Updated: Jan 6
“I’m in here because of my temper” started one of the men in my group, “I lost my temper and I hurt someone. Dead. And now I’m a father and I need to do better.” Everyone nodded matter-of-factly and we moved to the next guy. He shared his name and then casually mentioned that he was in prison for rape. Rape. The word bounced around my head, overwhelming my thoughts so much that I struggled to hear much of the next person’s narrative. I peered up, as nonchalantly as possible, scanning the horizon for prison officials (particularly armed ones) who I expected would be watching our group – there were none.
Many years ago I agreed to join two American students on their mission to help incarcerated men in a prison in Johannesburg South Africa. They kicked off the programme and then ventured back to the states, leaving me to run a life skills group on my own, for a year. At the time I didn’t realise I’d be venturing into a space where there was little protection for visitors, or that the majority of men I’d be supporting were in prison for violating women – in some cases, women just like me. It was an experience that didn’t just change my perspectives, it changed who I am and I’ll forever be grateful for the beautiful lessons I learnt within the walls of Leeuwkop Prison.
One of the greatest lessons we explored was around freedom. Now that seems pretty obvious, given them being in jail and physically ‘unfree’ in every way but it became a really insightful interaction between us. Though the prison population was fairly representative of the broad groups of people found outside, my group comprised of ten 20 – 23 year old men from under-privileged backgrounds. I’d always seen freedom as a right that every human should have, whereas my group saw it as an honour, something that was won through struggle, battle and hardship. It was something they were proud of but hugely ashamed of misusing. While our humanity connected us in so many ways, our understanding of privilege and freedom were worlds apart.
I remember my first conscious moment of what ‘real’ freedom felt like to me. It came shortly after moving to the UK. In this moment, I’d found myself alone, walking back to my friends’ home in the dark. Until my travels through Europe, walking alone, even during daylight, wasn’t something I’d done much of. I remember having a panicked moment. I pulled out my phone, rang my friend, and confirmed that it was ‘ok’ to walk by myself, as a woman, in the dark. When it was confirmed that this was indeed ok, I sat on the pavement for a moment and felt entirely overwhelmed. Then I jumped up and felt an amazing sense of empowerment.
I understand that the level of freedom I’ve enjoyed over the past years is complex and that I’m incredibly privileged to experience it and have the choices I have. I arrived in the UK with a couple of suitcases, worn jeans and a pocket full of possibility. Back then, I’d pretty much lost everything – anything was possible and the freedom of the environment coupled with the place I was in, was incredibly liberating. But as time has passed, it’s become a norm to me. That’s the thing about freedom – when you have it, you don’t really think about it. And when you don’t have it, it’s almost all you can think about.
The Covid months took away a fair amount of the freedom I’ve come to appreciate with my whole being. I’d really started to take for granted all the frivolous opportunities that I've enjoyed in my current life along with the freedoms that are important to me – the ability to travel with such ease, city breaks to other countries on my own, the absence of fear and constant anxiety, and all the other wonderful experiences I’ve had.
I know many people are found it hard to have additional rules in place during lockdowns and it required new levels of resilience. When I talked to people about it, I often caught a faint subtext of ‘but you’ve moved countries and travelled alone, surely you can handle a few rules.’ The thing is, when I’ve ventured off to try new things and go new places, it’s always been tough and stretching, but it’s always been a choice – my choice. Having choices taken away – particularly fairly basic ones, was hard. It helped me realise that my prison group, all those years ago, were onto something more profound than I could/can process. When we spoke about freedom, in their view, it (and the joy of it) was closely linked to struggle. (Note: I appreciate I’m oversimplifying huge complexity here with my own privileged experience – the topic would need a book and qualified experts, not a blog post and my rambling thoughts, to fully explore).
While Covid is largely under control, we remain in a state of difficulty. Many worry about the state of our continent, the future of our environment, about the war in Ukraine and about the impact on wider democracy. While so much feels out of control, I’ve been focussing on the things I can control - my mindset and my internal happiness. After watching Shawn Anchor’s The happy secret to better work (for the hundredth time) I’ve been focusing on writing down three gratitudes every day. Many days I write down how grateful I am for freedom (which I'm so privileged to have).