I Live Here: My Story

09/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I traveled to Malawi in January of 2005. It was my first time in Sub-Saharan Africa, a place which felt like an obscure Narnia. I found myself in Kachere Juvenile Prison, located in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. I was there with my co-writer, James MacKinnon, to collect material for the Malawi chapter of I Live Here, a four-volume anthology about vanishing communities around the world. James and I stood in the center of the prison watching these boys search for shade. It was quiet in there. Oddly so. The sun, like an open sore, seeped into our pores, robbing us of energy. There was a sharp smell of shit, made pungent by the heat.

Back then, there were roughly ninety boys in Kachere. They appeared to be waiting for something. I'm not sure what. Upon release many have no place to go; they are orphans, their parents having died from AIDS-related illnesses. Many of them here are on remand for months at a time. Many are in the prison for stealing Nokia cell phones or corn, their crime related to their savage hunger due to poverty. Their daily routine is simple. They are let out of their cell at 6:00 a.m., eat once a day and are locked back in their cell at 4:00 p.m. There is one bucket in each crowded cell for the boys to relieve themselves. I guess that is why cholera can be an issue here. There are no beds or books. Sometimes there is no soap and I can see sores and rashes on their skin. Sometimes there is not enough food. The government is poor and does not have funding to operate in spite of good intentions.

I know that there are large and well-funded organizations that work in Lilongwe, yet no one has stepped in to change these conditions. Why? Why are some groups of people left to be discarded like human remains?

I never imagined that I would ever be doing something like this.

After James and I returned from Malawi, we felt a deep need to do more for the Kachere boys. They made James and I humble and oddly optimistic. In spite of what they had been through, the majority of boys wrote beautifully, with heartbreaking depth and strength about their lives in prison. We decided to start a program. It's a simple program, centered around creative writing and art. We hire local teachers and use a curriculum, designed to have the boys express what they need and hope for. From there, I Live Here will do its best to address basic human rights and needs not being met in the prison. Additionally, we will work with paralegals to ensure that their legal rights are being served. At the end of the year, we'll publish a small book with the work from Kachere, with proceeds going back into the program next year.

It's taken us a few years to design I Live Here, and since we were last there, conditions have deteriorated. Two boys recently died in this prison. The population has swelled and fighting has become commonplace.

We are having our first fundraiser tonight, Aug 22, in Santa Monica. It's the very first fundraiser for ILH. Tickets are $25 - $50 at the door.

I can't help but have butterflies in my stomach, worrying that no one will come. I think it's because I've worked on ILH for nine years. If people come to the event, they will be able to see that it takes a small amount of money to make some pretty amazing changes. For instance, for $300 you can supply soap to all the boys in prison for one year, preventing rashes.

I leave for Malawi a few days after the event to set up the program and staff it. All I know for certain is that I am ready to begin.

Thank you Malawi.

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