Harambee Arts was invited to conduct a pilot study with HIV+ women prisoners at Langata Prison in May 2008 in collaboration with TICAH (Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health) and WOFAK (Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya). One of the women’s wardens, known as “madam” to the inmates “came out” as HIV+ during the winter of 2007. She was granted permission to form a women’s support group for prisoner’s who were willing to be tested and who then chose to make their status public within the prison. Initially she had a group of eight prisoners and by the time this project was conducted there were 28 women involved. On the last day of the workshop, another woman joined the group, so that there were 29 participants. Lately there have been a number of reforms within the prison and sadistic beatings no longer occur on a regular basis. Conditions are bad and the inmates are not well fed, but the biggest complaint was “I have no visitors. My family and friends have completely abandoned me.” Apparently there is an enormous stigma in Kenya against families with imprisoned relatives. That is one of the main reasons that the prisoners are abandoned. The families are unwilling and unable to suffer the consequences. Meanwhile, the prisoner’s greatest wish is to have news of their children and to have someone who would bring them a bit of money from time to time so that they could buy milk or a banana.
Despite the reforms, life is grim for those on “death row” who have been condemned to be hung. The condemned prisoners are singled out by the gray color of their uniform. The others wear black and white stripes. White uniforms indicate the women who have not yet been sentenced. It is common to be “remand”, before sentencing, for years. A uniform with a bright yellow stripe across the front indicates mental health issues.
One of the women in the support group had been accused of theft by her employer and imprisoned for eighteen months while waiting for formal sentencing. Recently, the item that she had been accused of stealing was mysteriously discovered. She told me, “Now I am waiting for a court date so that he can formally apologize and I will be free. The court date is in four months.” Until that hearing, she remains imprisoned, wearing her white uniform, with her three-year old daughter in her arms.
There were three condemned woman in our group, but I soon discovered that about a third of the women were actually on death row. The prison had run out of the gray uniforms. The condemned women live together and are not allowed to do chores. They are deprived of the human dignity that doing the most mundane chores would provide. They yearn to scrub, to sweep to cook…anything that would give them a shred of normalcy…it is all taken from them. They are also banned from any self-improvement/skills building sessions. That would be a waste of time because they are never going to return to society. The other prisoners are taught embroidery and knitting and there is a small, dusty shop outside of the prison gate that showcases their creations.
Occasionally there is an amnesty and a group of them are set free. One woman was despondent because, although she qualifies for amnesty, she remains in prison because her file has been lost. Eight years in prison and there is no record of her on file, anywhere!
The women that I met range in age from 23 to 55 and all of them are mothers. Children under the age of five are allowed to live inside the prison alongside their mother. Once the child reaches age five, they are taken away. Sometimes they go to live with the husband, with another family member or with a teacher. Some of the children have nowhere to go, but regardless, they are not allowed to remain in prison.
When we first met, the women were quiet, shy and huddled closely together on wooden benches in the courtyard of the HIV testing center. That was to be our meeting place for the week…in the blazing sun, beneath threatening storm clouds and in the torrential rains. In addition to the 28 prisoners, our group consisted of the “madam”, two facilitators from WOFAK (Christine and Marita) and two (sometimes three) other prison staff who organized and cooked. Everyone involved was HIV+ except for me. Occasionally another woman warden would visit and take me aside to comment positively on what she noticed; the change in the women, the beauty of the artwork and the fun that they were having.
I was busy taking care of logistics, running around answering questions, providing encouragement, hoping that it wouldn’t rain, refreshing paint palettes, taking photos and video footage, teaching the women how to use my camera, trying to make my voice heard, trying to make my language understood, and most difficult of all…trying not to have favorites.
The situation was challenging in so many ways…normally we would have a private, comfortable room (with a roof) so that we could really inhabit and feel comfortable within the space for an in-depth weeklong project. That was out of the question. Normally, the group would be 12 individuals maximum…also out of the question because a solid support group had been formed. In typical African fashion, I had originally requested that they identify 12 individuals for the project. I was told that they would make an effort to do that. When I arrived on Monday morning, I was greeted (of course) by 28 pairs of warm and excited eyes. Same thing happened in Zimbabwe when I had arranged by email to have 14 street children participate in a weeklong mural painting project at the 2007 Harare International Festival of the Arts. I arrived in Harare and there were thirty extraordinary children waiting for me. Flexibility is the word.
Back to the challenges…Normally, a body-mapping workshop starts out with each person lying down on her paper, and a partner outlines her body in whatever pose she wishes to strike. Then the pair changes roles and the other one is outlined. This time we had no room for such large papers and then there was the wind factor…I was able to find strong white cardboard 5 ft. X 4 ft. and I sketched each individual, on their board, as they stood in front of me in a pose “that made them feel good.” Sketching 28 women, outdoors, in the wind….it was a commitment, but together we managed!
It was hectic, surrounded by so many women, and I needed a way to break the ice and to show them that we would have fun. So we started with a game. Everyone stood in a circle, and as we went around the circle, each person called out their name, while making a movement. All of this is then mimicked by the rest of the group. To give an example, I twirled around while shaking my entire body and calling out my name. Instantly, the atmosphere shifted, the women relaxed and began to enjoy. And they moved, gyrated, whooped and laughed wildly. I had passed around a number of brilliantly colored veils and after the game, I turned on some African music and began to dance. Within seconds, the colored veils were being thrown around, worn on heads or torsos amidst brilliant smiles and constant laughter. They danced and danced and laughed, their striped uniforms set off by the gorgeous colors of the airy veils.
And this was how we began every morning of the weeklong body mapping workshop; dancing alone, in pairs, in groups…sometimes a pair would dance holding each other close, as in a disco. And as the days progressed, so did their creative use of the veils…they made elaborate head coverings, skirts and belts.