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The Music of Zomba Central Prison

James Justin is a 39-year-old inmate at Zomba Central Prison, Malawi’s only maximum-security facility.

Built in 1935 for about 400 inmates, James is one of 2,400 prisoners that now reside in the decrepit and overcrowded facility. Known as a home to people convicted of serious crimes, the Prison is also widely recognized for its successful band, the Zomba Prison Project, which earned Malawi its first-ever Grammy nomination in 2016.

Speaking from inside the Prison’s music workshop, James said before he was jailed in 2008, he was a member of a popular Malawian band – an aspect of his life he thought would disappear behind bars. But just as surprising as the band itself, his skill and passion for song became part of his reform process.

Unfortunately, his rebound into music coincided with serious illness. The situation forced him to undergo HIV testing that Dignitas International provided at the Prison’s clinic. After testing HIV-positive, he started on life-prolonging antiretroviral medication (ARV).  

“I tested HIV positive and immediately started on treatment. I fully understand the benefits of taking ARVs and I make sure that I use the clinic that Dignitas International is running in the Prison,” he said.

Inmates at Zomba Central Prison line up for regular HIV screening.

Inmates at Zomba Central Prison line up for regular HIV screening.

From clinic to music workshop, James started to combine his experience living with HIV with his talent as a guitarist to compose songs that tackle HIV/AIDS and other critical health issues.

“Some of the songs that we perform carry health messages – especially on HIV/AIDS. A frequent theme is dealing with stigma and discrimination, which are still common despite the various messages that discourage them.”

In one of his favourite compositions, James likens the HIV virus to the notoriously parasitic witchweed, which causes big yield losses in maize fields across the country.

“I chose that title because HIV is strong and fearless and it does not fear even the rich, or their wealth – it is just like a burning fire,” he said.

He says that through performing songs and various interventions in prison, he has witnessed a remarkable transformation. Most of his fellow inmates are now accepting the messages of change in his music, and many of them are changing the way they live.

“After I perform, I see fellow inmates going for HIV testing. This shows me that my messages are working.”

Prison Inspector Thomas Binamo is the band leader and confirmed that the band has helped a lot in spreading messages on HIV/AIDS.

“We take the band to various prisons where we perform. Additionally, we sometimes even perform outside the prison walls,” said Binamo, who proudly leads the Grammy-nominated prison band.

Prison Inspector Thomas Binamo is the band leader and a driving force behind the Zomba Prison Project.

Prison Inspector Thomas Binamo is the band leader and a driving force behind the Zomba Prison Project.

With USAID support, Dignitas International will continue to offer HIV and TB testing, treatment and care to the prison’s inmates, 1,450 of which are HIV+. In 2016, Dignitas helped renovate the prison’s old, crumbling clinic to better facilitate health care needs and ensure all inmates are effectively screened for HIV, TB and hepatitis.

Zomba Central Prison is one of the toughest places to be on earth – more so with health challenges like HIV. But interventions like the prison clinic, mass health screening, and spreading health messages through music, even disadvantaged and heavily stigmatized prison populations can gain the basic right to health.

One of the most marginalized populations around the world, prisoners are disproportionately impacted by infectious diseases, particularly HIV. Your support helps Dignitas provide HIV testing, treatment, and care to people that don’t have access to quality medical services.

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Dignitas InternationalThe Music of Zomba Central Prison