International Ministries

Together, We Make a Difference

Bringing Comfort to Women in Prison

Together, We Make a Difference

It all began on August 13, 2012, with a simple e-mail from Gladys Viban, a Cameroonian U.S. Embassy staff member who knows about my passion for ministering to prisoners of the Kondengui Central Prison in Yaounde, Cameroon. The e-mail read:

“My dear sis,
I just wanted to let you know that I have two boxes of things for the prison ministry donated by some Americans here at the Embassy. They are also looking into the possibility of buying some gifts for the children whose parents are in the prison…"

Being in prison can be very hard. It has been said that deprivation of liberty remains a difficult, controversial and sensitive subject because it involves many parameters that affect the physical, mental and social life of a prisoner. Imprisonment of women, for example, has an enormous impact upon children, since the vast majority of imprisoned women are mothers who, in Cameroon, are the sole caregivers and nurturers of children.

For imprisoned mothers in particular, one of the greatest punishments incarceration brings is separation from their children. When some of the female prisoners talk about what is most difficult to deal with, most of them speak of the loneliness and the separation from their children. These children fall into three categories: those who are separated from their mother when she is imprisoned, those who go to prison with their mother, and those born while she is a prisoner and later taken away from her by the family.

On September 5, 1997, Cameroon ratified the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, and on June 23, 1999, all the ratification instruments were submitted to the African Union (OAU/AU). In Cameroon, the adoption of the convention has led to the re-evaluation of many aspects of children’s lives from a child’s rights perspective, including raising awareness about the situation of babies and young children in prison with their mothers. There is now greater consideration of the problems and dilemmas raised. Neither separating babies from their mothers nor imprisoning them with their mother is desirable, but the lesser of the two evils seems to be discharging the children into their immediate families after weaning them from breast milk. This is now being introduced into the Kondengui Central Prison.

I had the rare opportunity to partner with U.S. Embassy Cameroon staff to bring some joy and relief to the female inmates at the Kondengui Central Prison in Yaounde, Cameroon, as well as to their families. This prison, like almost all Cameroon prisons, operates a mixed sex system with designated sectors. The female prisoners are assigned to the cordoned-off sector five, which is the size of half a handball pitch and houses a maximum of 120 women.

While I don’t ignore the needs of male and juvenile prisoners in my ministry, the focus of this visit was women and their children, helping them maintain family ties, even if only for one day. The rights of children of women who are imprisoned were also an important consideration. The majority of children came in for that day, accompanied by fathers, husbands and other relatives.

Toys for Tots

Soon after my first e-mail exchange with Gladys Viban, the Community Liaison Office Coordinator at the embassy, Dawn McKeever, wrote to me about a program called Toys for Tots:

Dear Catherine,
Every year at Christmastime the U.S. Marines ask their communities to donate toys for needy children. This has been going on for as long as I can remember … The program is called Toys For Tots.”

Toys for Tots, said to be founded in 1947 by reservist Major Bill Hendricks, distributes toys to children whose parents cannot afford to buy them gifts for Christmas.

Dawn continued:

“Here in Cameroon, the U.S. Marines ask the U.S. Embassy to donate toys, and usually an orphanage is chosen to receive the toys. I think it would be wonderful if this year we could donate some toys to the children of women in prison.

…. We need a list of the children’s names and their ages or birthdates. In this way we would be able to prepare and be sure to have enough toys so that each child would receive a toy.”

I eagerly set about compiling the list according to the specifications given. This took me until December 2012, with the week leading up to the event characterized by a frantic sense of urgency to update the list with the names of newly arrived inmates and their children, to ensure that no one would be disappointed on this special day — December 22, 2012. In our preparations, Dawn and I were so consumed by our enthusiasm that we did not discuss the age limit of the children. The first list I compiled had over 300 names! Caught between frantic e-mails from Dawn for updates on those released and new arrivals, and the slow pace of response from the community leaders I was working with, I visited the facility every working day and sometimes several times a day in that last week. We pulled it off by reducing the age limit and finally were able to include 274 children in the celebration. The atmosphere was festive, with the children brought in by relatives and fathers, all of whom dressed up for the event. There were extra smiles, kind words, unexpected joy, hope and encouragement that day.

The Joy of Christmas

Christmas is a time when people spend quality time with family and friends. It is a joyous time for many, but what about the less fortunate ones in prison who are in need and have children? Those poor children are often left without even the things they need for their daily lives, let alone toys. They fall through the cracks of society, never experiencing the joy of Christmas celebration. These inmates and their children do not have the luxury of being able to do the simple things other families take for granted at Christmas.

Donating toys for children whose mothers are in prison made a difference on a wonderful morning in December in the Central Prison of Kondengui. The gifts brought smiles to both the mothers and children, who would not have had a Christmas celebration without the generous donations that came from U.S. Marines and embassy staff.

This action assured the inmates and their families that God is always near us. The influence of God’s love spreads in the world through the hands and hearts of people like the Marines and the embassy workers. This was an example of Love in Action, a most effective way of witnessing. Everyone involved brought pleasure by simply carrying out a deed in which they invested love, concern, attention and diligence. They applied God’s principles in our lives and allowed God’s grace to be revealed in and through their selfless giving.

As we live the truth from God’s word, our lives can shine with substance and lasting value. Each day, God uses people to help those who need their spirits lifted through words and acts of encouragement to make a positive difference in another person’s day. That is what the U.S. Embassy Cameroon staff and the Marines did. When they ran out of donated toys because the numbers were overwhelming, they chipped in their personal resources. They sacrificed their time and financial resources. Their action truly delivered a message to the prisoners that there is hope and that inmates are people.

Practical Work

It may come as a surprise to some people that even though ministering to prisoners is a Christian faith-based activity, a great deal of my work with prisoners is not solely spiritual, but practical. For one, I find myself thinking of their physical needs all the time — toiletries, food and so non. The second reason is that I have discovered that no one is as deeply spiritual, prayerful, a great preacher and as well versed in the Bible as a prisoner.

I have the hope in me that the Lord will continue to make a way for us to continue to be bearers of comfort and peace to inmates and their children. I trust first in the Lord to continue to supply the needs of this ministry and pray that God will continue to send people and the finances that are necessary to keep this ministry going. Without the 2012 Toys for Tots program, we would not have been able to do what God has called us to do — make a difference in someone’s life.

Background to Ministry

Ministering to prisoners was not part of my original portfolio as a Regional Missionary.

Yet eight years into my mission and ministry, I felt a strong need to contribute to my immediate community in Cameroon. After consulting with my liaison officer, I set about obtaining the necessary permission that enables me engage in this work of faith to which Jesus calls all of us when he says: “I was in prison, and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25, 36). I saw this ministry as a response in the form of concrete action to Jesus’ words. The aim is to provide practical assistance to those who are lonely, vulnerable, downtrodden, suffer emotional and material deprivation, and are in dire need.

The ministry started in earnest in January 2008 when I received my “Authorisation d’Access.” I made a thorough assessment of the nature of the problems faced in Cameroon prisons, to be used as a road map and critical first step to understanding the issues. I discovered that the major problems encountered in the Kondengui Central Prison in Yaounde are the particularly harsh conditions of detention, including acute overcrowding, lack of beds, blankets and adequate bathrooms, poor quality and inadequate quantity of prisoners’ diet resulting in the prisoners’ perpetual state of hunger, bad hygienic conditions, insufficient medical care, and the archaic nature of the prison buildings, which were built during the colonial era. This initial needs assessment became the critical driving force that inspired me to respond to prisoners’ real and not assumed needs.

I also searched the Internet to educate myself on ministering to prisoners and discovered that there are many types of ministries within the “prison ministry” — evangelism and witness, discipleship, group ministry, individual inmates seeking special attention, family support and post-prison worries. There is simply not enough time for one person to meet all these needs effectively. This led to bringing in the women of the World Day of Prayer, adding an ecumenical angle as well as lightening the emotional burden and energizing the outreach.

It is said that the moral test of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. All people, even prisoners, have a fundamental right to the things necessary for human decency. Ministering to prisoners brings healing through the gospel message of love, justice and peace to the suffering. It is a reflection of the church’s social mission and Christian tradition as rooted in biblical values — for the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and needy.

Dr. Catherine Mudime Akale is a United Methodist Women’s Regional Missionary assigned to International Ministries with Women, Children and Youth. The base for ministry with United Methodist Women in Africa is in Yaounde, Cameroon, where she has served since July 2001.

Posted or updated: 5/29/2014 11:00:00 PM
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