GULU JUVENILE JAIL
By Lori Taetz
Trespassing. Stealing. Finding themselves away from parental support. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time. These are some of the reasons the 50 or so young people are residing at the Gulu Remand Home in Uganda.
We arrived at the jail to find approximately 47 young men and 3 young women, between the ages of 13 and 20, sitting side by side on wooden benches. They were in two different classrooms, separated by a wall. The wooden enclosures were unadorned, as the students sat with bare feet touching the concrete ground. A lone chalkboard, much like those used in the 1970s, covered the front partition. There were no books in sight, aside from the few they shared between them with the day’s math. In Uganda, most of the teaching is done by rote, with the students echoing the teachers’ statements. We were privileged to see a small spark of creativity and life as the students welcomed us with a special clap designated to honor visitors. Karine responded with a heartfelt statement of our maternal love for them and concern for their welfare, reminding them of their worth as human beings.
We could not help but notice that all of the occupants wore the same plain green outfits. Apparently, this is the only outfit most of them have with them in this place, despite the fact that they must wear civilian clothes to approach the government officials when they finally find themselves with a court date. In addition, they must come up with the funds to get to the court when they are called, after waiting several months to a year to be heard, even though the system boasts a wait time of 6 weeks.
On approaching the occupants’ ‘living quarters’, we felt an immediate dread at the lack of anything that might bring some joy or hope into their drab existence. The rooms were small and dark, devoid of electricity. They were made of concrete from floor to ceiling, and the pervasive smell of urine mixed with dust and grime filled our senses. The bunks were stacked on top of each other, with one dirty blanket on each. In between rooms was a locking door that led to a small, dismal bathroom, consisting of a hole in the ground and a shower stall, whose grimy surface conjured up endless stories of darkness, despair and a thousand bad dreams.
Was there anything we could do to brighten up their lives and bring some sense of hope? Although we came with limited resources, we did have something that could transport them to another place. One full of hope, joy, adventure, friendship and discovery. A chance to learn and gather knowledge for their futures. We brought the blessing of books! Our hope now is that the young teachers at the Gulu juvenile jail will learn to use the books to share both knowledge and enjoyment with their students, giving them something to look forward to each day.