Ochas Pupwe is a Ph.D. candidate at Western Michigan University studying Applied Economics. Pupwe writes about his experiences working in the Zambian prison system promoting AIDS education, testing and counseling.
Ever since Camp Rising Sun (an international leadership camp) announced the ARISE PROGRAM ( a program for CRS alumni to fund community projects), it always kept bothering me that one day I should do a small project for my community. One day turned into tomorrow, and then tomorrow until the zeal would go. Thanks to the ARISE team for continuously encouraging people to be useful to their communities, and one night as I sat in my seat doing my night shift at one of the mobile communication companies, where I was attached for my internship, the common message came again from one of the coordinators” Apply for ARISE funding and make this world a better place to live in” At first I brushed it off, but because the night was quite long I decided to turn all those tomorrows I used to promise myself into a today, and believe me my life has never been the same.
Unlike the many other projects we get involved in, I should admit, going to do the project in the prison was a very intimidating thought. The first day of my endeavor was not easy, the bus I got on drove a number of miles to the outskirts of the city, and made a sharp turn into a corner of society most people live never to even imagine. The prison with all its stories of brutality, roughness, sodomy, seemed a wrong idea to me. But my true vision and will power to serve humanity revitalized my strength and as I stood before that big gate, almost looking that it’s dividing the city, I refused to give in to the trembling intimidation that had filled my heart.
“You may come in” ordered the prison guard. His tone not having any trace of tolerance, he seemed to be confirming my fears. With one gigantic step I moved into the prison premises, and though just at the reception I could sense that the aroma of the air had changed. This was indeed another world. To my surprise just after entry, there stood before me another equally strong gate, which I realized was obviously for enforced security.
The officer in charge was very nice to me and encouraged me to go ahead with the project, and pledged his support but as expected a good number of his subjects had their reservations when they heard the word VCT (Voluntary Counseling and Testing.) By this time I had started noticing the inmates, some in green who are convicted and others in plain clothes that are remanded.
A thorough insight of how the prison community operates helped me draw a program and before I could realize it on 23/05/03 I was moving in with Mr. Lalusha (Medical Officer) for our first AIDS education session. Mr. Lalusha for obvious reasons of his experience volunteered to carry out the first education session whilst I stood by as an observer, though his main mission was to carry out VCT.
When I looked at the inmates as I stood in front of them in the afternoon, I can confess that I have never spoken to a more attentive audience. Most of them looked frail from hunger, but despite this they were still very eager to learn.
We actually had problems in our first sessions in trying to convince the inmates that the program was ongoing as all of them where enthusiastic to come in at once, as none of them wanted to miss out on this one in a prison time experience. With the help of the prison chaplain we managed to divide them into 20 groups and hence conduct 2 sessions a week with 50 inmates per session. At the same time as the AIDS education sessions where going on the Medical officer was also carrying out VCT. Unlike the outside world, the response to VCT in prison was so overwhelming that at first we thought maybe they are just excited and would soon back out. But even after presenting and emphasizing the possible negative effects of VCT the inmates where still ready to go ahead. We further informed these prisoners that we had no medicine to offer but just the ability for them to know their statuses. The result of all this was the eager want for VCT from the prisoners.
After my first education session I should admit that I have never felt so good about something I have attained as I felt that first day of my project, their is indeed true happiness in serving others. I think Freddie understood that concept better and so did the funders of ARISE. The education session went on well with inmates contributing and asking a lot of questions. The environment was relaxed and conducive for learning, no rough prison guards to intimidate the inmates where around, this was ensured with the courtesy of the officer in charge. With time we managed to finish all the male groups and just had one meeting with the female section. However we had to return to the female section because we had left some questions hanging, which needed the expertise of the doctor.
The most disturbing part of at the women’s section was the presence of children, who live with their mothers in prison. We are still yet to inquire what human rights implication that is .We however aren’t to dwell on this as it isn’t one of our objectives. Our focus in future maybe will be the risks these children in terms of HIV infection they are exposed to.
The peer counseling training handled by Rashida Bobb and Charles Lalusha was not only successful but also much appreciated by the inmates. About 5 months in the project, I had a different perception about the prisons, especially after having personal conversations with the inmates, despite the crimes they may have committed, the bottom line is “they are people” and like everybody else they need love. Far from what they are portrayed they are not rough barbaric animals from the moon, but some are our brothers, sisters and friends who have made mistakes in life, but despite this they are still a part of us, the human race!!!!
At the conclusion of the project we handed in reports to the government and Camp Rising Sun, but I would like to conclude that though a lot of work is being done in the field of HIV/AIDS, prisons are far from well served, and all well meaning organizations need to remember this neglected section of Society.