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Namibia: helping families visit their loved ones in detention

08-11-2011 Feature

Each year since 2002, over 350 people visit their relatives detained in Namibian detention centres in relation to the events in the Caprivi region in 1999. As the Caprivi region is far away from the detention centres, the ICRC and Namibia Red Cross Society (NRCS) help families visit their detained loved ones. The following is an account of a 2011 three-day visit as seen through the eyes of Pauline, Maria and Samuel.

Pauline

Pauline* (56) lives in Katima Mulilo, the largest town in the Caprivi region. Her husband has been detained in the capital of the country, at Windhoek Central Prison, since 1999. Like many other women in her community, she cannot afford to travel to Windhoek to see her husband.

She arrives with over 100 women and children at Moreson Primary School hostel in Windhoek after a long journey of 18 hours and over 1,000 km.

It's already very late and so she rests for a couple of hours. At 4 am, she wakes up to prepare her husband's favourite food. In the kitchen provided at the hostel, everyone talks at the same time as they prepare special meals for their loved ones.

Each woman has a different story to tell about her life and experiences before such family visit programmes existed. Pauline recalls the three cold nights she spent sleeping outside at a gas station in Windhoek, in July 2001 – the only time she has visited her husband at Windhoek Central Prison before the family visit programme was initiated.

"It was freezing outside, I had nowhere to go and no one to turn to in Windhoek, she recalls. It was hard to save money to travel to Windhoek; our children needed money for food, clothes and school fees. What I'd earned from selling my crops was just not enough. But I had to see my husband to remind him that I still loved him and to let him know that we were doing fine."  

Pauline says she does not have to struggle anymore: accommodation, transport and food are all provided for by the ICRC and NRCS during this three-day trip. In Windhoek, she can cook her husband's favourite meal: 'oshifima' (cooked maize meal), fish, sweet potatoes and cabbage, and buy him toiletries. "I can see him with my mind at peace, she says."

Maria

Maria* (71) is the first to get to the bus stop. She cannot wait to see her son whom she last saw in December 2010 under the family visit programme. "Although I have grown old and sometimes I can barely hear him over the telephone during the visit, the opportunity is very valuable and the memories cannot be erased," she says. She explains in detail everything she wants to say to her son today. "I want to tell my son so much – the cattle have been caught by wild animals, I have no one to fetch the firewood for me and my body is weak."

When they arrive at Windhoek Central Prison, the detainees and their families wave at each other with excitement. They quickly sit on the benches provided and talk over the telephones separated by reinforced glass. They laugh and chat about their children, the state of their crops and cattle, their health and changes that have taken place in the Caprivi region. Every topic is important. Others just hold the telephone and cry – they have so much to say, but their emotions run over.

"I talked to my son. I am so happy now," says Maria with a chuckle.

Samuel

He was only a year old when his father was detained. "Each visit is a magical moment for me. he says with a huge smile."

While at the prison, Samuel savours every moment he has with his father. He holds the telephone tight as he talks to his father. He does not want to be disturbed by anyone during this important moment of bonding. Samuel tells his father everything he has on his mind: he has passed with flying colours at school and came fourth in a class of 40, but there are big boys at school who beat him up or scare him. He does not know what to do about them, he is afraid but cannot even tell his teacher.  

His father listens to every word attentively and smiles at his son. "My heart is filled with joy because my father plays a special part in my life even if he is in prison. I cannot imagine life without seeing my father," says Samuel, with tears in his eyes.  

But all too soon the time comes when the families have to leave the prison. It is hard to let go of the telephones. It is time to go home. All of them bring back a gift from their relative in prison – a handmade, colourful, individually designed basket. Although they cannot go home with their relatives, the men's gifts and the memories are priceless. As for Samuel, he carries his father's words in his heart. "Now I can face the boys at school," he says.

* not their real names


Photos

Namibia, Windhoek Central Prison. A woman takes pleasure in preparing food for her husband who has been in the Windhoek prison since 1999. 

Namibia, Windhoek Central Prison. A woman takes pleasure in preparing food for her husband who has been in the Windhoek prison since 1999.
© ICRC / D. Hove

Namibia, Windhoek Central Prison. A woman talks to her husband,  informing him of the challenges she is facing back home. 

Namibia, Windhoek Central Prison. A woman talks to her husband, informing him of the challenges she is facing back home.
© ICRC / D. Hove

Namibia, Windhoek Central Prison. Women and children wave goodbye to their loved ones. 

Namibia, Windhoek Central Prison. Women and children wave goodbye to their loved ones.
© ICRC / D. Hove