Gulu Prison: Update and a Plan

Book Exchange

*This follows on from my previous post about the library – read that first 😊

We raided the library a second time. Books sat in piles on a table while we taught outside in the sun, waiting for the post-class book exchange opportunity. At some point Florence (prison pastor extraordinaire) nudged me and pointed, giggling. The guards do a lot of sitting around, and a lot of trying to knock mangos from trees with the butts of their guns. But today they had picked up books and were reading!

I later discovered one of these was Miriam, a gem among prison guards. She sees the value of books for female prisoners. She volunteered to house the books in her office and has requested shelves built. Best of all, she changes books for women on request between our visits, even carrying large stacks between locations so they can choose from a  selection.

Hooray for Miriam!

One day it rained. We usually teach outside, so they let us teach in one of the wards: a long room in which about 60 of the women sleep. Some have beds, others are on the concrete floor. Each bed is very neatly made, meagre possessions impeccably arranged, with anything vaguely decorative (a scrap of magazine, plastic rosary beads, even a shiny sweet wrapper) given pride of place.

And… on almost every bed is a book! I had a long conversation with one woman about Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Another told me all about Indonesia, from the travel guide she is reading.

The ward was cramped and noisy with Florence and me running two classes of different levels. Florence’s group wrote their first, very basic sentences. My group did reading comprehension exercises. Then we had the advanced English class, who wrote stories and had a lively debate about polygamy. It was a great day.


Training others to teach literacy in prison


A Little Backstory

At home I’m a secondary school teacher. All my knowledge and experience teaching literacy comes from Jody Unterrheiner and the organization she started in Uganda, Read For Life, which is all about getting phonics (the most effective way to teach literacy, especially to those of non-literate backgrounds) taught in schools. I attended one of their trainings recently and helped with testing in schools a couple of months ago. I don’t even have words for how wonderful and needed the work of Read for Life is in Gulu. I’m including their details, and Jody and Dan’s blog, below.

Phonics in Prison

I have been training Florence to teach phonics since we started at the women’s prison. Then I glimpsed, en route to the library, the lessons that were taking place in the men’s prison. Inmates who are teachers when they are not in prison organize themselves to teach a range of subjects. I thought they might benefit from phonics as well. A day after I mentioned this to the head of prison ministry at the NGO who originally hooked me up with the prisons, he organized a series of trainings for me to be run, attended by teaching prisoners, prison pastors and guards who had shown commitment, or at least interest, in teaching prisoners. Eighteen people in all, working across 3 different prisons, including Florence and her husband, who is also a prison pastor.

These trainings were held in the library inside the men’s prison. The group was enthusiastic, especially the prisoners. Plus, any room with Florence in it is a party. We covered a lot of ground: 2/3 of the phonics curriculum, along with lesson planning and a range of activities. We will continue after I return from a week away with Tess, Nick, and RIAAN at a lakeside camp full of monkeys (could that be any more exciting? No. No it couldn’t :D)

The inmate-teachers, and some of the prison pastors, are able and motivated to teach literacy really well. The guards, with the exception of Miriam, are not really literate enough to teach literacy. I think it’s probably still good that they are there; their involvement will make it more likely for classes to be given time and space. And maybe they can at least drill students on the super easy stuff, in spare moments.

The prisoners took great joy in helping the less-literate guards as we practiced. One guard did get angry about this and stormed out (whoops… possibly could have managed that dynamic better…) but she was back again the next day.


The Plan

Riaan and I will be heading Malawi-wards in August. It has become my hope and goal for book access and literacy teaching to continue in Gulu Women’s Prison.

This requires three things: teachers, teaching resources, and stationary. We’re on the way to having teachers sorted. I’d like to give them phonics teaching resources to use in their lessons (Read For Life has developed brilliant and affordable resources right here in Gulu). Also, if they are to learn to write as well as read, the women need exercise books and pens. Florence and I have been providing these, but with my departure on the horizon, and with class sizes growing rapidly, we need a new plan.

I did approach the NGO that currently gives books and pens to the men, (but not women) to see if they might help. It was a learning experience, and a tale for another time. Suffice to say, we had better do this ourselves.

I have often talked at home about the amazing stories that the advanced English class in the women’s prison write, which I mark each week. I give them a theme, and a choice: write fiction or non-fiction. Most of them choose to write non-fiction, most of the time. I know this because the stories usually end with THIS IS A TRUE STORY. And after having read a great many, I’m not surprised they choose non-fiction. Their stories are fascinating.

So, Nick had the beautiful idea: see if they would like to share their stories. If so, make a zine and sell it for a donation, to raise money for a one-off purchase of teaching resources (phonics flashcards and readers) and a year’s supply of books and pens for the women’s prison (giving Florence time to look for other sustainable funding options).

The women of the advanced English class are keen. In fact, they are taking it extremely seriously. We discussed what makes a good story. They said: dramatic scenes, courage, details, and love. Sounds great to me.

So that is what we are going to do. When I come back (around 30th June) I will make one of those crowd funding pages with all the specific info. When the women have written their stories, I will type them up, and also include photographs of the original handwriting, and possibly illustrations by the women. You can choose to get the electronic version or physical copy, which Rosa will assemble and post in NZ. Melissa will house the large quantities of books and pens; Florence will distribute them as needed. What a dream team.

If you want to help, wonderful! I will share the site here and on fb. However, I’m largely a social media novice. Borderline luddite. So, if you can help by spreading the word, that would also be grand.

Thanks for reading. I’ll say hi to the monkeys for you all.


Read for Life:

Dan and Jody’s blog:

Picture: some of the training attendees (those who didn’t have to stay inside the prison, where cameras are not allowed). Florence and her husband are on the far right; followed by Miriam. And yes, the guy behind me is actually that tall.






2 thoughts on “Gulu Prison: Update and a Plan

  1. Reblogged this on Ugandapanda and commented:
    Phoebe (Tessa’s sister) has expanded her work in the women’s prison and she’s shared some more amazing stories. The women also need a consistent supply of books and pens so the work continues, so we’ll be raising money for that soon. They will share their stories. You’ll share your money. Stay tuned!

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