Volunteer Spotlight: Megan Keenan

We at UP Zambia decided it was time to start showcasing the phenomenal volunteers that give of their time and energy (often coming thousands of miles) to help bring freedom to Zambia's incarcerated youth. You can now hear these stories in the volunteer's own words in our Volunteer Spotlight Series. Thanks so much to Megan Keenan for the skills you brought to our organization and your commitment to the UP Zambia mission!

Megan with the UP Zambia team as they conduct interviews with juveniles incarcerated at Lusaka Central Prison. From Left to Right: Chawezi Ng'oma, Paul Kapianga, Chimbalanga Wapamesa, Sara Larios, Megan Keenan.

Megan with the UP Zambia team as they conduct interviews with juveniles incarcerated at Lusaka Central Prison. From Left to Right: Chawezi Ng'oma, Paul Kapianga, Chimbalanga Wapamesa, Sara Larios, Megan Keenan.

I had the opportunity to spend the month of January in Zambia through the Human Right Study Project (HRSP) at Virginia Law. After a misconnect in Dubai and a couple of days of touring Victoria Falls in Livingstone and neighboring Zimbabwe, I headed to my final destination of Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia. Back home, I’d been warned time and time again of culture shock—after all, this was my first trip to anywhere in the African continent—so I came in with an open mind and minimal expectations, somewhat unsure of what I’d find (aside from what my feeble attempts at background research had revealed about the state of the law on the books and the rainy season).

Upon arrival, I was lucky enough that Sara Larios of Undikumbukire Project (UP) graciously allowed me to rent out a room in her home for the duration of my stay. While I’d tried to prepare for the work in advance, I quickly gained insight into the juvenile justice system in Zambia in my few weeks in and out of different courthouses and prison facilities with UP. I found that Zambian law doesn’t provide a right to court-appointed counsel for indigent defendants, so indigent children (read: the vast majority who encounter the juvenile justice system) generally have to represent themselves. As a result, many children—after what ranges from months to years of pre-trial detention in prison facilities—are brought out of a holding pen crowded with other juvenile and adult defendants, placed before a judge speaking to them through a translator, and asked how they want to plead. If that wasn’t overwhelming enough, the juveniles have virtually no information about the case against them at this point in the proceedings. Due to a technicality in Zambia’s Criminal Procedure Code, prosecutors are able to run what’s called “trial by ambush” in which juveniles do not have to be informed of the witnesses or evidence against them prior to trial. These conditions would leave educated adults bewildered, let alone children without any legal training or assistance.

In light of all this, I learned the importance of UP’s three primary functions: first, they represent as many juveniles as possible free of charge; second, they challenge failings in the juvenile justice system to obtain better protections for children; and third, they focus on the rehabilitation process for juveniles in prisons that are largely devoid of structure or regular recreational activity aside from the occasional proselytizing religious organization. Watching UP assist juveniles before, during, and after their trials was a truly incredible experience, and I felt totally undeserving when a juvenile, whose case was withdrawn largely due to UP’s work behind the scenes, came over and shook my hand along with the rest of the legal team on his way out of the courtroom. It was undeniable that even the things that felt like small steps had real impact on children’s lives.

After my first week in Lusaka, my mom asked me if I was interested in doing this type of work in the future. I came to law school in large part because of my interest in social justice from domestic civil rights to international human rights, which is why I’d been targeting HRSP since my first month at Virginia Law. But with all of the information I’d been taking in that first week, I hadn’t been viewing the work through a forward-looking lens until she asked, and I was more apprehensive in responding than I expected. I was struck by a number of things: how hard it must feel to make the sweeping changes you’d like to see when you’re starting from the ground up and large-scale reform requires resources that just aren’t available, and—selfishly—how isolating it must feel to permanently be based hundreds of dollars and thousands of miles away from family and friends and familiarity. At first, I hedged in my answer: the work is certainly worthwhile, but it would be incredibly difficult and more than a bit lonely.

But as I continued to soak in my time in Lusaka, I was amazed by how Sara, my colleagues at UP, and the broader group of friends that Sara had built all unfailingly opened their arms to me. This community—doctors, lawyers, educators, missionaries, Peace Corps volunteers—was truly driven by service, and it was that sense of purpose (and an occasional card game) that connected this group of individuals with a hodgepodge of accents, upbringings, talents, and career interests. These inspiring people reminded me why I pursued a law degree in the first place, and their dedication to others is something I aspire to emulate throughout my lifetime.

That doesn’t mean that human rights work in Zambia isn’t still incredibly difficult. But by the time I left, I recognized that this kind of work is far from lonely. It’s hard to feel isolated knowing that communities of bright, passionate people motivated by something bigger than themselves are there for you across the globe.

Story by Megan Keenan

– Megan Keenan will begin her third year at the University of Virginia School of Law in the United States this fall. Megan spent January of 2017 working with Undikumbukire Project in Lusaka and has continued to research remotely with UP upon her return. She hopes to continue her relationship with the project in the years to come.