I had never stepped foot in to an African prison before. Why would you honestly? I’m not talking about a historically important empty prison that would be an odd tourist destination. I’m talking about a fully functional Congolese prison. Before I went I was told there were around 250 men and less than 10 women. Shivers ran through my body. I left all my belongings in the car and a group of 10 of us stepped in to the prison building. There were chickens running everywhere and non uniformed prison guards sitting in a hut. They led us in through two big barred doors and before I knew it I was standing in an African prison. It was an open square area, probably about half the size of a tennis court with 250 grown men sitting cross-legged on the floor; all eyes on us. They were silent. The guards were clearly visible as they were the men standing up with sticks in their hands. I was intimidated and wanted to go home. I prayed and reminded myself why I came. To share Gods love with those men, to show them that they are worthy human beings loved by the God that created the entire universe.
We then had to introduce ourselves. We went one by one, some spoke in French and some spoke in English and the translator stepped in when needed. As they started I looked around and took in the surroundings. Desperate. Dirty. Small. Scary.
I had just spent two weeks living off ship and had learnt some of the local language. Each day it was normal to greet people in their language and not French. So I opened my mouth and introduced my self using the little Kituba I had learnt. I was startled by an almighty wave of shouting and yelling, at first I thought I was in trouble, my mind ran away with what could happen next, but then I realised everyone was laughing and smiling and shouting back at me in kituba. They cheered because it was an unexpected acknowledgement of their culture, their heritage and their identity. Thousands of people have died in the Congo in the recent wars due to the languages they speak as this denotes their tribe. Language was a matter of life or death. I didn’t no that a the time but now I do. I know that saying hello in a local language rather than presuming they speak French means so much more than just hello it means I see who you are, you are Congolese!
I was relived and so carried on, breaking in-between each word for clapping and cheering and my own nervous laughter. The ice was officially broken and I was shaking.
One of the volunteers shared the message from the Bible and then we sang and danced. Afterwards I spoke to several of the men about their prison sentences, their families that they missed greatly and what jobs they had before they were imprisoned. One particular young man wanted to speak to me. At first he would not look me in the eye. He covered his face with is hand and he looked so guarded. We spoke for a while and then he disappeared to one of the dark and dismal looking cells. He returned with a bracelet that he had made out of colourful fishing net. I told him I had no money and I was not allowed to bring him anything to repay him. He said he was aware of that and it was just a gift because he was so glad that I had come to visit him. I was touched and astonished at the beautiful symbol of friendship and kindness. This was not what I expected and I felt guilty for how I had judged that building and those men through my preconceived ideas. He just wanted to be seen, to be known, to be recognised as a human.
As he spoke his eyes started to light up. He asked me to pray with him. I did. Whilst I was praying one of the men grabbed my shoulder and shouted
“Quick your friends are leaving!!”
I looked around and the gates had been shut and my group had left. I was standing amongst 250 Congolese prisioners, the only white girl and I hadn’t even realised that everyone had gone. I was comfortable and I didn’t want to leave yet, I wasn’t done …. an unexpected ending! I have continually been surprised and humbled by the kindness of the people in this country. I have learnt that acts of friendship here are evident in every corner and that God is at work.
Prison Ministry. Pointe Noire.