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Tems shares experience behind bars in Uganda

Nigerian superstar Tems recently provided a detailed account of her two-day ordeal in a Ugandan prison in 2020.

She, along with fellow artiste Omah Lay, were detained following charges brought against them of performing at an event despite events being banned in the country at the time to tame the spread of Covid-19.

In a recent interview with Angie Martinez, Tems revealed the harrowing experience she endured during her incarceration.

Tems’ journey into the prison system began with her abrupt removal from her hotel. At first, she couldn’t believe that this was happening to her; she assumed it was a joke. But the moment she was handed her prison uniform, the gravity of the situation hit her, and she couldn’t hold back tears.

Tems said, “I thought I wasn’t gonna come out. I thought I was seeing it for a reason like maybe I was meant to help the people. I was settling in because I adapted real quick and as I was walking in I started to cry because they gave me my uniform and it stunk because they don’t wash it.”

Her initial thoughts were bleak; she doubted whether she would ever regain her freedom. She contemplated the possibility that she was meant to be in prison to help the inmates. She quickly adapted to her new environment, a cramped and dingy cell with no amenities. The prison cell was bare, just a cold floor with blankets and tissues. There was no bed. Her uniform, which had not been washed, emitted a foul odor. For two days, she had to endure these conditions, uncertain of when or if she would be released.

“It was a small room and there was nothing, there’s just the floor they give you blankets and tissues and you’re just on the floor, no bed and I did it for two days. I didn’t even know I was going to get out, I didn’t have any ears on the ground nobody told me anything. Outside everyone was like ‘free Tems, free Omah lay but inside I was just hopeful, waiting,” she narrated.

Tems’ experience in prison was marked by isolation from the outside world. While the world rallied behind her and Omah Lay with the “Free Tems, Free Omah Lay” campaign, she remained oblivious to the support.

She discovered that many of the women incarcerated alongside her were held for minor infractions, some even due to the corrupt actions of prison guards who were influenced by bribes. The prison’s structure prevented inmates from making phone calls unless they had money, which she did not possess.

To cope with the challenging environment and her fear, Tems resorted to winking at her fellow inmates as she entered the prison. She said to Martinez, “Once I walked in everyone turned and looked at me and whispering and I was like ‘what have I done? I can’t cry’ and I just started winking, that was my way of adapting. I must show these people that I’m confident so I started being extra winking and saying hi and they were laughing.”

The head of the women’s prison informed Tems of the strict rules and the severe consequences for violations. The most severe punishment was solitary confinement in a small room without food or water. In addition, inmates were required to kneel when speaking to officials, and they were provided with only one meal a day. During her two-day incarceration, Tems chose not to eat, surviving on a daily intake of water.

The ordeal that led to their imprisonment began on December 12, 2020, when Omah Lay and Tems performed at The Big Brunch in Kampala, Uganda. Their arrest followed their alleged violation of COVID-19 guidelines after the lockdown.

Back in Nigeria, efforts were underway to secure the immediate release of Tems and Omah Lay. Tems’ manager’s father even met with then-President Buhari in Abuja to resolve the situation. Eventually, they were released and returned home.

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