Berit in Africa.

Berit spent six months in a women's prison in the small East African state of Madawi. Being the idealistic girl that she was, she worked there as a lawyer helping the poorest of the poor to survive, for example by protecting their skinny cattle from some greedy land lord's interest. However, one day she met two American bagpackers, students only three or four years younger than herself, and together they had a great time. On the last night before the American girls moved on, Berit got drunk heavily and then, on her way back home, found that it was somewhat boring to walk the way all on her own. So, intoxicated as she was, she stole a bike that stood alongside the road, planning on bringing it back the next day.

    Unfortunately, that turned out to be too late, as the very next morning, cuffs clicked around her wrists and two policemen brought her to the town court. Berit, who knew what it was like to work inside a courtroom in that country, soon found out that as a defendant, she had no chance of opening her mouth in front of a Madawian judge. Still, Berit smiled although she felt a bit uncomfortable sitting there in bare feet as it was customary for the accused and imprisoned in this country. A stolen bike, she thought, how bad can it be? She even found herself cleaning her feet, which had not been left untainted by the naked walk over dusty streets. At this, the judge lost it for a second and told her to stop, as she would find enough time to play around with her feet in prison.

    That was when Berit froze. Had he actually said prison? This was a country poor even by African standards, with prisons far down on the government's to-do-list. Far down even by African standards. If there were cells that you could lock people up into, it was okay. She remembered a story that one of her clients, a farmer's widow, had once told her. She had been an inmate at a nearby women's prison named Debeba. She had said that when she began serving her time, the most horrible thing about it was the kind of roadside work that prisoners were occasionally used for, cleaning a street or digging a trench under the eyes of the public, in her prisoner's rags, barefoot and chained to the other prisoners by the ankle. But after only three weeks in a tiny cell with twenty other women, with always a pair of breasts or naked toes in her face, with the stink of feces and urine that came from the bucket that they shared as a toilet and always somebody much stronger than you asking for a kiss where a woman likes it best, she said she couldn't wait to get to work, out of the cell, never mind the humiliation, the curious stares and the children. That's what she said, they were the worst, the children, but she didn't specify that.

    This is absurd, Berit thought. They can't send me to prison, they simply can't. I am German, and Germans don't go to prison in East Africa over a stolen bike. Africans may go, but not me, no way. The judge told Berit to rise and then everything happened very fast. Six months in Debeba women's prison was what he senteced her to, and „What?“ was what Berit said to that, because she was sure that she had misunderstood him.

   Berit was brought to Debeba in a cage on wheels that was drawn by two donkeys. It passed three towns before they finally reached the prison, and in every single one she hid her face in shame. In Debeba, she stepped out of the cage and the policeman who had accompanied her took of the cuffs. She  told him that she would like to speak to the German embassy, but he didn't seem to speak English and simply turned around to leave her in her new home. Two black women arrived, each wearing a dirty brown skirt that went to their knees and had holes in it. They were barefoot just as Berit, and when they tore and pushed her through a dark corridor shouting in broken English to „Move! Move!“, the sound of three pairs of naked soles on a stone floor mixed with the moans, screams and sometimes, the unmistakable sound of a woman in sexual ecstasy that came from beyond the steel guttered doors to both sides of them. Berit could only guess what the sounds stood for because she gave her best not to look in a childish attempt to make things go away by simply denying their existence.

    The two prisoners brought Berit into a small room with a pile of dirty skirts lying on the floor. She was stripped naked by the two, then, one took a piece of rags and gave it to Berit. It smelled of sweat, urine and excrement, and once that Berit had put it own, she could feel the tiny inhabitants of the skirt crawling all over her, causing an itching that she was sure would make her go crazy in minutes. Now that she looked just like the other two prisoners, her fellow inmates left the room and two other women entered, one wearing what probably passed for a woman's suit, the other one, a girl of maybe twenty that Berit would soon get to know as Neviana, wore a jailer's uniform. The woman in the suit was Debeba's warden, and she had come down here to ensure Berit that she would do her time just like any other inmate, that there would no extra tours just because she was white or European or whatever. Once that Berit had understood that, her time would probably pass faster, as it was only six months after all.

    Time didn't pass fast. Berit's months in Debeba were nightmarish. When bringing her to her cell, Neviana had asked Berit whether she was a lesbian. Berit hadn't said anything and got hit with Neviana's cane on her buttocks for it. „Why?“, she asked, and Neviana said that all the bitches in that place would want to know what it's like to be licked by a white girl. And that's exactly what it was like. During her six months, Berit suffered from several skin diseases, mainly fungi, on her feet, inside of her vagina and in her mouth. She shared her cell with only six other women, but as it was no bigger than probably three square meters, it was living like a sardine in a tin. The cell was hot, and prisoners weren't left out regularly. Sometimes they staid in that stinky hole for week before they were left out to the prison yard, where Berit was bullied around and once forced by a gang of other prisoners to lick them, twenty or thirty all in all, while the jailers either looked the other way or watched, smoking a cigarette and smiling.

     But the worst of all was Neviana, who simply loved to torture Berit for whatever reason. Before Debeba, Berit had known about the punishment of Bastinado, the whipping of the soles of the feet, from books and history lessons in school only. During her time in Debeba, she got herself a bastinado roughly once a week, always by Neviana, who then pointed at her smiling and said „Five blows“. It was always the punishment for some minor offense like talking bad about the food.

    On Debeba's prison yard stood two boiling pots, taller than a man and stinking like hell's kitchen. The women working on the pots had to stand on ladders and stir the lard in it with big wooden branches. Standing on that ladder in bare feet hurt after a while, especially if your soles were beaten regularly.  Neviana knew that, so in her second month it became Berit's assignment to regulary work on the pots.

   The lard in the pot was mainly made of corn, rotten and unfit to be given to animals, so it was classified as prison food. The prisoners secretly spiced their stew with anything that might be of nutritional value, mainly insects, spiders, on good days a rat. Normally, the jailers knew that it had to be done to keep prisoner's alive and ignored it, but when Berit was once caught putting a caterpillar in her pot – she hadn't wanted to to do it, but her fellow cook had pushed her to – Neviana punished her with eight Bastinado-blows and a subsequent strip, after which Berit was hung from a tree stark naked by the wrists, giving all kinds bugs the opportunity to bite and sting a helpless victim.

    Neviana also made sure that whenever there was work to do in town, Berit was chained to a gang that operated close to where you would expect tourists, so that she was sweating under the hot sun and hushing over the blistering ground in her bare feet while Europeans and Americans were watching and drinking cold water. It was probably the most shameful experience of her life, and Berit was always glad when her chaingang was brought back to prison, with shouting and the cracking of whips on the prisoners backs. It was then that she understood what her client had meant by saying that the children were the worst. It was obviously fun to them to see the women reduced to the status of slaves, and they had their fun throwing all kinds of things at them and laughing at the prisoner shuffle that was caused by the fact that they were chained and walked with naked soles on the hot street.

    But six months went by, and Berit left Debeba as a free woman. First thing she did when back in town was buying something to eat and a pair of shoes. She put them on and thought that she was probably never going to take them off again. She once saw two English speaking Hippie girls, and one of them was walking around in her bare feet and talking about how great it was that this continent gave her the opportunity to spend a shoeless summer. Stupid girl, Berit thought. If you like being barefoot that much, get caught smoking a joint and spend a few years in Debeba.

    Berit wanted to do something about the place she had seen. She knew that she couldn't do so from Europe because the rich West didn't really care when it came to Africa. So she stayed in Madawi and started working as a lawyer again. She sued Debeba for it's inhuman conditions. She sued for better food, better cells, the abolishment of chains, the introduction of a more westernized style of penitentiary. In court, she met the warden and Neviana, who gave her  sinister looks.

    Berit told the judge, a woman with graying hair and thick glasses, that her bare feet had been whipped, that other women had forced her to orally satisfy them while the guards were watching and about all the other tortures she had had to endure. Some people in the courtroom laughed, once a woman shouted “It's a prison, if it wasn't like that, everybody would want live there.” The laughter rose and some people applauded. The warden said that Berit had been a particularly rebellious prisoner, and how hitting the soles of the feet did her good and should not be abolished as an educational measure just because this arrogant foreigner didn't like it. “It's was a painful and humiliating instrument of torture”, Berit said. “But ...”, the judge said and shook her shoulders, “you were a prisoner, and even though things may be different where you're from, as an inmate in a Madawian prison you have to live by Madawian prison rules. Nobody forced you to be a thief, after all.”    

    Things didn't really change in Debeba. And then, Berit made the mistake of saying in court that she would turn to the international public via the press. By that time, she had become not only a nuisance to the jailers of Debeba, but also to public authorities, who didn't want their prison system to cause international outrage.

    The warden talked the judge into a very nasty trick to get rid of Berit. One day in court, Berit, while cross examining the warden, was surprised by some papers that stated that she had been released on the 22 of August. That was one day earlier than it should have been, and it was an administration mistake. But, as the warden argued while smiling at Berit, it would have been her duty to inform the jailers of the mistake. As she didn't, it was a successful breakout, and Berit, the lawyer standing here and practically suing the whole country, was nothing but a fugitive. 

    Berit laughed, but stopped when the court warden put cuffs around her wrists and then took off her shoes and socks. „This leaves me with no other choice“, the judge said. „The law of this country has it that a fugitive, in his obvious failure to recognize his mistakes, should stay in prison. Luckily, you have decided against leaving Madawi and going back to Germany after your escape. Otherwise it would have been impossible for justice to be served. Berit Grimpe, I hereby sentence you to lifelong imprisonment with no possibility of parole.“ Some in the courtroom applauded, some laughed or made vicious remarks. 

    Berit screamed, and no fewer than three guards were necessary to get her out of the court room and into the cage on wheels that had already been waiting for her on the outside. This time, when she got her dirty skirt, the two other prisoners welded iron fetters around her ankles. „A security device for successful fugitives“, the warden informed her. „You should have gone home when you had the chance to, stupid girl. It's so sad that I'll be retiring in twenty years and not be able to witness you grow old in chains. But I should be grateful about the time I'll have with you. I'll tell my grandchildren about Berit, the arrogant German lawyer, walking around in expensive clothes and shoes who then ended up barefoot and in rags, the only white convict in Debeba prison, not for five years, nor for ten, but for the rest of her life. If you go to town, you can probably see her, wiping the streets in chains, as she was only 28 when they locked her up and should still be alive by now. Anyway, you will now go down to the dungeon cells as fugitives do when they're back. I see you in two years. Neviana, she's all yours.“

    Neviana smiled. Berit got ten blows on her naked soles as a welcoming greeting. Then, Neviana took her to her cell, which according to all the steps they took was deep down under the prison. “Your new cellmate is looking forward to you“, Neviana said. The cell doors down there were made of solid iron, with only  small guttered holes at the top. Neviana opened one of the cells.One step behind the door was another barred steel door. She also opened this. The cell was three steps in length and two steps in width. The floor was a carpet of shit, rotten food and insects. A massive black woman with iron fetters around her ankles like Berit's was sitting on it, protecting her eyes with her hands against the incoming light. Neviana pushed Berit into the cell.

    The woman stood up, looked at Berit, and immediately took her by the neck to force her down between her legs. Neviana laughed. „It's been a while for her, so be nice, mighty lawyer woman.“  First she locked the barred door, and then the solid iron door. Then Neviana looked through the gutter and said: „It's good to have you back here, Berit. This is probably not quite the hotel that you wanted to turn Debeba into, but then it is better than nothing. Dinner time is every other day. You don't have to say thank you, I can see that you have your mouth full.“ Neviana left the dungeon whistling. Berit, for fear of violent consequences, started licking. 

The End.