Witnessing the seeds of peace blossom

Restorative justice principles practiced in Zambia and Malawi

Incarcerated men gather in semi circle sitting at tables.

Thanks to a long-term effort across Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) offices in Ontario and Zambia, a restorative justice curriculum has been introduced  at more than 100 correctional facilities in Zambia and Malawi.

In 2019, Rod Friesen, MCC Ontario Restorative Justice Coordinator, was invited by MCC Zambia to facilitate a week-long training session to officers in the Zambian Correctional Service (ZCS). This training session was part of a pilot project of MCC Zambia in partnership with the Zambian government. Their goal was nothing short of a complete culture change within the Zambian corrections system.  

The nature of the criminal justice system in Zambia was largely punitive—punishment for those who had broken the law without much thought for how to help restore both the victims of crime and the perpetrators. But having encountered the peacebuilding work of MCC, representatives of the ZCS saw there could be a better way built with the concepts of restorative justice. Such an approach addresses the needs of those who have been victimized, the community impacted by the crime and the offender.

It was also important to MCC staff that ZCS personnel be taught how to give the training themselves. That way, each new training session wouldn’t require someone to fly in from a different part of the world, and the training itself could grow within the context where it was being presented. Now, four years since the first round of training, the fruits of that initial visit and the training provided are beginning to become apparent.

Issa Ebombolo, MCC Zambia and Malawi Peacebuilding Coordinator, says the training content Friesen created is being used at the ZCS staff training college for all officers and has been fully integrated into all 69 Zambian correctional facilities. Another unexpected development is that the training is being used by 31 correctional facilities in the neighbouring country of Malawi. 

“It has been truly inspiring to see how the concepts of restorative justice approaches and practice have been a catalyst that has sparked a new path forward within the prison systems and communities in Zambia, and Malawi,” says Friesen. “This story of change gives me tremendous hope that restorative justice can also be a tool for building peace within our justice systems in Canada. It will take courageous leadership to change the tide and move from our own punitive system and incorporate more restorative approaches.”

An example of this has been the establishment of peace clubs within Zambian prisons. Zebron Mwale joined such a club. “After the message of peace anchored well in my heart, I quickly learned about the need to break the chain of revenge,” says Mwale. He was able to reconcile with his neighbour, Mary Mweemba, who had reported him to the police for growing cannabis, a crime in Zambia. Mwale also secured a pardon and was released from prison due to his improved behaviour.

Ebombolo has a long resume of peacebuilding work across Africa including time as a peace education facilitator in Zambian refugee camps with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and time as chair of the MCC Africa Peace Network. He says the impact of the restorative justice project has been unique within the African continent because restorative justice is not a concept that is known well there. But, once learned, it is embraced because it connects deeply with traditionally held values of village life. Those values centre around how a community works together to understand the harm done and repair it by bringing back the harm doer back into community with appropriate accountability.  

The impact of the training continues to grow as it will soon be available to 20 countries that will have access to the training content for their correctional facilities.  

Man writing on white board

Issa Ebombolo, MCC peacebuilding coordinator for Zambia and Malawi facilitates a training on restorative justice with officers from Malawi Prison Services. MCC Photo/Amanda Talstra

Ebombolo uses the story of the mango seed to illustrate how this project has grown. He says when you scatter seeds, you do not know which ones will grow. As a mango seed takes many years to grow, you may leave, and others in the village may eventually eat fruit grown from those seeds without you ever knowing. We may be surprised many years later when we come back to the village to see that others are eating from this big tree we planted.  

“Sometimes it is only our grandchildren or our great-grandchildren that will see the changes from the seeds we sow,” says Ebombolo. 

Read more about this Restorative Justice initiative.