Last week the newest Malawi Bail Project activities started to take shape – over five days the dusty courtyard at the back of the Chreaa offices became full with song, stomping and stories. The group of 12 ex-prisoners who used to be in the Chichiri Performing Arts group met to develop a play about bail in Malawi. Each day would begin with songs and games we learnt while working together in prison, the same rituals but now outside with no prison uniforms or jangling keys to signify the 3pm lock up time.
Over the week we familiarised ourselves with the procedures and challenges of applying for bail in Malawi, and Chreaa’s Victor Mhango took time out to share with us the recorded information they provide in police stations and to answer questions. One of the best days was spent at Chichiri Prison with the members of the current Performing Arts group. There are 25 members and together with the outside group and facilitators this made for a massive circle of people when opening and closing the workshop, and an epic game of Chipako cha Njoca (Snake Tag)! This workshop was about sharing stories about bail. People paired off and quietly discussed with each other their experiences – everyone had a story. Many had applied for bail and been unsuccessful, not knowing when to ask or what to say in court, some had been granted but whose family couldn’t afford it, others hadn’t known about bail at all until it was too late.
These stories formed the basis of our play which follows the stories of four men arrested after stealing a car. The play sees each one of them face challenges relating to bail including corruption in the police system and lack of knowledge as well as showing the impact this has on families left behind. The direct experience each group has had of arrest, trial and imprisonment means the play is deeply personal to everyone – particularly the end scene where all four men spend their first night in Chichiri Prison and realise the conditions they will be living in for their sentences.
We took the play back to Chichiri to show the other group, who watched and cheered as their friends performed, loudly answering the questions of the facilitators (also ex-prisoners) who interject throughout the play to talk about what is going on, ask the audience questions and get them onstage to try out solutions. This Friday we will be performing the play at Chichiri Prison – approximately 1900 inmates – a lot of whom may know something about bail but many who won’t and may even be in Chichiri through lack of knowledge. Statistically this group is very at risk of re-offending, so these are some of the key people for this project to target. For the group performing, it will be exciting and emotional to perform as free men within the walls they served years of hard labour. We will be there to record this moment and posting updates as we do!
Photos courtesy of Arjen van der Merwe