Sierra Leone prison ministry advocates for inmates

Mariatu Kogbaka was prepared to die in prison.

The 39-year-old attacked her boyfriend in a jealous rage in 2011.

“He was cheating on me. Out of rage, I splashed liquid caustic soda (sodium hydroxide, also known as lye) on him that lacerated his back and other parts of his body. He suffered severe injuries and was in pain for a long time. I later regretted what I did,” she said of the incident.

She was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison in 2013.

“I had given up and prepared my mind to die in prison, because life in prison is horrible. I was completely dejected. But, there was a year when The United Methodist Church people came and preached the word of God to us and counseled us.

“They encouraged us to be hopeful that someday freedom would come,” she recalled.

With time, patience and persistence, freedom did come for Kogbaka.

After six years in prison, she was released on presidential pardon — thanks, in part, to the lobbying, advocacy and collaboration of the Sierra Leone Conference prison ministry.

“That was the turning point for me. I thank The United Methodist Church and Simity Lavalie, the lawyer who lobbied and fought hard for my release. … I give God the glory,” she said during a thanksgiving service for the prison ministry Feb. 9 at Brown Memorial United Methodist Church in Freetown.

Edith Rogers, a member of the church’s prison ministry, explained how the group provides spiritual support to inmates at Freetown Female Correctional Center.

“When we visit them on Mondays, we start up by singing choruses and follow it up with stories from the Bible akin to their situation. After we minister, some of them voluntarily come to us asking for special prayers. After some confidence building — involving singing and dancing with them — some of them actually open up on their specific cases and ask how we could support them.

“Then, we encourage them to learn to be prayerful and communicate with God every day in addition to what we would do behind the scenes to support them.”

Rogers said her group also involves the inmates in skills training.

The concerted effort to get Kogbaka released involved Lavalie, a United Methodist lawyer who at the time worked for AdvocAid — a team of female lawyers fighting for justice for women and girls.

“We provided her a lawyer, because she could not hire a lawyer on her own. We actually wanted her to be released earlier. We engaged prison authorities and the attorney general’s office so that she could be considered for pardon. For some time, we were not successful. We eventually succeeded in 2019 for her name to be included,” Lavalie said.

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Every year, the president of Sierra Leone grants amnesty to prisoners on Independence Day, April 27. Kogbaka was among the 27 female prisoners released countrywide in 2019. Altogether, the president pardoned 534 prisoners.

“She fell into the good category because she learned embroidery and other skills, which the United Methodist prison ministry taught her … She also attended literacy classes. All that coupled with her good behavior favored her to be included into the list of those to be pardoned,” Lavalie said.

Kogbaka said she is remorseful for her crime. Although she has not apologized to her former boyfriend out of fear of retaliation, she said she would do so if there were a mediator to facilitate a meeting.

“I completely regret what I did. Even in prison, I prayed for God to have mercy on me,” Kogbaka said.

Katie Meek, an American United Methodist missionary working in Sierra Leone, preached during the thanksgiving service about being a blessing to others.

“When we walk into a prison, it is not an easy site … you see people who are in pain, people who have fallen and made mistakes. Sometimes, they’re angry. Sometimes, they’re violent. Sometimes, they are just sad and they’re in despair,” she said.

Prison ministries can offer inmates hope just by being present, she said.

“We show up and sing. We show up and dance. We show up and teach the Bible. We show up and listen. We show up and pray. Sometimes, we just show up with food,” she said, encouraging others to offer support in whatever ways they can.

The church’s prison ministry has continued to provide support for Kogbaka after her release. She is training as a seamstress at the United Methodist Women’s Training Center in Kissy in eastern Freetown. 

“She is a fast learner and is serious with her work,” said Marian Bah, the center's coordinator and a member of the prison ministry’s training team. “For her, it is a continuation of the training we had been giving her while she was in prison. So she is not starting from scratch.”

Kogbaka said she is enjoying her freedom. Though she’s still in the process of learning, she said, the school allows her to sew items and sell them to make a living.

“We sew bags for schoolchildren. Even the costume I had on in church on thanksgiving day, I did it all by herself,” she said.

“I thank God that I am doing well. I am happy.”

Jusu is director of communications for The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone.

News media contact: Vicki Brown at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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