Mbeya (Tanzania): The Community’s service in a juvenile prison opens the way to liberation and reconciliation 14 april 2010
Mbeya is a city with several hundred thousand inhabitants, located in the extreme southwest corner of Tanzania, not far from its borders with Zambia and Malawi.
It is a city that is scattered and stretched along the sides of the main road which connects the large mining fields of Katanga and northern Zambia to the Indian Ocean, to Dar es Salaam as its port.
It is a growing city where, thanks to cross-border trade and non-stop car and truck traffic, a bit of cash has begun to circulate.
The myth of wealth fascinates Mbeya’s citizens, just like it does many other Tanzanians, to the point that it has become a value in itself which wipes out solidarity, even with those connected by a common family bond.
Our brothers in the small community in Mbeya have recently noticed this. They who three years ago began service in the temporary juvenile prison (a male prison, not big, with between 10 and 30 inmates) which is near the city center, in Soweto.
Here the young prisoners awaiting to go to the court are visited once or twice a month by the Community.
It is a visit that means they might have something extra to eat, soap, clothes, friends to pray with and to whom they can explain what happened, the reasons why they ended up in prison. It was from these young mens’ stories that the inconsistencies of what they were accused of became clear; and at the same time, the fact that the accusations arose from the accusers’ desire to get rich quick at the young mens’ expense.
At least half of the young men in prison were newly orphaned by both parents and had been accused by other close family members for rather meaningless reasons in the hope that these family members would, after the prisoner’s conviction, inherit the goods (maybe some money but more so their homes) that had been left to the children of these deceased.
For some of these young prisoners, their period of detainment has already been long (up to a year) and painful, considering that which had sent them to prison, the sense of injustice and betrayal which went along with it.
The Community in Mbeya decided to act in the defense of these minors’ rights, with patience and tenacity, seeking to follow a path of justice and reconciliation.
Wherever possible, those in the community spoke first with guards and custodians and juvenile judges, and then with the families of those arrested, particularly those who had brought the accusations against them, to try to convince them to withdraw the accusations.It was a delicate effort which sought to avoid further grudges, revenge or retaliation, and which, fortunately, was successful in a number of cases.
So far nine young friends of the Mbeya Community have been released from prison because of the withdrawal of the accusations which had been brought against them.
With nearly all of them, the friendship which began in prison continued even after their liberation, with a sense of an extended family to which the bond, which is born of the Gospel, is stronger than any personal individual interest.
And it is beautiful to see some of these ex-prisoners going along when the community goes on its visits to the Soweto prison.
It is now these ex-prisoners, whose story is one of liberation and hope, who go to visit the youth who are waiting for judgment, who go to help them and encourage them to have faith in the future.