To Grace’s relief, it was an interview room with no prison cells in sight. She had heard that the cells were so overcrowded that prisoners had to arrange themselves head to toe, like sardines, to sleep. This room was small with high ceilings, and three tiny windows at the top of one wall shafting light into the gloom. In the middle of the room were two wooden chairs on either side of a narrow metal table, with a drawer hanging out like a dog’s tongue. Grace pushed in the drawer, but it rolled out again. After a few shoves, she gave up and sat down. She pulled out the case sheet, a legal pad, and two pens, and arranged and rearranged the items on the desk while she waited for her client.

Although she knew it by heart, she reviewed the case sheet now tucked inside her legal pad:

Name: Willbess Mulenga of Plot 847/11/9, Kalikiliki Township

Charges: Contravening Section 155 of the Penal Code

Age: Unknown

Details: After an incident reported on the night of September 15, 1990, at the MacGyver Bar, one Willbess Mulenga, a male dressed as a female, was reported to have been seen in flagrante delicto with an unknown male patron. Willbess Mulenga was arrested the morning of September 16, 1990, at his parents” home in Kalikiliki.

Grace had loved criminal law in school, puzzling over labyrinthine codes, Latin phrases, and shifting burdens of proof. She had even interviewed with the Public Defender’s Office, but withdrew when they told her they required a year as an unpaid intern, which she couldn’t afford. She didn’t earn very much as a first-year at DB & Associates, but it was enough, exactly enough to pay her room and board, transport costs, and to send 100 kwacha back to her mother in the village every month. Although the firm was corporate, it did have a small portfolio of pro-bono criminal cases. Grace had found a copy of the green-velour-covered Penal Code in the firm’s library and had flipped through it until she found Section 155: “Any person who has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature; or permits a male person to have carnal knowledge…against the order of nature; is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for fourteen years.”

As Grace waited for her client, she pondered the meaning of “the order of nature”. Homosexuality was part of nature, of that she was sure. She had seen it in both the animal and human worlds, and so read Section 155 as an effort to rewrite the laws of nature. Grace thought about Mr. Patel. He had been her father’s oldest and dearest friend. No one told her that Mr. Patel was different, it was just something she came to understand as she got older, but, unlike most of the village, it didn’t change how much she loved him. She didn’t understand why anyone cared about his private life, but they did. He was rejected by his family, and, with the exception of her father, demonized and mistreated by the villagers. And now, an even worse fate awaited her client, imprisoned and in remand since mid-September. More than four weeks already!

Grace made a note in the margin: “Research constitutional challenges to Penal Code, Sec. 155—rights to privacy/protections from discrimination.” She slid her finger a few inches down the page. She circled Willbess’s age, noted as “Unknown”. Were these consenting adults? The age of consent was sixteen. And what about the other facts? Not much on record except a male dressed as a female caught in flagrante delicto with another male in a bar. “In flagrante delicto, a blazing offence,” she whispered. Who were the witnesses to this blazing offence? Why was Willbess wearing a dress? The burden of proof was on the

prosecution but she still needed the facts. She thought about her old professor Dzekedzeke’s favorite legal aphorism, “If you have the law, hammer the law. If you have the facts, hammer the facts. And if you have neither the law nor the facts, hammer the table.” Grace pretended to hammer the metal table.

The squares of light streaming into the room through the small box-windows crept across the floor. What was taking so long? Grace was hungry, and started to think about the fruit in her bag. Her growling stomach was audible but she couldn’t risk her client walking in as she stuffed a banana into her mouth. The room was tinged red by the setting sun and she was about to give up and leave when Officer Lungu burst in with what appeared to be a boy, and gave him a quick shove into the empty seat.

“Your client,” Officer Lungu said, looking as pleased as if he had performed a magic trick. Grace stared at Willbess Mulenga in shock. He was even shorter than Officer Lungu, with a twig-like neck, and the thinnest arms and ankles sticking out of a stained red t-shirt and oversized prison-issue black pants. His light skin was bruised on the right side of his face, his right eye swollen shut, and one of the two front teeth that seemed too big for his mouth was badly chipped. The smell of piss and shit was so strong that Grace gagged. Her manners forgotten, she yanked her handkerchief from her bag to cover her nose.

“Hands where I can see them,” Officer Lungu growled. Willbess placed both small hands on the table. He had black rings from handcuffs around his delicate wrists and his hands were trembling.

“What happened to him?” Grace shouted at Officer Lungu through her handkerchief.

“He resisted arrest. Looks worse than it is. Tell the nice lady that you’re fine.”

The boy kept his head down and said nothing.

“He was arrested almost five weeks ago. These injuries are fresh.”

“So you’re a doctor now?” The officer placed his boot against the wall and pulled his truncheon from its loop in his belt, spun it and then returned it. Willbess flinched.

Grace tried to control her rising anger. “My name is Grace Zulu,” she said to Willbess. “I’m your lawyer, and I’m here to help you.” She turned to Officer Lungu. “I wish to speak to my client alone.” She expected the policeman to leave the room, but instead he moved closer to Willbess, his squat body blocking the fading light. The boy started to shiver despite the heat, and tears spilled out of his good eye.

Grace handed him her handkerchief, and as he took it, their eyes met for a split-second. She jolted in her seat as if an electric shock had run through her body, and for a moment she felt the full force of this boy’s anguish and terror. Grace had a strong urge to hold Willbess, to comfort and reassure him that she would save him from this wretched place, and that everything would be all right. She even reached out to touch him but his hands were already in his lap. Grace searched his broken face again to be certain that she didn’t know him, as she tried to understand this sudden, strong instinct to protect him that felt more primal than lawyerly. Perhaps she identified with the suffering so clear in his one good eye, or perhaps it was recognition that their lives were equally precarious and only the thinnest, invisible line put Grace on this side of the table of misfortune, and Willbess on the other. Grace shook off these strange sensations, reminding herself that she was there as his lawyer. She drew a sharp breath before she spoke, while glaring at Officer Lungu. “You have the right to speak to your lawyer in private, and you have the right to be treated with human dignity. The police have no right to beat you up.” She glanced back at Willbess as she said, “They will answer for this.”

Officer Lungu’s big eyes narrowed behind his glasses. “Answer for what? I told you, he resisted arrest. I do you a favor and let you in, and now you want to start trouble?”

“I have every right to interview my client, it’s not a favor.”

“This interview is over.” The policeman turned to Willbess, “Iwe! Get up!”

“You end this interview and I’m going to file an official complaint against you for police brutality, and for soliciting a bribe.”

Officer Lungu sucked his teeth at Grace and then turned to Willbess and roared in his ear, “I said get up!” When Willbess didn’t move, the policeman grabbed him by the neck and lifted him off the chair. Without thinking, Grace pounced to pull the officer off the boy.

“Voetsek!” screamed the policeman as he twisted and shoved Grace with such force that she stumbled back, flipped over her chair and hit her head on the concrete floor.


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Excerpt from THE LIONS’ DEN published by Graydon House Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2024 by Iris Mwanza.