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Turning Prison sentence into blessing in disguise

Written by  Wisdom Ngwira
The Prison sentence reshaped my future The Prison sentence reshaped my future

Mzuzu, March 24, Mana: In 2017, he was convicted and sentenced to eight years imprisonment with hard labour (IHL) for house breaking and committing a felony therein. He was only 23-years-old then.

When he was taken to Mzuzu First Grade Magistrate Court, he was certain he would be sent to prison for some years.

He indeed committed the crime and his conviction told him there was no chance he would come out unscathed.

“When the Magistrate pronounced that I should serve 96 months IHL, I quickly felt an emotional relief as I felt the Magistrate had been lenient. In my mind, I was expecting to hear of years and not months.

“I was shocked when outside the court, I saw my mum and other close relations crying. I failed to understand why they were crying as I could only be at prison for months,” Kaswel Mapanje explained.

He said when he was being taken to Mzuzu Prison, he remembers two Police prosecutors and a prison warder assuring him not to despair as all is not lost for him in life.

“I was still confident because of the term ‘96 months’ to be served in prison but I kept wondering why my mother and relatives were crying as I was being led into the Mzuzu Prison main gate.

“When I finally entered into the prison, I met jovial inmates dressed in their usual all white attire and quickly a flashback of naughty stories I was hearing that happen inside prison rang into my mind.

“I thought of eating once a day, homosexuality, teasing and bullying. I imagined dying on spot,” recalled a 26 year old, who hails from Traditional Authority (TA) Mkumpha in Likoma Island.

When he was led inside by the prison warder, he delayed his steps and was welcomed by a seemingly clean inmate, Nelson (not real name).

“The prison warder handed me over to Nelson who looked very friendly and took me to one of the cell blocks at the prison. That marked the start of jail life.

When he finally settled down in prison, he decided to calculate exactly how long he would stay since in court, he was only told of 96 months.

“When I finally realized that the 96 months practically meant a solid eight years, I cried. I could imagine young as I was to come out of prison a grown person with almost no hope.

However through various encouragements from fellow inmates and spiritual teachings in prison, I accepted the circumstance,” Mapanje said.

Genesis of an academic journey

While still coping with reality of serving eight years in prison, Mapanje wondered why Nelson looked clean and isolated from hard labour inside or outside prison.

Most times Nelson had a bunch of books and red ball point pens going to and from a distant block.

“One day, I asked him why he always looked neat, was never involved in labour as well as many times carrying books going to that block.

“He told me that he is a lay-teacher who teaches fellow inmates inside the prison from form one to four. I quickly got interested and asked him if I could be allowed to enroll.

“He asked me the level of my education and I told him that dropped out soon after writing my Junior Certificate,” Mapanje told him.

Nelson went ahead to convince Mzuzu Prison Education coordinators to consider Mapanje enroll in form 3.

“The Coordinators called for me and asked me a few things basically hinging on my commitment to do school in prison,” he said.

Academic struggles

Mapanje’s idea to get back to class came after a five year academic break as he sat for the said JCE in 2012,

“So for me to quickly adapt the academic concepts in 2017, it was not simple. Again this was an environment with unqualified teachers, it was really difficult to catch up.

“Besides, we were using the same texts books teachers used for teaching due to scarcity. Another challenge was notebooks and writing pens since we could hardly find money to buy these materials. It was not easy,” he recalled.

Mapanje deliberately developed a very close link with Nelson such that whenever he did not understand anything taught in class, he could ask him for further explanations until he understood the concept.

“The liberty to have discussions with other learners from different schools to compare what was being taught at their school was not there,” he said.

The now free convict explains that despite all these struggles, he vowed to go on till the last mile and with Nelson doing the donkey work behind the scenes, he started catching up almost in all the subjects he was taking.

His performance attracted the teachers’ attention who encouraged him that he had potential to do well in examinations.

2018 MSCE exam triumph

Being a first attempt at Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE), it felt nervous but just like a wounded soldier who has nothing to lose, he had to face the task ahead.

“When I was entering into the examination room, I had about 40 per cent hope that I would do better in the examinations. However when the results were out, I managed to get an aggregate score of 14 points,” he proudly breaks the news.

According to results on his MSCE, Mapanje scored 1 point in Physical Science, 2 points in Mathematics, 2 points in Biology, 2 points in Geography, 3 points in Agriculture, 4 points in Science and Technology, 5 points in English, and 5 points in Business Science.

“You can see for yourself that despite the prison not having Science Laboratories, I managed to get the highest distinction in Physical science and also distinctions in all the Science subjects I took. Personally I take pride in this achievement,” he boasts.

Rare selection to University

Buoyed by the 2018 MSCE triumph, Mapanje said he now felt convinced that he had done all he could do on his part to shape the destiny of his future.

“While in prison, people share a lot of spiritual issues and I can say here that while in prison, I repented all the sins I had done before and decided to refocus my destiny spiritually and bodily.

“One day, I was informed of an advert in one of the national newspapers that there was an opportunity at government owned Nalikule College of Education (NCE), for studies.

“I applied and was called for interviews at Katoto Secondary School. I tell you there were thousands of people gunning for space at NCE. I was again successful and selected to do Bachelor of Education Science,” he added.

Mapanje said he saw God in all this comparing the rough road he had taken and that the selection to do a Bachelor of Education Degree was a blessing in disguise for him since it means he would be a Science teacher who could easily model young learners on the consequences of immorality as he has seen it in his life personally

“With my life story, I take education not as a profession but as a calling as I will use it to groom learners to try as much as possible live a crime free life to avoid the path I went through. Even to those that are in prison, I would further inspire them that they can still do better despite the situation they are in,” he pointed out.

Devine Presidential pardon

Despite doing well at MSCE and being selected to pursue a Degree in Education Science at NCE, legally Mapanje was still caged.

The prison incarceration meant he could not enroll at Nalikule and this painfully prompted him to write the College to reserve a place for him.

“However, on January 4, 2020, I felt God’s intervention when I was told that the Head of State Prof. Peter Mutharika had pardoned me. It was one of the days I will never forget in my life because I saw the divine intervention from God.

“I could never believe this as I was being led out of the prison gate. Tears of joy characterized my face and personally and honestly I thank the President Professor Mutharika for his decision to pardon me,” he said.

Another task ahead

His selection to government owned Nalikule College of Education was not an end to it all. Before Mapanje enrolls there in 2020/2021 programme, there was a statutory requirement for him to pay K250, 000 government subsidized school, lodging and food fees per year.

“You can imagine someone coming from the prison with nowhere to start from, I plead from well-wishers to come in and help me pay the fees so that my dream comes into fruition. It could be painful if I fail to unleash this opportunity because of failure to pay K250, 000 per year,” he explained.

Societal incorporation and advice

On January 4, the day Mapanje walked to freedom from the rough prison gates, he had joys in his heart on one side and on the other side full of uncertainty as to what would be the reaction from the society upon seeing him walk to freedom.

“I was stunned to see a warm reception from my community as they were all happy seeing me despite having a criminal record. The people joined me in the celebration and offered me all the support one would need from the community. I only thank the Lord for this story,” he stated.

Having seen it all with his naked eyes, the now born again Christian advises all people in the country to obey the rule of law.

“Youth need to be patient in whatever they are doing and particular I urge them to concentrate on their education.

“Even my friends I left at prison, I advise and encourage you all not to lose hope or have self-blame. Never look at yourself down because of the mistake you made seize the various opportunities found at prison to reshape your destiny,” Mapanje concluded.