From jail with cash

Weighed down by ruthless economic bondage during Zimbabwe’s historic financial meltdown, Rosa Chakwawa, 32, decided to steal people’s livestock for resale in order to feed herself and her children.

Some of the knits
Some of the knits

But was caught and arrested in Headlands, tried at Rusape magistrate’s court and sentenced to nine years for stock theft. She was incarcerated at Mutare Farm Prison on 18 February 2009.

However, she was lucky this year as she was one of the inmates who were pardoned because of over-crowding in the prisons. She came out of prison on 23 February. While in prison, she joined the Gogo Olive Knitting Project, a rehabilitation group set up in conjunction with the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Service (ZPCS) in 2008 in response to the huge unemployment problem in Zimbabwe.

While in prison, the women were taught how to knit dolls. Chakwawa then sold her knitted wares with the help of Gogo Olive outside the country including UK, Scotland and USA. The prison helped her to open a bank account, where all the money she got from her sales was deposited.

Gift of hope

In an interview last week the founder, Julie Hagan, said her aim was to create employment for local women and give them hope by giving them craft skills that they could use to build a future for themselves and their families.

“When I was in prison, we were taught how to knit dolls. I learnt faster and my knits were so nice that they attracted many buyers from Zimbabwe and outside the country. With the cash, I paid school fees for my two kids,” said Chakwawa. During her five years in prison, knitting dolls became her specialty.

“Knitting dolls gave me a positive focus and a way in which l continued supporting my family while in prison,” she said. When she came out of prison she had $1,500 in her bank account.

Now she has been permanently employed by Gogo Olive as a knitter and is able to sustain her family.

Regular presence

Hagan said many of the prisoners had since been released and she had the privilege of offering them continued employment. “It has been so encouraging to hear their testimonies of how Gogo Olive has helped them to reintegrate back into society. Each week we bring a team into the prison for a time of worship and fellowship together. We also bring in some refreshments for the ladies to enjoy,” she said.

“It has been beneficial to have a regular presence there (in prison) as we are able to build good relationships with the prisoners and the guards. We are so encouraged by how supportive and cooperative the prison authorities have been towards Gogo Olive,” she added.

Chido Chitaka, who was also recently released from prison, said Gogo Olive had given her income and also helped her to relieve stress. “My baby passed away in 2011 and I spent most of my time thinking about my baby. But when I joined Gogo Olive I felt better as I could mix with the other ladies and share ideas and jokes together. It has relieved me so much,” she said.

Hagan said her vision was to enable Zimbabwean women to journey into the fullness of life. “Knitting was chosen as it only requires basic materials and can be done anywhere and at any time, which suits the lifestyle of a Zimbabwean woman,” she said.

Most in need

The group began with only six women. Following its success at Mutare Farm Prison, she has expanded to involve more ladies and now works alongside different groups to try and support as many women as possible.

“I aim to identify those who are most in need. There are now around 60 knitters from four different projects in three different areas of Zimbabwe,” she explained.

ZPCS Public Relations Officer Liberty Mhlanga said the service’s major aim was to empower inmates with various skills so that when they go back in the world they will have something to that gives them life. “We believe that prisoners come to prisons to be rehabilitated. We are happy that we have inmates that have acquired various skills that they will use when they get out of prison. We are very happy with the success we have achieved so far,” added Mhlanga.

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