This week in an outbuilding of Chichiri Prison, a very special meeting happened. The Chichiri Drama group, a 25 strong team of actors, dancers and musician inmates gathered where they usually rehearse in the shadow of the walls surrounding the prison. They sat and waited for thirty minutes or so, as one by one other men joined us – some wearing their best suits, others sunglasses and headphones, others arriving on bikes. Each new person arriving was greeted with excitement and warmth, loud cheers, hand claps and smiles – these are the previous members of the group, who were released and now coming back to Chichiri.
It was an emotional meeting, some of the men had not seen each other since they were released years ago and strong friendships which were forged in prison had fallen by the wayside as the business of surviving in the outside world took over. It was moving also, to see those we used to know only in the white prison uniform now wearing their own clothes – in whatever condition, people you might see in the street, on the bus seemingly standing taller than I remember. After greetings and hugs and handshakes were exchanged, we started our meeting.
Even though the majority of the original group are now out of prison, the new members have kept the old traditions. Although this was a formal meeting, we began with a prayer and then games – 35 men playing together the games they had learnt inside. Then we sat down and Max, an ex-group member who is now leading the Malawi Bail Project partnership, asked those who had been released to share their experiences with the group. One by one they stood up and narrated hardships: family turning their backs on them, the daily struggle to survive, being targeted by police because you are recently released – but they also told stories of the pleasures of freedom – no one to lock you in at night, some have married, some have travelled, some have had children.
As a group there is an understanding of the risks of the outside world, indeed some original group members were released, re-offended and are now back performing with the group inside the prison. This is part of what the partnership with Malawi Bail Project is hoping to change. Last year, the prison group spent half a day designing what their ideal project would look like to support them coming out of prison. Max to welcome them when they are released, support of other members, and most importantly, something to DO – to keep them busy while they get back on their feet. This is what is starting with the partnership (minus the office with the swimming pool which was also requested!) Over the next few weeks we will keep you in touch as the project progresses – but for now there are nine ex prisoners waiting to come to Blantyre to devise a play about bail in Malawi, and a group of prisoners in Chichiri who perhaps have a little more to look forward to when coming out, than they did before.
To donate to the Chichiri Drama Group please follow this link – http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/malawi-bail-project/?