Cameroon initiative helps young violent offenders become ‘prisonpreneurs,’ peace builders

BUEA, CAMEROON – The central African nation of Cameroon, like other countries south of the Sahara, is witnessing a steady upsurge in the number of young people in conflict with the law. Some are recruited by criminal gangs or violent extremist groups.

The rise in prison numbers – from 20,000 in 2002 to 30,000 in 2016, according to World Prison Brief statistics – is occurring at a time of rising unemployment. The International Labour Organization says the jobless rate has jumped from 3.2 percent in 2008 to 4.3 percent in 2016. However, the government focuses on prosecution and has not significantly reduced unemployment. Juveniles were 3 percent of the inmates in 2016, World Prison Brief reports.

According to the U.S. Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017, prison conditions in Cameroon remained harsh and potentially life-threatening due to gross overcrowding, inadequate food and medical care, physical abuse, and poor sanitary conditions. Prison administrators often attribute the conditions to lack of resources. As such, little is done to rehabilitate prisoners and prevent further radicalisation in and out of prison.

Inmates participate in climate-smart agriculture training in a greenhouse at Bamenda central prison in northwest Cameroon.  |  Amindeh Blaise Atabong

Against this backdrop, Achaleke Christian Leke initiated a project intended to change the trend. Leke is national coordinator of Local Youth Corner Cameroon (LOYOC), a grassroots organization that champions peace and counters violent extremism. He and his team strive to build ‘prisonpreneurs,’ a play on the words prison and entrepreneur, in prisons across the country.

The project, known as Creative Skills for Peace, aims to help young violent offenders rebuild their lives and reintegrate in society. The work focuses on five areas: entrepreneurship development, vocational training, peacebuilding training, civic education, and sports for social cohesion and peace. The project has been extended to train prison staffs to be able to manage delinquent young people. Also, prison libraries have been created while spelling and essay competitions have been put in place.

The project initiator says he was inspired by his childhood. “Despite growing in violence, I was given an opportunity through training and mentorship, and today I am a peacebuilder, a change maker,” says Leke, who was recognized for excellence in development work as Commonwealth Young Person of the Year in 2016. He sees the need to give back to his community.

Targeting some 300 prisoners between the ages of 13 and 35 years in eight prisons, the project was designed to reach out to young people who have a history of violence and violent extremism. “Our wish is to train trainers. The training is usually very intense and in small groups. As such, in selecting the inmates, we went in for those who have leadership qualities for them to reach out to the hardened ones,” Leke says. He notes that while giving the prisoners an alternative to violence, the project leaders also want to use them to transform their peers.

Ebot Jean Sanyi, assistant research officer for cooperation at the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Civic Education, says Creative Skills for Peace is highly innovative. “This project has gone beyond the usual financial and material support to prisoners, to teaching and reinforcing their skills with the aim of ensuring their independence once they leave prisons and curbing the rate of recidivism among young people in Cameroon,” he says.

Small Idea, Big Impact

In the first seven months of the project, convicts, including women and girls, have learned about tailoring, paper bag production, silk screening, climate-smart agriculture, poultry farming, music, jewellery making with beads, information and communication technologies, as well as electricity. At the Bamenda central prison, in northwest Cameroon, a greenhouse established to train project beneficiaries is being used to change perceptions as well.

“Contrary to what many people may think about the greenhouse farm – having the fruit, we are training them how to nurture,” Leke says. Many of the prisoners took lives because they did not understand what it means to give life, he tells Civic Ideas. The farm project teaches prisoners how to take care of something as it grows to maturity. “Prisoners have been able to see things differently, especially for some who took out lives,” Leke says.

The prisoners were very unreceptive at the onset, threatening project officials, says Epie Mark, a project trainer on paper bag production at the Buea central prison, in southwest Cameroon. One inmate regrets having threatened to stab a trainer if he failed to bring him money in next day’s class. Over time, the inmates developed a liking for the program.

“The project is very engaging,” Mark says. “Products manufactured by the trainees have reached the level of marketing on the international scene.” The ‘Made by Prisonpreneurs’ brand was presented to the world at a product exhibition at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London in April 2018.

Young violent offenders produce handmade jewelry from beads at the Buea central prison in southwest Cameroon.  |  Amindeh Blaise Atabong

Life-changing Initiative

The project has enhanced the capacity of ‘prisonpreneurs’ to be independent and serves as an alternative to violence. Acha Othniel, a young inmate at Buea central prison serving a two-year sentence, was convicted of breach of trust over a missing laptop computer.  In his last eight months of imprisonment, he has been trained in music and live band performance through the Creative Skills for Peace Project.

“Before coming here, I was interested in music but my skills were not as polished as they are now. Following the training, my fingers have become more flexible,” Othniel says of his piano playing. He wears a reassuring smile, unlike many inmates in Cameroonian prisons, and he tells Civic Ideas that, upon leaving prison, he intends to use his new musical skills to sing peace, stability and unity in Cameroon, which is increasingly restive in its English-speaking regions.

Michael, 40, who has spent 11 years at Bamenda central prison, counts himself as the luckiest beneficiary of the initiative, although he declined to give his full name out of shame for his past. Sitting in the lone, small courtyard, he tells Civic Ideas his being in prison is not a mistake because he benefits from the prison project, learning a trade he didn’t have a chance to learn outside. “It has been very helpful to us. The way people perceived us when we came here will not be the same when we go back to the community,” Michael says.

Like Michael, Jerrys Che is a prisoner who says he wasted seven years of imprisonment before the project came. “I never knew something interesting like this existed,” he says. He recalls being idle and indulging in crimes before finding himself at Bamenda central prison. Che, who has been trained in fashion design, takes one week to produce an ‘atogho’ – a Cameroonian traditional gown for men and women – that he sells for at least FCFA 50,000 (US$ 28). “I thank God for bringing me here [in prison],” Jerrys says, adding that he looks forward to leaving the prison in three years as a new man.

A female inmate, Manka Sharon Manka, says the initiative has been life-changing for her. Convicted of capital murder, she entered the prison as a commercial sex worker and would leave as a seamstress, should she be pardoned. “I regret all my negative actions,” she says. “My hopes are high that I will one day leave here. Once that happens, I will transfer these tailoring skills to other underprivileged girls in order to prevent them from getting here.”

Achiri Blaise, leader of the inmates being trained in poultry farming at Bamenda central prison, is halfway through an eight-year sentence for multiple offences. Blaise has vowed not to commit crimes again. “I now have something I can do to take care of my family. I know once I reintegrate in the society, I would not do again what brought me here,” he says.

Other inmates have similar hopes of leaving prison and using the skills learned through the project. The smiles they wear during training workshops fade only when they have to return to their overcrowded wards.

To Prince Mundi Tanda, a postgraduate in conflict and peace studies at the Heritage Higher Institute of Peace and Development Studies Yaounde, such a project is laudable but should extend to financially empowering the inmates. He adds that, in order to curb youth violence, a country needs greater social justice, good governance, equitable distribution of national resources, effective separation of power, and other measures. “Without these ingredients, a country will be living a situation of negative or fragile peace,” he says.

According to Forchan Kizictor Bala, senior prisons chief warder and program supervisor of the Creative Skills for Peace Project at Buea central prison, the socio-cultural activities that accompanied the training were the best the prison has ever had and materials were available for the training that targeted only convicts.

Under normal circumstances, prison officials would not carry out such an enterprising activity in the correctional facility, Bala says, adding that “there are no funds allocation for such, presumably due to hardship.”

To Bala, it will be a good idea if the project initiators extend it to more prisons and cover more inmates. Leke, the project founder, wants to extend it to more prisons and more inmates, but adds that “we hope to have funds to expand the project.”