By Innocent siachitoba
WHAT started as a normal day for Simon Ngoma, a 19 year old, living with his parents quickly turned into a nightmare that he would live to tell for the rest of his life. Simon starred death in the face but lives to tell the story.
Simon, the ninth born in a family of fourteen (14) was a happy child who always stayed away from trouble. Unfortunately, on that fateful day on January 3, 2002, he heard that his father who had gone drinking was involved in a fight and was being beaten badly. With an intention to rescue his father, Simon rushed to the bar and indeed found his father and a certain man fighting. Simon and a group of other people tried to separate the two and when it was clear that the other man was not ready to stop the fight, Simon and a mob of other people attacked the man and beat him up. The mob beat the man until he lay unconscious on the ground. Unknown to him, someone had called the police to report the fight and the Police found Simon at the crime scene and picked him up.
“A lot of people were involved in that fight but I noticed that older people started walking away as the man started losing consciousness. I, on the other hand was too annoyed to notice and kept beating him till the police found me at the scene and arrested me. I didn’t even know that the man had died,” he recalls.
He later found himself with a murder charge. What started as a joke had now turned into a life changing experience. Since there was no High Court in Lundazi, the case was transferred to Chipata District where he stayed for a year before the verdict was passed on February 14, 2003.
“I was sure that I was going to be released because it was not my intention to kill him. When the judge read the verdict and said I was found guilty and sentenced to death, I cried. I couldn’t believe it! My world came crumbling down in that moment. Earlier on in mitigation, my father tried to speak for me and say I was a decent child that didn’t even drink beer. Dad explained that I only got physical with the victim when he couldn’t let go of him. But all that didn’t count because the victim died at the scene,” he said.
He added “when I reached Mukobeko, I found people who had seen executions take place such as the one that was conducted in January 1997. This made them cold. They were in a world of their own. When I greeted them, no one answered me. Immediately I knew I had been introduced to another world. I sensed life would be hard there.”.
Simon says when he got to Mukobeko he found that people didn’t even eat much because they had no hope and the fear of death couldn’t allow them to eat. Looking at the terrible conditions at Mukobeko, he decided to appeal to the Supreme Court. He had heard from lawyers that if he appealed, his case would be heard within 90 days but that was not to be. He languished for another 10 years before his appeal was heard. Sadly for him, the Supreme Court upheld his death sentence.
“That felt like the end of the road for me. I was so discouraged. I later picked myself up and decided to petition the Republican President. By then, the president was Mr. Michael Sata. Unfortunately he died before responding to me. I decided to appeal to President Edgar Lungu and on February 20, 2015, and the President commuted my death sentence to life,” he said.
Shortly afterwards on 14th March 2016, Simon’s life sentence was commuted further to 25 years imprisonment effective the date of his arrest.
“It just had to be God. The way I was remembered by the President can only be attributed to the mercy of God. I wish to take this opportunity to thank President Edgar Lungu for remembering me and giving me a second chance at life. I never used to eat much when I was on death row but that day I jumped for joy and ate. For the first time I could see light at the end of the tunnel. I could see life in me. That day I ate and jumped for joy. Actually from that day, I started eating because I knew in a few years I would be a free man,” he recalls
Simon’s countenance changes to a somber one as he talks about the uncertainty of one’s life when he/she is on death row.
“It’s not safe to be on death row. Each day you wake up you feel like you could be killed on that day. This affects the appetite of people on death row. it’s a continuous psychological torture. Actually the only time you breathe a sigh of relief when you are on death row is when its 18:00hrs. That’s when you are convinced that at least you will live to see another day,” he says.
One day, Simon was called by Prison Officers and told he would be discharged on the 3rd of November 2018 as his sentence was coming to an end. He didn’t believe it and thought it was just a lie. Sure enough, on the 3rd of November 2018 he was released.
He still couldn’t believe he was tasting freedom after spending 16 years 8 months in custody, 13 of those years spent on death row. Simon says it finally downed on him that he was a free man when he reached town and saw people moving freely.
“I didn’t know where to start from. I spent the last 1 year 8 months of my sentence at Kasama prison and I had no relatives or transport money. I decided to seek help so I went to Radio Mano and they helped me and also linked me to Prisons Care and Counselling Association for further assistance. A Pastor Chanda also gave me K500 and that’s the money I used to travel back to Lundazi,” he said.
Simon’s joy was short-lived. When he arrived in Lundazi and met his mother, who could barely recognize him, he learnt that all his siblings except one had died. She told him three of his siblings had died in a road accident in the year 2014 on their way to Kabwe’s Mukobeko Maximum Prison to verify information they had received that Simon had been executed. Simon’s mother was very sure her son had been executed a long time ago and Simon had a hard time convincing his mother that she was truly looking at him. He learnt that his father died earlier in 2013 while his other siblings had died from other causes and from the family of 14, only one sister was surviving. This shattered Simon’s hope of settling down with his family in Lundazi. He has since set out in search of a better life.
Although currently living with relatives in Lusaka’s Jack Compound, Simon desperately needs to settle down and reintegrate smoothly into society. While in prison, he got an education and proudly shows his credentials. He also learnt Gardening and Carpentry whilst in incarceration. He appeals to the general public to come to his aid with any form of assistance that will help him settle down.
“Any help rendered will be appreciated…a place to stay or a piece of land for farming activities. I want to start keeping my mother, the breadwinner of the family died,” he says.
Simon strongly speaks against stigma that ex-prisoners have to live with in society and advises society to accept ex-prisoners back into the community. He says imprisonment doesn’t necessarily mean one is a criminal as some people have been wrongly convicted. He adds that prison is a reformation center and those that serve their sentences are rehabilitated.
Simon speaks to people who act on impulse “short tempered people should learn to control their anger and avoid acting on impulse and while they are angry. I realized it too late. One should weigh their options before they act. If you have been offended, there are many ways of addressing a matter, one of them is involving the police. People should avoid taking matters in their own hands at all cost”.
He also advises juveniles on the Diversion program to take the second chance given by the courts seriously.
“Life in prison is bad. These juveniles you are counselling on the diversion program should take the program very seriously or else they will remember the advice when it is too late,” he says.
In closing, Simon issues a moving appeal on why he feels the death penalty should be abolished in Zambia.
“Being on death row is not easy and its worse for a country like Zambia where there is a moratorium because each day you think you may be killed. It is tortourous. If the death penalty is meant to rehabilitate or punish, how do you punish a dead person? And if it supposed to act as a deterrent, how will the people on death row appeal to the general public when they don’t even meet? My appeal is let Zambia abolish the death penalty and maybe maintain life sentencing.