November 3, 2021

When Chess Is Home Behind Bars

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Tadious Manyepo

Every word he utters is golden.


He does not feel sorry for himself, though. Rehabilitation has taught him about the dangers of doing so.

But he remains remorseful, yet very much transformed.

“Crime does not pay. There are so many clean ways of eking out a living,” he exclaims.

His tone is pregnant with meaning.

This is a stark contrast to the same words printed on a billboard. It strikes the top of the mind. The difference between reality and assumption maybe.

Now 37, Leo Matibe was jailed when he was only 22.

Leo Matibe

He was already married to his childhood sweetheart and the union had been blessed with a baby boy.

He was taking care of them out of touting in Harare before he relocated to Bulawayo. That meant playing cat and mouse with law enforcement agents, always.

Add to the meagre earnings from this hustle, he felt life was giving him lemons. Far from what he had dreamed when he was still a young village boy in Sadza, Chivhu.

After weeks, if not months of careless consideration, he opted to switch to the fast lane – crime.

“I turned into a beast. I don’t even understand it up to now given the way I was raised by my aunt in the village…”

Matibe would associate with a gang of two “tried and tested” criminals in terrorising the community, robbing and committing a spate of murders. Several times, they escaped, even attending the funerals of those they would have murdered, probably scanning for their next prey.

But they wouldn’t do that forever.

They eventually ran out of luck.

They got cornered, a shootout ensued, and one of his accomplices lost his life.

After a lengthy trial, Matibe was convicted in 2009 and sentenced to death. Till May 2020, he was awaiting execution.

His aunt who raised him visited once in prison and the sight of her brother’s son in red garb and leg irons reduced her to tears.

“On seeing me, she cried. Mwana wehanzvadzi yangu chii chakapinda mauri (my brother’s son what became of you?) She couldn’t believe it was really me, awaiting death.

“After close to four minutes, she said I love you and I won’t be returning here (at the prison). I can’t stomach seeing you knowing that each time I would be talking to you could be the last time to see you alive.”

As per her promise, she has never visited again but she makes sure other relatives do.

“I am certain she loves me. I don’t want to see her crying. I love her as well. She raised me well and paid for my school fees. Other relatives always come here and they always have a word from her too.”

He stops his narration a bit, recollecting.

“I last saw my wife the day I was sentenced. She cried loudly as I was being whisked out of that packed courtroom. I waved to her. Our eyeballs kissed. I was crying too. She had her relatives in tow and they led her out of the courtroom, in the opposite direction. I knew from that very moment, our marriage was heading for the cemetery. I didn’t see our boy. I wanted to ask her but there was no more time for that…”

He hasn’t heard about his family since then.

“I am not sure whether they are still alive but what I am sure of is that if my wife is still alive, she has already moved on. I can’t blame her. She was still very young and who in her normal senses can wait for someone who has been handed a death sentence?”

But prison life has completely changed him. “I now know who Leo Matibe is. Before I committed the crime, I didn’t know who I was. But I have had time to self-analyse, introspect and reflect…”

Thanks to a niche game, which is right on the periphery in the sporting perking order but whose influence especially to inmates is incredibly significant – chess.

Clad in his white prison gear inscribed “D-Life (at the front and) Checkmate (at the back), Matibe is sitting in front of a desktop monitor.

Three of his teammates Aleck Mushowani, Nhamo Matemamombe and Desmond Marufu who are in prison for different crimes are attentively looking at their monitors too. Nicholas Damata, a substitute, is there as well.

They are having last-minute rehearsals for the virtual inaugural inter-continental inmates chess championships to take place from October 13-14 2021.

Officials from the Zimbabwe Chess Federation including the president Collin Tongowona are in attendance.

All of the inmates in team Zimbabwe have never played the game before their incarceration yet alone used a computer in their lives. Everything is new.

“We have adjusted very quickly. We are actually ready to conquer the world.

“I didn’t know how the game is played but one thing I knew even before I came here is that I never fail whenever I commit myself to doing something. “I have been learning and I am glad I managed to grasp the concepts and here I am. The game is nourishing. It helps retain focus and the mind is always stable. I am a beneficiary of the President’s Amnesty, which reduced my sentence from death to life last year and I am hopeful the leniency will as well see me out of prison in the long run. At the moment, chess solves all my problems.”

The Zimbabwe team was the only participant from Africa.

Odds were against them in a tournament pitting 31 countries from across the world.

But at the end of it all, only Mongolia did better with the Zimbabweans bagging silver.

Mushowani, in the fifth of his 12 year sentence for rape, is another key member of the team.

A member of the Madzibaba Apostolic Sect, Mushowani who is diabetic, is the team’s prayer warrior.

Aleck Mushowani

“I am here because I committed rape. I have learnt my lessons and I am counting each day. I started in D-class and I am now in C-class. I am already looking forward to being in B-Class,” said Mushowani.

“Like my teammates, I didn’t know how the game was played. Before I joined the game, I was almost always at the hospital due to my being diabetic. But the game has helped me. I always have my chess board in the cell and instead of stressing myself out, I will be figuring out how I can improve on my play. That has kept me out of hospital. I want to continue playing the game at a competitive level even after doing my time in prison. Being a prophet, I am the one praying for the team. I am happy we managed to get silver in an international contest that had 31 countries and 40 teams.”

He is confident his wife and four children are still at home in Madziva, Mashonaland Central Province where he left them.

For Damata who is serving a 20-year sentence for murder and attempted murder, the game makes him feel at home.

“I used to play draughts in my home area in Centenary. I miss all that but chess makes me feel at home,” said Damata.

“I enjoy the game and it feels great to be part of the team which has hoisted the Zimbabwe flag in this competition.”

Zimbabwe Chess Federation president Collen Tongoona hailed the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services for letting inmates participate in the tournament.

“This is a good gesture and a very much welcome one too,” he said.

“Every year we have the Behind the Walls tournament and these guys (inmates) have always shown that they are really good. They have put the country on the map and we are willing to assist wherever possible as the mother body.”


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