Letter from Zimbabwe

Independent Catholic News
By: Clemens Freyer SJ

picture: NewZimbabwe.com
picture: NewZimbabwe.com

“Who is my neighbour?” For us in St George’s there are 1,200 of them, just across Borrowdale Road behind bars in Harare Central Prison.

Times are bad for all of us – more so for those who have no contacts, no lobby, only guards. Since the beginning of 2009 Fr Koni Landsberg SJ went to see the sick in Harare Central Prison together with Theresa Wilson, a teacher from St George’s College. She mobilized staff and students to bring sandwiches for the sick prisoners.

In March rations in the prison had been reduced to a quarter of those in February. In April sadza was given out only once a day – if at all. Malnutrition caused diseases; hunger was endemic with fatalities every week. The International Red Cross was called in but would arrive only in the middle of May. Something had to be done there and then.

Koni Landsberg bought two tonnes of mealie meal. In St George’s we bought 300 loaves daily and with the help of the kitchen staff, some teachers and students prepared 2,400 peanut butter sandwiches plus 1,200 eggs or oranges every day. Distribution in the prison was supervised by Ms Wilson and Fr Freyer in the afternoon. It took about 2–3 hours. That went on for almost two weeks till the International Red Cross arrived. The food situation has improved significantly but some of the deficiency symptoms (pellagra) remained. Some parents brought medicated Vaseline. A medical team from Germany visited the prisoners and recommended Nicotinamide tablets. We bought all we could get – thousands.

In May the cold set in. The College helped with 36 matted blankets for the prison hospital. But many prisoners ran around half naked or with clothes in tatters. We, therefore, switched to clothing. 120 metres of drill provided enough material for 60 trousers to begin with. Fr Tony Bex SJ helped with funds.

In St George’s boys, donated shoes – and even money, for footballs. A major programme for jerseys made according to prison regulations was initiated. Help came from overseas and from local sources. The jerseys were manufactured in Zimbabwe. On St Ignatius’ Day students presented 30 jerseys during Mass which they had paid for. Altogether 365 jerseys have so far been distributed; the goal is, a jersey for each prisoner. Ms Wilson and Fr Freyer go to the prison as soon as a batch comes off the knitting machines. We have been given access to all sections of the prison including death row. The prisoners are very grateful but there is still a lot to be done to make living conditions acceptable for all. We shall keep looking over the shoulders of the authorities and let them know: we are concerned.

Clemens Freyer SJ