Shining lights in the darkest places

Kenya

Ellie Smith

18 October 2016

On the fourth day of our Kenya Open Quest, fifteen of us piled into a minibus and set off to Langata Women’s Maximum Prison, to meet Teresa Njoroge. A former inmate herself, Teresa recently joined forces with her new business partner, Joss Carruthers, to launch Clean Start. This incredible NGO helps women who are incarcerated on short-term sentences, due to petty – often poverty-related – crimes. We wanted to find out more about its work at Kenya’s notorious Langata.

We’d spent the night before at Sarakasi Trust – a vibrant and colourful theatre where some of Kenya’s disadvantaged young people train to become professional dancers and acrobats. We’d joined in ourselves – proving quite the spectacle of uncoordinated limbs and rhythms, yet thoroughly absorbed in the fun and childish enthusiasm of performing on stage. As ever on a Quest, the next morning provided a contrasting experience and we pulled up to the prison gates, feeling apprehensive and uncertain.

The first set of green steel gates didn’t look particularly imposing. We passed the armed guards in their green uniforms, and drove down a long dusty road. On our right was a large settlement of plain concrete buildings. I noticed a few women standing around staring at us, holding small babies on their hips. I saw no smiles. I later learnt this was the remand section, where women stay pre-trial – some for six weeks, and some for ten years (if their cases get lost or forgotten).

As we drove on, a snaking line of stripy uniforms began appearing alongside our bus. Dozens of prisoners, in thin black and white dresses, carried large white sacks on their heads, their eyes cast down in effort and concentration. I wondered what had caused these women to be here? Would they mind us visiting? Would they be angry, or embarrassed, or pleased?

We pulled up to another pair of even larger green gates. This was the real entrance. Maximum security indeed. I was hit by a claustrophobic fear, imagining those gates closing behind me – leaving me locked, trapped, abandoned. I was snapped out of my thoughts as a lady with the most radiant smile I’ve ever seen stepped into our bus. It was Teresa.

Four years ago, as a banker at one of the world’s largest corporations, she was wrongfully convicted of making a fraudulent transaction. As a result, she was separated from her husband and her home in Nairobi, and sent – along with her 3 month old baby daughter – to Langata. She told us her story as we sat in shocked silence, in front of the prison gates. I think it’s fair to assume we were all thinking the same thing: ‘How on earth is she standing here after such a horrific experience?’ ‘Where does she find the courage to come back?’

Listening to Teresa, I witnessed her raw passion to make a difference to the way ex-convicts are perceived when they leave jail and re-enter Kenyan society. Her own prison-release experience left her feeling shunned, oppressed and stigmatised on the outside – despite being cleared of her alleged crime. Teresa responded by launching Clean Start to help other women avoid the same fate.

As we followed Teresa off the bus and past the line of prisoners – many of whom offered her warm welcomes and tired smiles – it was clear she was spreading warmth wherever she went. I was already in awe.

She showed us into a prison office and we watched as prison guard after prison guard joined us, until our little room was almost a one-to-one ratio of Questors to jailers. We looked around at one another, making timid smiles to the guards and unsure whether to venture an introduction or just sit tight. We were saved from our conundrum as Teresa entered the room with a most interesting-looking character. She was tall, and heightened further by a large afro, topped with a dark green military hat. A green military uniform clung to her curves and was finished off at the feet with a pair of white socks and extremely shiny black lace up shoes. Welcome Madame Olivia – Governor in charge at Langata!

Over the next hour, Mme Olivia explained her bold vision to transform the women’s prison system in Kenya. We learned how Teresa and Joss are helping her to achieve this vision, through Clean Start.

Many of the women in Langata have been convicted of minor crimes – often because their illiteracy means they fall foul of everyday regulations. For instance the need to hold a particular licence to sell produce at a roadside market stall. Or they’ve merely defended themselves against violent husbands or abusive family members. Prison conditions are tough. Pneumonia is practically an epidemic, since there’s no hot water for prisoners to bathe in. Many women sleep without beds or blankets.

As for the sentencing system – it was hard to wrap my head around it. Accused murderers might receive 7 years, whilst a convicted robber might get the death sentence (yes, death by hanging still exists in Kenya). Two of the ladies we met were facing trial the very next day – and both could easily end up being condemned to death. Neither had spoken to a lawyer.

Despite the amazing progress made by the partnership of Teresa, Joss and Mme Olivia, the reality of this place began to hit me.

After a tour of the jail’s facilities (now considerably improved, thanks to the Langata-Clean Start partnership), our Quest group was introduced to around 30 prisoners, and each of us was paired up with a couple of them to spend time sharing stories. Whilst we were reluctant to impose ourselves and pry into these women’s lives, Teresa assured us that our being present – and listening deeply – would be greatly appreciated by them.

She was right. I was greatly moved by the story of Lyn, who had been convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to life. I naively asked how many years that meant – thinking of our British system. She looked at me oddly and said: ‘until I die’. I was shocked. I couldn’t grasp the reality of her situation.

What was more, she had grasped it. Although she lacked legal representation, and couldn’t contact her daughter and family (who lived in Uganda), she got through life in Langata, day by day. And she lived in hope. In fact she – like Teresa – put her purpose into helping prisoners who were able to regain their freedom.

Lyn runs a small prison enterprise called Crime si poa (Swahili for ‘crime isn’t good’). This women-beaders’ co-operative makes small amounts of cash by creating products that are sold outside the prison gates. They keep the profits for the day when they are finally set free. Even 500 Kenyan shillings (£3.50 equivalent) makes a difference to women trying to re-enter society. Despite the fact that Lyn will never experience freedom herself, she’s determined to make a difference to the lives of others who do manage to negotiate their release.

As I was leaving the prison that afternoon, Lyn asked if I would buy a bracelet that the Crime si poa beaders had made. I bought three beautiful, brightly coloured bracelets from the stall in the prison grounds. I know that each time I wear one, I will remember the women I met that day at Langata, including the indomitable Teresa and Lyn. I will be encouraged and inspired by their hope, resilience, courage, and compassion. I’ll be humbled that I am only different to them because I was born in a different time and place. In every other way, we are all just human beings.