Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Spending the night in a Ugandan Prison

Spending the night in a Ugandan prison… It didn’t sound so bad until I heard more about what it entailed. We have a young girl at the project who is in Primary 6 (6th grade) who will be doing exactly that tonight. And I can’t feel more empathy for her. As if the general conditions weren’t bad enough for most people living in the third world, a night in prison must be horrific. First, I’m told, they are all in one room. The women, if you can call a 13 year old that, have their separate room from the men. They don’t have individual cells, just one room like they did in America in the colonial era. They also aren’t given beds. Just a cold, concrete floor to sleep on (which I can’t imagine there’ll be much of that). Often they are instructed to remove their shirt to prevent them from sleeping on it as a mat or a pillow. There’s a bucket in the corner to use as a chamber pot if necessary. Sometimes the ‘newbies’ are required to empty and clean it the next morning. There may only be around 10 other women in there but I’m told they’ll rough her up, slap her around a bit (especially if she starts to fall asleep), interrogate her to find out exactly why she’s there and then to also show her who’s in charge. There’s usually an inmate they call a ‘prime minister’ who is chief inmate and she’s in charge once the guards have left. If she’s given a meal tonight it’ll consist of posho and beans, which is a common meal, favored by many including myself, so that’s not so bad I guess.

Let me back up and tell you how this all began. This morning started out like any other morning. I slept in because I was exhausted from a 15 mile run yesterday. When I got to work Japheth, my supervisor, asked me if I wanted to go along in search of Sarah (name changed), one of the Compassion girls who had run away from home 3 months ago but her whereabouts had been discovered recently. We left, with the girl’s mother and 4 month old baby sister in a special hire vehicle and headed DEEP into the village. We traveled down dirt roads for around 3 hours towards the Tanzania/Rwanda border where I’m sure no white people had been for quite some time, if ever. Fortunately for me I was in the back seat and the windows had a heavy tint to them so people couldn’t stare right at me but I could see them rather plainly. We were in a Toyota Corolla but should have been in a 4x4 Land Rover. We were crossing every kind of terrain imaginable. Roads here often have deep, deep ruts in them caused by water washing over them. We got stuck in a swampy area that we shouldn’t have even attempted to cross in the first place. Japheth winded up covered in mud from the tire spinning and splashing mud all over his shirt as we attempted to push it through a rough spot. A Good Samaritan helped us here by fetching a machete and using it as a shovel to dislodge the dirt piled under the car and then to fill in some muddy areas in which to cross. We somehow climbed some beautiful mountains (we literally were pushing the car up these steep roads at some points) and drove along a picturesque mountain ridge with beautiful, lush valleys hundreds of feet below us. The vegetation here was so green and beautiful with the rich Ugandan soils. We passed banana plantations, corn, sunflower, potato and sorghum fields. The ‘Mukiga’ (pronounced moo-CHEE-gah) people here love to dig, Japheth explains to me.

After a very long drive and asking several people for directions (these roads aren’t exactly marked or have names, you just ask people along the way where so-and-so lives and somehow they always seem to know) we pulled up in front of this small concrete house with beautiful yellow and red flowers growing in the front yard. It was in the middle of a banana plantation and several kids had run from a nearby village, following the car. I was instructed to keep my window up for the past several miles because people could see my whiteness from a distance (no joke) otherwise and spoil our attempt to catch this girl. If she knows we’re coming she’s likely to take off running through the banana plantation from which we’d never find her. Japheth got out first and went directly to the back of the house to catch her if she tried to run out that way. Meanwhile I moseyed up to the front door to wait. The family was out back. There were several children and 2 older women and a younger woman, but no sign of Sarah. They told us that she had in fact stayed there for a short time but wasn’t there any longer. I advised Japheth to search the 3 room house anyway, just to make sure. We did find an outfit that they said was hers but nothing more. The young woman who was there was apparently responsible for her being there in the first place. This woman, I was told, was known to be very promiscuous. “She wasn’t a ‘prostitute’ but she practiced prostitution” was how it was put to me and she had persuaded Sarah to quit school and stay with her in this house. This whole story up to this point we knew already, it wasn’t news to us. Sarah’s mother was visibly upset that she wasn’t there and it appeared (because I couldn’t understand what they were saying) that she was disgusted with what these people were telling her about Sarah’s whereabouts.

Eventually we discovered where Sarah was staying and convinced the young woman to travel with us to show us her whereabouts. We again hopped into our Corolla and proceeded to climb more mountains and various terrain to get to this other house. When we arrived Japheth had me sweep around the back of the house to see if she’d run (secretly I was hoping she would run just to test my tracking abilities). We found her here, staying with a relative of her mothers (a cousin or something). The woman said she’d only been here for a few days. I sat there in the sitting room as they discussed in another language what was going on. I just sat there looking concerned and interested though I was really looking outside at how nice the weather was and wishing the 8 kids outside would quit staring at me through the doorway. I looked at Sarah and could see her taking shortened breaths and I noticed that her pulse was racing, clearly concerned for what would happen next to her. Occasionally Japheth would ask me what I thought we should do now. We then decided to head back to town (we’d been traveling through the village now for 5 hours) to decide what to do with these 2 girls. (and there are now 6 of us in a 5-seater Corolla which does not include a middle seat in the front) We arrive back in town and talk to some of the other Compassion staff and decide to at least take these girls up to the police station to file a report charging this older girl for abducting Sarah (though it was more ‘influencing’ than abducting).

We arrive at the police station and all head back to an office in the back of the building, Sarah, her mother, this older girl, Japheth, myself and some totally random girl who just happened to be in the hallway at the time, along with 2 police officers. By this time it’s getting dark outside. This office looked more like a storage room with bundles and bundles of papers piled up on top of each other. They did have one filing cabinet which I’m sure was stuffed full. There were 2 desks in this room, actually 1 desk and a table at which the police officers sat. There was the usual political poster of the president, cabinet and state officers. Surprisingly enough it was for the year 2007. The police officers began to file this report doing all of the work by hand, just writing out all the details and sides of the different stories using blank pieces of paper. I glanced at the bundles of papers beside me and they were the same handwritten pieces of paper for who knows how many different cases of reports they had examined. The officers decided that it would be best to keep both these girls overnight to teach them both a lesson. Japheth and I will go there tomorrow morning and drop the charges on the older girl and have Sarah released.

Sarah is a Compassion child. She believes that she’s old enough at 13 to be on her own. She wants to get married, we think, and start her life, which would be fantastic for her to do in a few years, but she’s doing this by running away from home and abandoning her mother in the process. What she’s experiencing isn’t so different from any teenage girl, really, I guess. The need for independence. But she only has a 6th grader’s education and there’s reason to believe that she could be heading towards, if she hasn’t already, prostitution. If she could just finish one more year of school and then enroll in some type of vocational school to develop a marketable skill… she’d be better able to support herself and her future family. It’s difficult explaining that to her though. She thinks she has it all figured out already at 13. I guess she’ll have tonight to think about some things…


At 15 January, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


That was very well written! Keep up the great work. Do you think you will want to come home? ;-)



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