Why did I visit a Tanzanian Prison?
We looked at each other – we didn’t know we were supposed to bring it. We left it in our bags back at the school, together with our phones and cameras. None of it was allowed on a visit to a prison in Tanzania.
I was volunteering at Magereza Nursery School, in Moshi. The school is located inside the Magereza prison quarters and it offers free classes to the children of guards and prisoners, as well as to the children that live in the village in front of the prison.
One of the boys in my class, Joshua, lives with his jailed mum since he was born. In fact he has been living in prison since she was 5 months pregnant with him. When he turns 3 years old, he is going to move in with his dad, which is happening in 2 months. By doing so, he will move to a Maasai village located over 2 hours away on a dala dala (slow local bus).
With the likelihood that she won’t see her son for a while, I had the idea of giving her a little gift: a A4 page printed with photos of her son, that I took while at school.
So instead of waiting for a guard to pick up Joshua from school, this time we are bringing him ourselves, accompanied by the teacher. When we reached the prison reception, located in a separate building in front of the male prison, the teacher discusses in Swahili the passport issue. The guard continues very serious and looks at me and my friend. “Your name?” “Andreia Leite”, I watched him writing the spelling wrong. “Your nationality?” “Portuguese.” “Ureno?!” “Yes” – that’s Swahili for ‘Portugal’.
“Okay, you can go in.”
The lack of passport wasn’t an issue after all. Probably because the teacher was escorting us and I found out later she is also a Prison Guard.
Besides the photo, we carried supplies to offer to the prisoners (it is good manners to take something useful when visiting someone in prison), so we bought the longest soap bar I have ever seen and 2 kg of sugar (as we were advised to bring).
We followed a female guard, who led us to the female prison. We stood in front of a heavy thick door, while she searched for the keys. As we stepped in, we found ourselves in a hall facing the metal bars that separated us from the courtyard where all the female prisoners are living. I didn’t expect this setting at all. Somehow, I imagined that we would be taken in a labyrinth of corridors, with different levels of security and body screens and belongings searched, until we would be allocated a room to meet the mother of Joshua.
Instead I found myself looking at everything this prison has. In the hall there was a door to the left where a lady that appeared to be the cook was standing. On the right wall there was a board with a table drawn with words and numbers, 59, 12, 47. I couldn’t work out the meaning of it. One of the Guards explained that 59 is the total number of women locked in these premises. 12 are the number of convicts and 47 are the number of detained. Somehow the numbers shocked me, prisoners in Tanzania appear to have a long wait until the final court hearing.
The courtyard had very little shade, in the middle kangas and skirts are placed on the floor to dry, covering the central part of it. Around the courtyard there are 12 cells that appeared too small to accommodate 5-6 women each. The doors were locked, so all the 59 women were outside, some sitting in the little shade against the cells, some standing in the far left corner (the medical corner as I was told). No one appeared to be doing anything but napping or chatting away. But now, they were curious and a few heads turned to the hall, to see who were the visitors, us. There was also another child living here, from another women. He was just about 1 year old, too young to attend nursery school, I thought as sad as it is, it would be nice for Joshua to have another kid to play around.
One of the Guards calls for Joshua’s mother.
She is tall, has very short hair and face scars: 3 small straight lines on each side of her chicks, an aesthetic ritual practiced among the Maasai, done with a knife.
Like the other women in Tanzania, on top of a t-shirt, she wears a Kanga wrapped around her chest, that falls long pass her knees. As she approaches the metal bars, Joshua mumbles “mama” with his lollipop still in his mouth.
She didn’t speak any English but with the teacher translating, we told her some stories about Joshua at school and then we gave her the photo. She was delighted with this. I could see the shine in her eyes and no words were needed to translate the happiness she was feeling to have photos of her youngest son.
When we showed Joshua his own photos, he promptly started kissing his own face. Not sure if he understood the boy on the photos was himself, but it made everybody melt.
Joshua has 6 siblings, all girls, living at home with his dad. Joshua’s mum is still waiting a court hearing and a sentence. 3 years have passed and she still doesn’t know how much longer she will have to be here.
After we left, I couldn’t stop smiling. For that day, I witnessed someone’s happiness with the smallest of gestures. How much a photo of a loved one means to a person. The solidification of a memory into a picture, that neither time nor distance will stop her from travelling back to the time when Joshua was 2 years old, spreading his young charm around school.
Probably I will never see them again, but I will always remember them and hope that life will treat them nicely, that she may be granted freedom soon to enjoy life in each other’s company.