The place I pray in my life never to be is a prison. At least, what we see on TV and the grotesque description of ordeals by ex-convicts we meet in town gives us an inkling of what is to be expected in a prison. In 2007, I had an issue with the police and had to be kept in the Adabraka cells for twenty-four hours. It is an experience I can never erase from my mind. Perhaps a more vivid example will do.
Antonio Gramsci, the Marxist who was imprisoned by the Italian Fascist regime for nearly a decade, saw the traumatising effect of prison life and drew this picture for us: “Prison life can shatter the soul and will of anyone who experiences it. It destroys thought utterly. It operates like the master craftsman who was given a fine trunk of seasoned olive wood with which to carve a statue of Saint Peter; he carved away, a piece here, a piece there, shaped the wood, roughly modified it, corrected it and ended up with a handle for the cobbler’s awl”. What a clear description of the vagaries and cruelties of imprisonment? It is miraculous, then, to see mere mortals make positive strides that would boggle the mind of the world while in prison.
In the 18th century, William Addis overcame the pangs of imprisonment and came out with one invention the world cannot live without and is perhaps the most popular hygienic tool ever – the toothbrush.
In 1807, Jesse Hawley was imprisoned in a debtor’s prison due to ‘his problems in acquiring reasonably priced transportation’ (simply put, he was not able to acquire a horse at this time). He spent his prison time writing 14 exhaustive essays detailing what opened up trade between eastern and western America at a crucial time in the westward expansion, the Erie Canal. According to one writer: “Without Hawley’s work, pioneers would certainly have had a harder time forging the pathway west, and could very well have broken an axle, died of cholera or tipped over while fording the river, and would have to restart from the beginning”.
The single most influential work in the Spanish Golden Age was written by a man who decided not to masturbate and curse his stars in prison, but rather launch his writing career. Miguel des Cervantes wrote one of the books that revolutionised literature in the world, Don Quixote, at a time when writing was left for the aristocrats and middle-class of society.
The African man of the millennium, Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, wrote in his autobiography: “My experience of fourteen months in prison convinced me, moreover, that in a very short time prisoners lose all their individualism and personality; they become a set type in an unhappy world of their own. They lose confidence in themselves and are so unequipped to meet the outside world that it is little wonder that they hanker for the misery and boredom of their prison cell, a protective shelter for their lost and shattered souls”.
Yet he ran for the 1951 elections and won ultra-convincingly by receiving the largest individual poll so far recorded in the history of the Gold Coast: 22,780 votes out of a possible 23,122 when he was in prison. The win was so profound that it was the straw that broke the opposition’s back.
I definitely cannot talk about this special breed of persons without mentioning the man the world celebrated on the 18th of July, 2013 – Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. A man who was loathed for his belligerence and bellicose nature, entered prison and in his own words “I came out matured” – being loved and revered by all to the point of the world honouring him with an annual Day bearing his name.
According to the Times Editor, Richard Stengel, in his book Mandela’s Way: “The Nelson Mandela who emerged from prison at seventy-one was a different man from the Nelson Mandela who went in at forty-four… Prison steeled him but it broke many others. Understanding that made him more empathetic not less. He never lorded it over those who could not take it. He never blamed anyone for giving in. Over the years, he developed a radar and deep sympathy for human frailty”.
He wrote his Long Walk to Freedom in prison as well as other humanistic essays, and much more significant was how he raised the whole question of talks between the African National Congress and apartheid government by writing a confidential letter to Kobie Coetsee – the then-Minister of Justice. This single act in prison initiated the chain-reaction that saw South Africa through to its present state.
A vivid picture was painted about Ibn Taymiyya, the scholar who wrote his Letters from Prison – which relieved the men of his time from the bonds of ignorance. “When he entered prison, he saw the prisoners busy with all kinds of time-wasting games for entertainment, such as chess and dice games. The Sheikh rebuked them strongly and commanded them to do good deeds. He entreated them to bolster their faith and thereby rendered the prison a haven for the seekers of knowledge…………”
The wanton dissipation of time by the youth is perhaps what these great men sought to challenge, hence their profitable use of time. The youth today have lost their sense of time. Go through our communities and witness firsthand how the youth spend their lives in unproductive activities. Unnecessary arguments, idle discussions and sterile debates have eaten into the fibre and fabric of our communities. In the community I find myself, most of these arguments end up in verbally violent altercations; and in the worst cases, fisticuffs.
“Losing a sense of time is an easy way to lose one’s grip, and even one’s sanity,” as stated by Mandela to show his strict adherence to time. The youth have forgotten that time is the most priceless possession of man – because it flies away quickly and never returns, and has no substitute. It is therefore very precious.
The preciousness of time derives from the fact that it is the receptacle and medium of every exertion and activity, every achievement and productivity. For this reason, time, in reality, is the genuine capital of man, individually and collectively. If men have been able to overcome the struggles of confinement and make overwhelming strides in their lives that impacted the world, then how much more free men walking about?
The poet Hassan al-Basri stated more poignantly, “O man! You are but a bundle of days; and as each day passes away, a portion of you vanishes away”. Perhaps the youth must realise that life on earth here is transient, and they must therefore work diligently to make a dent in the universe. They must realise that youth is the most opportune time for work; when all their strength, zeal, gusto and enthusiasm is on the high. They should work hard to push the existing frontiers of knowledge and achievement; they should work hard before they become senile.
Malcolm X, another man who turned from being a ‘dead man walking’ to a man who continues to ultra-inspire people posthumously, had a volte-face when he found himself in the Norfolk County Prison. He was described as ‘a clock’ for his strict adherence to time. No wonder he lambasted time-wasters in his “I have less patience for someone who doesn’t wear a watch than with anyone else, for this type is not time-conscious” statement.
The world is moving at break-neck speed and procrastination, mere intention, is becoming the bane of human existence. Though I am not entreating anyone to go to prison, I am stating that we should be time-conscious; because irrespective of where you stand, time is precious.
The materialists say “Time is money”, but the realists and pragmatists say “Time is Life”.
NB: The writer is a Youth-Activist and the Executive Secretary of Success Book Club.