit.

With this ‘caged animal’ out of the political kingdom, the African ruler supposedly sleeps and meditates about the wonders of how the ‘white man’ turned human shelter(a bedroom) into a human cage which can effectively remove all political enemies from the face of the earth.

It is after this humiliation of Okwonko in Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, that the hero is thrown into deep despair, forcing him to commit suicide after taking his revenge on the colonial messenger.

But the arrival at the prison cell begins with a welcoming ritual, shaving the prisoner’s head clean. The prison barber’s fingers itch with the desire to humiliate the ‘vagrant’ with such alacrity, such joy. I always felt the barber is deeply saddened when the prisoner is declared ‘not guilty’ and discharged.

That is the saddest day for the barber and his sharp razor blade. The barber is never a silent man, when performing his ritual. The poor ‘prisoner’ receives long lectures and a chains of vulgar insults on morality and human dignity. He may not answer to the insults from the mouth of this civil servant who does more than merely cut your hair. During the ritual of shaving the offender, the poor man’s head belongs to the barber for him to toss and turn at will.

It is the trinkets of torture which the African, and any other dictator, would vow never to discard. Of all trinkets of torture and fear, the small, and seemingly harmless ones, are the most painful, humiliating to the core. Prisons, large though they are, are also reduced to small trinkets of fear by isolating the prisoner like a caged animal.

The political prisoner might be in a big prison, but in his tiny cell, he is alone in a place of the pain of solitude and the inability to express himself with the freedom to walk the surface of the earth.

– © Chenjerai Hove, 2013

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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