I made 44 friends in Kenya’s prisons and they taught me more than I taught them
When I arrived in Nairobi on New Year’s Eve in 2015, I didn’t know what to expect. A city I had never visited before or had any familiarity to was going to be my home for a year. Its people, unpredictable weather, public transportation and food were all very foreign to me. All I knew was that I had come to teach law in Kenya’s prisons. This was a bit much for my family to process who were in denial of my endeavours until the night they bade me farewell at the airport.
I had never even stepped into a prison in Pakistan, or anywhere for that matter, and here I was, all set to dedicate an entire year to working at one. “Are you crazy?” was perhaps the most common question I was asked. My father made sure he got in touch with every soul in his network possible who had any contact in Nairobi so that they could keep a watchful eye on me.
Kenya? Teaching in prisons? Anyone would react in bewilderment. The rebel that I am, I did not deter and now I can reflect to say that the year in retrospect was surreal.
How did I even get involved in something like this in the first place?
Well, in 2014, I came across a video by a British charity named, ‘African Prisons Project (APP)’, by a then 18-year-old student, Alexander McLean. The project is now based in Uganda and Kenya and entails several inspiring programmes. But the programme that resonate the most with me was the Leadership Programme, wherein inmates and prison staff study for a law degree on scholarship.
I was awestruck, stumped by the profundity of the initiative – a phenomenal cause I immediately felt drawn to but had absolutely nothing to offer to at the time. I wrote to McLean about being able to help in some way and proposed if students in Pakistan could perhaps assist the APP students. Welcoming the proposition, we then began a long-term correspondence whereby a group of law students in Islamabad became mentors to APP students (a programme still in continuation), writing letters and supporting them as academic coaches. Eventually, an exchange of emails and conviction led me to Nairobi.
Could I come to Kenya and teach at prisons? I leaped at the opportunity, impulsively so. To my parents, it certified that their daughter had lost her marbles.
The first time I ever stepped into a prison was the Luzira Main Prison in Kampala, Uganda. My first day there, I accompanied McLean and the rest of the new inductees to a Sunday Church service in the condemned section – where all men awaited their turn on the death row. You’re instantly reminded of the gloom and intimidation of prisons as captured in the movies. I had no idea what to expect but what I saw left me overwhelmed. No chains, no restrains, no barriers between the inmates and the visitors, but a room full of white uniformed men singing, swaying and praising God. It was an incomparable feeling to be a part of that congregation. There was gratitude, joy and pleasantly so, there was hope. When asked to say a few words at the end of the sermon, I could only manage to say thank you, tears rolled down my face and the knot in my throat killed my eloquence.
Eventually, I started teaching at three more prisons in Nairobi – Kamiti Maximum Prison for Men and Lang’ata Women’s Prison, and Naivasha Maximum Prison. In every prison, I was welcomed as a foreigner, the first Pakistani most inmates and prison staff had met, but down the year, I was parted as a member of their family.
The curious inmates would ask many questions about our culture back home, and those who had been receiving letters from Pakistani students back home wanted to know if I knew the senders personally. I was even asked if I knew Malala Yousafzai and to tell her that she was a source of inspiration to many if I ever met her. I cannot express in words the time I have had with these men and women and the bond that we have formed. I continue to be amazed at the talent I found in these prisons.
The APP students are dedicated change makers, not only committed to using their education to reform their own lives but to serve their community. They have and continue to demonstrate that prisons can be places of reform and rehabilitation. The prison authorities are equally supportive of this initiative, which has seen many success stories of overturned death sentences and early releases. Thus, the officers and inmates work together to restore justice. Inmates and officers interact like students and teaching staff at a boarding school. You don’t see prison personnel with a gun or prisoners in handcuffs. It’s not a morbid image but one that is vibrant.
Furthermore, the prisons have a particular focus on education. Some, who are more educated and experienced, teach the rest in established prison schools. In fact, some setups are entirely run by inmates, with one inmate appointed as the head master and others as faculty. Alternatively, the inmates are also engaged in vocational training.
During my one year there, I made 44 friends in Kenya’s prisons and they taught me more than I taught them. I never expected to get lessons in humanity, dignity, humility and grace from prison inmates, and I am taking much more back home than I came with. I take with me a renewed perspective of how I perceive society and of the stereotypes we have created. These individuals have restored my faith in humanity, in the bravery that every person can show despite their circumstances. They all look to figures like Nelson Mandela in hopes that they too can become respected members of society, paving the way to reform and progress – a pursuit they have already embarked on with their commitment towards the law programme and the paralegal work they do.
I was extremely fortunate to meet one of the inmates, the founding student of the APP programme, Peter Ouko, who was recently released from Kamiti on presidential pardon. Even whilst in prison, Pete was an idol for many. Convicted on death row, he was the first to complete his Diploma in Law whilst in prison, back in 2014. He started an organisation by the name “Crime Si Poa” (crime is not cool) which helps educate the masses on the consequences of crime and runs campaigns all the while behind bars.
During my experience volunteering at APP, I learnt that what we require world over and back home is a redefinition of how we view the prison institution – a premise for rehabilitation or a lockdown for life, the choice is ours. I am indebted to all my colleagues and students in Kenya for making 2016 a year of learning for me and helping me broaden my own perspective.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.