“When serving time you remember that God really exists; all you do is pray and pray”
For two years, Sifa Uwiringiyimana daily fed on the insipid mixture of maize and beans, cultivated gardens for no wedge and slept in a semi-open congestion space.
Uwiringiyimana viewed prison life as a nightmare until the day she was convicted. At 27 years old, she had dreamed of living behind bars until her criminal offense of abortion dictated so.
For about three years, Uwiringiyimana had uninterruptedly sold cocaine; not even the police had knowledge of drug dealings in her area (cite) located at Kamembe town, Rusizi district in the Western Province of Rwanda.
The Police’s lucky day came and Uwiringiyimana was caught red handed with fifteen kilograms of cocaine. With enough evidence pinning her for drug abuse and illegal drug trafficking, Uwiringiyimana was sentenced to two years in jail—time she credits for changing her life’s direction.
First day in jail
Uwiringiyimana’s first day in jail was a Wednesday. She hardly believed that her hair that she treasured so much was completely shaved off. The pink prison’s uniform also made her feel awkward regardless of the fact that other inmates comfortably wore it.
The stories that Uwiringiyimana heard from inmates, in jail were tormenting and unforgettable.
“An 18-year-old girl narrated to me of how she intentionally aborted her baby. Abortion in itself wasn’t a new thing but the raw method she used was too harsh to believe,” she said.
According to Uwiringiyimana, some women narrated of how they had murdered their husbands using witchcraft; some were in for abortion while others were well-known drug dealers.
Uwiringiyimana was a mother of two. She spent sleepless nights traumatized by what would happen to her sons in her absentia. It was her fellow inmates who consoled her with words like, “two years is just a small sentence.”
Like any other family, inmates welcomed Uwiringiyimana to their world, promising total co-operation in everything.
Uwiringiyimana quickly made friends in Cyangugu Central Prison; her only problem was where to sleep.
“Each prisoner had two pieces of timber that acted as a mattress. Wealthy ones had timber husks piled up in huge sacks which they used as mattresses. I was more worried of where I would sleep than of what I would use to shelter my body from wind,” she said.
Fortunately, one woman was set to end her sentence the following day, and this gave Uwiringiyimana the chance to own the yet-to-be released’s pieces of timber, at a fee of Rwf500.
The daily dinner was a mixture of maize and beans—a meal Uwiringiyimana detested.
“The only place where true friendship happens is the prison,” she said.
According to this ex-convict, prison will shape even the most dangerous person into a warm friendly person. She said that, on several occasions, well-to-do prisoners helped the poor ones with sanitary pads. The Muslim women prisoners would go as far as preparing meals for the entire prison, during the Eid celebrations.
Additionally, other religious denominations showed their worth through preaching the word of God and acts of service.
“Catholics and Protestants would go as far as baptizing new entrants into their religion,” explained Uwiringiyimana.
Regardless of the influence of religion, female convicts work hand-in-hand to help those with diseases in prison.
“An excuse to get meals from home was the only option for those with diabetes, cancer and other chronic diseases.
Meanwhile, many with such complications had left no one at home, provoking us to work hard inside prison so that they would at least access donuts, bread or other kind of edibles for a change,” she said.
Prisoners were taught different money generating activities. These included making wedding rings, sewing handmade tablecloths, tailoring cloths as well as weaving wall decorations.
For every finished work, the maker would earn 10 percent of the sales income. Depending on priorities, that 10 percent would either be sent home, or used for charity, within the prison.
It was hard for many mothers to cope with life away from their children. At times women got ill because of the stress of not being near their children.
“Most of the times, single parents would go back home only to find their children in a horrible state of health, infected with jiggers,” said Uwiringiymana.
Being locked up in the same place made women lose weight or become plump.
“We got out prison a few times to dig in people’s plantations but spent the rest of our days working while seated down,” she said.
She said that some women who served longer sentences received news that their husbands had re-married or become skirt-mongers in the village.
“You get overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness in prison knowing that your husband can’t behave himself,” Uwiringiyimana stressed.
Another torment was when a convict died while in prison. It was the prison staff responsible for burying the body. This reality is what keeps women on their knees; they never want to be buried as prisoners.
“When serving time you remember that God really exists; all you do is pray and pray,” she said.
As a result, convicts wake up as early as 5:00 a.m to say daily prayer. They sing hymns and then go ahead to seek God’s power to release them from jail.
Two years later she hugged her kids, and tasted freedom once again.
Uwiringiyimana’s sentence taught her volumes—she found a different direction in life.
“I intend on keeping a clean record, free from crime so that I stay away from the cold walls of prison,” she says smiling.