Pamela Leach, Tasmania Regional Meeting
As a student, Friends invited me into making regular visits to detention centres. In truth, I had never given those hidden away from society more than a moment’s thought until then. But of course it was a perfect way to live out my deep belief that there is that of God in everyone. Soon I was a weekly visitor to a Syrian woman in maximum security, and a close friendship ensued over several years.
After completing an education degree, I was off to the West African country of Burkina Faso to volunteer for two years. I had dreamt of idyllic living in a small village, perhaps teaching healthcare to women or working in the local school. But the Mennonite Central Committee convinced me of the real need for a seasoned prison visitor who spoke French and could learn a local language to work in the high security prison in the capital city of Ouagadougou, population about one million. There up to forty children were incarcerated, mixed in with the adult population.
My role was to take over the literacy program, run through the schoolhouse in the prison grounds. Within days it became apparent that much more was needed than literacy. These children, aged 8 and up, were in a sorry state, lacking food, clothing, medical care, and above all, tender care. Most had been gathered up from the streets by the authorities, having come into the city in the hope that they might find work or food. The Sahel villages were suffering from constant drought, having to choose between eating and planting their remaining millet and sorghum. Some were on self-imposed rationing, one meal every third day. Some children had turned to petty crime, stealing cutlery or other small items in order to feed themselves, but none found steady work. The notion that city streets were paved with gold was dashed in the red dust. But in prison they would be longing for that dust.
I decided a week living in detention would give me a better picture of conditions there. Crowding was intense, in a prison built for 400 that was busting with close to 1000 inmates. We were fortunate in the women’s cell, with only eight of us. During the day, most prisoners were free to be out in the compound. I soon found the brutality horrifying, abuse of the children occurring regularly, and that in dark corners of the prison entirely inhumane conditions existed. I became light-headed from lack of food while my stomach revolted at the filthy water we were all drinking. But I was immensely fortunate, even as a prisoner.
Under the roof, in a 2 × 4 metre space, was the punishment cell, where 20 or more men were crowded. Some had been tortured, and even the dead could remain there for a day or two before removal by the guards. The rest took turns sleeping and sitting or standing. Food was irregularly provided, and only then a thin porridge, and a bucket or two served as toilets. It was always over 40 degrees up there, and sometimes into the 50s under the corrugated roof. Late one night when no one could sleep, in the oppressive heat and smell, we were soothed by beautiful singing and drumming from those in the punishment cell. I was stunned and humbled that these men who had less than nothing could find a gift to give. Yet again, I was reminded of that hidden seed in each of us. I never forgot these men and visited them daily through a narrow grill. In their nakedness and filth, they were still delighted that I came, and could pass through malaria pills and other medication when needed. I never experienced a harsh word or anything but kindness from any prisoner, despite the fact that others before me had been assaulted and experienced repeated theft.
It became apparent that the prisoners were going to educate me as much as I them. Some children were from a nomadic background, and had been taught that formal schooling would alienate them from their religion and identity. So I began to get them to care for the sheep and goats roaming around the prison compound. These had been seized from around town, where people continued to keep them and let them graze freely, just as they had in the village. Most people lived in a maze of mud huts and the gaps between provided good fodder, but there was a law against this. The children were delighted, and demonstrated significant skill with the animals. This allowed for a vegetable garden to be planted by others, because the nomads would tend their flock to stay away, although sometimes at night the animals took advantage for midnight feasts after lock up time for humans.
In the classroom, the needs were great and various. The children came from up to 30 language groups, none of which had written literatures, and while some needed basic literacy, others had enjoyed some schooling and were keen to progress. It was time to bring in the reinforcements. I had identified a good number of political prisoners, many of whom were on false charges of embezzlement to pass under the radar of Amnesty and international bodies. Indeed, the government was celebrating for “stamping out” such crime while in fact it was rife. These, mostly honest teachers and professors but dissidents of the authoritarian regime, were delighted to assist with tailor-made learning plans for each of our pupils. I worked with them to help them transition from the very harsh and authoritarian colonial-style they knew toward student-centred learning.
Unfortunately, we were endlessly challenged in our efforts. The warden had obviously had a broken life that made him into the worst of bullies. He wanted me gone. Almost daily we were “treated” to the torturing of inmates who had “misbehaved” right outside the classroom window. I suspect this may have been an attempt to get me to leave. But I am a “stayer”. We could close the metal louvers, but nothing except the eventual unconsciousness or death of the victim would silence the howls that gave me shivers in the heat of the day. There being no food provided by the prison, except American grain that had spoiled; it was evident that hungry tummies were overriding any capacity to learn. A local woman gladly accepted the daily work of preparing huge cauldrons of rice and stew at home. I brought these stacked on the back of my little motor bike to the prison each morning, held on by “occie” straps. A good feed did wonders to enhance the focus of our pupils. Likewise, medication as needed brought their health to a much better standard and regular involvement in school activities and games became the norm.
Having a staff left me free to lead a series of discussions with the Attorney General and his staff about conflict transformation and moving from punitive to restorative justice. Eventually, after my time there, a separate centre was built for the children. I felt perhaps it had taken time for many factors including my repeated conversations with the Justice Department staff to sink in.
I was also able to put much of my energy into helping the youth as they were released from prison (often just by a request from me, as most had committed no real crime). Among the life skills I taught was the process of enrolling in night school and how to run a small business. For example, buying a package of biscuits and selling them off individually, and then understanding how much of the profit needed to be kept for reinvestment versus how much could be used on daily needs. Unfortunately they often turned this knowledge to selling cigarettes, which sold far more profitably on a “one-one” basis on the streets, but I never found any of them smoking.
Some of the children got work with my reference, and I was able to return many to their villages after negotiations with families and village elders. “He has been in prison . . . he is dead to us now” I would so often be told. I would be able to respond with news of individual progress. “No, he’s a good boy, he helps others, and he’s been studying so hard at school” etc. This was a learning experience for me and them, as we tried to unstitch the punitive colonial logic. It became impossible for them to contradict the “Mama Mineur” or mother of the minors! But the essential was that they were willing to change their minds; they wanted desperately to have a reason to forgive, to have their child back in the fold.
Education inside and outside the “box” is never what we imagine beforehand. Each day brings as much or more new learning for the “instructor”. I went on to be an educator in the form of an urban planner, doing public consultation in which the public taught me about the kind of waterfront they wanted for the city of Toronto, while I initiated them into some of its lesser-known secrets. I then spent fifteen years as an academic, but found that all the lessons I had learnt in Toronto and more profoundly in Africa led me to teach “outside the box” in many ways. I am now so fortunate to have, through social media, almost daily contact with so many of those who have taught me even as I tried to show them how to learn to love and recognise the ever-surprising doors of life-long learning. And surely the greatest of these are our fellow humans and the movements of the Spirit.