“They might lock me up, but they can’t lock my mind up
They can’t lock my mind up
They can’t lock my mind up
‘cause I’m still gonna be spittin’ those
Bars behind bars
Bars behind bars”
While the UP Zambia team spends weekdays in prison providing legal advice and case updates to the juveniles, Saturdays in prison look quite different. Each Saturday we arrived at Kamwala Remand Prison with games, pockets full of candy, and, most importantly, a giant speaker and microphone. All morning, the juveniles would take turns rapping, and we would dance alongside them to songs they loved.
It wasn’t unusual for me to ask the juveniles or my friends at UP Zambia the names of songs as they played. Zambian music is upbeat and expressive, and I’d quickly grown to love not only the sound, but the way it brings people together. One Saturday, as a new song played across the courtyard, I asked a group of juveniles who the artist was. One boy winked and pointed at himself. I laughed and rolled my eyes. You see, I thought he was kidding.
But as I listened, I quickly realized the voice rapping over the speaker was the same voice I knew belonged to the juvenile in front of me. His lyrics spoke of hope and resilience, and a chorus of his friends’ voices surrounded his words. It wasn’t just a catchy beat; emotion and depth resounded throughout.
Many of the juveniles at Lusaka Central and Kamwala Remand have been in prison for years without even beginning to serve a sentence. For some, their case has been reviewed, but they still await a judgment or confirmation. For others, their trial has been adjourned repeatedly because a witness for the prosecution failed to appear in court – again. At Kamwala, many of the juveniles are brought to prison for minor theft charges. Instead of being with their families and progressing in school, the boys spend their days in overcrowded spaces without adequate clothing or hygiene. They face sleepless nights and growling stomachs. Their youth is stolen from them as prison becomes their reality.
For the juveniles, music is their sacred outlet. It’s how they share their story and navigate their emotions. During my days with them in prison, I heard raps recorded onto .mp3, listened to freestyles sung into a microphone, and read pages upon pages of lyrics written in worn-out notebooks.
Their raps tell of the struggles they face each day, but they also speak of a steadfast reliance on God and hope for a future of freedom. They write often of the “real hell” they live in, but also at lengths about their dreams and plans for the future. While exhausted and hungry, they sing “Amani Kumbuka” or, “God never forgets about me.” They are resilient, creative, and brave – and their words reflect this.
They are also thankful. They are thankful for the work that the incredible people at UP Zambia have done and continue to do for them. UP Zambia provides not only valuable legal advice and advocacy for juveniles in conflict with the law, but critical social and emotional support. For too many people in the justice system, these boys are just a name on a file, a number, a statistic. But to UP Zambia they are so much more – they are people with a future worth fighting for. They are boys who laugh, and dance, and have a depth beyond their years. They are boys who deserve a shoulder to cry on when it feels like they’ll never have their day in court, who deserve a friend to celebrate with when they learn they’ll finally be released. It is in these relationships that the work of UP Zambia proves truly invaluable.
A juvenile at Lusaka Central Correctional Facility wrote the following lyrics about the Lusaka Central Legal Desk team from UP Zambia. I think he puts into words the hope UP Zambia returns to these juveniles, simply because of their decision that these boys matter, that they have voices that deserve to be heard.
“This is my story at LCCF
a place where you find people sentenced to life in prison and death
A place where Jesus and Satan are found most
A place living like a dream but seeing a real ghost
Somewhere when just putting a smile on your face is a crime
Instead of thinking about thinking about your offense, you’re busy wasting time
Always found upset and seeking for revenge
But sometimes I find myself laughing just because of you friends
Okay, it’s not fake about the legal desk, you help me not to be at that risk
You put a smile on my face, I know I’m in a weird place
but you fill me with peace.”