A magazine for Africans and friends of Africa...Our Voices, Our Vision, Our Culture

Ask Auntie Chambu: Counseling the Convicted
By Christina Nana

Dear Auntie Chambu:

I'm 36 years old and have spent almost half of my life in prison on a bank fraud rap. I have been on parole for eight months trying to find a job to feed my wife and two children. It's been tough. My 16- year old son and 13-year old daughter don't listen to me and my wife- who stood by me when I was incarcerated upstate- seems to be giving up on me. My family is breaking apart, I am even thinking of moving everyone back home to Nigeria but my African-American wife says no. What should I do?

Queens, NY

Dear Nnamdi:

I'm sorry to say that your story is typical of many Black men in America today. A free Black man seems to have become America's endangered species. Statistics show that almost three quarters of the inmate population in prisons around the nation are Black men- especially young black men. In my conversations with parole officers and other law enforcement officials, I've learned that an increasing number of young African men like yourself are also entering the criminal justice system. Reasons for this spike in criminality range from problems due to cultural displacement down to frustration as high expectations of the land of milk and honey are unmet. People resort to "get quick rich" schemes like money laundering, counterfeiting and/or bank fraud.

Whatever mistakes you made in the past, you've paid your debt to society and deserve a chance to settle down peacefully with your family. However, there will be a period of adjustment for you and your loved ones. I can assure you that it is not uncommon for any group of people who have been separated from one another for a long time to feel estranged from each other- especially where children are concerned. Keep in mind that they may be harboring feelings of anger and resentment towards you. After all, in their young minds it is you who abandoned the family unit and for such a long time too. These young people have basically grown up in a single family household with all the emotional and psychological issues that having an absentee father entails. Believe me, I personally know this having raised and watched my four children go through similar challenges as a single mom myself.

Take your time and re-build your relationship with your children. You've been home eight months but remember you were gone for years. Dictating to them and trying to regain your authority in the family by force is not going to work. Get to know your children as individuals. You need to restore their trust in your reliability- a trust that you are not going to leave them again. Go out shopping or to dinner alone with each kid and talk. Be willing to answer any hard questions thrown your way.

As for your relationship with your spouse, you might consider going on similar outings like shopping, to a romantic dinner or even going out dancing with her. Show her your re-commitment by courting and dating her all over again. Try to restore the intimacy and love that has been eroded between you. Communication is key. Make it a point to sit down with your wife and seriously discuss how you feel. Talk about how you feel as a man with perhaps some functional difficulties, a man facing societal stigma attached to your past incarceration, as someone confronted with financial challenges and the humiliation of not being able to support your family. Ask for her suggestions and support. Be honest, candid, seek advice and listen.

Learn to negotiate with your wife and children. You, your wife and children may have to make some sacrifices right now until you get on your feet.

As far as your lack of employment, you might want to consider going back to school for a degree or to learn a trade at a school like APEX to obtain skills as an electrician, a plumber, or a welder. You may qualify for student loans depending on the terms of your conviction. There is labor counseling available like the programs offered by the Center for Employment Opportunities. If you have a disability you may also qualify for placement in a free VESID training program. These programs take any where from 6-18 months. Consider all employment options. Be willing to work temporarily as a vendor, work in a restaurant as a bus boy, pack groceries in a supermarket or do construction work. You need to do these so-called "dirty jobs" to build a good track record to enable you to get the job that you really want.

Finally, I suggest family counseling. Get recommendations from the Department of Social Services in your area or from your PO. There is emotional and material assistance available. You and your family might qualify for food stamps, Medicaid or even financial assistance until your situation stabilizes.

Your wife is right that moving to Nigeria will not solve your relational, financial and re-entry difficulties. Keep in mind that your entire family is already under a lot of strain and moving is another heavy life stressor. You don't want to add insult to injury by moving your family right now. I wish you all the best.

Auntie Chambu, 53, was born and raised in the grasslands of Cameroon. This sheltered nineteen year old, boarding school girl came to a rebellious 60's United States to pursue a college degree and her dreams. She garnered degrees in social work and counseling, got married, and had four kids who constantly put her education and home spun wisdom to the test. After over twenty years of living on the two continents, her advice has a great mixture of traditional African insights with a spirited American independent thinker streak.

Need answers to a problem? Send your question to Auntie Chambu at askauntie@africanmag.com. Only letters selected for publication will be answered.