Turning prisoners' tales into poetry

RENOWNED South African author Zakes Mda encouraged prisoners to turn the lies they tell each other into stories and poetry during a National Book Week initiative at St Albans Prison yesterday.

The prisoners, members of the St Albans and Kirkwood book clubs, were part of the Read for Redemption programme, which aims to turn their negative expressions into positive reinforcement as part of their rehabilitation.

The full-day programme included motivational talks from Mda and other authors, and words of encouragement from Correctional Services Minister Sibusiso Ndebele.

Mda told the prisoners it was accepted that they lied to each other and exaggerated, and they should write down those tall tales.

"That is all part of story telling. Telling jokes, recreating who you are and escaping within your imagination.

"Not escaping for real. I don't want you to say Zakes told you to escape," Mda joked.

He said the prisoners should use their imagination to transport themselves outside the prison walls.

"Create dreams while sitting in that cell. There are lots of stories that exist within all of us. Sit and write down the nice lies, not the bad ones, and create a story. That's what the audience wants.

"They [readers] know they are lies, but they love the fact that it can be believable."

Stories played an important part in people's lives. "Every story is about transformation, even if you are not aware of it. It influences your values and takes you from the negative to a positive place," Mda said before taking questions.

The prisoners also debated and discussed Thembelani Ngenelwa's work Ukuvuka Kwam Ekufeni and Sindiwe Magona's Living, Loving and Lying Awake with the authors.

South African Book Council chief executive Elitha van der Sandt said it was worrying only 14% of adults in South Africa read and only 5% of South Africans read to their children. "Reading is or should be an important part of our lives and that is why we are part of this campaign, Read for Redemption. Parents need ... to read to their children so that they [the children] could imagine themselves as anything ... from authors to politicians and wardens."

Ndebele said the Read for Redemption programme was started a year ago and the response from prisoners "has been incredible".

"We have analysis coming out of here that you would expect to find at universities."

Prisoners in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal had had their poetry published in a book, and the department would publish a magazine containing prisoners' stories to encourage writing in prisons.