Free Worship: Prison Life, a Religious Jungle

Harare - The Central Prison is no man's lands - a one big religious jungle. Rastafarians. Satanists. Christians. Muslims. Traditional believers are all accommodated at the 'school of hard knocks'. Here there is no discrimination - and in a bid to survive the tough prison conditions, inmates have resorted to different religions.

A correctional life characterised by confinement, a controlled diet and not so desirable living conditions requires mentally tough inmates to survive. Religions like Christianity, Islam, Rastafari and African Tradition have come in handy with the message of hope carrying inmates through each day.

For 35 year old Noel Mharikasa, Rastafarianism has become his solace. “Things are difficult in prison and people of other faiths complain that we don’t have meat in our diet. But as a Rastafarian I am not bothered by diet because we are vegetarians. We are kings and our hands don’t touch blood,” he said.
Life in Prison is Dominated by Religion 

Rastafarians consider meat as “dead” hence working against livity and the elevation of life. In addition Rastas do not cut their hair which is symbolic to the Lion of Judah. They use marijuana in reasoning sessions, but unfortunately marijuana is not allowed in prison. 

“They also want us to go against God’s image and cut our hair. Jah will never give power to the bald heads. Like Samson he was a Rastafarian. We are now like reggae Rastas who just associate with Rasta through music.

“In addition because the dominant religion is Christianity we find ourselves worshipping on Sunday which is also against our beliefs. It’s like we are worshipping the god of the Sun. “We are comfortable to congregate on Saturday,” said Mharikasa who revealed that they are three other Rastafarians in the prison.

Having served four of his six year sentence, Mharikasa credits the practice of meditation to his achievement in completing his Ordinary Level course. “When I entered the prison I had no O-Level qualification but I have done so and now I am working towards my A-Level.

“In the morning I go to my class and learn. After that I then go to meditate. So the beginning of the day until sunset is not a pain to me. “But we cannot get weed which I definitely miss because when I am meditating, I take it and feel the inner part of me,” Mharikasa said.

Fungai Dhizabhaikwa (29) who is serving nine years four months for rape said his belief in ATR has kept him in good health. 

“I came here in 2011 and since then I have not visited the hospital. I might have a toothache not any other sickness. From the time I got in here many have died, some whom I stayed with yet I’m still here. “So it’s some of the things that if we follow proper channels, our ancestors will answer,” Dhizabhaikwa said.

He said they are in need of drums, mbira, hosho, snuff, wood plates and clothes to be able to fully practice their beliefs.

The Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services which oversees the prison facilities restricts the use of some of the items for security and health reasons. Convicted for carjacking, 35 year old Honest Sibanda Bidiurinje, a devoted Satanist said he is at crossroads having gone through incomplete deliverance before he became an inmate.

In search of a job he was initiated into Satanism in the process sacrificing a part of his ear to enable him to hear spiritual voices. “I had been delivered by Prophet Walter Magaya before I was arrested. But the deliverance had not been complete. I was supposed to go and take a cobra stick and bones of people who died in the cult in South Africa but I wasn’t able to.

“Now I have problems because I don’t have anointing oil to use before I sleep, wristbands and bracelets. “And I cannot seek deliverance here because the problem with Christians here is that they are not prophets so they are limited to seeing spiritually. “When these Christians start praying with me I overpower them because of the powers in me,” Bidiurinje said.

His story was first publicised by The Sunday News in 2015 when he blasted Prophet Magaya for delivering him leaving him to resort to stealing for a livelihood. Bidiurinje said although he knew fellow inmates who practiced various facets of Satanism, his hope was on Prophet Magaya or his fate would be death.

While Christian denominations like Roman Catholic, Methodists and Pentecostals are known for visiting the prisons regularly, 31 year old Simbarashe Muzori, a Muslim serving six years for stock theft said it was rare to have visits from people of his faith. 

“We are not receiving teaching to strengthen our faith from the Muslim community though there are donations which come during special seasons like Ramadaan. We need books as well as towels that we spread on the floor during prayer,” he said.

His fellow inmate Arslam Ahmed, a Pakistanese jailed for attempted murder concurred. “Three years in prison I have survived without my family members due to religion. I could have died but due to prayers I survived.

“Sometimes I do not eat the food nor drink their type of water. I was not used to the situation here but due to praying, God helped me overcome those things.

“Before I couldn’t fast but now I fast, I couldn’t pray but I pray now. I also couldn’t recite the Holy Book, now I do at least once a day. Fellow Muslims come occasionally even though they send donations. “Here Methodists, Adventists, Catholics come every week to hold their activities but Muslim people don’t come and I’m sad because of that,” he lamented.

Aged 32 years, Takura Nyakabawo feels renewed by his Christian faith which he sees as the pillar behind his ability to serve eight years with two more remaining. As a trained military professional he reckons he was more inclined to his work than the spiritual part of his life. “We are in a multi-cultural society in this prison, inter-linking with the Muslims, Traditionalists and Satanists.

“We have no option but to relate well with them since the Constitution provides for freedom of worship. Prison experience is not pleasant. “It’s just God who raised Daughters of Zion who are assisting me with my education. Since 2009 to last year no one came to see me. Only my faith was sustaining me,” he said.

ZPCS deputy chaplain general, Superintendent Takura Muchanyereyi said they establish the faith of the inmate on arrival so as to affiliate them with the proper religious grouping. 

“Christianity is dominant with all its fashions, Muslims constitute a relatively smaller percentage within all prisons, Bahai Faith, Buddhists and so forth are also involved. “Religion plays a fundamental component in the rehabilitation process because every person believes there is a creator and belongs to a community where there is a culture,” Spt Muchanyereyi said.

In 2013, two Congolese inmates at Harare Remand Prison confessed to be Satanists causing a scare among inmates.

Though they have since been deported, Supt Muchanyereyi said they also used religious dialogue to reach an understanding with such kind of inmates. “Prison is a confined place and when things get to the extreme of affecting the security of the prison or health of inmates we don’t eliminate (prisoners). We try to engage through religious dialogue.

“The Congolese who had those challenges were assisted through religious dialogue which does not focus on one religion only but brings in the universal aspects so as to open an understanding that this kind of action in this confinement has its own challenges. “It gets to a point where an individual says ‘yes I have heard but I remain adamant with my beliefs or I need help,” Spt Muchenyereyi said.

According to data provided by Spt Muchanyereyi 90-95 percent of religious dialogues they conduct produces positive results. “Some will come here as tsikamutandas, others confess to being witches or possessing goblins. And we have discovered that using religious dialogue is very powerful,” he said.

About four to five religious groups are recorded to be entering ZPCS prisons on a daily basis countrywide. In order to avoid prejudice of donations to ZPCS and inmates, religious groups have been encouraged to embrace the 24 hour open door policy practiced by the correctional institution.

ZPCS’ head of public relations department, Spt Priscilla Mtembo said there is no tangible evidence of prejudice that they can refer to so far.

“We usually participate in national, international and regional exhibitions. And we have people coming to us asking how best they can visit prisons. “They say they are told by certain organisations to go through them. I know there are people who are victims of those groups,” she said. - The Sunday Mail

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