“I Have No Everything Here”

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In Malawi, children often pay for their mother’s crimes. They are born into it, literally. Serving the same sentence as their parent, they are locked up in a cell filled wall-to-wall with people, from mid-afternoon until dawn every day, without light or access to a toilet, but populated plentifully by rats. It’s like some nightmarish embodiment of Original Sin.

Individuals are often detained for decades or the remainder of their lifetime because they lack funds for even a basic legal defense. With the Zomba Prison Project, we have already helped free two inmates who were falsely held, and currently have three more cases under active review. Through monies raised as a result of these recordings, the hope is to continue to fund as many rehearings as possible.

There are currently over two thousand inmates in this 340-person capacity, maximum-security prison. Built in the 19th century, it is staffed with just 153 officers. Not exactly fighting odds for the guards. Much of the staff lives on the grounds with the prisoners, in conditions only slightly better than their charges’. Uniforms aside, the boundaries between officers and inmates can be blurry, and music making is often an integrated and communal affair.

The guards are unarmed, except for some carrying a thin wooden stick that resembles a riding crop from a bygone, colonial era. Only those on the perimeter have guns, with orders to “shoot to kill” anyone foolish enough to attempt escape. But inside, it is the prisoners that have the majority of control, establishing and keeping their own, sometimes violent or exploitative, order.

Not so different from their countrymen outside, the most difficult intervals are surviving the rainy season due to improper shelter, and the food shortages that occur in the gaps between crop harvests, during which period the prisoners sometimes resort to eating bugs for sustenance.

One of the poorest countries in the world, with a correspondingly high murder rate, the sad reality is that as dismal as their jail environment is, for many of those held the conditions are no worse than what they faced at home. And in some cases— particularly with the aged—prison provides even greater luxury and comfort than they had prior, and they dread returning back to communities that have now shunned or “forgotten” them.

Music provides one of the only outlets for the prisoners. The men have the luxury of being allowed to have an organized band with access to instruments and a practice space, under the guard’s supervision and direction. The women sadly are denied such privileges and are left to express themselves mostly through choral singing and the traditional dances that their spirits are so clearly lifted and transformed by.

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