I have always thought of going to prison, not to be locked up but to visit someone who is. The curiosity of knowing how it looks like behind those high walls and how inmates perceive freedom has always intrigued me. Maybe I have watched too many movies, but, that’s me.
So I got an opportunity to visit Kamiti Juvenile prison with James Ouma. I wrote an article about his work a year ago and I was keen to catch up on his progress. What better way to do that than to walk his path; accompany him and his friend Ernest to the juvenile prison. James runs Lifesong Kenya, an organization that mentors boys both in prison and outside by teaching them character, accountability and how to give back to the community.
James picks me up at Kona, along Ngong Road, at 7.45 am. We are supposed to pick Earnest at Allsopps on Thika Road but he is late so we proceed; he will catch up with us later. We stop at Maziwa Gardens near Kamiti for breakfast; James insists that you can’t deal with those boys on an empty stomach. He hasn’t had breakfast so I understand. There is no nduma (yams) or ngwaci (sweet potatoes) so James settles for Chapati (which has to be outsourced from a nearby food kiosk) to go with tea.
A blue flask is set before us.
James discusses the challenges he is having with a young man he is mentoring in Mombasa. James was tasked to ‘manage the boy’ by the boy’s sponsor from the US. Earnest joins us. Apparently the tea in the blue flask is all ours so Ernest has to deal with it as he enjoys his samosa.
We head off and soon we are at Kamiti. We get through the main gate, go straight and off on a rough road. We pass Kamiti Medium Prison, make a few turns then here we are: Kamiti YCTC and Juvenile Remand Prison. That’s what the outer gate reads. YCTC stands for Youth Correction and Training Centre. The inner gate reads: Kamiti Juvenile Remand Home. The choice of the word home strikes me.
They call this place home, like welcome home? Like feel at home? Like you can come and go as you please? I am eager to find out what gives this place the name home.
We get through registration and go to see the welfare officer in charge. Since James has never met her, he has to explain our purpose for coming. She takes James into the ‘home’ to organise the boys as Ernest and I wait behind. Earnest has been working with James in Lifesong for a while now; he has been visiting the boys when James isn’t available.
Earnest seems like a very reserved guy but quite dynamite, nothing from his outside can prepare you for his story, a father of 3 girls, a recording artist and a bus preacher are just some of his hats. You might have seen him preaching in a bus, if he didn’t ask for offering, then it could have been him. You can check out his debut album on his Facebook page ‘Earnest Nesta’.
We need to get to the boys, that’s why we are here. The welfare officer comes back and directs us to where James is sitting with the boys in a circle on the grass. There are seven boys with us.
James works with boys in juvenile remand and not those in juvenile prison. There is a difference, those who are serving time are in blue uniform and those in remand are in civilian clothing. Some of the boys in Lifesong Kenya’s program have been released and those remaining now are seven. There are a lot more boys in remand who join when a guest comes to speak or when donations are made but not all are interested in what James is doing. I would later understand why.
I remember James’ words ‘we work with those whom we can’.
The boys seem eager for what we have for them. James begins updating them how he has been since they last saw him. He tells them about the duathlon race he had in Kericho in September and how failing to do well affected him. He also updates them on the upcoming Nairobi Standard Chartered Marathon and the 1000 km running challenge he has accomplished, for which he shall be awarded an additional medal.
Earnest shares about his music, his new album and his aspirations to make videos for the songs. The boys are interested in the potential of taking part in the video of at least one of the songs. It excites them, almost all of them comment about it.
“At least we can show our people out there that we have taken part in something good,” one of the boys says.
You can see it in their faces, deep down the boys just want to be accepted especially by their families. Some of them have done such grievous things and are keen to do anything that can show that there is some good left in them, anything that can hopefully mend the strained relationships, anything that can show that they are sorry and that they can change. For now, being part of a gospel music video presents that hope.
The boys begin their updates in turns. Earnest records in Lifesong Kenya’s register. They share updates about the status of their court cases, how long they have been in remand, when they were in court last, when they are due in court next, if they have a lawyer, who visits them, their parents/guardian’s contacts, their health and much more.
Some boys have been in remand since 2016, others have never been visited, some have lost contact with their families, some will soon be released, some have no complainants in court, some have difficult cases, and most don’t have lawyers, more like they can’t afford lawyers.
“Kesi yangu imenilemea, nimepatikana na hatia, mniombee tu,” the smallest and youngest boy in the group speaks. His case was going well but during the last court date, things went bad, his lawyer didn’t show up and now he has to defend himself.
The information is heavy, now I understand why James can’t deal with 50 boys at a go. We are still seated on the grass outside, it’s getting hotter by the minute, the boys are keeping brave faces as they speak. They must have seen a lot, I think to myself, I wonder what they did to be here, especially the smallest boy whose case is going bad.
In the background the other boys play football in a caged dirt field. A guard sits outside, shouting once in a while when some of the boys misbehave. The ball occasionally goes above the high walls, someone throws it back. A watchtower outside the wall overlooks the field and the camp. Boys are seated along the wall waiting for their turn to play. Boys just being boys here; shirtless, teasing each other, laughing, just having fun. There are no signs that they can’t walk away from this place.
One of the boys suggests that we move inside because the heat has reached unbearable levels. We move to the computer room nearby.
James wants to introduce computer studies as one of the skills the boys can acquire in juvenile remand. A friend of Lifesong is working on the curriculum. Today, James wants to introduce to the boys how computers can change their lives.
We introduce the possibilities of computers and the opportunities it can open for the boys. They are eager to learn but we cannot start the computers in the room since the computer teacher is not around. Earnest encourages them to take the computer studies seriously when they eventually start.
I give them some ideas of what they can do with computers. How they can find opportunities in cyber cafes, movie shops, design, printing, photocopy, data entry, web development and more. I can feel their imaginations growing, their vision of freedom and independence welling up in them. They might not show it, they may seem distracted, but deep down these boys long for life outside these walls, they want to be free.
It’s now scorching hot outside, you can hear the cracking sounds of the iron sheets. James hands over a blank paper and pen to one of the boys. He starts sketching the directions to his uncle’s place in Pipeline, Eastlands. His uncle’s phone number hasn’t been going through for a while now and James has to find him and make sure the boy goes back to a home upon release.
It is time for phones call, the boys can’t wait. James dials. I dial.
The rings, the skiza tones, the waiting for the voice on the other side, the emotions showing in the boys’ faces; that moment of a connection to the outside world they know, so close, yet so far, all depending on whether the call is picked up.
One of the boys can’t hide his smile as he hangs up. His case is practically over and his next court date is a ticket home. Another boy’s mother doesn’t pick. He mentions that he hasn’t seen his mother since 2009. I later find out that it’s the mother from the children’s home where he was raised.
I watch the smallest boy across the room as he talks to the sister over the phone. James mentions the sister’s name, which shows the two of them have been in constant touch. He is silent after he hangs up. He stares down. There is no good news for him. I don’t need to ask. He had already mentioned that his case had taken a wrong turn.
I cannot take any more of this. It is becoming too emotional for me. I cannot understand how James does this week in week out. Sometimes it shows in his Facebook and blog posts. Most times, he simply soldiers on, as if he isn’t troubled by it all. We have to finish and go. Earnest says the final prayers as another boy who has an eye infection and needs glasses, kneels at the centre of the prayer circle.
As we walk out I ask about the young boy’s age. He is 13, James tells me. I don’t want to ask what he did; I don’t want James to feel like I am getting attached. He then goes ahead to answer a question that I don’t ask, how he processes all that information, all of the conflicting emotions.
“I don’t have emotions, I have hardened with time, and emotions will distract me from what I need to do for the boys,” he says.
He tells me the challenges he has working with boys; how age verification is an issue and some cheat about it so that they can escape the senior jail, how those associated with gangs have in the past called their gang members instead of families using James’ phone putting him in danger (now he has to use the office phone and record calls), how lack of resources to avail the right skill training affects him and how the failure by some parents to accept their sons deeply affects him.
As we sat in the circle I remember reading the name of a notorious gang etched with a sharp object onto one of the boy’s wrist. The healing cut clearly reveals the name of the gang.
Parents are not left behind either; some parents deny their children, others want to take advantage of James thinking he has a lot of donor funding, others move often and making it almost impossible to find their homes.
“You have to take everything with a pinch of salt,” James says. “You have to ask God what you can do and do that, other organizations bring material things to the boys, we seek to empower them with non tangible thing such as character, fulfilment, purpose and other virtues that the boys rarely get anywhere.”
I realize that as much as my emotions are valid, they are not for this work. One must be tough to help boys, one must be sober minded and keep their eyes fixed on the goal. One must keep a straight face and do what they need to do, week in week out. One must acknowledge the painful journey of walking with boys and still do it clearly understanding what they need to achieve. One must be like James Ouma.
As we check out the guard says something so obvious but yet so true. “Hawa vijana ni wadogo lakini ukisikia ile vituko wamefanya, utashangaa.” (These boys are young but you will be shocked to hear what they have done)
His words take me straight to the smallest boy in the group, the 13 year old. I still wonder what he did to get there. I want to ask James. I think that maybe if I wait for a while, he will tell me. We drive out, we are almost on Thika Superhighway when I ask, trying not to hide that I have singled him out.
“You will know,” that’s all James tells me.
Yes I will know, I can know the profile of all the boys that we met that day from Lifesong Kenya’s database which dates to as back as July 2012 when James started working with boys in juvenile prison, but what will that do to me? Will it change the way I perceive them? Will it reduce my empathy for them? If I was to help, will my passion be diminished?
James knows the vituko the boys did, Earnest knows, yet week in week out they visit those boys and believe in their future. This is why James runs, to raise money for Lifesong but also to be strong, so that he can stand with the boys. He has chosen to see what the boys can become rather than what they did to be where they are now.
You can support Lifesong Kenya by volunteering (visiting the boys, tracing their families, teaching ICT and basic business skills, fund raising, resource mobilization, office Assistance, health camps and more). You can also give money to support Lifesong’s activities. Please visit their website Lifesong Kenya for more details.