We left Gulu all too soon, but we were keen to hit the road again to maximise our limited amount of time in Lira. Lira is a much smaller town and doesn’t have an international presence in the way Gulu does. In fact, to me it appeared to be a more “authentic” town than Gulu was, in that it seemed to be ordinary people living their normal, everyday lives, rather than a plethora of NGO offices and western-styled cafes and restaurants like I found in Gulu. Even during “rush-hour” there was a very calm and measured hustle and bustle which felt very unusual yet very pleasant to me. I suppose I am just so used to the chaos of Kampala.
When we reached the women’s prison in Lira to meet Hilda, our project coordinator here, I was again surprised how things seemed more casual and relaxed. This is perhaps due to our hair salon –which is open to the public – being within prison grounds. Hilda greeted us warmly and introduced us to her cute baby son, before giving us an update on how the training was going, and how she is managing the salon. Those enrolled on the course then arrived and began demonstrating their skills. The salon is well equipped and caters for almost everything, from washing and blow-drying, to straightening and curling, to braiding and weaving.
The ladies were keen to show off their skills and let us see how much they had learned, and it was great to see their joy and enthusiasm. In prison, when most luxuries and freedoms are taken away, it is a real privilege to be able to style one’s hair and have beauty treatments. The ladies are not only taught hairdressing, but also how to take care of hands and feet. They have foot spas, nail kits and all the various accoutrements that are necessary for pedicure and manicure – all of which I know little about!
All in all, I was suitably impressed by all that was happening in Lira, and it is encouraging that Hilda, another former prisoner, can too demonstrate to the ladies that she teaches that there is hope after prison, and practical skills can lead to a prosperous future.
While I enjoyed the privilege of traversing Uganda and visiting the projects we do elsewhere in the country, I am normally quite involved in the projects closer to home, in the capital city of Kampala. Here we work in Luzira Prison, specifically in Remand (where prisoners are usually awaiting trial and tend to be held for short periods before being transferred), in Upper (one of Uganda’s two maximum security prisons), and in Condemn (death row).
The courses offered in Luzira vary according to the sections. In Condemn we have a bead club, where a small, yet incredibly organised group create the most amazing intricate jewellery and beaded creations. They use coloured glass beads, as well as paper beads, which they make themselves using tiny strips of shredded paper. Each piece these men make is painstakingly handcrafted, but they are incredibly passionate and proud of the work they do.
In Upper there is a great variety of projects on offer, varying from reintegration or career skills courses to help prisoners find their feet once released. Football, while hugely popular throughout Uganda, has particular appeal in Luzira Upper – namely because inmates have a chance to play for one of their favourite teams: Arsenal, Manchester United, Aston Villa, and others are all there. While we don’t offer football training, we help to organise annual tournaments, with prizes for the winning teams.
Remand is where our candle workshop can be found, and where I have spent most of my time so far. The candle workshop offers intensive training over a two-week period. This is due to the vast numbers of prison transfers which take place, and so it maximises the number of course participants to qualify in skill, however short their stay behind bars. In Remand we also offer well-being and exercise coordinated through our partners Breakdance Project Uganda, which is a lot of fun!
The candles we produce are of an exceptionally high standard, and have a much longer burn time than any competitors in Uganda. We offer a range of colours and sizes, and recently we have been branching out into the eclectic world of scented candles! This is why I have been spending a lot more time in Remand lately – there has been a bit of experimenting and trial-and-error taking place to get the right quantities, and I’ve been monitoring progress, picking up supplies, and working out cost margins. We have started off with lavender and citronella scents – the latter one having the bonus of being a natural mosquito repellent – and we have already taken our first order for around 100 candles of differing sizes for a local social enterprise. Already I have some ideas for new scents to try out; I never thought I’d get so excited about candles…!
After my experience visiting these projects, and after my first couple of months or so working for POP, I am very grateful for this opportunity, and very enthused about what lies ahead. Already I have been inspired by those I have met, eager to improve the lives of their fellow (wo)man. I am fortunate to play some small part in this huge undertaking, and although the task ahead is great, the opportunity to develop and the chance to make a difference is also significant.
Fundraising and Business Development Intern