YAOUNDE, Cameroon—It is a bright morning at the Mfou Principal Prison, about 20 miles from the outskirts of Yaounde, Cameroon’s capital. The blistering sun is shining down on the jail courtyard.
Seven inmates, all clad in blue overalls and holding artisanal tools, are busy working in a small workshop while taking lessons from Ngobillong Tii Ariel, an inmate herself. They are engaged in the transformation of worn-out tires picked up off the streets into brand new, durable and marketable sandals.
The instructor wasn’t a craftswoman until her conviction. She was a teacher in a local primary school.
“I learned this craft from some missionary sisters, but didn’t make use of it until I got here in prison,” Ariel told The Epoch Times.
Ariel said that when she was incarcerated, she wanted to keep herself busy and help in protecting the environment from pollution. That’s why she started production of the sandals.
“I also decided to train other inmates in order to help them understand that they could make their lives more meaningful by doing something,” she said.
Worn-out tires are regularly collected from the streets and supplied to the inmates for a small fee.
Ariel said they produce about 15 to 20 pairs of sandals per week, but can produce more if they have a special order. One pair of sandals sells for an average of 3,500 central African francs (about $6). The operation has led to the transformation of hundreds of waste tires that would otherwise pose a threat to the environment.
Nguelle Joel, another inmate, said he got involved in the project to have something to do, as well as to help turn trash into treasure. Joel has been engaged in the initiative for the past six months and hopes that in four years, when he leaves the correctional facility, he’ll be able to open a workshop to expand the initiative.
“I look forward to training other youths so that they won’t do the same things that brought me here in the first place,” Joel said, returning to polishing an unfinished sandal.
In Cameroon, not a lot of effort is spent on rehabilitating prisoners, which penitentiary officials often blame on the lack of resources.
In 2017, the U.S. State Department reported that “prison conditions in Cameroon remained harsh and potentially life-threatening, due to gross overcrowding, inadequate food and medical care, physical abuse, and poor sanitary conditions.”
Guillaume Nwaga A. Bidias, the chief of social action in charge of cultural activities and education at the Mfou prison, believes the sandal project is a game-changer in the reintegration of inmates into the society.
“We have different programs but the tire-to-sandals project is the most intensive, with the support of a local civil society organization,” Bidias said.
Like other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Cameroon is faced with a growing phenomenon of discarded trash, which often clogs drainage systems and waterways, leading to flooding. The situation is even more worrisome concerning old tires. Only a tiny fraction are recycled, and the ones that don’t end up in gutters and water bodies are burned, releasing toxic gases into the environment.
Activist Kamga Marc Anselme has expressed concern over the environmental effects of improperly discarded tires. But, he says, the severity and extent of the hazard caused by cast-off tires are hard to know precisely because no independent study has been conducted
Besides offering an opportunity for young people to engage in supporting environmental protection, the initiative fosters entrepreneurship, vocational training, and civic education, activists say.
Achaleke Christian Leke, the national coordinator of Local Youth Corner Cameroon (LOYOC), a civil-society organization supporting the tire-to-sandals project, said they will continue to engage the prisoners in global environmental protection.
“It was more of an artisanal practice but we are helping them with branding and marketing. It is not just about fetching money for them but healing them. We want the community to know that the people who will be [rejoining them] are useful people,” Achaleke told The Epoch Times. He said the inmates will use their newly acquired skills to stop violence after leaving prison.
The sandals that the convicts produce from the worn-out tires have been sold on the international market under the Creative Skills brand. They have also been lauded by top personalities, including Jayathma Wickramanayake, the U.N. Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, and R&B star Akon of Konvict Muzik.