Book Aid International has been proud to partner with African Prisons Project (APP) since 2009. APP works to improve access to healthcare, lifeskills, justice and leadership development opportunities for prisoners in Kenya and Uganda and we support their work by donating brand new books for use in the libraries they run in 14 prisons.
These libraries do much more than just house books for prisoners and staff to use – they also hold various reading activities and classes. We were encouraged to hear of the difference a book club in Luzira Upper Prison, Uganda is making. Over to APP volunteer Joseph Matovu and librarian Hilder Achiro to tell us more…
Any visitor arriving at the yard in Luzira Upper Prison on any Monday morning would probably be greeted by the sight of Omar Ozelle helping to gather his fellow inmates for their weekly book club meeting. His enthusiasm for the club is infectious; he is always able to gather a large group of eager participants within a matter of minutes. Over the next two hours, in the company of APP staff, they discuss the week’s reading material with each other before helping the less advanced readers amongst them learn to read aloud more fluently.
In conversation with Mr Ozelle, the reasons for his willingness to help his colleagues to improve their reading skills quickly become clear. “When I arrived in prison, I was unable to read or write in English” he told APP staff. “I asked my cell-mate to help to compose a letter on my behalf, but he told me that it would be the first and last time he would do me that favour”. It is this man whom Mr Ozelle credits for persuading him to improve his literacy skills, first through joining school and then through participating in book club sessions. Having left school in Primary 4 when he was a child (aged 9-10), Ozelle took advantage of the academic opportunities that his sentence in Luzira afforded him and rejoined school in Primary 7. “Most of my education has taken place behind bars”, the committed student of the prison’s secondary school told us. He recognises that prison has given him the incentive and the facilities with which to pursue his education in a way that was never possible for him when he was free, and since enrolling in some of Luzira’s educational programmes he has become an integral figure in assuring that his fellow inmates are also able to make the most of their chances to become more literate and articulate. As he began leading the most recent session he took time to re-emphasise the importance of the role that the book club plays in the improvement of the communication skills, confidence and literacy of its participants.
Joseph Chekwoti is another beneficiary of the book club sessions. Like Mr Ozelle, he was unable to complete primary school as a child, only reaching Primary 7 (aged 12 – 13) before he left school. However, in prison he found the motivation to recommence his schooling. In particular, he became infatuated with reading, and he recognises that the development of this passion has had upon his communication skills. Mr Chekwoti, who admits that his English was “unrefined” when he first arrived in prison, recalled that he was “trembling” when he was invited to give his opinion about Great Expectations in his first book club session, having previously never had the opportunity to publicly share his ideas in an academic forum. As his confidence grew, so did his love of books. Mr Chekwoti told us that reading Great Expectations for the first time spurred him on to read every Charles Dickens book that was in the library. Now he reads a wide array of novels at a rate of 150 pages per day. He says “On any particular day I do not feel myself if I haven’t been reading a book”.
It is no surprise that Mr Chekwoti sees the book club as a vitally important part of the culture in Luzira Upper Prison. “Every book has a purpose” he told his fellow inmates. “Even in romance novels, there is something that we can take from them”. For him and his fellow inmates, books are far more than just a way to escape the reality of their sentence in Luzira. They are an educational resource through which one can learn about, and improve, oneself. This is the reason why book club regulars like Mr Ozelle and Mr Chekwoti have been able to attract more and more of their fellow inmates to book club sessions and why the reading culture in the prison continues to flourish.
Every year, Book Aid International supplies APP with thousands of books in a wide range of subjects for their prison libraries. From children’s and primary books to adult fiction, English language skills, higher education and law, these books give prisoners the opportunity to further their education, develop their skills and read for pleasure. We are proud to partner with APP in introducing the inmates at Luzira Upper Prison to the joy and value of reading.
A version of this article first appeared on the African Prisons Project website.