How A Pastime Becomes A Survival Mechanism

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Jorge is a Venezuelan prisoner currently imprisoned at the Prison Civile de Lome in Togo.  He has been imprisoned for 5 years but only recently received his sentence.   He was accused of trafficking drugs.  He claims that it was a suitcase of merchandise for a man he met who agreed to pay him money to help pay for his sick daughter’s operation.  Whatever the story and whatever the truth, it is Jorge and not his young daughter who is now fighting for survival, wondering each day if he will ever see his beautiful family again.

Thrown together like animals

The Prison Civile de Lome is crammed full of inmates, who are not separated by degree, but instead thrown in together like animals in a tiny pen, or like cows, sheep, goats, foxes, deer and bunny rabbits all in the same room.  Believe it or not, there are bunny rabbits as well as foxes and tigers in prisons.  Sometimes, they eat one another.

In the west, prisoners would be segregated according to the severity of their crime, and would sleep in a cell of 1-2 people.  Here, there are 80+  ‘thrown in’ together. The criminal population simply overloads the capacity of the prison built to house it.

Much of that criminal population speaks another language and finds it hard to understand what is happening as the legal language is French and the local language is Ewe.  Without a knowledge of one of those languages, prisoners simply feel abandoned (often replicating experiences in earlier life).

 

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Jorge was already accustomed to living as part of a ‘community.’  He was from a poor family in the Venezuelan countryside and is the sixth in a line of six siblings.  He was treated well by his brothers, who used to take him up in the mountains to explore nature and to learn about different ways of using plants, trees, flowers, stones, sheeps wool, llama fur and more to make products to sell one day.  His parents built their own small handicraft business and taught him more.  He enjoyed helping out, but he never thought his life would depend on it.

Fast forward twenty years and there he is, with his own family now, his third child and only daughter sick, with some sort of fever after being bitten by a stray dog wandering through the ramshackle homes of his village.  He sells everything he owns apart from the roof over his head, and at the edge of complete despair, agrees to transport a suitcase.

What did Jorge know?

Is it a lack of education?  Is it the fact he didn’t know about drugs and drug trafficking, or that he did know what he was doing, but wasn’t aware of the terrible impact that drugs have on the lives of so many people?   After all, he never took drugs himself, and certainly wouldn’t want any of his children to do so.

Perhaps he was complicit and well aware of the impact of his actions.  But it has to be said; background, childhood, upbringing and life experiences all lead us to where we end up in life. They are akin to waymarkers along the journey.  If they were not there at all, we’d take a different route.

Some travellers on the path of life are luckier than others.  Some fight their own injustices, whereas others accept them, believing that they’re just worth less than other people are worth, and that they simply need to do certain things just to stay alive, even if they don’t want to do them.

An unexpected visitor

Thrown into the jail in Lomé after having all of his belongings confiscated apart from the shirt on his back and a pair of old linen trousers, Jorge found himself surrounded by 79 African men, from Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, and Togo itself, none of whom spoke his language – just like the “interpreter” he had been provided with (at cost).

He spent his days slowly festering, unaware of how he was going to pay for the various expenses a prisoner incurs each day just to be given the privilege to wash, eat something, and lie down without being suffocated.  He realised that his life meant nothing anymore.  If he could never see his family again, what was the point of anything?

Miracles do happen

One day, miraculously, a volunteer from an overseas charity came to the prison and began to teach some of the inmates to make artisan goods.  Jorge heard about it and fought to be given a chance.  His voice was finally heard (in spite of the language barrier) and he became one of the few men who are allowed out into the open yard each day to work on making products to sell.

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His only usual customers are inside of the prison.  They pay a minimal amount for his work – usually buying bracelets for a euro, to wear as a reminder of their struggle…but to Jorge, it’s worth it just to get out of the yard and away from the noise, the violence, the pushing and shoving and the mental and physical illnesses creeping like black ivy into the cells.

Thinking of the future

Being outside of the busy yard, Jorge was soon spotted by one of our therapists.  When he saw the new face, he smiled, and his smile held a mountain of hope.

He embarked on some therapy sessions with our volunteer.  They helped him to think about himself and his life, how he had ended up there, and what he needed to change about himself to ensure a better future.  He learnt how to self reflect and how to communicate better with others, as well as understanding that he needed a strategic plan for his products if he was going to create any kind of income upon leaving prison.

Jorge was mainly worried about how he would get home to South America after his release.  He began to work hard on new designs and new products, learning from the Togolese locals how to make things from materials other than those to which he was accustomed back home.

The men out in the artisan area have managed to build some element of community, and trust, despite their very different circumstances, sentences, characters, languages, nationalities mentalities and ways of coping.

Being busy DOING something keeps them sane.  It gives them hope.  It enables them to use their skills to do something useful and to provide something that others will enjoy.  It’s a way of feeling more positive, even if only for 5 hours a day.

Amber Shop Galway

Recently, the Amber store in Galway offered to stock some of Jorge’s products, as well as those of other prisoners.  We hope that people will buy the purses in the knowledge that every day, all over the world, people make mistakes, but it is in helping people to understand, work through and move past those mistakes that we change society.

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