Volunteering in a Mauritanian prison sounds foreboding and like something that should incite fear and skepticism. Instead, for seven days of painting, I entered the boys and women’s prisons feeling inspired, eager, and energized by the importance of the work being done to provide opportunities for growth and education by the team of Foundation Noura.
I connected with Foundation Noura through my friend Kim who was visiting Mauritania with a medical team from the US. During their stay, this Noura team traveled to various prisons throughout the country providing days of medical care to incarcerated men and women. At each prison, they worked to form positive connections while offering gentle and nurturing treatments and medication for common illnesses.
Members of the Noura team are some of the most passionate people I have met. As noted on their webpage, they are committed to developing relationships with prisoners that break cycles of relapse and encourage people to use time of incarceration for rehabilitation and preparation for re-entry into society. In addition to their work in prisons, they lead literacy and sewing programs that teach independent vocational and employability skills. From my first moments at the airport, until my early morning departure, Noura team members were distinguished partners who provided careful guidance and important insights into navigating Mauritanian culture and values.
Foundation Noura has open doors to partnerships and great favor earned through their long term commitment to Mauritania, often during challenging times. In 2009, Christopher Leggett, the organization’s leader who developed the original prison and micro finance programs, was assassinated by members of Al Qaeda in the streets of Nouakchott.
For many organizations, this would have been the end of the story. However, because of the deep relationships Christopher and his family had formed with Mauritanians, and their continued investment in this important work, Foundation Noura persevered. Christopher’s powerful legacy is embedded in Mauritanian prisons today through a variety of education and medical programs based on his humanitarian goals.
While planning my visit, the Foundation Noura team, lead by Christopher’s wife Jackie, her husband Brad, and their good friend Alfred, connected me with Leena, a Finnish artist who has lived in Mauritania with her family for 10 years. With the coordination of the Noura team, including supply shopping, transportation, and introductions at the prisons, we were ready to begin our first project of helping the young men to create a positive learning space in the new education room built by Noura for this newly constructed prison. With the young men, there is great urgency by everyone involved to set a strong foundation for learning when they are in this facility before they are transferred to the men’s prison at age 18.
Aside from a desire to reinforce positive interactions with the young men, we felt there is great power in self expression strategies like painting. When sharing mental health workshops for Hope for the Day, we use a metaphor of a shaken soda bottle to symbolize the internal tightness people develop when tensions arise. Self expression strategies are the depressurizing valves that allow us to let out some air before a big explosion. For many, art can be one of these positive valves – and we hope that boys would experience this value of their time painting.
Another main goal was to design projects where the boys could be actively engaged in designing their space. When they walk into the room to learn and participate in Noura classes, we aimed to encourage a sense of pride, connectedness, and empowerment, success, and accomplishment.
Geometric patterns are easy to paint with a masking tape design that easily includes many people in the planning and painting process. We used this technique, along with specific color choices and small designs to represent various parts of Mauritania. As you swivel around the large room, the colors and designs symbolize the geography, landscape, and culture unique to the ocean, desert, villages, and Senegal River of Mauritania.
Our second project was a Zentangle wall where each young man was represented by his unique small design which was added to a wall previously adorned with a large plaque honoring Mr. Leggett. The attention to detail was fun, as each artist developed a unique style around messages of hope written in Arabic, English, and French. From a distance, this looks like a collective mural, but upon closer look, the style symbolizes the individually beautiful gift of each artist.
The third designs were a collection of mandala patterns. Mandala patterns are a common art form in many cultures and are often connected to relaxation. Each of the young men was involved by adding their individual creation around a center ring. Again, each person was represented as an important part of a larger system.
As our days flowed together, we were able to enjoy the familiar faces of the artists and prison guards. I looked forward to our arrival and the long days passed so quickly. We enjoyed lunch made in the prison kitchen and tea shared by some of the young men. It started to feel like a comfortable routine of having our hands full of paint with a bunch of guys who were eagerly doing the same. Throughout this time, it easy to see the positive impact that Foundation Noura was making there – with team members feeling familiar and engaged each day.
Speaking of the guards, this experience revealed an undiscovered stereotype lodged in my heart. I must have developed impressions of what guards are like from books and movies. Never having visited a prison – I imagined them being unfriendly or aggressive. I love when I am pushed to realize my own limited thinking, because each day at this prison, we were welcomed by friendly guards who consistently encouraged the young men to be positively engaged in the process. Often, a guard would gently guide brushes in the hands of the boys as you would expect from a mentor or father figure.
The prison leader exemplified the power of positive leadership as he set a strong example for everyone by consistently checking in and making sure that everyone’s needs were met.
I am certainly not idealizing prison or pretending this is a desirable experience, but I think it is noteworthy that hope can be found in unexpected places. Foundation Noura believes that all people were created with skills and abilities that should be encouraged and developed, and they put their words into daily actions. The message of redemption and the importance of dreams were apparent, tangible, and necessary here. In each interaction with the adults, there was great urgency to create meaning with impressionable young people – something that doesn’t have to be restrained to prison walls.
Thank you to the Foundation Noura team. You have made beauty from grief and shown a remarkable focus on healing. Thank you to Jackie and Brad for your dedication to serving others and finding a way to include me on the team. I felt so welcomed into the Noura family. I am forever grateful – and look forward to returning to Mauritania someday.