A senior game ranger with the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Maxwell Bowa (53) who escaped the gallows after the Supreme Court quashed his death sentence is still to believe that he is indeed a free man.
By Phyllis Mbanje
Bowa was convicted of shooting and killing poacher Lennon Nkosana (29) by the High Court in Gweru in September last year.
But the Supreme Court last week set aside his conviction on appeal.
The Standard tracked him down to his rural home in Zvishavane where, after expected skepticism and fear of being thrown back into the high walls of prison, he opened up and shared his harrowing experiences while on death row at Whawha prison.
For 10 months, Bowa waited with untold trepidation for his turn to face the hangman’s noose.
“I had never been in trouble with the law before and suddenly I was not only in jail, but facing a death sentence,” he said.
A pale shadow of his former self, Bowa is yet to come to grips with the fact that he is now a free man.
“I’m still very afraid and worried that they will come and drag me back saying it was all a mistake,” he said.
Bowa, who is still suspicious of strangers, was initially unwilling to meet with us for an interview.
“I was not sure of your intentions and was convinced they had sent you here to just find ways to take me back,” he said.
The soft-spoken Bowa is haunted by the ghosts of Whawha prison where he was in solitary confinement 23 hours a day for almost a year. He still has nightmares of the jail guards rattling his door and he wakes up in a cold sweat.
“Most of fellow inmates on death row have lost their minds. Many no longer have hope nor the will to live,” he said.
Bowa said there are some who have been on death row for 17 years.
“Most of the inmates committed their crimes in cold blood and it was scary when they openly boasted about how they killed people during robberies or carjacking,” he said.
A typical day in his tiny cell started at eight o’clock in the morning.
“We were given a five litre empty container to use as a toilet pan and early in the morning we would queue up and dump our excrement in a toilet,” Bowa said. He experienced this dehumanising act for 10 months.
Bowa was also worried by the number of sick inmates and the neglect they suffered.
“To be able to get medical attention, you needed to make a written application to the officer in charge and if he sees it fit, you would then be granted permission to be attended to,” he said.
Bowa said many death-row prisoners were sick and he suspected the majority suffered from HIV and Aids-related illnesses.
“There is gross neglect of prisoners especially those on death row. It is like they are saying you will die anyway so why bother,” he said as tears welled in his eyes.
The loneliness and uncertainty of each day almost cost him his sanity.
“I prayed every day despite the fact that prior to my arrest I used to drink and never acknowledged that there was God,” Bowa said.
Breakfast consisting of porridge was served in the morning while lunch of tasteless boiled cabbage or half-cooked beans was served at 11am.
The prisoners are allowed a few minutes to stretch their limbs in a small concrete covered courtyard.
“We constantly grazed our knees on the hard concrete as we tried to jump around and unwind. The exercise was critical as we spent a long time cramped in our tiny cells,” he said with a heavy tone.
“Supper would come at 2pm and that was when you said goodnight to each other until the next morning,”
With no bed to sleep on but thin, lice-infested blankets, the prisoner sit or squats in a corner seeking warmth from the cold cell.
“The cell is suffocating because it is so small and at times I would feel like the walls would just squash me while I slept.”
Bowa dreaded any sound from his door as that could mean that it was time to face the hangman.
“After every two or so hours the guards would come and check if our doors were locked and we always thought they had come to get us.”
While in prison, he said the person he missed most was his youngest daughter who was only seven years old at the time of his arrest.
“I wondered how my family was faring in my absence and at times I would totally give up on ever seeing my children again,” Bowa said as he broke down and cried openly.
Taking over the tale, his wife Elneth said she was allowed to see him after every two weeks.
“On the day that he was sentenced, a part of me died. I do not know how I crossed the busy roads because my mind was playing tricks on me,” she said.
Elneth was to shoulder the burden of looking after their children while her husband was in jail. Although she is grateful for the support from her fellow church mates and relatives, she is saddened by the lost time and the strain it put on her family.
“I remember being told to come and see him for the last time and he requested that I also bring our youngest daughter,” said Elnath.
That was the most traumatic visit for her and she returned home dejected and without hope of ever seeing her husband again.
Her children were not doing so well and the tell-tale signs of stress began to show. The youngest girl at some point refused to go to school, convinced her father had been killed.
“My son who is doing A’ level actually developed a mental problem because he could not handle it,” said Elneth.
Besides having nightmares about his time in prison, Bowa is angry that he was treated like a hardcore criminal when he was only a family man fending for his family.
“It is really not a question of how you react, but a question of survival. I love my job but I also know of the dangers that come with it,” he said.
According to the state outline, last year in June, Bowa and 10 other rangers accompanied by police swooped on a hut that was believed to be housing poachers in possession of ivory.
Nkosana bolted from the hut and Bowa pulled the trigger, shooting him at least 10 times as he fled, killing him.
The High Court convicted him of murder and sentenced him to death. However, Supreme Court judge, Justice Paddington Garwe, sitting with Justices Vernanda Ziyambi and Ben Hlatshwayo, last week found Bowa not guilty and acquitted him.
Currently, 97 inmates are on the death row after being convicted of various offences but no execution has taken place since 2005 when armed robbers and convicted murderers Edgar Masendeke and Stephen Chidhumo were hanged.
Death penalty has remained a hotly debated issue and during the crafting of the new constitution human rights activists tried to get it scrapped saying it was inhumane.