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74 MARCH 2005
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tales from the field

An “inside” story

Nate Whittaker

In 2001, I packed up my life here in the United States and shifted to Cape Town, South Africa where I volunteered at two different residential youth homes. When my own culture shock had hit it's lowest point, I needed an escape. So, I took off for a solo journey across South Africa, which took me to places like Port Elizabeth, King William's Town, East London, Durban, and Johannesburg. While in King William's Town, I was greeted with wonderful hospitality from the staff of a youth home there, the King William's Town Youth Care Centre. Though this story is merely one example of my many outrageous occurrences while on that journey, it lends itself to two lessons: (1) smoking is bad for your health and (2) youth work is more than ups and downs with youth alone – it involves all who are somehow connected to youth, including adult bystanders (even if they are incarcerated):

Smoking is bad for your health
The staff at the King William's Town Youth Care Centre requested that I shadow them during a visit to the Federal Prison in town. Many have not yet heard this story – a story forever plastered to my cerebrum and one that would surely trouble my parents if disclosed before now.

The King William's Town Federal Prison holds both young inmates and adult inmates side-by-side. In an attempt to make these inmates employable upon their possible release (particularly for youth), vocational training takes place. A group of young men from the prison, who had recently completed a leather making training, which was provided in part by the youth care centre staff, were receiving certificates; the staff asked me to come along as they congratulated these young men.

A craft – any small vocational skill – is highly important to many disenfranchised South Africans. If a poor individual is able to learn leather making, wood sculpting, or metal work, they become employable in a country with an enormous unemployment rate, particularly for young people. The latest figures show that over 62% of all economically active youth in South Africa are unemployed (about 70% African youth, 41% Coloured youth, and 11% White youth are unemployed).

I had assumed the celebration for the leather-making group was going to occur in a protected room, outside the prison. Nope! In South Africa, at a mid-level security prison, I was forced to walk directly into the prison, past cells, offices, bathrooms, and more – where there was no glass, nor walls or bars separating the inmates from myself. I had with me, a small bag filled with money, a passport, cigarettes, keys, a camera, and more. I walked directly into the courtyard, where about 100 inmates sat in lined seats like church pews, facing a wall where the certificates would be distributed. We walked in from the back. As I walked forward directly through the crowd, heads turned as if I was the bride of a wedding. Up to the very front we went. There in front, were VIP seats awaiting us – one hundred inmates heads behind me – breathing on my back. The ceremony was quick and to-the-point.

After the show, I wanted out ... out ... out! A few of the inmates, thinking I was an American hero of some sort, asked if I would take a picture of them – about three of them. Before I snapped the picture, the group of three turned into about twenty – peace signs high in the air. A few of the inmates were seriously interested in me and two of them wanted to be pen-pals with their new American friend. I took down their address and quickly thought about mailing them a cake, nail file included.

Looking around, I noticed myself, by myself. The rest of the youth care staff were bouncing around the crowd talking to the inmates they knew, highly unconcerned about my well-being. Piercing over a swarm of inmate's heads, I could see the prison Chaplain light up a smoke. God bless the Chaplain. A cigarette ... yes ... a cigarette. Nothing could be better than a cigarette at that very moment of pure terror. I'd calm down. I'd fit in. I'd have an excuse to talk to the Chaplain rather than the inmates. So, I dodged and swished through the crowd, over to the Chaplain:

"Is it OK to have a cigarette?” I asked the Chaplain.

After a quick “yes,” I pulled one out of my bag and the Chaplain kindly lit it for me; kindly, he walked away. Still by myself, I sucked down my cigarette as quickly as possible in the most discrete manner. I could see a few of the youth care staff members about twenty feet away. I decided I would move their way. One step, two steps...just then, I was stopped by an inmate:

“Could I have a cigarette?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said.

SURE? I must have lost my ill-fated and disaster-prone mind. Just as I handed him the cigarette, like a pack of dogs to a chunk of raw meat, I had five more inmates begging me for a smoke. In my humanitarian way, I took out my entire pack of cigarettes, put it out in front of me, and said

"Here! But you all need to share because there are not many left.”


There was pushing, yelling, anger, and severe “nic-fitting.” The cigarettes went flying into the air as inmates reached and dived for them. Some hit the ground, breaking, and others were torn apart by the inmates who battled each other for whatever was left. I could see it all happen before me in slow motion. My body tightened up in fear. My head was dripping wet with the pins and needles of panic-perspiration. One of the inmates grabbed me and pushed me aggressively from the mob. He dragged me to where the youth care staff were preparing to leave. Calmly, we left.

We landed in a prison office where “thank you” treats were being served to our party. The incident was never mentioned!

As the youth care staff enjoyed sweet treats and mini-sausages, I politely cleaned out my shorts, and smoked nearly an entire pack of cigarettes that were yet hiding in my bag before I started a riot with my previously open, very empty, pack of cigarettes.

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