Maya dug around for a pencil in her money belt, which after consuming a breakfast of nsima, Malawi’s staple consisting of corn mash, had grown uncomfortably snug. Finding the stub, she placed it on the rusted table next to her notepad lying limp in the heat. She glanced for the second time at the young guard in the corner whose structured jawline jutted out in harmony with his rifle. Aman, meanwhile, was gazing through the lone window, a small gap no bigger than a child’s face, which provided a portal to the jail yard where prisoners milled about in silence. In a previous life as student president of his university in Ethiopia, Aman led a shaming campaign against the government for its embarrassing human rights record. He had been rewarded with underground solitary confinement for seven months. In the corner behind Aman leaned Mwembe, an interpreter from their partner organization who guided the students through Malawi’s legal system and the unspoken customs that made it run. With his help earlier this morning, the students navigated their way through the guard’s request for a “Fanta” and into the interview room—where they now awaited Solomon’s arrival.
Solomon’s file had been flagged by the Professor one year ago, when it came to her attention that the crime for which he had been convicted and sentenced to death didn’t remotely reflect Solomon’s confession. Looking at his hands, he had slowly and softly explained to the Professor how, and why, he shot his older cousin. He had been saving for three years, two months, and seventeen days for the goat he needed to start his cheese business. Sweat, and on occasion blood, poured onto the stacks of wood he gathered for his village, earning a few schillings for each pile. In a hole beneath the kitchen table he stacked the coins. Then one day, he recalled to the Professor it all vanished. Poof. He lifted a delicate fist upward toward the ceiling, popping his fingers open slowly, like a gentle explosion. When he saw his cousin the next day, who had come over to ask for money, an argument ensued and moments later the cousin’s life was taken. Poof. Like that, he sighed heavily into his hands. Indeed he had killed a man.
But a death sentence? It looked to be another instance in which the files, intentionally or not, were swapped. Malawi’s noose was not fit for such an ordinary murder.
“Interview him,” the Professor instructed Maya and Aman. “And his family.”
So toward the back of a cramped, dusty room with two chairs, one of which lay overturned in a corner with two missing legs, Maya and Aman waited for the guard to bring in Solomon. Word had whispered its way through Zomba that lawyers from the States had arrived to take on some of their cases. A few teens in the yard spotted Aman in his suit jacket and began to approach, their gaze reminding him of when his own spirit had been buried. Suddenly the door swung open, shifting the heavy air toward them.