Most young offenders when sentenced to prison are easily forgotten. But Suzanne van Hooff, country coordinator of Malawi at Young in Prison (YiP), sees potential in these youths. She works with juvenile reformatory prisons where young offenders are equipped with skills that will help them become responsible and skilful citizens once they are released. From Amsterdam, she talks to DUMASE ZGAMBO-MAPEMBA.
Who is Suzanne van Hooff?
I was born on March 5 1984. I am an only child. I currently live in Amsterdam, but my parents still live in my hometown, Castricum. It is a small coastal village in the north of the Netherlands, just about 25 kilometres from the capital Amsterdam. I attended a primary and secondary school there. When I was 18, I enrolled into University of Amsterdam where I obtained master’s degree in history, international relations and international law.
Take us through your profession or work journey.
I have always been interested in cultures and languages. I vividly remember when an Afghan refugee girl enrolled at our primary school when I was about 10 years old. I made her play outside the school yard with me, exclusively. I was fascinated by her and her background. This interest in other cultures combined with a quite strong dislike of injustice and inequality has prompted me to make the choices I have made so far.
During my studies, I volunteered at a local food bank and at the same time interned at a large research institute in the Netherlands, where I conducted policy-oriented research on post-conflict development. In March 2011, I started working as country coordinator Malawi at Young in Prison (YiP). This position has turned my world around. While aiming for a career in academics and policy research, I found out through YiP that I get more satisfaction from working together with vulnerable people.
What does your organisation do in Malawi?
Young in Prison (YiP), set up in 2002, was initially active in South Africa. In 2009, YiP expanded to Malawi. We run a reintegration programme at Kachere Juvenile Reformatory Centre [in Lilongwe] and Mbyanzi Juvenile Reformatory Centre [near Mponela, Dowa]. YiP offers educative and creative workshops, ranging from choir and guitar lessons to tailoring workshops and life skills. Our facilitators not only teach skills to these youngsters, who are often on remand or as a suspect sentenced for poverty-related crimes, but offer much needed encouragement and mentoring, offering them a new outlook on life beyond prison.
Which project that you initiated stands out to you?
My friend and I, who is also general manager of GET it DONE (getitdone.org) Lucie Mayer-Aull, initiated a project at Mbyanzi; “GET Fishnet making DONE”. We teach youths to weave fishnets and catch fish with them. They also learn about different species of fish, environmental issues and national fishing regulations.
Is the project sustainable?
Yes, the project will continue with minimum support from us. The youth who learn these skills will pass them on to a new group and they will again pass it on to a new group. We personally raised the funds for this project and were able to start at the end of 2012. When the boys leave the reformatory centres, they will be able to take these employability skills as well as fishnets with them. We may not be doing it with the whole nation, but as long as there are some Malawians benefitting, the project has succeeded in our eyes.
What prompted you to have this project in Malawi?
It has been a coincidence; I had a great desire to work in international development (with children and the youth) and got the opportunity to work at YiP in Malawi.
Did you know Malawi before YiP?
Because of my interest in Africa, I knew Malawi as a country in southern Africa, but that is all I knew. The country has made a big impression on me ever since I first visited it.
What does your job involve?
I am normally based in Amsterdam where I work at the headquarters of YiP. I coordinate the project together with the managing director of YiP and, of course, my colleagues at our partner organisation Music Crossroads Malawi. The managing director and I are the link between the director in the Netherlands and Music Crossroads.
We liaise on the project, raise funds, manage the relations with donors and develop the project in new directions. In October and November of 2012, I conducted a feasibility study on the expansion of the project to new locations in Malawi. We are very likely to start a pilot project at Mzuzu Prison this year.
What prison conditions do youths live in?
The prison conditions are terrible. The conditions violate the international rights of the child despite being mainly caused by a lack of resources. The rights and plight of children and youths in prison are greatly overlooked, not only in Malawi but worldwide.
Child’s rights are extremely “popular” in international development, but when a child or youth has found itself in prison, all the interest seems to stop right there. Projects run by main donors rarely target these children despite being so clearly connected to poverty.
How do these conditions negatively impact on their present and future lives?
In 2002, YiP founder NoaLodeizen visited Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, South Africa and was struck by how it was more of a “university of crime” instead of a place of reintegration.
Research has pointed out that these conditions do not benefit the youth or society in the long run. Society will end up with youths who will find themselves in the same situation as before they went to prison.
Consequently, chances are high that they will find their way back to prison. Noa envisioned YiP as an organisation that would offer youths skills, more importantly; self -esteem and confidence so that they are able to see and take opportunities after their release.
What about your involvement with Music Crossroads Malawi?
Music Crossroads Malawi is a partner organisation of YiP. They offer much-needed support to struggling young musicians in Malawi and organise music festivals. What I find special about Music Crossroads Malawi is that they have a strong presence in the neighbourhood that they are based in, Area 23, and are very accessible to the community there.
What about the organisation S.CORE that you have just founded, what does it do?
I established S·CORE (s-coreafrica.com), a small enterprise for consultancies and research on the development and human rights sector in Malawi. It stems out of my acquired love for Malawi and interest in working close with Malawians on human rights and development issues. I envision S·CORE to act as a link between donors and companies abroad and Malawian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and community based organisations (CBOs).
How do you balance your career and family life?
I try to keep my evenings and at least one day of the weekend completely free! It does not always work out, but I try to get some relax time here and there.
What do you like doing in your free time?
I often hang out with friends for drinks or dinner. I love to listen and sing along to music, go to music festivals with a bunch of friends and dance. I also like to go jogging every now and then to keep fit.
Who is your role model?
Seodi White – an inspiring Malawian woman who stands up for women’s rights in Malawi. I am also a fan of Carla del Ponte, a former prosecutor of both the International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia. I met her, shook her hand and forgot everything I had to say to her.
What is beauty to you?
Beauty to me is people’s passion for what they do that shines through in their eyes, whether they are a nurse, musician or a university professor. That and a nice red nail polish.