Mural image based on book 'Jazzy in the Jungle',2002, by Lucy Cousins (Walker Books)

 
In March 2010, to mark my fortieth birthday and a new phase of life, I undertook a three-week trip as a volunteer with US non-profit, Cross Cultural Solutions, to look after children living in Yanamilla Prison, Ayacucho, a small city in the Peruvian Andes. It was a profound and humbling experience that led to me deciding to return for a three-month, self-directed trip later that year to refurbish a classroom, to enable the provision of a government teacher. In the intervening months, I fundraised for money to buy materials and moved in with my mother for six months to save money for travel and living costs. A Peruvian surgeon, Robinson, whom I had met at the local hospital during my first trip, found me accommodation ahead of my return.
Entry to the prison was heavily restricted; as an independent traveller this time, I managed to gain access by identifying as an official volunteer of Maki, a US non-profit. This had been set up by Martha, a dynamic American woman who had also been a volunteer on the CCS programme. Maki’s sole employee was a Peruvian woman named Marisol who had been a CCS employer when we first met. She offered to be my guide, helping me navigate my way around everyday life, including the initially perplexing task of catching the bus to and from the prison, and became a cherished friend – ‘Merry Soul’ as I came to call her.
The area designated to the women and children was cramped and lacking in facilities. Each tiny, dark cell slept four women, a ‘toilet’ area – a hole in the concrete floor – the only form of sanitation. There was no heating, just bare concrete walls with bars across the windows and no glass. Inmates were exposed to the elements in an environment where temperatures during the winter dropped to less than 100C.
At age four, the children had to leave the prison. Some were cared for by family members but, owing to poverty, the majority were sent to orphanages. Nearly all the women had been sentenced for drug-related crimes driven by poverty and/or coercion by male relatives. In a bid to be seen to be clamping down on a national issue, the Peruvian government enforced heavy sentences for even minor offenses. Women were often serving sentences of between 20 and 25 years, the consequence being that they would not be reunited with their children until they had reached adulthood. 
I had no prior knowledge of Spanish and relied on a basic, broken form with which to communicate with inmates and staff, initially helped by Marisol. The process of refurbishing the classroom – referred to as ‘la cuña’ meaning ‘the cradle’ – was a collaborative effort, involving help from three male inmates and a small group of mothers, whilst their babies played nearby. 
After clearing, stripping and repainting was complete, I began work on a mural, transcribing the children’s book Jazzy in the Jungle by author, Lucy Cousins. Prior to completion, I contacted Walker Books and let the author know her work had reached a Peruvian prison. Delighted and surprised in equal measures, she donated a large number of Spanish translations of her books to the children.
Whilst creating the mural’s outline image occurred easily, the application of colour proved problematic owing to the much poorer, quality of locally-purchased paints, which made the process slower and more labour-intensive than anticipated.
During the creation of the mural, I came to call her ‘Muriel’; my wish was for her to be a joyful presence for the children in their otherwise colourless lives. 
In the UK, I had also purchased packets of glow-in-the-dark stars and gave them to the women to put up on their cell walls.
One of my favourite quotes is by philosopher, Gaston Bachelard, from The Poetics of Space
‘if I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace’. 
My sincerest wish was that ‘Muriel’ and the stars might act as vehicles through which the children and their mothers could dream and draw comfort. 
 

Mural image based on book 'Jazzy in the Jungle',2002, by Lucy Cousins (Walker Books)

Mural image based on book 'Jazzy in the Jungle',2002, by Lucy Cousins (Walker Books)

Mural image based on book 'Jazzy in the Jungle',2002, by Lucy Cousins (Walker Books)

Mural image based on book 'Jazzy in the Jungle',2002, by Lucy Cousins (Walker Books)

Mural image based on book 'Jazzy in the Jungle',2002, by Lucy Cousins (Walker Books)

With Marisol