(MCC Photo/James Souder)

Joel Saaga manages a hardware store in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, after finishing his prison sentence with MCC’s restorative justice partner, Lieux de Vie. Through the residential program, Saaga learned carpentry skills and restored relationships with his family. (Joel Saaga’s real name is not used to protect his privacy.)

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso – Motorbike traffic zooms past a hardware store stationed along a busy road in Ouagadougou, where 23-year-old Joel Saaga spends his days selling household construction supplies.

Saaga is grateful to have this job. While finding work in the capital city is difficult for any young adult, finding work can be nearly impossible for a young man, such as Saaga, who has spent time in prison. (His real name is not used to protect his privacy.)

Orphaned by the age of 10, Saaga and his three brothers were raised by their uncle. Losing both parents was difficult, and he began distancing himself from his family. As a teen, Saaga started hanging out with the wrong crowd and began making bad decisions.

One late night in 2012, a group of older guys pressured Saaga into stealing several crates of sodas, worth about $50. When the authorities arrived, Saaga was charged with robbery and sentenced to six months in prison — a relatively short sentence in Burkina Faso, where petty crimes can result in several years in prison.

Three months into his sentence, Saaga heard about Lieux de Vie (Places of Life), a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) partner.

This residential program provides apprenticeship opportunities to nonviolent offenders. Through restorative justice practices, Lieux de Vie also encourages offenders to make amends with those they have hurt – including victims, family members and the broader community.

MCC's restorative justice partner Lieux de Vie can house up to five participants at one time, who all share one room and an outdoor courtyard. Carpentry apprentice, Zana Silga, not his real name, is one of the young men who had benefited from the program.
(MCC Photo/James Souder)
Since 2013, Lieux de Vie has helped 27 young offenders create new lives for themselves. It has reached many more young inmates through weekly visits and Bible studies.

The program’s leader, Peguewende Savadogo, has a magnetic personality, an engaging smile and an undying ability to find the best qualities in every person regardless of their bad decisions.

“At Lieux de Vie, we always focus on the future,” he said. “Dwelling on the past results in continual trauma, so we help participants learn from their mistakes and move on. We want to restore dignity to young offenders by giving them a bed, helping them rebuild relationships and teaching them valuable life skills to help them integrate into society.”

Joel Saaga and Peguewende Savadogo share a laugh in the store Saaga now manages.(MCC Photo/James Souder)

According to Sarah Sensamaust, an MCC representative in Burkina Faso, “Lieux de Vie’s focus on restorative justice with local youth in prison is not only inspirational, but also a one-of-a-kind program in all of Burkina Faso.” She and her husband, Adam Sensamaust, also a representative, are from Keezletown, Va.

Only 20 to 25 percent of the program’s graduates have returned to prison, Savadogo said, compared to 76 percent of nonviolent U.S. offenders under the age of 24 who are reincarcerated within three years, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Saaga is one of the graduates who has used his opportunity at Lieux de Vie to move on with his life.

With approval from the prison’s judicial council, Saaga completed the second half of his prison sentence at Lieux de Vie facilities, where up to five participants can share one room and a courtyard. While there, Saaga learned carpentry skills and he also grew closer to his brothers and uncle because of familial reconciliation conversations facilitated by Savadogo.

According to Savadogo, Saaga was a hard worker, who always showed up on time for his apprenticeship and always came back to Lieux de Vie facilities in the evenings.

Madou Ouédraogo, right, a carpenter in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, trains Zana Silga, another participant in Lieux de Vie in his workshop. (Zana Silga's real name is not used to protect his privacy.) (MCC Photo/James Souder)

After finishing his apprenticeship, Saaga found a job at a hardware store delivering construction materials. A year later, Saaga was promoted to manage the shop and sell items to customers. Someday he hopes to open his own store and dreams of visiting the United States.

“Lieux de Vie gave me the chance to rebuild my life,” said Saaga. When he meets a young person going through a similar situation, he advises them to be humble and to avoid actions that could ruin their reputation.

Everyone is different; everyone is equal.(MCC Photo/James Souder)

A prominent poster hanging outside the Lieux de Vie facilities states: “1 = 1: Everyone is different; everyone is equal.” This simple statement summarizes Lieux de Vie’s mission of restoring dignity to previously incarcerated minors. Every participant is offered the chance to live and work honorably without their past mistakes defining their identity.

“Over the years, the root of my work has not changed,” said Savadogo. “Jesus said we are the salt and the light, and I work to share this testimony with the people who need help the most.”

James Souder is a 2015-2016 Serving and Learning Together (SALT) participant, volunteering as a photojournalist in Burkina Faso. He is from Harrisonburg, Va.

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