This past Christmas and New Year, I challenged myself to take a trip to Africa. I needed to take an ancestral journey to the motherland, and so I reached out to my dear friend, Dr. Jennifer Madden and her husband Khalil. Together, we made the trip, and I must say it was quite a journey.
Our travels took us to three countries in West and East Africa: Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda. We connected with local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and learned about the work they are doing to help women while incarcerated and upon their release. We visited the local prisons—you know I could not pass up the opportunity to visit a women’s prison. Much like here in the United States, women across the continent of Africa have access to very few resources that can help them while caught in the legal system.
During these visits, I had conversations with prison officials and spoke with them about the need for women to have housing and services upon release. They were in complete agreement. One official, Controller B. R. Freedman (head of the prison system in Lagos, Nigeria), was so overwhelmed with hope after seeing one of our videos that he presented me with an award. I was so overwhelmed with gratitude. It was such a good meeting!
I also met with a group of formerly incarcerated women to learn firsthand about their reentry experience. They spoke about being disowned by family and pushed out of the villages they called home prior to being incarcerated. The stigma across the continent is more devastating than we experience here in the United States. Here, we have done so much advocacy work to overcome the stigma and support people to come home and rebuild their lives. This work has not yet taken root in the countries I visited.
In Kenya, I met up with several NGOs to learn more and talk about their work with women—and, of course, I went with them into the prison. While in Kenya, I was able to experience the safari and reconnect with the land. I saw zebras, giraffes, gazelles, and lions. It was so beautiful.
Uganda holds a special place in my heart because of the relationships I had previously created during past visits. Several years ago, in 2019, I was fortunate enough to create a friendship and partnership with Francis Ssuubi (Executive Director of Wells of Hope). We had met when I went to Uganda with Rebecca Ginsburg (Founder and Director of the Illinois-based Education Justice Project). Francis’ nonprofit, Wells of Hope, is a Christian organization that does outreach to children with parents who are currently incarcerated and those who are formerly incarcerated. Wells of Hope provides a boarding school for the children of incarcerated parents.
During my last visit, in 2019, I had gone to the local prison and met with some of the incarcerated women. There, I witnessed the lack of services for women and I immediately began to think of what we could do to help them when they are released. I wanted to help create an opportunity for these formerly incarcerated women to transform their lives. Working with Wells of Hope, Francis and I established the first SAFE home for women in the continent of Africa, in Kampala, Uganda.
Four years later, during this current visit, I was able to meet with some of the women who had been incarcerated during my first trip. It was beautiful to sit, talk and share food with them. I was especially happy to visit a woman, who is now a friend, who had been incarcerated back in 2019. She now owns a store that Wells of Hope helped her to get. When I see the process and transformation of the women I helped, it brings me joy and appreciation for what we have been able to accomplish through A New Way of Life’s SAFE Housing Network. This experience was definitely one of the highlights of this trip.
That these women are supported and doing well speaks to the work Francis has put into his community. I admire and respect him because of he has seen the value of this work and is dedicated to providing these women with a space for healing. He is such a kind soul. When I got off the plane, I was given such a warm welcome. There were young women carrying a large photograph of me and performing a welcome dance.
I started A New Way of Life in 1998 with the hope of helping women like me. In the twenty-five years since, this mission has led me all over the world to help formerly incarcerated and incarcerated women change their lives. It has been an incredible journey. I feel fortunate to be able to see the impact this mission has had, and I can’t wait to see what more is in store in the future for A New Way of Life and the SAFE Housing Network.