From Shame to Hope
Ministry among Africa’s inmates
Born into one of the world’s poorest countries, Ami left home to find work when she was 16. “Uneducated, naïve, and alone in a big city, she soon found herself pregnant,” says Becky, an Alliance Compassion and Mercy Associates (CAMA) team member serving in Mali, West Africa. “Fearing her father would kill her because of the shame she had brought on the family, Ami knew she couldn’t go home. Desperate, she tried to abandon her newborn but was caught and sentenced to five years in prison.”
Similar stories are often shared among Alliance team members serving on prison ministry teams in Burkina Faso, the Republic of the Congo, Senegal, and Mali. Poverty, illiteracy, and the searing effects of a shame-based culture are dominant themes in these narratives. “About 80 percent of young men in prison cannot read or write or speak French. They have had no education,” says Eric, an Alliance apprentice in northern Senegal, who works with teenaged male inmates. “Many [prisoners] are abandoned by their families because of the honor/shame culture, which is a huge factor.”
As in many prison systems in the developing world, Africa’s inmates depend upon extended family members to supplement their basic needs, including food, clothing, and medical care. “If inmates have caused a lot of shame to their families, they will struggle to eat, stay healthy, and feel loved and wanted because their families don’t want to be associated with them anymore,” Eric says. “In some cases, they don’t have a home to return to once they’re released.”
“When we began ministry in the women’s prison,” Becky says, “we thought we’d just be praying and teaching God’s Word, but we found many with stories similar to Ami’s. We soon realized we needed to care for their minds and bodies as well.”
Her team’s ministry approach characterizes each of the prison outreaches on which Alliance people in Africa serve.
Relationships are highly important in shame/honor cultures, and sharing gifts is a key to building trust. “Gifts have a subtle way of saying, ‘You are an important and worthy person!’” according to the organization HonorShame, which provides resources for majority-world ministry throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Barb, an Alliance international worker, follows this principle. Ten years ago she initiated a ministry to male inmates at the Brazzaville Central Prison in Congo. Her seven-member team, a diverse mix of local Alliance leaders and other Congolese believers, weekly takes items like soap and milk to the inmates, who are crammed into a facility built for 100 that now houses 500. The team also helps fill prescriptions for the ill. Local Alliance church members in Brazzaville regularly donate clothing.
In addition, 50 inmates attend a popular Bible correspondence course the team began. “We’ve distributed more than 1,500 Bibles over the years,” she says. “Up to 250 [prisoners] have received Christ.”
Donald is one of them. “Wherever Donald went, fights broke out,” Barb says. “After a particularly brutal round with a cellmate, he was bleeding from both ears because his eardrums had burst. Another inmate talked to him about the new life available through Jesus. Donald began attending our Friday service. Because he couldn’t read, we provided him a recording of the New Testament in his heart language, Lingala; after listening to it repeatedly, he accepted Christ.” Since his release, Donald has been attending a local Alliance church, where he ministers to troubled youth.
Visiting Senegal’s Forgotten
Eric began visiting youth imprisoned in northern Senegal with an elder from his church—Yoonu Njub (Way of Righteousness) Fellowship. “Besides us, there isn’t anyone who spends time with these guys to encourage and remind them that prison isn’t the end. One of the main reasons these young men are in prison is the lack of father/parental figures to care and provide for them,” he observes. “A big focus for us is trying to contact families and encouraging them to reestablish relationships with their sons.”
The team provides packets of hygiene supplies, shoes, and clothing to the inmates. They also bring the strong tea and peanuts the Senegalese have enjoyed in the afternoons since childhood. “I call it Senegalese comfort food,” says Lisa, an Alliance worker, and Eric’s teammate, who shares the same type of snacks with female inmates in the local prison. “Any money the women have is spent on necessities, so they really appreciate this little extra.”
She and two colleagues from Yoonu Njub Fellowship are also teaching the women bead weaving. “They like learning skills that earn them money,” Lisa says. “I know it is God’s heart to visit those in prison, so even on days when I’m not ‘feeling it,’ I see something of Him and His beauty in each visit.”
When the Alliance video team visited Dakar, Senegal, they met Diallo, a former inmate. “I was in prison for four years and 28 days,” Diallo said, choking back tears. “The only one who visited me was Mama Ndeye.”
Ndeye Diouf, a Christian lay worker and colleague of Alliance team members in the capital city, advocated for Diallo’s release when she learned the young woman had been jailed on false charges. “Families of inmates are ashamed or too fearful to intervene,” she told the video team. “I go to the judges to learn about a prisoner’s status and how I can lend a hand to expedite the case. This is a huge encouragement to them, knowing they haven’t been forgotten and their cases are proceeding.”
A Second Chance
Several years ago, U.S. Alliance Great Commission Women gave Ndeye a financial gift, enough to the lay the groundwork and begin building Breath of Life, a halfway house to help young women reintegrate into society. “Reintegration after prison is a huge problem in Senegal,” Ndeye said. “Former inmates are stigmatized—whether they’re guilty or not. A former inmate has a record, preventing him or her from obtaining employment and many basic needs. The breath of God within us gives new life; it is He who gives us hope, a second chance.”
An effective means to restore an inmate’s tarnished image in this cultural context is to provide him or her with educational opportunities or job training. “If she has work,” Ndeye says, “a woman knows she has value and is useful to her family’s survival and to society. This is why women in Breath of Life will learn a trade, including computer basics. They also will learn to read French. Most important, they will study God’s Word, which answers all of our concerns and questions.” Diallo’s dream is to assist Ndeye once Breath of Life is completed.
“Our team has partnered with Ndeye to offer a two-day dental clinic in the youth prison, as well as in the women’s prison,” says Sebastiaan de Vroom, who serves with CAMA and is the Alliance Dakar team lead.
In addition, he is the interim pastor of International Christian Fellowship in Dakar, which financially supports Ndeye and donates clothing and food for inmates.
Sebastiaan regularly visits the youth prison in Dakar, which houses 12 to 18 year olds. “I help develop the prison garden to produce vegetables for the meals, which aren’t the best since the prison budget is limited. My goal is to have the garden producing vegetables year round.”
Burkina Faso: Madame Ye’s Cakes
Limited food supplies affect inmates in Burkina Faso as well. Madame Ye, an Alliance pastor’s wife in Bobo-Dioulasso, decided to use her baking skills to help provide food for female prisoners. “Families more quickly reject women than men, so few women prisoners have visitors or get enough to eat,” says Esther Schaeffer, an Alliance international worker who has been involved in prison ministries for many years. “Madame Ye prayed that the Lord would make a way for her to provide sustenance for these needy women. She began baking cakes to sell to her neighbors. With her earnings from the sales, she’s now able to buy food to bring to the inmates.”
In 2013 the Alliance Women of Burkina Faso partnered with international workers to start a weekly Bible study with female prisoners. Esther met Sally*, who was imprisoned after she abandoned her newborn baby because of the shame she would cause her family. “Through the love of the women on this team, she became a follower of Jesus,” Esther says. Sally returned to school after her release and attends an Alliance church.
Plans are under way to expand the Bobo ministry to serve adolescent and adult male prisoners.
Back in Mali
Several Alliance family members are engaged in prison ministry in several locations in Mali. In each prison, teams encounter food shortages. Carina Saarloos (CAMA Zending, Netherlands) heads up four ministry teams to male and female inmates in Bamako, the country’s capital. “These prisons are overpopulated, and many inmates suffer from malnutrition,” she says. “This is why our ministry is holistic. We bring God’s Word, as well as food and medicines.
“I also bring my guitar and we sing Christian worship songs,” she adds. “Right away the whole atmosphere changes—you should see the smiles on the inmates’ faces!
“After we sing, the pastor and I conduct Bible ‘storying.’ We tell a story we’ve memorized and then ask simple questions like ‘What does this tell you about God’s character?’ or ‘What does this story tell you about human nature?’ We then ask several prisoners to retell the stories.”
Storytelling is a powerful tool because those in African cultures tend to be oral learners. During their 10 years of ministry, Carina’s teams have baptized nearly 100 male inmates. Another of her teams ministers weekly to female prisoners. A number have children (up to four years of age) who live with them when family members can’t—or won’t—provide care. “In 2013, we baptized six women, a powerful testimony to all of the inmates.”
The Koutiala Hospital for Women and Children in southern Mali also is involved in outreach to the local men’s prison. “One of our local pastors, Pastor Daouda, visits the prison about two to three times a month to preach,” says Jake, an Alliance medical worker. “We partner with him in larger outreaches about five times per year, showing the JESUS film, providing medical consultations for the prisoners, or taking fruit and hygiene items to hand out. We’ve seen a number of young men give their lives to the Lord, and Pastor Daouda follows up.”
Additionally, the hospital team provides the pastor with clothing, shoes, and some financial resources to help the men when they are released. “Often,” says Jake, “they’re ostracized by their families for having brought shame, so they have very little support when they get out. The more I go to the prison, the more my heart is moved by what we see there. By and large, these are not hardened criminals; they are people who have been ravaged by poverty, injustice, mental illness, and addiction.”
Becky’s team serves in a prison ministry located north of Koutiala, where Ami is incarcerated. “She had never been exposed to the gospel before we started our Bible storying,” Becky says. “She also had never attended a day of school and couldn’t hold a pencil.”
God led the team to several women in the local Christian community to care for the girls. Marthe is a licensed adult literacy teacher. Elizabeth, a practicing nurse and local pastor’s wife, provides the girls with needed medical attention. Mariam, 23, leads Bible studies and has also begun to teach the girls Christian songs.
Recently, Ami finished the final level of the adult literacy program. “At the graduation ceremony, she testified that at her age  she thought she was too old to have the opportunity for an education,” Becky says. “She is so happy that she can now write her name and read! We now call on her to read the passages we are studying in the Word.”
Hungry for Good News
Jesus spent a lot of time with social outcasts. When religious leaders asked why, He responded: “‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners’” (Mark 2:17).
Alliance family members serving in prison ministries in Africa follow His lead. “It has its ups and downs,” says Barb, “but broken people, whose pride has been crushed, people who have been shamed and ruined their family’s name, are so ripe for the gospel.
 “Five Keys for Relationships in HonorShame Contexts,” HonorShame, resources for majority-world ministry, accessed December 10, 2014, http://honorshame.com/5-keys-for-relationships-in-honorshame-contexts/.
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