An African proverb: The smaller the lizard, the greater its hope of becoming a crocodile
by Hans Hallundbaek | Special to Presbyterian News Service
Can you name the 11th largest country in the world? Would it help if I said it is the second-biggest country in Africa?
If you’re still unsure, pull up a map of Africa and place a finger right in the center of this huge continent. Chances are you have found the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DR Congo for short. Probably, like the rest of us, you know very little about this large, equatorial, and mainly tropical country named after its lifegiving Congo River, next to the Amazon River the longest waterway in the world. Most of us are not aware DR Congo is a country of contradictions. It holds large resources of raw materials like gold, silver, diamonds, copper, cobalt, manganese, coal and uranium, while at the same time being among the poorest countries in the world.
Another striking contradiction relates to the issue of imprisonment. While DR Congo has a population of 112 million people versus United States’ 331 million, it holds “only” 20,000 people in 80 prisons, compared to the United States, which incarcerates more than one million people in 1,566 prisons. If you do the math, there are, on a per-capita basis, 17 times more people incarcerated in the U.S. than in DC Congo.
This is a contradiction clearly in Congo’s favor, seeming to suggest that poverty reduces crime, or maybe that moral standards and faith perspectives play a bigger role in poor countries than in rich ones.
Whatever the conclusion, we are happy to report the biblical imperative of Matthew 25 to reach out to people in prison is alive and well in DR Congo, and it is the new generation that is taking the lead. Meet the Rev. Jean-Didier Mboyo, stationed in Lubumbashi, the nation’s second-largest city with a population of about 2.5 million in the southern part of the Congo. From here he serves as head of the Protestant chaplains in the Katanga region, which covers a large part of southern Congo.
However, Mboyo is also a man of the world in his capacity as vice president of the International Prison Chaplains Association (IPCA) and in charge of IPCA representatives to the United Nations in New York, with offices in Geneva and Vienna.
Mboyo is a frequent world traveler, and recently visited the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for women in New York. Here he learned more about the Adopt-A-Prison (AAP) program, which has proven to be successful in engaging local communities with a prison in their midst.
The AAP concept is already piloted in several countries around the world, including Congo, where the program is running in several male and female prisons in the Katanga region. Local community and church members demonstrate the Adopt-A-Prison principles — and Jesus’ command of loving your neighbor — through visiting prisons regularly and donating food, clothing, medication and medical supplies, as well as offering education programs and general moral support and prayers for those in need.
As Mboyo says, “When the prison runs out of food, which happens frequently, then they call us and we try to find a way to help, or if a prisoner is released from a prison far away from his or her home, we arrange for transportation.”
He adds, “This is our way of loving our neighbor.”
History reminds us that Africa was conquered by European imperial powers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This colonial period was a dark chapter in African history, where most countries suffered under heartless colonial rules of oppression and exploitation. DR Congo is no exception in experiencing colonial exploitation, and often is cited as an example of extreme brutal treatment.
After liberation from Belgium in 1960, DR Congo suffered two violent civil wars until democracy at last was achieved. Mboyo has been honored by the Congolese president with two silver medals and a gold medal for his part in rebuilding the country.
The African culture is famous for its treasure trove of proverbs that offer strength to handle the struggles of life. Mboyo is well acquainted with that culture and when reflecting on prison engagement he says: “Congo is a poor country, but through prison outreach we have learned that sharing the little we have becomes enrichment for us.”
A few minutes later he scribbled down the inherent wisdom of this lament by coining a new African proverb: “While it takes a community to save a prison, it takes a prison to save a community.”
Our prison system was established as a way for society to deal with fellow human beings who do not follow the rules. Unfortunately, we often forget our obligation to follow up with redemption and rehabilitation efforts for those we commit to incarceration. That is the reason today’s prisons increasingly are renamed “correctional facilities,” reflecting the universally accepted goal of incarceration: incapacitation, deterrence, and correction. Under the Adopt-A-Prison program, this goal of “correction” is highlighted as the key for its rehabilitative efforts and at the same time a vital common goal with the management of the prison systems or correctional facilities of the world.
The Rev. Dr. Hans Hallundbaek, a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is a co-founder of both Rehabilitation through the Arts and the Interfaith Prison Partnership, an outreach of Hudson River Presbytery. He is an adjunct instructor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Marist College. He lives in Katonah, New York.
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