Ex-Convict Pursues Acting After Practicing Theatre in Zimbabwe Prison Rehabilitation Program


Article Highlights

In Bulawayo’s Mzilikazi suburb, Tendai Gwinhi shows the beds he makes with his friends while he awaits the renewal of his acting contract in the film industry, a skill he learned while serving a prison sentence. Linda Chinobva, GPJ Zimbabwe

One Zimbabwean ex-convict found a new passion during his time in prison thanks to the prison’s rehabilitation programing. During his 10-year sentence, the man started a theatre troupe, which led him to pursue acting upon his release.

BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE — For 10 years, Tendai Gwinhi woke up early each morning to eat a small serving of bland porridge. Then he headed out for a long day of work on the Khami Prison Complex farm, where he worked alongside his fellow inmates to plant and harvest fruits and vegetables.

Working on the farm was hot and tiring, Gwinhi says.

A native of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, Gwinhi was convicted of unlawful entry and armed robbery in one of the city’s affluent suburbs in 2006. He was 21 at the time and says he was looking for a quick way to get some money.

After his conviction, he was sent to Khami Prison Complex, one of 46 prisons in Zimbabwe, located 35 kilometers (22 miles) west of Bulawayo.

“I must admit, the day I was sentenced to 10 years in prison was the worst day of my life because it is then when it dawned to me that all my dreams of being a successful carpenter had just been shattered,” he says, frowning.

But Gwinhi begins to smile as he reflects on what he learned while in prison.

During his time as an inmate, he took advantage of the prison administration’s rehabilitation program, which he credits for his current success. All prisoners must enroll in Khami’s rehabilitation program, which addresses four areas of personal development for inmates — moral, psychosocial, sports and recreation, and academic and skills training.

Before Gwinhi came to the prison, the rehabilitation program was in operation, but none of the available activities centered on the arts.

In 2009, Gwinhi formed a drama troupe with other inmates. When troupe members had finished their daily tasks, they would entertain other inmates and officers with skits and improvisational performances. Eventually, the troupe became so popular that acting was included in the rehabilitation program.

“With the help of one late prison officer, Ornwell Siziba, who then became our patron, we formed Khami School of Arts (KASA), a group representing arts in prison,” Gwinhi says.

In 2013, the troupe put on a play titled “Guluva,” a slang word for thug in Ndebele, a common language here, to help educate prisoners about the consequences of crime.

Later that year, the national television broadcaster, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZTV) aired their play.

Since his release from prison in 2016, Gwinhi has been working as a carpenter and as an actor. He’s frequently recognized by fans in Bulawayo, who call him “Gulava,” as he has become known.

Across Zimbabwe, prisons are cash-strapped but still prioritize the multi-faceted rehabilitation programs that aim to help offenders build skills in preparation for reintegrating into their communities upon release.

As of January, Zimbabwe’s prisons are home to about 19,500 inmates, which is 2,500 more than the facilities were designed to hold, according to the Ministry of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs.

Overcrowding in prisons can lead to poor mental health, according to the World Health Organization.

Gwinhi says he was depressed when he arrived in prison, but enrolling in the available rehabilitation program helped him improve his outlook.

This helped rehabilitate me as an ex-convict.

“Prison is hell, I must admit,” he says. “But after I ventured into drama, life for me changed and I began to look forward to each new day as I became a celebrity in and outside prison. This helped rehabilitate me as an ex-convict.”

A prison officer at Khami prison, who requested anonymity for fear of losing his job, says that the long-standing rehabilitation program was designed to decrease recidivism rates and help prisoners become productive, law-abiding citizens.

“There are a number of rehabilitation activities offered at the prison and these are meant to keep the inmates busy and also to equip the offenders with life skills that will divert them from criminal activities after release from prison,” the officer says.

Rehabilitation programs are primarily funded by the prison and are facilitated by guards and inmates.

Rhoda Ncube, Gwinhi’s grandmother and guardian, says she is happy that finding acting in prison helped her grandson to turn his life around.

“The first time I saw him on TV acting in the drama ‘Guluva,’ while he was still in prison, gave me hope that [his] future was shaping up,” she says. “I was convinced that his bad habits were a thing of the past.”

Tinashe Chikora, a resident of Bulawayo who watched “Guluva” when it aired on television, says it is very encouraging to see that prisons in Zimbabwe are offering rehabilitation activities that build the character of prisoners.

“I commend the prison service in Zimbabwe for the rehabilitation programs that they offer the inmates and the support they give to the inmates,” he says. “This proves that being incarcerated is not just a punishment but also a way of rehabilitating someone in order to fit into the society without any dysfunction.”

Paradzai Zimondi, the prison’s commissioner general, says rehabilitation programs in prison are important because they encourage inmates to become independent. While he wouldn’t disclose the program budget, he says the programs are mostly funded within the prison budget, but do require financial support from outside sources.

“We welcome partnerships under the public and private sector in ensuring that inmates are well equipped with skills that will help them survive after their lives in prison,” he says.

Gwinhi joined another drama troupe when he was released last year and makes beds to make ends meet. He’s currently active in a television drama called “Sibahle Nje,” which means “We Are Beautiful” in Ndebele. In the show, Gwinhi plays a police officer.