by Levi Keidel
I Hide My Evil
As was true of all centers of authority at that time, the prison was in the hands of Belgians. Its soldier-guards were of my own race. It will be my home for a large part of my story. So I must help you fix its picture clearly in your mind.
I had never seen so large a prison. Its walls were of brown brick; the cement on their top edges was full of broken glass. They enclosed a space sufficient for more than one thousand prisoners.
The prison entryway was a large door in the middle of an end wall. When you enter, a wide path of gravel leads your eye straight ahead to a tall viewing-tower in the center of the prison compound. Standing high inside the tower is a soldier with his gun, watching. Buildings are arranged along the entry-path and around the tower.
First, on the left side of the path is the prison office building where secretaries work, and where our records are kept; in its far inside wall, a door leads you into the office of the white prison director. Following the office building is the medical clinic. Next on your left hand as you move toward the tower, is a building with cells for white prisoners.
On the right-hand side of the entry-path and opposite the prison office is a large kitchen-building where food is cooked for the prisoners. Following it is a large open space covered smoothly with gravel. Next, across from the building for white prisoners, is a large storehouse guarding food, garments, and work tools sufficient for this number of prisoners.
Having passed these buildings upon our left and right, we see five narrow buildings arranged like the spokes of a wheel; each starts from near the tower at the center, and points toward the outside wall. In them prisoners sleep. The first begins near the tower and reaches straight from our left hand toward the left wall. Following it are four others. The last one begins near the tower and reaches straight toward the right wall - building spokes sufficient to make half a wheel.
On each building-end pointing toward the tower are two small cells with locked iron-rod doors; here are kept prisoners whose conduct does not allow them to mix with others. On the inside of each sleeping-building, a wall along its length divides it into two long narrow rooms. In each room are two long rows of beds. Each bed is made like two wooden platforms, one high, one low.
Now return your mind to the picture of half a wheel. Between the last two spokes, along the outside wall to our right, is a shower building for taking baths. Near it is a water pit with a pipe and faucet for washing things. Between the next building-spokes which point toward the far corner of the prison, is a large roof covering rows of concrete tables, here we eat. The third spoke goes straight ahead of us toward the back wall. Between its end and the wall are the prison toilet pits. Beyond them a path leads through a small door in the wall to a roof-covered path; along its sides are twelve small cells with doors of a thick sheet iron, and walls thirty feet high. The prisoner in such a cell, with no food and no blanket to cover himself with at night, suffers exceedingly. I slept in the second long building from the left, near its end toward the tower.
Each prisoner wore garments with wide stripes, yellow and blue. Trousers were long and full, with a tieing-string around the waist; the shirt was passed over the head, without front-opening. I and a few others had iron collar bands with long dragging chains; our hands and feet were not bound.
Each morning the sentry in the tower rang a bell to awaken us. We walked in rows to the gravel-covered space between the kitchen and storehouse along the right side of the entry-path. We stood in lines for roll call. Then we went to the tables to eat large loaves of mush and perhaps meat which was prepared for us during the night. Then many of us were put into the hands of soldier-guards to go do different kinds of work.
During my first months, another prisoner and I were fastened together by our neck bands each day, and were sent outside with a soldier to hoe down high grass. While thus working under the hot sun, I had time to think; but my thinking did not lead me to good conduct. No question remained about my sentence; others had decided how to deal with my body. The problem remained how to deal with the person inside myself. This was my problem. It surpassed me. To make my life more bitter, I was now chained to the neck of another.
Is this how my grandfather had felt when his neck was tied to that of another? Perhaps. But no; his affair was different from mine. Slavery had caught him by accident; he had not earned it. With courage, he could retain a tatter of self-worth. But my slavery was different; by acts of my own choosing, I had called it upon myself. I now saw myself as a person bound three times: when working in the copper mine, I'd felt that the attitudes of those over me bound me; after that, different forms of evil enslaved me; now, civil authorities had imprisoned me. My grandfather found liberation; I would not. What was I to hope for? Nothing. So I surrendered myself to despair, not caring if I died now or later. I did whatsoever evil I felt would give me pleasure. My soldier guard became my helper in these things. He began telling himself, "This man will be in prison until he dies anyhow; why deny him all earthly happiness?"
One can see a cloth is very dirty without studying closely its spots. And so the evil I did while outside the walls I will relate with few words. I arranged with friends who came to see me, to bring me liquor and tobacco sticks. When unchained from another prisoner, I raped women who worked alone in their fields. For many days and in many ways, I had suffered at the hands of others; now I sought pleasure by causing others to suffer.
I was clever to hide my evil so that I would not be caught. My soldier-guard did not report me. Prison authorities thought I was behaving well. They changed my work. They needed someone with a big strong body. Food was carried in large fuel drums cut in half. They needed someone to carry meat from the market, and drums full of ball-loaves of mush to the eating tables. They removed the collar from my neck and gave me work in the kitchen.
This was hard work. After midnight we cooked. During the day we made journeys to the open-air market for fresh meat. But I liked this work. Above all, I was happy to be rid of my iron collar and its dragging chain. I did not change my manner of living. I sharpened my cleverness so as to continue my evil without my authorities hearing about it.
We went to the market for meat three times a week. I created wisdom by which I could gain authority over the kitchen foreman. He was a prisoner, but with a body smaller than mine. When he finished buying meat, I would put the largest pieces into my half-barrel and lift it onto my shoulder to carry it. This was to remind him that I was stronger than he. I did this many times. One day we arrived at the kitchen. I put my barrel to the ground in a manner that its noise showed its weight.
"My strong body helps you well, does it not?" I asked him.
"Yes, it helps me."
"When will you start repaying me?"
"Why should I repay you? Who among us has anything? We are all prisoners doing our work."
"I am not harming you. If you thought carefully about it, you would find a way to recompense me which would not increase your poverty."
"What is it you are wanting to say?"
I straightened myself and stood with my hands on my hips. "If you wanted to make me happy, when meal time comes, you would put on my plate a piece of meat which accommodates the size of my body."
Days passed. The size of my meat was no different from that of others. Then one day when returning from market, I told him to arrange this affair immediately; if not, I would use my strong body for something other than carrying a drum of meat. Beginning the next morning, and for all the mornings following, my plate had a larger piece of meat.
Things went well for awhile. Then I began to notice; at mealtime other prisoners would glance at my plate and grumble. One of them, whose name was Nkumbi, became jealous. He spoke words designed to foment ill will against me; he tried to gather a group of prisoners to accuse me to prison authorities; thus he alone would not suffer consequences.
One night after lights were out and each person was lying on his platform, Nkumbi kept allowing words of jealousy to spill from his mouth. I listened quietly. Others began speaking one mind with him. Their words gained speed like a growing whirlwind. Why should they tolerate such partiality? Then the lights came on.
"Who is making all this noise?" It was a soldier-guard.
Everyone was quiet.
"Do you think this is a public market? Who in this house does not know the strong rule against making noise at sleeping time?"
No blanket moved.
"Who among you started the talking?"
There was no answer.
"I don't want to make you all suffer. Who started this noise?"
I spoke. "It was Nkumbi."
He paused. "Is it true? You others, what do you say?"
No one spoke.
The guard went to Nkumbi's platform and pushed his body onto the floor. "Come on. Let's go outside."
Suddenly, like a knife cutting through the night, came the slap of the mfimbu and the cries of a man in pain: one . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . six . . . then silence. Nkumbi was returned to his platform. My insides were tasting sweetness like sugar. The next day I spoke to him alone.
"I'm going to die here; it has already been decided. Whether it is now or later is of little matter to me. But unless you stop your useless talk, you'll die with me. It would be a simple matter for me; to do it, I have strength, and I have tools in the kitchen."
Thus I locked his lips forever.
This is an example of how I came to be master of two domains: one was secret; my comrades said, "He rules us with terror"; the other was before the eyes of my white superiors who said, "He is carrying his responsibilities well."
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