Jehovah Sustained Me in a Desert Prison
AS TOLD BY ISAIAH MNWE
There had been no trial, and I had committed no crime. Yet, I was condemned to hard labor in a penal colony in the middle of Africa’s blistering Sahara Desert. What made it worse, none of my friends knew where I was. This occurred over eight years ago, in the summer of 1984. Let me explain how I came to be in that dire situation.
IN 1958, when I was only 12, my older brother became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, my father and mother continued to worship the tribal gods of Abia State, Nigeria, where we lived.
In 1968, I joined the Biafran army. While in the trenches, I thought of the neutral position of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I prayed to God to help me. I promised that if he allowed me to survive the war, I would become one of his Witnesses.
After the war I acted quickly to fulfill my promise. I was baptized in July 1970 and immediately took up the full-time ministry as a pioneer. In time I was appointed as an elder in the Christian congregation. Soon I received an invitation from the Nigeria branch office to take up a missionary assignment in a nearby country where the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses had not been legally recognized. I accepted, and by January 1975, I was on my way, passport in hand.
In 1978, I was assigned to visit the Witnesses throughout the country. Since they were few, I traveled widely, visiting all the cities where there were congregations, as well as areas where there were interested persons. Often I was questioned at police checkpoints. Twice, for four days each time, I was detained and interrogated about our work.
Then, in June 1984, as we were preparing for the field ministry one Sunday, a friendly official notified us that the police were seeking to arrest Jehovah’s Witnesses. A week later Djagli Koffivi, who is from Togo, and I were arrested. We were taken to police headquarters and ordered to hand over the names of all of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the city. “Unless you give us the names,” they said, “we will not release you.”
“You are the police,” I answered. “It is your job to find the people you want. I am not your agent.” We argued for about 30 minutes, and the police threatened us with a beating. Yet, we didn’t give them the names of our Christian brothers. They then decided to confiscate my large library of Bible reference books.
While Held in Custody
After returning to the police station with the books, Djagli and I unloaded them. As we did, a paper slipped from my large-print Bible. It was a district convention program on which was printed the names of all the Christian elders in the country. Quickly I picked it up and jammed it into my pocket. However, one of the policemen saw me and ordered me to hand it over. Of course, I felt terrible.
The paper was placed on the table in the room where Djagli and I were bringing the books. When I entered with my next load, I went to the table, picked up the paper, and stuffed it into my pocket. Then I said that I wanted to relieve myself. A policeman escorted me to the toilet area. After I had entered and closed the door, I tore the paper in pieces and flushed it down the toilet.
When the policemen learned what had happened, they were furious. But they were afraid to do anything about it, since their superiors would have charged them with negligence for allowing me the opportunity to destroy the paper. After holding us in custody for 17 days, a police inspector told us to get our things together because we were going to be moved elsewhere. We put some clothing into a plastic bag, and at the bottom I placed a small Bible that a visitor had smuggled in to us.
We were able to notify the Witnesses that we were being moved but that we did not know where. Early the next morning, July 4, 1984, the police inspector woke us. He searched us, asking us to remove the clothing from the bag and hang it over our arms. But when I reached the last shirt, he said I could put the garments back in the bag, so the Bible was not discovered.
A Desert Prison
The police drove us to the airport, where we boarded a military plane. Hours later we arrived at a town of about 2,000 people, where there is a prison nearby. It is about 400 miles [650 km] by road to the nearest town. We were taken from the plane to the prison and handed over to the prison superintendent. None of our family or friends knew where we had been taken.
The town where we were taken is an oasis in the Sahara. There are shrubs, a few trees, and buildings with walls of dried mud. Water can be obtained by digging only about four or five feet [a meter or a meter and a half] down. Yet, a 31-year-old native of the area told us he had seen it rain but once in his lifetime! And the area was extremely hot. One prisoner said a thermometer in the prisoners’ quarters once registered 140 degrees Fahrenheit [60° C.]! A strong wind blew continually, blowing sand that stung the skin and hurt the eyes.
Anyone arriving at that place would realize he was at the country’s ultimate punishment center. The prison was surrounded by high walls that offered some protection from the wind and the sun. However, walls were not needed to prevent escape, since there was nowhere to go. Outside the oasis, there was not one tree, nothing at all, to give shade to anyone who wanted to escape.
Before we entered, the prison superintendent searched us. He told us to take everything out of our bag. I started lifting out our shirts one by one. When the only thing remaining was the one shirt covering the Bible, I held out the bag to show him the shirt inside and said: “This is all they allowed us to take.” Satisfied, he said to proceed into the yard. The Bible was the only publication we had.
Life in Prison
In all, there were about 34 prisoners. They were the most notorious and dangerous criminals in the country. Many were murderers who were considered beyond reform. All of us slept in two large cells separated by an open bathroom. The bathroom contained an uncovered barrel that was used as a toilet. Although this was emptied each morning by prisoners, it seemed that all the flies in the desert came to enjoy the cool and filth of that barrel.
The only food we had was sorghum. It was ground by a prisoner, boiled, and measured out on plates, which were then put out, one on each prisoner’s sleeping mat. The food was not covered. By the time we returned from work, there were hundreds of flies covering each plate of sorghum meal. When we picked up our plate, the flies would hum away noisily. For the first two days, we ate nothing. Finally, on the third day, after driving away the flies and removing the dried skin on top, we started eating the sorghum meal. We prayed that Jehovah would protect our health.
We worked under the sun, breaking up the walls of the old prison yards and building new walls. It was extremely hard work. We labored without a break from 6:00 a.m. until noon, had something to eat, then worked until 6:00 p.m. There were no days off. Not only did we suffer from the heat but during the winter we suffered from the cold. And we also suffered from the cruel guards.
Keeping Spiritually Strong
Djagli and I read the Bible in secret, and we talked together about what we learned. We could not read openly because the Bible would have been taken away and we would have been punished. A prisoner with whom I started a Bible study had a kerosene lamp that he shared with me. Often I woke up at one or two in the morning and read until about five. In that way I was able to read the whole Bible through.
We preached to the other prisoners, and one of them told the chief warden about us. Unexpectedly, the warden gave the prisoner an Awake! magazine he had, and the prisoner passed it on to us. I read it over and over again. Our reading and preaching helped keep us spiritually strong.
Communicating With Our Friends
We were not allowed to write or send letters. However, a person who had been friendly said he would help me. On August 20, about six weeks after arriving, I secretly wrote two letters, one to the Nigerian embassy and another to Witness friends. I buried them in the sand and marked the place with a big stone. Later my friend came and dug them up.
Weeks passed, and I heard nothing. Gradually I lost hope that the letters had been delivered. But they did get through, and our fellow Witnesses took up the fight to secure our release. The Nigerian Ministry of External Affairs also took an interest in the matter and asked the government in the country where I was imprisoned why it had jailed me in such a prison.
In the meantime, on the morning of November 15, 1984, we were taken to do some cleaning. The guards led me to a secondary-school toilet that people had been using for weeks despite its being blocked. It was full of excrement. My job, the guards said, was to clean it out. The only tools I had were my hands. As I was wondering how to tackle this revolting task, the chief warden came and said that the district officer of the area wanted to see me.
When I arrived the district officer said that he had recently spoken with the president of the country, who had learned of my plight. The president explained that if I would give the names of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country, I would be released immediately and could leave on the next plane. Again I said that if they wanted Jehovah’s Witnesses, it was the job of the police to find them. The district officer told me that I should consider their offer very seriously. He would give me four or five days to think it over. I was then dismissed, and the guards escorted me back to prison and not, thankfully, back to that toilet!
After five days the district officer summoned me and asked what I had decided. I said that the only reason I was in their prison was that I bore witness to the true God and that I had done nothing wrong. I explained that I had a legal passport and residence permit. All my papers were correct, and whenever I had traveled to any city, I always checked with the police to make sure everything was in order. Since I had committed no crime, I asked: “Why am I being punished? If I was not wanted in the country, why wasn’t I deported? Why was I condemned to this place?”
I talked for about 15 minutes. When I finished, I was asked to write down what I had just said, and I was told that my comments would be submitted to the president. Paper was given me, and I wrote four pages.
Released At Last!
I did not hear anything more about the matter until January 1985, about seven months after I was imprisoned. On that occasion, the chief warden came and asked me if I had written a letter to the Nigerian embassy. “Yes,” I replied.
“Why did you do it? Why didn’t you let me know?” he asked.
I told him the matter did not concern him. But I assured him that I had not written anything against him, since he had nothing to do with my being sent to prison. “Even my mother doesn’t know where I am,” I said. He then wanted to know how I had sent the letter, but I refused to tell him.
The following day the guards serviced a Land-Rover and told me that Djagli and I were being moved. We were brought outside, stripped, and searched. Earlier I had given my Bible to a prisoner with whom I had been studying because I knew that the guards would seize it if they found it with me. This man told us that when he was released, he was going to become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. We pray that he does.
Shortly afterward, I was deported to Nigeria, and in February 1985, I resumed my ministry as a traveling overseer in that country. Since 1990, I have been serving as a district overseer in Nigeria. Djagli is now serving as a faithful Witness in Côte d’Ivoire.
From this experience, I learned firsthand that Jehovah God can sustain us under even the severest of pressure. Time and again we saw his hand protecting us in prison. Our release impressed upon me that Jehovah knows not only where his servants are and what they are suffering but also how to deliver them out of trial.—2 Peter 2:9.