Longest serving prisoner out

Yale Maonga, 47, vividly remembers the events of one Monday morning in 1991. Like on any other day, he woke up early and dutifully reported for work at a butchery where he worked as a labourer.

But he was being haunted by what had happened two days earlier. A man he thought he had reduced to pulp after catching him red-handed in bed with his wife and in his house showed up at the butchery accompanied by four other men to avenge the injury on him.

Farewell hug for Maonga (back to camera) at Chichiri Prison yesterday

In self-defence, Maonga picked an old bicycle part, with spindles jutting out, and hurled it on him. One of the spindles landed on his chest, boring it in the process. He died on the spot.

Maonga, then 18 years old, from Nsanama Village in Paramount Chief Kawinga’s area in Machinga, was arrested and charged with murder. Spending two years on remand at Zomba Maximum Security Prison, the world finally crumbled on him in July 1993, when he was handed the death sentence.

After being incarcerated for 29 years—at Mikuyu, Kasungu, Domasi and Chichiri prisons—Maonga was over the moon as he emotionally bade farewell to inmates and Chichiri Prison officers, and he narrated the chilling and thrilling turn of events—in equal measure—about his miraculous walk to freedom yesterday.

“It feels good to walk to freedom and go home after all these years I have spent in jail. Especially that I am going out alive and healthy.

“God has been on my side. God has been faithful to me. I could have been dead and forgotten a long time ago,” quipped the healthy looking and burly Maonga. 

But which home? Maonga was quick to say he cannot follow the direction to his village in Machinga, which he left 29 years ago. So, he is going home to his sister—one of the few relatives who used to visit him in prison.

He was escorted to his sister’s place in Machinga by Youth Coalition for the Consolidation of Democracy (YCD) executive director Francis Folley. YCD  provided transport and was accompanied by Chichiri Prison Service public relations officer Julius Magombo.

“My wife died seven years ago, and I don’t know the whereabouts of my son whom I had together with my wife, and whether or not he is alive,” observed Maonga whose capital punishment in 1997 was commuted to life imprisonment following a review of murder cases. The son was three years in 1991.

“Commutation of my sentence to life imprisonment is one of my most memorable times in prison,” he said, adding that the other was when his sentence was commuted to 42 years imprisonment under the Kafantayeni Project.

The Kafantayeni Project is a Tilitonse Fund-sponsored project where murder cases and those sentenced to life imprisonment are being reheard. As of 2017, some 112 convicts had been released and 41 of them had their jail terms revised. 

And so there were tears of joy at Chichiri Prison yesterday when the country’s longest serving prisoner walked to freedom after completing his jail term.

Maonga and his very closest friends could not help but shed tears as he stepped out of the prison gate.

The longest serving prisoner before Maonga was the late Machipisa Munthali from Rumphi, who was released in 1993 after serving 27 years in jail.

Prison management, who also joined in celebrations for Maonga’s release earlier in the day, threw a farewell party for the man who had demonstrated good behaviour and were treating him like ‘a fellow member of staff’.

Maonga claimed that his execution was postponed three times “for reasons only known by prison management. I was on the waiting list of people to be executed for a whole year as the country prepared for the referendum in 1993”.

After the country’s multiparty elections in 1994, president Bakili Muluzi refused to sign death warrants. Since then no president has sent a convict on death row to the gallows.

“The years I was on the death row were my saddest. I was so traumatised. I witnessed some of my fellow inmates on death sentence being sent to the gallows, and waiting for my turn was a death sentence in itself,” explained Maonga in disbelief that he had completed the jail-term after Malawi Prison Services reduce by a third from his 42-year jail term to 29 years for good behaviour.

Chichiri Prison officer in-charge assistant commissioner Alex Makunganya described Maonga as one of the most humble prisoners he had ever come across, in terms behaviour.

It was Maonga’s good behaviour that compelled Chichiri Prison management to organise the farewell party where prison staff and his fellow prisoners showered him with gifts in cash and kind. Makunganya gave the returnee K10 000 as a token of appreciation for the behaviour he had shown for the past 29 years.

But as he goes home with all parents and wife dead, where is he going to start from?

Prison management has secured a scholarship for him from the Prison Fellowship Malawi. He will undergo a six-month training on welding and fabrication and will be given welding equipment after completing of the training, to start his own business.

Makunganya had heaps of praises for Maonga: “This person deserves what we have done for him.  He was very outstanding. He was the highest ranked among the prisoners, a grand stage leader. We were taking him as ‘part of prison management’. He was a supervisor”.

YCD has also set aside K500 000 to help in counselling and guiding Maonga as he starts life anew. Folley believes that the 29 years Maonga has been in prison have affected him psychologically; hence, his organisation’s arrangement.

He said: “We will be monitoring him. We know he has gone through a difficult time, but we will always be there for him. While in prison, we understand that he lost his parents, three brothers and his wife; and only one sister is alive. We will help him to start a new business”.

Meanwhile, as part of this year’s Easter commemoration, President Peter Mutharika has pardoned 197 prisoners from across the country.

In a statement issued yesterday, Ministry of Homeland Security principal secretary Samuel Madula said the pardon of the prisoners was a symbol of forgiveness during this year’s Easter celebrations.

“The prisoners who have been pardoned are those who were charged with minor offences and have demonstrated good behavioural reform,” reads the statement. 

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