Email this articleE-mail this story  Letter to the EDITORWrite letter to editor  Discuss this articleOrder a classified ad

Helping children behind bars

Former Yellowknife educator volunteers at prison in Tanzania

Angela Wilson
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Aug 07/02) - Six hundred and eighty kilometres west of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania lies a city called Mbeya.

In Mbeya, there is a prison for children. For nine months, Yellowknife resident Sharmala Buell worked on helping the children of that prison rid themselves of scabies and offered them all the help she could give in teaching them basic morals and ethics and helping them along the way to rehabilitation.

A Yellowknife resident for 13 years, Buell is a missionary working through a Tanzanian church which invited her to the country. Buell is now back in Canada doing research on how to establish a home for boys to go to after being released from the children's prison but will be returning to Tanzania in September. Buell described life for the kids inside the prison.

"They're between 10 and 18," she said. "They could be there for something as trivial as riding on a train without a ticket to as serious as rape."

One child in particular revealed to Buell there were hygiene problems inside the prison.

"His name is Freddi and I saw that he had large open sores on his legs. I took him to the hospital and had his legs treated and we found out it was scabies. His legs cleared up very, very rapidly and we did, as I call it, the three-pronged attack on scabies. That involved washing blankets and spraying the furniture with insecticide. I had the kids put lotion on their bodies and I brought them clean clothes to wear. We must've done 40 loads of washing and then spent about seven hours cleaning the place."

Buell said after that, she spoke to the warden and realized the children's futures were looking pretty dim.

"The kids don't receive any rehabilitation. They have virtually no education and no skills training and most of them - all of them - are in survival mode so all they think about is just of today, not tomorrow and definitely not the future. And many of them are victims of the AIDS epidemic which is sweeping through Africa. The short term goal is to provide education and rehabilitation for the children and also the trade skills. Hopefully some of them will go on to higher education. You can see that some of them have got good minds," she said.

Funding for new home

Buell said the children in the prisons fall into three categories.

"I have personally found three groups of children. One, where both parents have died of AIDS. Two, where one parent has died of AIDS and the stepparent comes into the family and life is not very pleasant for the stepchildren and third: there are some children who, for similar reasons to here, leave home to live on the streets."

One example of the kind of rehabilitation Buell is trying to provide took place with Freddi.

"Freddi has had some formal education," she said. "He can read and write and he said he was in grade six so I gave him some division and he had some problems doing it. He didn't know his four times tables so I taught him his four times tables. He is there for stealing and I talk with him about why stealing is wrong. What do you do if you are with other people and you see something you like. Do you leave it or do you take it? What is it called when you take it? So very basic ethics and morals that they don't seem to know. Lying is very much second nature to them so that's the type of rehabilitation we are doing now."

Another thing Buell noticed was there was no kind of physical education for the children.

"They stay in their room most of the day. The long and short of the story is we designed and built a basketball hoop for them. You should've seen how happy they were to be able to play basketball!" she said.

Buell is doing research and gathering information while in Canada. One of the places she's gathering information from is the Bosco Homes Territorial Treatment Centre in Edmonton. Eventually, Buell hopes to be able to get Tanzanian government approval and funding to build a home for boys to go to after being released from the children's prison.

"We at the church are able to do something to help, but it's just a microscopic drop in the bucket," said Buell.