Imprisonment can be a traumatising affair. It is especially so if you are convicted and sentenced to death row and compelled to witness the hanging of fellow convicts as the clock tick tocks and your hour of reckoning draws nigh. This is what Benjamin Garth Bundeh discovers when the police pick him up and hold him for the suspected murder of an old white businessman, Mr Nigel Fawssett. Fawssett happens to have been Bundeh’s business associate before his demise as narrated in Bundeh’s text.
Birds of Kamiti is the memoir of Bundeh in which the writer adopts a persona to remember the events connected with his arrest and subsequent conviction for the murder of Fawsset. The writer uses the memoir genre to help him memorialise the dark events connected with his years in death row. Although his experience is one that can be described as unspeakable and one which the writer would rather forget, he has to relive the trauma – to remember the painful details; hence, he has to confess (publicly through the writing of his story) what happened to him so that he can begin his traumatic healing.
This text highlights the pain that those who are convicted for crimes that they have not committed go through. It seeks to demonstrate that police can and sometimes do connive to adduce trumped up charges against suspects and have them incarcerated for crimes they have not committed. This is the fate that befalls Bundeh. It is a narrative that emblematises failed judicial processes in Kenya and Africa at large. Indeed, Bundeh’s story is reminiscent of political detentions and torture of the infamous Nyayo Torture Chambers linked to the leadership of the former President of Kenya – Moi.
Bundeh’s memoir thus seeks to reconstruct the events of the persona’s life before and after his conviction. Narrated in retrospect, the story highlights the persona’s struggle to repudiate the police evidence against him when he lodges an appeal in the hope that justice can be meted out to him. While serving his time in death row, the persona encounters the debilitating effects of capital punishment and the terror it unleashes on the human soul. The horrendous events that unfold at Kamiti are despicable and they attest to the animalistic tendencies that human beings are reduced to when subjected to dehumanising conditions.
He becomes a witness to the massacre of convicts through the hanging of specifically those that had been convicted for the attempted coup d’état of 1982 in Kenya. It is a harrowing period that the persona and other inmates have to endure as one by one the convicts are picked up by the hangman. The hanging of their fellow inmates traumatises them and leaves them with indelible psychological wounds that demand therapy to heal. Indeed, bearing witness to the death cries of fellow inmates is not anyone’s wish! The imagination that a living soul you have been sharing space with is no more is almost unfathomable. Thus, the psychological exertions of death row end up painfully bruising the human psyche of prisoners thereby drawing the reader’s empathy for those that are unfortunate to endure or later succumb to such experiences.
Police injustice and violence is vivified through their handling of the prisoners. First, they torture the protagonist and force him to sign blank papers which they later fill up with falsified evidence which they then use against him in court. Second, their arrogance is evidenced in the way they threaten Bundeh and how they handle the prisoners during body searches for contraband. Hence, they come across as dehumanised and the reader is persuaded to distance himself/herself from their callous behaviour. Such methods of coercion are not uncommon in Kenyan cells. One wishes that the judiciary would treat evidence collection methods with a tinge of suspicion!
Besides, the justice system is cast as corrupt and open to manipulation. The fact that the judge, in Bundeh’s case, fails to interrogate the assumed signed confession of the suspect is a good pointer to the unprofessional manner in which the Kenyan courts are at times run. At least the reader is convinced to empathise with the persona and his predicament when the judge sentences him to death because he appears genuine in his rhetoric. This is made possible through the juxtaposition of his confession vis-à-vis that of the police which is adduced in court. Thus, the reader rejects the police evidence as it is more of an admission than a confession because it is extracted from the persona through torture as opposed to wilful disclosure.
Bundeh’s breakthrough happens when he conducts his appeal and gets acquitted for the murder of Fawssett. He regains a sense of self-worth although he harbours bitterness towards the government for unfair imprisonment. This pain and bitterness is a major hindrance to his emotional and psychological healing and recovery. However, he finds a sense of closure about the death of some of his colleagues through the assurance that the birds of Kamiti keep vigil over their graves. His testimony is symbolic of the victims of unjust legal systems whose stories are cast into oblivion through capital punishment and subsequent death.