By Jameson Chauluka:
Musician Thomas Chibade sings in one of his songs: dzina loti kundende ndilophiphiritsa, zoona zake kuno nkumanda.
Meet Yali Maonga, a man who has overcome 28 years, roughly 10,220 days or 245,280 hours in prison; his offence? Murder.
Maonga, who comes from Nsanama Village in Traditional Authority Kawinga in Machinga, was arrested in 1991 when he was barely 18 years old and has on April 26 left Chichiri Prison a 46-year-old man.
Maonga stood at the gate to Chichiri Prison, paused a few seconds, not believing that he was free to go or perhaps doubting if he was ready to enter the new world after spending the better years of his life in jail.
“The issue was to do with a woman,” says Maonga.
“My wife was having an affair with another man. People were telling me but I did not believe it until I caught them red-handed. I chased the man but I later met him with his friends and they started beating me. I was overpowered and that was when I got a bicycle which was parked nearby and threw it at him. It’s peddle pierced his ribs and he died,” he narrates.
Maonga was initially sentenced to death but, after spending three years on a death row at Zomba Central Prison, his case was reviewed under the Kafamtayeni Project and he was given a life sentence which was later reduced to 42 years imprisonment.
“Life was terrible on the death row, knowing that my death was just few metres away from my cell. I was only saved by the grace of God, otherwise I was dying,” he says.
After roving from prison to prison for 28 years, Maonga has been released from custody having served two-thirds of his sentence.
He had been to Domasi, Zomba, Maula and Chichiri prisons from where he had been granted his freedom.
By the time of his arrest, Maonga had a three-year-old child but he does not even know his whereabouts.
“Now that I am out, I will look for him but I have ever seen him and he has never seen me since 1991. The only relation who was visiting me here is my sister. I hear that the wife I was arrested for died long time ago but she wasn’t visiting me even when she was alive,” says Maonga, full of hope about the future.
Maonga, who until his release, was the longest serving prisoner in the country, was treated to a special send-off befitting a warrior, a legend who fought a good fight in jail.
Assistant Commissioner of Prisons Alex Makunganya, who is also Chichiri Prison Officer-in-Charge, says Maonga was a good example to all prisoners.
He says, for this reason, Maonga rose through the ranks among fellow prisoners to be in charge of all prisoners at Chichiri Prison and that was why he was treated to the send-off to instill a sense of discipline among other prisoners.
“At his level, Maonga was part of the prison’s management team. He could supervise his fellow prisoners’ work. He could take his fellow prisoners to the hospital to receive medical treatment and bring them back. I have no doubt that he will continue displaying that good behaviour wherever he goes,” he says.
Makunganya says that Maonga has seen one-third of his sentence being reduced despite the gravity of his offence demonstrates how well he behaved.
“It is not that every prisoner qualifies to have one-third of their sentences reduced. This is a privilege given only to those prisoners who are behaving well because we want them all to be reformed,” he says.
But asked what kept him going all these years in prison, Maonga says he had accepted that time had changed and he needed to adjust and conform to that environment.
“I knew that time had changed for me. I can tell you that there was no time that a prisoner warder assaulted me because I complied with what I was told,” he says.
Francis Folley, Executive Director of Youth Coalition for the Consolidation of Democracy, an organisation which was counselling Maonga prior to his release, says they were sure he would easily blend into society.
“We are doing all we can to help fit in society. We have been counselling him and, above all, we have given him some bags of maize, clothes and we are giving him cash to use as he restarts his life in society because we understand that he would literally be starting his life all over again,” he says.
Meanwhile, Prison Fellowship International, a prisoner mid warehouse, in Balaka has offered to train Maonga in welding and give him a welding kit afterwards to help him be self-reliant.