The following blog post is part of a series of blogs on the Pro Bono Offering at UWE Bristol:
One of the many strands of activity students can undertakes as part of the UWE Pro Bono Unit is with the African Prisons Project, led by Kathy Brown. This summer several students received the opportunity to travel to Kenya and Uganda to work directly with the prisoners in the prisons. This has provided valuable life experience for both the prisoners and the students. Here, LLB student Nakita Hedges reflects on her thoughts and experiences:
When driving from the airport I could see the corruption which segregated the rich from the poor almost immediately. The rich drove past me on their way to their gated houses, whilst the poor begged at my window and lay on the edge of the street. This is something I felt so detached from as my experience of this type of lifestyle only seemed to appear behind a TV screen. For me to see this as an actual problem was a hit of harsh reality and I didn’t know whether to feel thankful for my privileged life or awful that these people will never experience anything like it.
A similar feeling of contradicting emotions hit me when arriving at the prisons for the first time. I was aware these people were separated from the world by society who had reformed their identity with a label. Nevertheless, despite their injustice, every single student I met kindly greeted me with a handshake and smile. They were polite and insisted on me taking their seats even if it meant they would be standing for the duration of the lesson. I found it difficult to look into their eyes and accept their gratitude without feeling guilty that our little time here meant so much to them.
Their determination to learn was honestly such an empowering feeling to witness. Their level of dedication to their studies was something I had not ever seen before. If they have been set a task, each person exceeds expectations. Regardless of their lack of materials, each student would return with masses of information which they would provide examples and apply to the real world. After a few weeks of being here, our students were beginning to think like lawyers. They were analytical of their own and our work, challenging everything that was presented to them. Whenever we had a debate I almost wanted to remove their note sheet because they didn’t need a piece of paper to dictate their thoughts, it came so naturally to them. I soon learnt that their positive mental outlook was derived from their motivation to learn and make a difference for themselves seeing as nobody else was going to do it for them.
We were constantly reminded that we were “improving [their] lives” and “reforming [their] dignity”, however, for me I never thought of our students as criminals and it saddened me that it was only our presence which allowed them to feel like normal human beings. I have never thought so highly of anyone before, and I am honoured to have spent my summer with these people. They are human beings trying to achieve the same dreams as me. I hope to reassure them that they have not been neglected by humanity and despite their circumstances are recognised as human beings and not by their label.