Urban Africa 2: The City Jail

Oh we went to town last week.

Taking the bus from my village, we first entered the outskirts of Ipigolo…

…and then climbed to the hilltop city,  Iringa.

As seen last week, this city center hums with street sales folks, traffic, local residents, and even a handful of tourists—all intermingling within the hub of this regional hub here in central Tanzania, East Africa.

Also wheel-like, Iringa has spokes in all directions. And today I show you some other interesting areas of this near-to-me, mid-sized African city including a residential neighborhood, the produce market, and yes, a jail.


Iringa is on a hill—but not quite at the top. So from the bus station, one can either go with gravity toward the large residential section or overcome it toward other commercial and official areas uphill. Taking the downhill treatment, we enter the quieter reaches of Iringa where domesticity and the occasional small business rule.

Sprawling urban African living

This area is home to many, yet its rough-around-the-edges nature can be a bit unwelcoming. My colleague Leah’s boyfriend, Joseph, lives down here. The last road down to his place is so bumpy and groovy (with plenty of garbage thrown in for color) that taxis sometimes refuse to drive him to his front door.

Back up to the bus station and city center markets, we then continue further upward through some more blocks of commerce—albeit toned down a bit compared to the hectic center, until we come to a large structure: a sheet metal-roofed, open-air food market. Start with a square concrete base the size of half a football field. Now add onto it a bunch old, worn wooden tables stacked with bunches of yellow/green bananas, mounds of carrots, piles of green peppers and onions, bags of rice, potatoes, papaya, and on and on. Oh, there are a few people inside as well.

I could try to write a flowery description of the scene, but I’ll let a moving picture speak for me:

The residential district and food market are rad, but they’re also fairly standard fare for this part of the world. For perhaps the most interesting stretch in Iringa, we walk just past the market by way of a calmer, broad tar road with a few food vendors along the side. This road makes a left bend after just 100 yards, whereupon turning, you face an unlikely duo of local institutions: hospital and jail.

Coming from the market, the jail comes first, but if you happen to miss the guards who casually walk around and you can’t read Swahili—both criteria met by me the first couple of times passing by here—you’ll not know what you’re even passing.

The jail is straight ahead through that gate.

You probably wouldn’t guess what this structure was because it’s so out in the open.

“That!?” you’d ask pointing with surprise.

“Yes,” a resident would tell you. “That’s the jail.”

I was confused when I learned this because jails are just so exclusive and removed from the rest of life in the U.S. We send our “bad” people there to the tune of a 2.5 million people back home and then dramatize life inside for stories and movies. All the while, issues within like gangs, abuse, and rape are largely ignored.

The luring drama of “prison life”, the fear of “bad guys”, the isolation of prisons, the contentment with “out of sight out of mind” attitude of the public, the for-profit prison industrial complex, the three-strikes-you’re-out kinds of policy are all ingredients for the U.S. justice system stew.

Here, I was impressed that the jail was so open to the public—though some would say dangerously open. Until recently, there wasn’t even this three foot wall directing pedestrians around the jail.

Even if cosmetic, the barrier at least adds some familiarity for me separating freedom from “life on the inside”. Jail to the right.

Yet here, even this barrier is regularly breached by those who need to go behind the jail for their daily lives. There’s a school just back there! So another foreign teacher friend of mine walks through the little orange gate in the picture above, onto jail grounds, to get to a short road going downhill to her school. She does this everyday on her way to teach biology, regularly seeing prisoners in their unmistakable orange jumpsuits doing garden work out back. Students, teachers, other resident and employees all walk back here, too.

The garden plot on the right foreground is jail property where inmates work. As you can see, there is no fence. The school is in the background.

I consider the effects of this adult detention location. Sweeping the obvious risks under the rug–escape, harmful interactivity with civilians–I thought about the benefits. I assume here jail life isn’t shrouded in mystery and intrigue. Prison abuse would be harder to cover up. And inmates aren’t seen as “others”, outcasts from society. In fact, you’ll see an inmates out doing chores about town—treated no different than people in the U.S. doing community service. Only these guys aren’t free to go home afterward. They are inmates, accompanied by just a guard with a baton.

For how open the jail is, however, Tanzanians are consistent with their distaste for photographs. Indeed, ratchet up from distaste to disdain when it comes to this jail. Walking by one Saturday afternoon, I saw my first inmates coming back from gathering wood. “Holy cow! Inmates in a Tanzanian jail!” I thought with my American intrigue in prisoners. I stopped, put down my bag, took out my camera, and readied to fire.

As I did so, however, one of the jailbirds pointed me out with an accompanying cry of complaint. I could make out the words, “Picha!” and  “Mzungu!” (picture and foreigner.)

Honor among thieves, my foot.

“Why are you yelling at me for breaking the rules?” I thought. “You’re in jail!”

I didn’t know such stringent policy existed, though. But evidence for such became clear when a guard from seemingly nowhere (a security booth to my back left) approached and demanded my camera. I tried to tell him I can delete the image. But other guards came from the direction of the inmates, and they took my camera and headed for the entrance.

The guard who had come up behind me then told me to, “Go!”

“No”, I said firmly. “I need my camera.” Then I set down my bag down to wait.

More than concern that they’d get mad (the situation quickly calmed once the guards had my camera), was the concern they would just ignore me. Then I’d be stuck standing there waiting for nothing and be camera-less in Tanzania.

After what was probably just a minute, but felt like 5 or 10, I thought I was going to lose my camera. But then another short, smaller guard from the jail casually walked toward me to explain that pictures are illegal.

“I didn’t know,” I responded.

Then for some reason, I unpeeled a banana and started eating it. I wanted to keep busy, I guess.

“What country you from?” he asked.


“You talk scared.”

“I was scared.”

“Don’t worry,” he said.

He spoke like there was nothing the matter, but my heart was stick beating from the confrontation.

Soon three guards came out, one with my camera. As they handed it back to me, I went to try to show them the picture and delete it. But they evidently had rifled through all my images, as it was scrolled through to the middle of the hundreds I had on there. As I searched for it, I didn’t sense any interest in them having it erased. So relieved to have my camera (with memory card as well), I simply packed it up.

Then one guard said lightly, “Go.” And I did.

I end this tour through Iringa with this exclamation of a story. And I’ll end this article with the image they didn’t manage to delete—the one that caused the kerfuffle.


2 Responses

What say you?