When I was on the ship, it was amazing to me to see how many volunteer crew members also volunteered for extra volunteer work!
In 2011, I served in Sierra Leone, and was involved in co-leading a Women’s Prison Ministry. Prison Ministries are part of each Mercy Ships outreach. Every two weeks on a Saturday, we visited a group of women ranging from 27-50 in number. Their ‘crimes’ ranged from unpaid debts, to marijuana sales to murder. Frequently, they waited for a trial longer than the sentence would ever demand. ‘Justice’ depended on who you knew, where you lived and which tribe you were from.
We tried to bring a little joy. We did crafts together, sang, shared stories and served a snack. When we arrived their faces were often long and sad. I was amazed at how bright and cheerful they became by the time we left. One of the most moving things happened when we sang together. The strength of the voices of the women in the prison of Freetown rang within- far after their voices were silent.
What an amazing experience!
One of the saddest inmates was Cia, who was in her 70s. She was asked to care for her son’s 5 year old daughter while he was campaigning for political office. His opponents came, killed the child and set Cia up as the murderer. When she arrived at the prison she was so badly beaten she could hardly walk, and would not talk. Over the weeks that we visited with her, she started to open up, and would even smile upon our arrival. One week we heard that Cia had just been released from prison as part of Sierra Leone’s 50th Anniversary of Independence celebration-along with two other prisoners. All of the prisoners’ names had been submitted to the government, but only three had been chosen.
That same week, we did a craft with the ladies which involved embroidering used towels. We divided up into three groups, and tried to get some dialogue going as we sat and sewed together. I had a wonderful prison guard with my group, who was an excellent translator. I started by sharing my ‘story’ and was surprised when several others opened up as well. We got into some amazing dialogue. They told me about their families and about their lives growing up. Some spoke of their ‘crime’ and of their arrest.
We talked about the release of the three prisoners. The ladies spoke of the joy they felt when the prisoners were freed, but also of the sorrow-when they learned that they themselves had not been chosen.
They spoke about the civil war in Sierra Leone…about the memories of that…about forgiveness…about forgetting. Most of the women had lost family members and land during this bloody conflict. I was blown away when they honestly told me they had forgiven the rebels for their actions, but that they would never forget. Suddenly our time was up – and so was the dialogue.
As the Africa Mercy’s time of service has come to an end in Benin, West Africa…I think with pride and affection of the 1, 200 volunteers that come and go in a service period- and of those that sign up for Volunteering +.
Until next time, Jane