Friday, September 30, 2016

Confessions of a Cliff-jumping Worrier (not Warrior) and other remembrances

-->The Lord is my strength and my song; He has become my salvation. Psalm 118:14

To some I may appear to be a human rights warrior. However “worrier” rather than “warrior” is a better description of my inner life.

Over this past month several experiences stand out where the Lord has used verses from the Bible and songs of worship to grab a hold of my attention and pull my spirit up from sinking despair. I do not want these quiet miracles to be forgotten in the larger warrior-style victories.

Here is the first...

The Cliff-jumping Worrier (not Warrior)

“Worry is believing God won’t get it right.” (a quote someone posted on facebook)

A year ago this week I left the security of a decent job and salary to jump off a metaphorical career cliff into the unknown adventure of  “juvenile justice volunteer”.

Feeling invincible post-leap
In the physical world I am the very opposite of a cliff jumper. When attempting the bridge swing at Victoria Falls, my mind and body so refused to jump that I seemed to be welded to that small platform (despite the fact I was strapped tandem to my marine brother Luke who very much was trying to jump). [See the video below!]

Despite the fact every fiber of my being and every circuit of my brain rebels at the thought of jumping from heights -when it comes big career decisions, the right mix of discontent with the present and optimism for the future can send me leaping into the next life adventure. And it seems – it’s always without a bungee cord or safety-net.

Before taking this leap back into the volunteer world, I didn’t follow the traditional route of going back to the USA raising support to cover my next year. I certainly thought about it  - it seemed the smart secure thing to do. Instead I jumped straight into the work of learning the juvenile justice system, untangling long delayed cases, and building a vision for what could be done to impact the lives of imprisoned juveniles.

I don’t have any regrets about jumping straight into my work. When I remember the learning that took place and the progress made in those first months, I know I made the right decision. Yet “no-regrets” wasn’t much comfort at the end of each month when I felt my stomach fill with acid as I contemplated how I would meet my expenses. With any unexpected costs, a dark cloud of depression and worry would descend.  Yet every time the funds came and the need was met. I would chastise myself for worrying when I knew that God would not leave me out on a limb. He was the one who called me to this work. I’d also tell myself next month I would plan better and sacrifice more so as to avoid these anxious moments.

But of course – the very next month/incident I was back to being Worrier again.

A week ago, I was listing to music and the Jared Anderson song “According to His Word” came on with the Philippians 4:19 based lyrics “My God will supply all my needs, according to His word, according to His riches in glory.” Nice thought. Now to put it into practice...

As “the big one” approached (the month end when I also have to pay my next three months of rent), each time I looked at my accounts, calculated my costs, felt my stomach start to sour and my spirits sink - that chorus would start playing through my mind “My God will supply all my needs…” and I would resolve to trust God to do just that.  I haven’t quite made it through the end of the month yet. I am not sure how everything will be sorted out. But three months rent have been paid and God’s peace has prevailed over the anxiety. Another small victory for this worrying-warrior. 

And as promised....

P.S. That's not me doing the screaming... :)

Leia Mais…
Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Happy Birthday Undikumbukire!

Two years ago to this day, I had an experience that changed the recent course of my life. Looking back, I wonder if at the time it was meant only to be a single conscience-soothing act of kindness. Yet it became so much more.

In the months leading up to 28 June 2014, I had been taken to a local prison, Kamwala Remand Prison, in my capacity as a concerned lawyer, to learn more about the challenges facing the Zambian juvenile justice system. What I couldn’t forget were the looks of hopelessness in the eyes of the boys and the harsh conditions. As the cold season approached I decided to rally my friends and collect enough money to donate blankets to the prison. Not that I specifically viewed it as a one-time thing, but at least it would give me some peace of mind whenever I felt the morning chill in the air.

That day, 28 June 2014, I went with a few friends to drop at the prison the 50 blankets we had purchased. I assumed we would just be sticking them inside the gate and then be on our way. However, the prison officers insisted we give the blankets directly to the juveniles and before we knew it, we had donned bright yellow visitor vests and had been ushered inside the prison and into the juvenile area. After an awkwardly formal handover of a blanket to one of the youngest of the 59, the officers left us with instructions to mingle and chat to the boys. Eventually the awkwardness wore off, thanks to the easy topic of the ongoing football world cup. Before we knew it the officers were back and ready to escort us out. But first, we were to receive a “vote of thanks” from our new friends. One of the older boys was quickly chosen to speak on behalf of the group. I will never forget the theme of his words – Yes, that night they would be warm because of the blankets, but what they would be talking about was that today they had visitors. He plead with us not to just leave that place, blankets delivered, and the boys then forgotten. He asked that we remember them and that we promise to return again to visit. We promised.

Later that day I posted this on Facebook:

It was on that day that “Undikumbukire” (“Remember me”) was born.

Little could I imagine then we would return, first every three weeks, then every two weeks, and then every week to have fun with and encourage these “Kamwala boys”. In the past two years I estimate we have visited with over 1000 imprisoned juveniles across 9 prison facilities.

Little could I imagine that 15 months later I would take a further step to begin coordinating legal representation – which back then was unfamiliar and daunting. Since October 2015 we have represented 38 juveniles and 99 imprisoned migrants in court proceedings. We are working to get 68 more juveniles their day in court within the next two months.

Little could I imagine we would get involved in advocacy on a major human rights/Anti Human Trafficking issue and see 40 boys pardoned of 15 year sentences.

Little could I imagine that I would be building a team of community members to stay involved in the lives of these teens as they get their freedom and face the future.

Little could I imagine what joy I would experience inside the walls of a deteriorating prison.

One of my motivating factors in getting involved with these boys and this work has been my Christian faith. In looking back over the past two years, the triumphant song “Never Alone” (by Matt Redman) comes to mind:

“Standing on this mountaintop

Looking just how far we’ve come
Knowing that for every step

You were with us

Kneeling on this battle ground

Seeing just how much You’ve done

Knowing every victory

Was Your power in us

Scars and struggles on the way

But with joy our hearts can say

Yes, our hearts can say

Never once did we ever walk alone
Never once did You leave us on our own

You are faithful, God, You are faithful.”

You may have noticed that as I write this I constantly say “we”. I’m so grateful for the “we” that has been a part of this project from the very first visit – the friends who pitched in to get those first blankets, the volunteers who have made time to visit the boys in prison, the generous community members who have given so items to improve the day to day lives of imprisoned juveniles, the 4 lawyers and 3 advising lawyers who have handled all our cases pro bono, the friends and family who are supporting me financially so that I have the freedom to pursue this project….And to my Lord who continues to sustain me and show me joy in the midst of a grim reality.

With all that has happened in two short years, I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Happy Birthday Undikumbukire! May you see many more years of success!

Leia Mais…
Monday, November 30, 2015

Invest in the Lives of Imprisoned Juveniles by Investing in Me

As I've been sharing on this blog, Zambia lacks a well-functioning juvenile justice system. Juveniles cannot afford lawyers or access legal aid. In court, they are undefended, which leads to absurd charges (trafficked children charged as traffickers) and one-sided trials (12 year olds cross-examining police). Juveniles committing petty crimes (stealing from a clothesline) end up in prison for years waiting for court dates (teens waiting since 2012 for a judge to sign their sentencing order). During these long detentions, juveniles are held in adult prisons in inhumane conditions leaving them vulnerable to physical and sexual violence with little or no access to healthcare, education, or other social services.

For the past year I have been joined by community volunteers to provide encouragement, activities, and basics such as food and clothing to imprisoned juveniles (ages 8-19) in Zambia's capital city Lusaka and other prisons around the country. While we have made a positive impact in the lives of these boys, as an attorney in both the USA and Zambia, I knew I could do more than just try to improve their imprisonment - I could help end it.

In August 2015, I and a few other local attorneys began looking at some of the boys' cases. We did what we could during our lunch hours, after work, and on the weekends, but it quickly became clear what that what most of these cases needed was lots and lots of time to unravel years of court delays.
In order to work for the freedom of these boys (and the few girls in system), I made the leap of faith to quit my corporate job here in Zambia in October 2015 to dedicate myself full time to juvenile legal cases and welfare. In these few months of having just one person 100% available, we have seen key partnerships built and 30+ boys are closer to their freedom.

I could have waited to start this until I had a big grant from a foreign government or had conducted a USA fundraising tour - in fact I hope both are in my near future. But seeing the tragedies of these young lives unfolding day after day, month after month, year after year, I knew in my heart I needed to start right away instead of first waiting to build my own security.

I am looking for people who also believe these young lives are worth saving and are willing to invest in my work for their freedom. I have been applying for grants and will be traveling to do fundraising as soon as I have made sufficient headway. But for now I need help to allow me to get through this start up phase (until mid-2016).  For me to be able to remain in Zambia during this crucial time I need to raise $20,000. An additional $10,000 is needed for a suitable vehicle to travel to remote prisons across Zambia, where we estimate up to 500 juveniles may be facing prolonged detention.

I made my decision to be "all in," trusting the Lord to use people all around the world to support this work and am looking forward to seeing a miracle first hand.  Do you want to be a part of our efforts to rescue these boys that everyone else has forgotten about?

"For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me...Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." Matthew 25:35,36,40

To invest in my life and work in Zambia, please consider supporting my CrowdRise Fundraiser [] or contact me to contribute directly (avoiding crowd-funding admin fees).

If you have any additional questions about my work in Zambia, I would love to arrange a time to speak to you personally.

Leia Mais…
Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Guide to Juvenile Justice - Confirmation

In an area of countless needs, there is one juvenile justice issue which has recently captured my nearly undivided attention: Confirmation. 

In Zambia, a "juvenile" for the purposes of criminal liability is a child between the ages of 8 and 19 years of age. While the law allows a juvenile to be found guilty of a criminal offence, keeping a juvenile in custody at any point is to be treated as a last resort.

Most juvenile criminal cases are tried at the Magistrate Court level. Once a juvenile is found guilty of a criminal offence the magistrate (with the help of a report from Social Welfare) gives an order. These orders can range from discharge to counseling to other diversion programs. The most serious order is the one-size-fits-all-crimes "Reformatory Order" which sends the juvenile to a residential facility for a four year period. 
Lusaka Magistrates Court

Because this is supposed to be the order of last resort, the law adds an extra protective step: all such orders must be sent a level higher to the High Court for a judge to confirm the order is appropriate. Only when a judge reviews the court record and social welfare report and agrees with the magistrate's order is the order considered "confirmed" and the juvenile put on the list to be transported to the designated school. 

From the time a juvenile is found guilty until being transported to the relevant school, the juvenile is held in an adult prison. Though some measures are taken to keep the juveniles separated from the adult men, conditions are harsh to put it mildly. No social services are available and juveniles are dependant on sympathetic family members for clothing, toiletries, and supplemental food. If they don't have anyone that cares, they do without. There is much more I could say on this topic, but I will save that for another post. 

The more time I have spent with juveniles in prison, the more I have come to see that the confirmation process, instead of acting as a protection for juveniles, has become a source of great harm. Watching the boys suffer through this painfully long process made me realize that weekend visits to the prison for sports and lessons were not enough- we needed to add legal action. When weeks stretch into months into a year, as a lawyer you know something is very wrong. And you know you have the ability to do something about it.

Court in a neighboring district
Though it seems a simple process, we have discovered dozens of ways things can go wrong between the magistrate handing down an order and its confirmation by a high court judge. I've spent the past two weeks tracing files for half a dozen boys in Lusaka who have gotten lost in the system. Some of these boys have been waiting for confirmation for more than a year. It's taken many registry visits looking in lots of dusty cupboards and a few road trips to neighboring districts, but we have finally found all but one file. The missing file has been traced to one final court so it's only a matter of time before it is discovered. As I tracked each file, I knew full well it was so much more than a file. It represented a young life hanging in the balance; it was the source of that desperate look I've seen in too many boys' eyes. 

Courtroom at the High Court
On Monday I attended a confirmation session for another nine boys who finally got their day in court. For a few boys the picture had changed in the months or years of waiting. My colleague Kelly and I donned our robes and submitted to the Judge that there were other options available to rehabilitate these juveniles, which the judge has agreed to take into consideration. It is the dear hope of my fellow volunteer lawyers and I that by the end of the year each boy in the Lusaka district waiting for confirmation will have gotten his day in court.

It doesn't stop there. This Saturday I went with some of our volunteers to visit juveniles being held in a prison in a neighboring province. At least boys there are waiting for confirmation and with dismay I saw them raising their hands to indicate how long they had been waiting. It ranged from this year going as far back as 2012. I have every reason to believe the problem of delayed confirmations is being lived out by scores of boys all around the country and I have to do something about it.

I estimate it could take up to two years to get to each and every prison. It's quite daunting to think about. But as of now I am determined. if not I, who will take up the case of these forgotten boys?
Add caption

Leia Mais…
Monday, November 2, 2015

New Adventure

It seems so much longer than one month ago that I woke up to a new adventure.

I’ve spent nearly seven years in Zambia, most of those years with an unexpected quiet pulling on my heart to get involved in prisons in Zambia. The how and when of this involvement had been elusive time and time again. Since my first visit to the juvenile cells in Kamwala Remand Prison for a legal briefing in March 2014 I could not shake the feeling that I had been tasked to do something about that look of hopelessness in the eyes of those teenagers. Then, months later, during my next visit to the juveniles in Kamwala Remand to make a simple blanket donation with friends, the 59 boys in custody gave us a challenge: Don’t just walk away and forget now that one good deed had been done. It was in that moment that the Undikumbukire Project was born.

In the local language Chinyanga, “Undikumbukire” means “Remember Me”. We chose this name for our project inspired by the boys’ plea to be remembered as well as the plea of Joseph in Genesis 40:14 when he pleads with his fellow inmates upon their release to remember him. As the word “Undikumbukire” is quite a mouthful for locals and expatriates alike, we often shorten it to “UP”.

In the year that followed that June visit, we kept true to the boys’ request and came for visits every three weeks, then every two weeks, until now volunteers visit every week. Our visits have been filled everything from sports to first aid to cooking to origami. More and more people were willing to give of their time and resources to give these boys a few hours relief from their grim daily existence.

A growing number of our weekend volunteers were lawyers. Though we kept ourselves busy chatting to the boys about football, bringing snacks, coaching them in volleyball, etc. we could not ignore the elephant in the room. We also had the skills that could help many of them be free of these cramped and miserable conditions. But how do you intervene in a overburdened and failing judicial system without the knowledge of the specific problems and procedures and without the relationships with the key authorities in the realm of juvenile law?

Momentum to expand the project from supportive visits to include legal interventions was building. Looking back I am amazed at the amount the few of us accomplished  through early morning emails, rushed meetings with officials during our lunch breaks, and late evening group chats as we reviewed case documents. But there simply was not enough time available in the day to build the foundations required for such an important and detailed project.

And that is how my new adventure began. I made the decision to leave my day job of managing a corporate legal services company. I would then be able to devote my time to the investigations, networking, and groundwork our legal project would need to begin making an impact on the legal cases of the young men we have come to know and care about.

So on 1 October 2015 I woke up knowing that I finally had the freedom to pour my time and energy into helping these juveniles who had a strange grip on my heart. The past month has been a whirlwind of court observations, document requests, letters of introduction, guardian tracking, networking, and glowy stars. The creative mind I inherited never stops generating ideas and it takes all the time I have and more to put them into action. Though its only been one month, my earlier frustration has quickly given way to a determination that the many opportunities opening up will be seized on behalf of these juveniles.

I believe I and others can make an impact that will change the system and the lives of these boys forever. It’s monumental task to be sure, and one that will not be accomplished by our efforts alone. But with each joyful spike of a volleyball in the cramped cells and each relieved smile as a boy recognizes our presence at his trial, there is a joy that carries me forward on my new adventure.

Leia Mais…
Thursday, June 19, 2014


I recently came across this poem because it is often (and mistakenly) attributed to Maya Angelou. Written by Carol Wimmer, it captures my faith journey well.


When I say, “I am a Christian”
I’m not shouting, “I’ve been saved!”
I’m whispering, “I get lost sometimes
That’s why I chose this way”

When I say, “I am a Christian”
I don’t speak with human pride
I’m confessing that I stumble -
needing God to be my guide

When I say, “I am a Christian”
I’m not trying to be strong
I’m professing that I’m weak
and pray for strength to carry on

When I say, “I am a Christian”
I’m not bragging of success
I’m admitting that I’ve failed
and cannot ever pay the debt

When I say, “I am a Christian”
I don’t think I know it all
I submit to my confusion
asking humbly to be taught

When I say, “I am a Christian”
I’m not claiming to be perfect
My flaws are far too visible
but God believes I’m worth it

When I say, “I am a Christian”
I still feel the sting of pain
I have my share of heartache
which is why I seek God’s name

When I say, “I am a Christian”
I do not wish to judge
I have no authority
I only know I’m loved

Leia Mais…
Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Guest Post - In Her Shoes

Earlier this month, a friend of mine from back when I volunteered in a Russian orphanage, asked me to do a guest post for her blog Just One Of The Boys.

It turned out to be a great opportunity for me to recap my years here in Zambia and how things are going over there at the moment and lay open my heart. Check out my blog post for In Her Shoes.

In Her Shoes - A Heart Burdened for Zambia

Leia Mais…