Visit by Susan Mahony of Career Development Group
By Susan Mahony
27 October 2010
In September 2010 Susan Mahony visited APP as the recipient of the Career Development Group International Bursary. Susan wrote the following report for ‘Impact’, the professional journal of the Career Development Group.
Entebbe airport must rank amongst the most beautiful locations to land in the world. As you descend the plane circles Lake Victoria and the impressive scale of Africa’s scenery impacts immediately upon you. My whole trip was similarly impactful. We were welcomed at Entebbe by Jonathan a member of the African Prison Project (APP) team, and then travelled though Kampala, stopping at the Ministry to gain permission letters, towards the APP office / guest house.
Kampala bustles with traffic - taxis (minibuses), boda boda (motorbike taxis), special hires (taxis) and private vehicles. The centre and arterial roads are a commercial conglomeration of high rise luxury buildings, market shacks and street upon street of small workshops and businesses. The APP office in Luzira District is in a mixed area close to the biggest prison in Uganda. Here we were welcomed to a peaceful compound, from which to the east you see Lake Victoria and to the west the prisons, a visible symbol of the contrasts that the project contends with.
Alexander McLean, the director of the programme, would be joining us in the second week and so during the first 10 days we familiarised ourselves with the project and we accompanied the librarian, Glorias Asimwe to her normal work. Glorias is a qualified librarian trained at Makere University. She is the only prison librarian in the country and took up the post as a newly qualified graduate. She has had to develop the work for herself with no model to which she can work. APP has developed a library in the remand centre, which Glorias has set up and catalogued, but most of her work is in the literacy classes and reading groups. She runs groups in the remand centre, Murchison Bay prison, Luzira women’s prison, Luzira Upper men’s prison and on the condemned wing of Upper prison, as well as at prisons in Entebbe. She takes public transport (minibuses or motorbikes) to the prisons and runs consecutive groups throughout each day. Negotiating the relationships which have enabled her to be accepted by both staff and inmates has been a skilful and demanding process, but one which has paid off as she has set up a programme of reading and discussion groups that are welcomed by both. The groups are operated in English, the lingua franca in Uganda, but many of the inmates do not read English. Nonetheless they seem to be extremely popular as a means for prisoners to advance themselves, as many have not even Primary education, so in the basic literacy group at Upper prison there are up to 90 prisoner members.
At each location APP has a book box from which inmates select their own books, but in addition each week Glorias provides a book for the basic literacy groups to read and which they discuss the following week. The groups face enormous obstacles as there are limited numbers of appropriate titles of the right level of literacy that are relevant to group members; co-ordinating homework reading is difficult as well. In addition, Glorias has never been trained in adult literacy work and so part of our contribution was to propose different ideas for these group activities. Some of the most memorable moments of my trip took place during these groups. The legal system in Uganda differs slightly to UK as there are more community sentences here, so prisoners in UK often hold more serious offenders. Also people go to prison for different categories of offence in Uganda (for example debt) and there are lengthy remands since the court process is slow. Living conditions can be difficult, although provision of the single meal a day the prison offers is more than some living in poverty in the community can be assured of. However, prisoners are frequently severed from their communities, as transport costs can make it impossible for people to travel to the prison from remote areas. Prisoners possess very little and are lucky to have an exercise book or a pen. It is hard to imagine the mental resilience needed to cope with so little status or control. Motivation to learn and attend classes is high though and prisoners both teach and avidly attend education classes. So provision of APP books and a chance to discuss their ideas with someone outside of the prison is a significant event in the week. I have never seen such animated reading groups as those I attended at Luzira, particularly on the condemned wing where they discussed books they read with passion, compassion, dignity, humour, insight and reflection that I had neither expected, nor expect to hear again. Without passing judgement on their crimes, APP has clearly helped these men as they confront their personal circumstances.
The women prisoners confront different issues, particularly as they are separated from their children and see them only on Sundays. The project has received donations of thousands of books, but many have limited relevance and need sorting. I took some old soft toys donated by my children, so we retrieved children’s books to match for the baby box APP provides to foster mother/baby activities. We also took them to the Day Centre that looks after the children during the week.
APP also supports health, legal and reintegration projects. It sees libraries at the heart of its activities as centres for legal, health, education and civil rights information as well as a resource to foster human dignity within the prison. APP now plans to expand to provide mobile libraries and improve services it provides currently. As time was short, I am now continuing work with them on a Collection Development policy that embraces both current work and the planned developments.
Personally I made some very good friends, learnt a lot about Uganda, and about librarianship in a very different context. On a human level the sincerity and vision of APP staff and their results are abundantly clear. The Career Development Group should be justifiably proud of its support to international efforts such as these.
Maria Cotera, APP’s Education Advisor, accompanied Sue Mahony on her trip. Maria has supported APP since 2007, offering advice and expertise which comes from many years working as a librarian in a variety of contexts. Our strong ties to CILIP - The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, is thanks to Maria, one of CILIP’s active members. We thank them for the support with developing our pioneering education projects which they have offered over the years.