‘These women are coming for your books’ – The strange story of the Gulu Prison Library

I’ve been teaching basic reading, intermediate English, and Zumba in Gulu Women’s Prison for nearly three months.

A couple of weeks ago, I said to a guard who remarked on the women’s enthusiasm for learning, ‘I just wish they could have more things to read during the week, beyond what I can bring. Basic readers for the beginners’ class, novels and non-fiction for intermediate…’

Guard: ‘The prison has a library with many books.’

Me: (looking around wildly) What? Where?

Guard: In the Men’s Prison. Women are not allowed to enter there.

WTF.

This is where I have to mention that I’m incredibly lucky to know Pastor Florence. Florence was once in prison herself, and after being released she fought to get an education and became a pastor. She spends several days a week in the prison – some prayer and singing, but mostly just hanging out with the women, who absolutely adore her. Florence is one of those radiant people who seems to be made of love. She immediately recognized the value of having a literacy programme in the prison, and is enthusiastically meeting me each week to learn how to teach phonics, so that she can continue the programme when I’m not around. She’s so charming, she’s even chatty with the guards, who are not generally very friendly, especially when it comes to changing rules or doing anything out of the ordinary.

So, Florence is the reason that yesterday we were escorted into the men’s prison in search of books for the women to read. There are over 100 female prisoners, but over 1000 in the men’s prison. Both prisons are minimal on space for their numbers, and very basic. By the time we reached the library I was already feeling somewhat on edge from passing through the hundreds of unhappy men. The library is a small, iron roofed building, sweltering hot inside when the sun is out. Inside were more books than I have seen anywhere in Gulu. Thousands of books. Organized (pretty darn well actually) by an enthusiastic inmate who had appointed himself librarian.

‘Look around, choose what you think the women prisoners will like.’

Florence and I walked around the shelves. She pragmatically started immediately picking out kids’ books for the newly literate (there was even a set of phonics readers – perfect). But I was struck dumb for a while. About twenty men were squished onto benches in the hot dark, reading (they were not allowed to take the books outside). One older, bespectacled man was reading ‘String theory for beginners’. Next to him, a boy of maybe 19 was opening and closing a children’s pop-up book of jungle animals, looking incredulous but amused. I felt suddenly teary, because here were all the books we could ever want, a couple hundred meters and a razor wire topped wall from the women who need them. Also, simply because of the books that were there. All the penguin classics. Shakespeare. The ‘For Dummies’ series. I saw old favourites from my parents’ shelves, books I loved in university. Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, An Island to Oneself, Poisonwood Bible, even Tim Winton and Annie Dillard were there. If you had asked me if these books were to be found anywhere in Uganda I would have been unsure, and in Gulu certainly not. It was like turning a corner and seeing a bunch of friends I didn’t expect to see again for years, because they were thousands of miles away. It was a literary oasis where none was expected. It took someone saying ‘Is the mzungu sick?’ Before I realized I was being a bit useless. Florence and I grabbed a wide range, as many as we could carry. The librarian told me the books had all come in a single donation, from the UK. Someone put an entire second-hand bookshop in a shipping container and sent it here. Good on them.

After class in the Women’s Prison, we distributed the basic readers and set up some rules for exchanging them. We got about 100 and have permission to switch them for others in a couple of weeks. I have never seen the women that excited, including when we did Despacito for the first time in Zumba class. The intermediate class took their time looking at the selection we’d brought. One chose Jane Eyre, another a biography of Obama, others books on the human body, the history of malaria, theology. I was torn between feeling happy to see them happy, and distraught that such a simple thing was apparently… not thought of? Too freaking hard? The system’s apparent disregard for women, prisoners, literacy, or likely all of the above, was mind-boggling.

The women still can’t peruse the shelves of thousands that the men access. But now at least they each have a book, and the ability to swap it for further books, if Pastor Florence keeps working her magic. But I should mention that while lamentable, equitable access to literature is the least of this prison system’s worries.

Some facts about prison here:

  • Many of these women are imprisoned awaiting trial for months, even years. They have not even been proven guilty yet. The court system is unbelievably slow. Though apparently a bribe can oil its wheels. Florence, who tells her story openly, was imprisoned for 26 months, found innocent, and released.
  • You can bribe police to arrest someone, regardless of their guilt
  • You can bribe someone out of prison, regardless of their guilt
  • So those stuck in prison are likely to be very poor, vulnerable, and maybe also guilty. Maybe.
  • Women are beaten with sticks for misdemeanours or locked in their (very small) dormitories all day. Misdemeanours that have caused this while I’ve been here include failing to kneel when addressing a guard.
  • It took me a while to work out why they were distressed when I gave them homework. It’s because they are often taken out in gangs and worked hard all day, and the lights are shut off shortly after dark (7pm) – although they have power, paid for by the government. They often don’t get any time in the day to do things like homework.

Incredibly, despite these things, there is a lot of laughter in the Women’s Prison. Though I think the amazing vibe Florence brings might have much to do with that. Florence has set her ringtone to that song by the Rainmakers that references the Exodus story, so whenever I call her I hear this jubilant chorus: Let my people go! Go! Go!

Fair enough.

Picture: Florence outside the prison (phones or cameras not allowed anywhere closer)florence

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2 thoughts on “‘These women are coming for your books’ – The strange story of the Gulu Prison Library

  1. Reblogged this on Dan and Jodes… in Gulu, Uganda and commented:
    A beautifully written piece about literacy in Gulu prison, written by an answer to prayer: Phoebe. She is the sister of Kiwi friends of ours also volunteering in Gulu. Phoebe has blessed us in many ways, including writing many of our phonics readers, helping with our reading tests and now helping to create some teacher training on reading storybooks aloud to children. Phoebe – we love you and are thankful for your efforts in improving literacy in so many corners of Gulu!

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