"They are my brothers and they love me. All of them feel that I am one of them and they even call me 'the chief of prisoners'. Indeed - I am one of them."
For the last 30 years, Sister Hedwig Vinyou has been working selflessly, braving danger, speaking against injustice and giving out information about torture victims in her country. She has also been instrumental in founding the Bamenda branch of ACAT (Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture), a local independent NGO. She has been serving as Vice-President of this association since 1998. As a founding member of ACAT Bamenda, she is responsible for coordinating ACAT activities; which blends very well with her work in human rights. She has disinfected prison cells and prisoners’ clothes and has coordinated the training of all prison staff in the North West province, to respect human rights in the discharge of their duties.
In 1992 a state of emergency was declared following claims from the main opposition party that it won that year’s presidential elections. Mass rioting in Cameroon almost brought government to a standstill. About 1000 people were locked up in different cells in Bamenda under despicable conditions. From her track record as prisons’ chaplain she was the only one allowed by government to move from cell to cell-feeding detainees amongst who were some 300 lawyers.
Later, during the archbishops’ meeting, they acknowledged her work and wrote to the government requesting it to appoint a member of the clergy as chaplain for the North West Province. Sister Hedwig Vinyou got the appointment; thus becoming the first Cameroonian to hold such position in the country.
The armed forces, marginalized people such as prisoners, abandoned children, single mothers, HIV/AIDS affected people, disabled people and truck pushers have all benefited from Sister Hedwig’s work. She has also created awareness of HIV/AIDS for prison inmates, organized skills training in prison, has assisted about 50 persons living with HIV/AIDS. She has worked with sex-workers, several victims of torture and feeds mentally disturbed people on the streets.
Sister Hedwig also works for La Verna Franciscan Spiritual House as a Franciscan sister. Her work and determination in human rights and prisons is yielding positive impact both at policy and practice level. Unfortunately, she is exposed to harassment and physical danger. Her family has warned her, but she always tells them: “Wouldn't it be wonderful if I should die in active service?”
She is now busy building networks with other sisters in African countries to bring humanity and justice to the most marginalized communities. Her courage and determination have served as an inspiration to religious and non-religious people.
Undeterred by limited resources, Sister Hedwig is spurred on by her dedication, love and determination. Consequently, the Bamenda Central Prison now has probably the best general sanitation system in the country. She concentrates on the improvement of conditions in the prison, especially in health and sanitation. She also brings the prisoners medicine and extra food, disinfects the rooms and fights for their cases to be heard. She also tries to temper the natural brutality of the guards.
Although she has committed her life to her religion, her care and sympathy has erased religious and tribal borders. Sister Hedwig goes to the prison as a Catholic but treats all the inmates like her brothers. She provides all the necessary materials and assistance for everyone to worship in their own religion. "I don't go there to convert; I go there to show my sympathy, for each prisoner to feel that out there, there is somebody who does not judge them, who cares about them."
She has a vision of a peaceful future if, in spite of poverty, people are able to raise awareness and promote cooperation.
Sister Hedwig underwent extensive professional training between 1977 and 1994 in social development, teaching, scripture and life, and counseling.
Since 1975 she has worked as a pastoral and social worker. She has successfully worked for the improvement of prison conditions at the Bamenda Central Prison. She coordinated renovation of the Bamenda Central Prison, giving the best general sanitation system in Cameroon. She systematically decongested the prison by negotiating the release of more then 2000 inmates, who had been forgotten as they awaited trial for minor offences. As a result, the procedure to grant bail while awaiting trial has been relaxed in the Bamenda Central Prison.
A prisoner's life in Cameroon is very harsh. The toilet facilities, where available, are overstretched. The AIDS epidemic prevalent in the country is rife in prisons. Tuberculosis, dysentery and malnutrition are the commonplace.
Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT)
Africa | Cameroon