A change of heart

Ex-offender turned village headman Joeli Kubukawa at the Ba province symposium in Lautoka. Picture: BALJEET SINGH

Growing up in a remote village bordering the Ba and Navosa highlands, Joeli Kubukawa’s, life seemed simple.

Life was laid back and he did not understand much about the law nor the democratic concept of civic responsibility.

The law was something he took for granted, until May last year. That was when he was convicted of a charge of theft of livestock.

His world came to an abrupt end and everything went blank. For days, he would sit in his cell at the Lautoka Corrections Facility thinking what this new life meant for him and his family.

Leaving behind his wife and four children in the village, Joeli, 38, was ordered to serve an eight-month sentence behind bars.

“I never knew what the law was, I never knew what the prison was and I never knew that such a life existed,” Joeli said.

“My understanding of life changed when I was sentenced. I then realized that there are laws to follow and that we abide by laws as citizens.

He said he appreciated the things he learned in the eight months he spent behind bars.

“It taught, changed and molded me to be a changed person.”

A month after completing his prison sentence and returning home, Joeli was bestowed the role of village headmen at Dreke village.

To him, the appointment was a blessing in disguise because he was able to put into practice what he learned from the prison’s rehabilitation programs. And the appointment was also the beginning of a new life for the Ba villager.

He was able to make sound decisions and work closely with village elders, and give them advice on issues concerning the village. But despite his achievement, he continues to face a huge barrier – discrimination and judgment.

“In the village when someone goes to prison and returns, he is looked down upon and judged.

“I have witnessed it myself. That is why I have been advocating for more awareness on the need to give ex-prisoners space where they are not judged but are fully embraced and accepted.”

Joeli said without acceptance those who break the law would reoffend and end up within prison walls again.

“All we need to do is to love them, talk to them and ask them what they may need because such small gestures go a long way.”

Today, Joeli carries out his role as the village headman and proudly advocates for the Fiji Corrections Service’s Yellow Ribbon Program. He believes that as an ex-offender, he plays a vital role in advocating on the message of love and care towards fellow Fijians who’ve served their time in prison.

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