For the past 10 years, activist, educator and human rights worker, Claire Ndi Samba, has been working to support the children of prison inmates in Cameroon through her NGO Relais Enfants-Parents du Cameroun (REPCAM). Her organization’s primary mission is to maintain healthy bonds between incarcerated parents and their children, who are one of the most marginalized groups of society. Many children of inmates are school dropouts, experience isolation from their peers and feel abandoned to themselves, a situation that makes them vulnerable to all sorts of dangers and abuse. They suffer in silence but the impact on society is tremendous.
With a population of 22 million people, Cameroon has 78 functional prisons with a total capacity of 17,000 people. On the other hand, the inmate population of Cameroon keeps growing and was estimated at over 26,000 in 2015, including women, men and adolescents awaiting trial. The societal impact is as alarming as the numbers: in 2016, over 54 000 children in Cameroon have an incarcerated parent.
An inner calling
Claire’s journey began in 2006 while she was the High School Principal of the Samba Institute Secondary School in Yaoundé, a position she held for 11 years. One day she met Joel, a 12-year-old student torn between a family breakdown and the incarceration of his mother. In school, Joel had a habit of stealing books with the hope of being sent to jail, the only alternative, in his eyes, to ever see his mother again. Intrigued and moved by his story, Claire decided to take him to the Yaoundé Central Prison to visit his mother he had not seen in three years. It was an epiphany moment for her. In the midst of a very emotional bonding meeting between a mother and son, Claire realized how difficult it was for Joel’s mother to “reconnect” with her son, to recreate their broken yet sacred bond and explain to him the reasons of her incarceration. That day, Claire naturally became a facilitator between a mother and her son by finding the right words to gradually recreate this broken bond. After this transformational experience, Claire committed herself to support Joel both academically and personally, and ensure that he would visit his mom on a regular basis, and graduate from High School. She quickly realized that Joel’s story is far from being isolated, and there are many children and adolescents across Cameroon suffering in silence of the absence of their incarcerated parents.
Stigmatization, isolation, guilt, financial and material instability, school dropout, behavior problems, family breakdown, depression and abuse: these are some of the challenges children of inmates face in Cameroon. Aware of the social impact of this growing issue and the lack of existing support systems for children of inmates, Claire decided to resign from her High School Principal position, to devote herself entirely to this cause. Her organization, REPCAM, supports a network of nearly 700 children of inmates across Cameroon.
For the past 10 years, Claire and her team of volunteers have conducted various field actions to reinforce healthy bonds between children and their incarcerated parents. On Mother and Father’s Day, two celebrations take place in the main prisons of Yaoundé and Mfou where children spend have the opportunity to spend quality time with their parents in a festive atmosphere. Each year, a back-to-school ceremony takes place at the heart of the Yaounde Central Prison with different activities for children and their parents, along with donation of school kits.
At the end of the year, a Christmas party is held at the prisons of Yaounde and Mfou during which incarcerated parents spend time with their children and give them symbolic gifts.
Throughout the year, the REPCAM collects donations in order to fund all these activities.
A special visiting house inside the prison
But Claire’s biggest project, and the one she is the most proud of, is a special visiting house adapted to private family visits inside the Yaoundé Central Prison: an innovative project in Cameroon allowing parents to bond with their children in a more healthy and intimate atmosphere, as if they were at home.
This main purpose of this visiting house is to recreate a home-like environment. In a 50 square meters space equipped with a living room, kitchen, bathroom, and children’s playground, the special visiting house allows families to spend private and precious time together, and create positive memories away from the prison’s ambient chaos. Parents can cook for their children, read them stories or play with them. This is the first visiting house to ever exist in a Cameroonian prison, and certainly not the last. Initially built in 2009, the REPCAM’s special visiting house had to close its doors for several years due to lack of funding and legal authorization of operation from the prison administration. It is now legally open and was officially inaugurated on April 8th of 2016, in partnership with the CFO Foundation and the Ministry of Social Affairs of Cameroon. A pilot project Claire hopes to replicate in other prisons across Cameroon and Africa.
In addition to being a place suitable for private family visits, it will also house manufacturing workshops for pregnant women held at the Yaoundé Central prison, where they can create shoes and clothes for their coming babies. It is not unusual to find pregnant women convicted or awaiting trial in Cameroon’s prisons. Since the beginning of this year, there are indeed 8 pregnant women at the Yaoundé Central Prison. They live in precarious conditions and have limited access to prenatal medical care and the resources needed to conduct their pregnancy. Other women have no other choices but to live in prison with their toddlers. These women, who represent the most vulnerable group of the inmate population, have become one of the main targets of REPCAM alongside the 150 teenagers detained at the Yaoundé Central Prison. The REPCAM provides them with material, financial and psychological support.
REPCAM wins Award of Excellence
Since its creation, Claire funds the REPCAM’s various activities with her own funds and the material and financial donations from individuals and organizations mainly from the diaspora. Despite growing needs, Claire’s efforts and her organization’s actions are increasingly recognized in Cameroon and worldwide. Indeed, after several years of hard work, her commitment and devotion to support the children of inmates in Cameroon earned her the price of Social Inclusion at the Social Innovation and Global Ethics Forum (SIGEF) in Geneva in 2014, and the price of Humanitarian Excellence of the African Committee of Excellence in 2015.