A quiet revolution, recently sparked by the publicised mistreatment of black lives by the hands of law enforcement, has swept the continent. The horrors of this treatment are only further realised by the state of prisons. In Zambia, children born from female convicts have to live behind bars and live these horrors daily, their basic rights consistently neglected.
Faith Masupa, founder of the Mother of Millions organisation, is one of the few people in Zambia that has centered the lives of female prisoners and their children in her work. Mother of Millions was founded in 2012, a non-profit organisation that mostly looks into the needs of incarcerated women and their children in correctional facilities through provision of education, nutrition and healthcare support.
It’s founder Faith Masupa has been awarded various accolades and was nominated and recognised by the BBC in the United Kingdom through the Inspirational Stories Awards. Her philosophy “I am a trailblazer” drives her aspirations of enacting positive change and setting the pace for achieving higher heights. She is a public relations practitioner and has sat on different boards including the United Nations on drugs and crime where she was part of formulating global guidelines that are now exiting for Mother to child transmission of HIV AIDS.
I had the privilege of having a chat with Faith Masupa about her work, motivations and goals for her organisation.
What are your personal motivations to do this kind of work?
It’s but a calling. I believe that God has called me to do this work. I did not really know there were children growing up in prison walls, and I doubt if many people know. I came to know that they’ve been children in prison for as long as Zambia has existed! There are children right now who are 30 years old, some of whom I actually came to know of. When I first visited the children in prisons, I learn of their needs, I saw how the prisons were overcrowded, I saw how that was not a conducive place to raise children. The mother in me immediately empathised and thought this could be my child. So, every day I went to these prisons knowing that I have children in prison, knowing that these boys and girls may not be my biological children, but as a mother and as a citizen of Zambia these children are our children. This have given me the drive to keep helping these kids and providing for their needs.
How did you get into it?
The children know the prison like the back of their hand, they act and speak like prisoners. A young 3-year-old can call you bwana. These children were acting like prisoners because of the environment they are growing up in. I thought of what could I do that would transform their lives? First of all, I thought of education, the kids did not have access to education. I thought if we could put up infrastructure for a school that would definitely help them, and so we decided to start a school! It was not easy, we had to get all the permissions necessary and I was not relying on any organisation or funding. I remember my husband asking me “how are you going to do this?” We realized that I’d have to let go of my salary and live on one salary. I started by creating a space within Lusaka Central prison- we started with 42 children on record taught by one teacher we employed. The teacher is still with us, almost 10 years later. We have been able to reach 650 children from the time we started our work. We have expanded our works to other prisons like Kanfinsa, which has a beautiful classroom and over 100 children have passed through our hands.
Eventually we started getting ex-female prisoners coming to us for help as they had nowhere to begin once on bail or released from prisons. Most of them had lost their husbands and previous sources of income, if any. I felt strongly of a need to construct an educational and skills center right in the prisons. Land was allotted to us right opposite the entrance of the female gate at Lusaka Central Prison and we began to construct this big school with lecture theaters in place, and class rooms for babies. We felt that this infrastructure was going to allow women to leave prison empowered with a certificate, diploma or degree. We had this great vision that I called the vision of the Mother of Millions. Unfortunately, in 2016 this vision was halted because of other plans between the government and a private company to construct infrastructure in Mwebeshi. Although I was devastated, I still went ahead and started an ongoing -reintegration program outside the prison. So, what happens is that when these women leave the prison we get them as Mother of Millions and help them to study what they wanted and the skills attain help them become independent financially. This has helped me maintain the vision I had when I started building that infrastructure. I am proud to say that these wonderful women who left prison and today are serving independently; others are business women, others are working for institutions, etc. Even if we may not have built the school, we have both transformed and empowered women financially, which serves as a greater advantage to our empowered children with transformed working mothers.
Elizabeth Phiri, an ex-inmate, says she met Faith while she was still in prison serving a one year nine months sentence and she had given birth to her son Daniel while in prison. She says Faith helped with various assorted items for her son, from baby clothes to food and eventually education. She also helped her and other ex-inmates to figure out what they wanted to do after prison. “Majority of the women choose to go back to school, which she paid for. But because my son was born with disabilities and needed close support, I couldn’t manage to go back to school. Instead, I opted to start tailoring and after I completed the learning program, she bought me a sewing machine. I now have my own clientele. This business has helped me in ways I could never imagined.”
What makes you upset about your work?
What makes me upset is that our own people cannot appreciate the fact that we are raising children behind prison bars. The fact that these children have committed no crime and that they do not deserve to be behind bars. What makes me upset is that there are times that these children have gone without food because food is not budgeted for them, and no proper medical care, and sometimes no even baby diapers. The government is simply not playing any role to uphold these children’s rights, and to make sure that these children growing up in prisons can enjoy the same human rights as any other child.
One day I want to see alternative prison facilities for pregnant women. There should be no child who has to suffer through the crime of their mother. Been imprisoned puts a child through mental torture- they are exposed to fights, abusive words too early in their development. We have been trying to look for funds to get children who are 4 years and above out of prisons and keep them in safe spaces, because according to the Prisons Act of Zambia section 56, children above 4 years old should not be in prison. But, because there are families, which do not come to get these children, they end up on the streets; while their mothers remain in prisons serving longer sentences.
What is your general impression about Prisons?
They should be a correctional place. I am glad that Zambia has taken a step towards calling prisons ‘Correctional Facilities’ though we are not 100% there. Currently, prisons are not a good place to be; they are overcrowded with a mixture of different people who have committed different types of crimes together in one room. Most are sick, some of them are elderly and cannot get access to certain drugs. All of these reasons make it a less than ideal place to raise a child. My dream for prisons is that they can comfortably accommodate everyone, they can have proper facilities like toilets. I would also love for a library to be built within correctional facilities, in addition to courses offered to help inmates graduate effectively and literacy classes offered at all angles. It should be a place where someone can reflect and dream outside the walls of that confinement. So that they can come out as better people than they are.