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Betty behind bars

Uganda

Editor’s note: The cover story in the latest issue of WORLD magazine is set in Uganda. What follows is a vignette of life in the East African Country written by Uganda Christian University student Lagot Sarah Odwong:

The road from Kampala to the town of Jinja winds through the rolling hills of the Mukono countryside, which give way to large tea plantations that are sprawled on either side of the uneven tarmac highway and Mabira forest that, in all its glory, covers most of the remaining part of the highway. The road to the prison that houses Betty snakes out of Jinja into a dusty, potholed murram path lined with gardens, kiosks, and, just before the prison gates, a foul-smelling sewage treatment plant.

The gated entrance to the side-by-side male and female prisons opens the way to a bumpy road lined with gardens of maize, cassava, beans, sweet potatoes, paw-paw, and pine trees on either side—all harvested by the prisoners with most given to the prison wardens for their own consumption or sale.

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The women’s prison, a brown-tiled unimposing building surrounded by barged-wire mesh, stands atop the hill. Inside, women—some with babies—walk around in yellow prison smocks. Three months ago one of the young women, 16-year-old Betty Mirembe, was an ordinary student at Valley View College in the Kamuli district. Everything changed when a neighbor died over a land dispute. Prosecutors accused Betty’s family of murder and imprisoned nearly a dozen family members.

Now, Betty and the others are locked into sleeping rooms from 5:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. Other hours are spent working—in the fields or cooking porridge—or making crafts to sell or hanging out in the dirt enclosure of the prison. Proceeds from the crafts benefit the wardens and guards and help them educate their children. Some prisoners get visitors. Most do not. Many are sick, including a woman recently blind from an infection.

Betty longs to go back to school and become a doctor who can treat people, including women in prisons. She sings angelically, with silvery and soothing notes rising in tempo and filled with so much longing, with words reminding listeners that Jesus’ blood saves. Her voice clutches at hearts like a nail hammered into a piece of wood. 

Lagot Sarah Odwong
Lagot Sarah Odwong

Lagot is a student at Uganda Christian University.

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