I met a new friend yesterday. Her name is Danielle. She is four years old, and she lives in a prison just a few miles from where we are docked. Yes, you read that correctly. Danielle is four years old and lives in a prison.
As you probably noticed from my previous post, I've felt a bit disconnected from the people here. Trying to excuse my own self-centeredness, I've verbalized all of the possible reasons to anyone who would listen. (1) We live in a bubble on the ship, our own little world completely separated from the culture. (2) I spend my days teaching, so I don't even meet the people in the hospital unless I have "adopted" a patient for the week. (3) I don't speak French. (4) I've only been here for a month. Etc., etc., etc.
I decided to rid myself at least a few of my excuses by participating in the prison ministry with my friends Jamie and Kelly on Saturday. I have to be honest that I was not excited about it at first. Prison ministry? No thanks. But the orphanage is only an option on the weekdays, and the trip to the psychiatric center had been cancelled. So I went. Hesitantly. And I'm so glad I did.
When we arrived, I was surprised that the set-up of the prison contained no cells or bars. The prisoners didn't even wear uniforms unless they had earned a job working security. It seemed more like a packed community than a correction facility. There were separate sections for the men, youth, and women, but other than that, people appeared to be doing normal, everyday chores--washing dishes, laundry, cooking, etc. A normal community at first glance, but surrounded by thick concrete walls that prevent any thoughts of freedom.
After asking a few questions, I learned that many of the prisoners there aren't even from Benin. Apparently, Benin has more credibility than many of its neighboring nations. People often come to Benin with falsified documents in hopes of getting a visa to leave their home country. When they are caught, they end up in prison in Benin. This is the case with many of the female prisoners that we met.
But what about Danielle? Why a four-year-old? Most likely, Danielle's mother didn't have anyone else to take care of her daughter, so she had no choice but to bring her to prison. Like the other prisoners, Danielle gets one meal per day. She sleeps on a mat on a dirt floor. She cannot go outside and play. There are very few other children in the prison, and none of them are her age. Despite all of this, Danielle is one of the most joyful little girls I have ever met, with a bright smile and an infectious laugh. It didn't take long for her to capture my heart.
With what little French I know, I learned that she has four pets at home--two little animals and two big ones. She asked me if I had a baby, and she told me that my hair was long but not good for braiding! Most of the time, though, I couldn't understand what she was saying, despite her animated hand motions and dramatic facial expressions. I could say nothing but, "Je ne comprends pas." ("I don't understand.") Each time, she would repeat her story, this time a little louder or with a bit more animation.
As I continued to tell her I didn't understand, she finally exclaimed, "It's not possible!" I guess she didn't grasp how I could clearly tell her I didn't understand, in French, without understanding what she was trying to tell me. Over and over, I had to repeat my go-to French phrase, and then she asked, "Why? Why? Why?" I explained that I only spoke a tiny bit of French.
And then came my favorite part of the conversation. She said, "It's not good!" I laughed and agreed with her as several of the women sitting nearby laughed along with us. A four-year-old told me my French is not good. But hey, at least I understood her!
I can't wait to talk to Danielle again when we go back to the prison in two weeks. Maybe she'll notice an improvement. :)