We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT
The green steel gates rolled solemnly on their small rail to grant us entry to the correctional facility. To get here, we had passed through a now-defunct dusty trail that cut through a thicket; the dust and blackjack seeds on our shoes and sleeves bore the evidence. Right from the moment we set foot in the institution at the main gate, we could sense that we were not particularly welcome here.
We were in the company of three Americans; a woman in her fifties called Kelly, her husband-a towering six foot four hulk with a nearly bald head and a younger lady, young enough to be their daughter but a detailed look on her showed traces of Africa.
My partner and I were playing host to the three from an organization in the United States that was interested in the welfare of juvenile prisoners. In the U.S, they were actively involved in the education of minor prisoners, provision of legal aid, counseling and follow-ups upon release to reduce the cases of re-offense. Kelly and her husband Adam founded the trust and were counting thirty-three years of marriage, three children-all grown and employed, and thirty years of standing in the gap for the young souls. In their thirtieth anniversary, their main agenda was to spread the wings to Africa; an idea born after a sabbatical they took to tour West Africa.
Three years later, we stood with them at the reception of the Juvenile and Rehabilitation Prison at Kamiti. The officer on duty went through our paperwork at Kenyan speed and forwarded them to the Officer in Charge-synonymous to a one-hour wait. My patience could have easily worn off were it not for the American trio. They maintained a calm face with an easy smile; sometimes they would just stare at the floor and seem to get an amusement.
We left our mobile phones and bags in small cabinets in the reception, signed in at the visitors’ book and followed the officer from the welfare office. Several boys in plastic shoes and fading navy blue shorts, shirts and pullovers stood attention as we passed. The boys swept the bare ground and watered it to keep the dust down, others were busy tending the flower beds, and the rest squatted in a line for an ongoing headcount before they left for the garden. The boys could have been any age between seven and eighteen but anything far from glad. They watched us, and I could feel the rising expectation and their soundless plea for help. I could also feel the stigma in the air, and I swallowed hard as it cut my throat like a sharp blade. I must have been staring when a big arm, weighing something close to twenty kilos landed on my shoulder.
“I know that feeling. It will keep you going, do not forget it. Ever,” Adam whispered to my ear, but the distance from his mouth made it feel like a voice from above. I didn’t want to imagine how small I looked with his hand balancing on my shoulders.
In three months, by God’s grace, we had managed to start a program with the prison administration that allowed 8-4-4 classes, counseling, and interactive sessions and provided legal help. Three boys benefitted from the lawyers and were reunited with their families. The classes have since picked up well, and most kids signed up to proceed with their primary school education.
Good grades and introversion introduced me to a boy whom I would have harshly judged in another life. I resent people who dwell on their yesterday, and blame it for every problem, mistake or situation they are in today. Let us call him Marahuru a name coined from Maraga and Uhuru. It holds no meaning. It just happened to cross my mind.
Marahuru is sixteen, incarcerated for life for two separate crimes he committed when he was thirteen. The first offense was stealing. He stole anything of whatever value he would find in his neighbors’ homestead. The second offense was complicated in whatever angle we looked at it. He was robbing a home and found the farm’s ten-year-old daughter alone. He warned her against shouting for help as he ransacked the house and when she tried screaming, he defiled her but caught in the act by neighbors . He escaped death narrowly. The neighbors witnessed against him, giving the judge no option but to sentence him for life imprisonment.
“I was all alone in this world. My mother was not married and worked at a bar in Maai Mahiu and as fate has it, nobody claimed to be my father. She saw many men, especially truck drivers and she was always drunk. I lived with my grandmother for a while before I ran away after she fell sick and died,” Marahuru told me his story.
“Where was your mother all along?” I inquired.
“I killed her, at birth. I.Am.A.Monster. I have been one ever since I was born.”
Watching the young boy say the words one at a time was a painful ordeal, he allowed the judgment at the bars to get to his mind. It ruled over him and was quickly transforming his future to one of loathsomeness and bitterness. No matter how good he was in his grades. Even if he received parole later in life, the self-cast denial would forever be over his head as the sun is in South Sudan, beating him ruthlessly and draining whatever bits of humanity he had. I fear that sentencing is not always the best strategy for correction. Counseling, empowering and close monitoring can be a better way to curb crime especially with young boys and girls.
“Listen Marahuru, you are not a monster. You were not responsible for the death of your mother; many mothers lose their lives during child delivery. The crimes you did are not unique as anybody in the same predicament as you can be forced to do so,” my alter ego spoke. We listened.
“So you believe I am not a bad person entirely?” He asked.
“In fact, you are one of the most honest people I have met,” I read from some place in my heart and gazed at the small glow he shone. That was perfect for a start.
Over time, like branches of pine trees in a forest, we grew close. Marahuru told me his ambitions, of owning a ranch, a horse, and a guitar. He always wanted to become a vet before he became a prisoner. In prison he was intrigued by music and learned how to play the guitar, he played during a function graced by the Inspector General of the Prisons and could not get over it. He was proud of success and never forgot about his future, no matter how dull and unyielding it was.
“I am better off in here. It is the lowest point of life for anybody, but I thrive. In the world out there I would be hurting people, playing hide and seek with death and receiving no advice at all. Here I have a roof over my head, entitlement to a meal, friends who do not judge me and somehow, a future.”
The future he spoke of with unsaid hope was beautiful even for me as an outsider. He wanted to play his guitar in Kinshasa. I picture him on a performance stage in Kinshasa. He is the kind that wears a shiny blue suit and a turtle necked top. The trouser would have to bear six pleats; three on either side, a turn-up one inch in breadth and an exaggerated belt.
Marahuru will make a dramatic entry to the stage with two female dancers flanking him before holding onto his sanctuary-an acoustic guitar and then in a voice as magical as the atmosphere created he would introduce himself awakening an unrestrained zest from the crowd.
Marahuru, aka Monsieur M, will signal the band to play track number six of his debut album; Un Oiseau en Cage va encore Chanter. With the pain from his past grasping against his neck making the jugular to swell, a voice rich in tone and meaning would reverberate from the jukeboxes followed by chords of Lingala from his guitar. The Congolese will dance to the tune as they ponder the symbolic words. The boy-now a man will sing of the memoirs in Siberia, the licks of the whip, the chiming of keys on the wardens’ waists and the barbed-wire fences. He will reach a point and yell like a woman in pain, recalling the scars on his back and his heart. The crowd shall reiterate the yell and Monsieur M will lose it. The band will catch up with the frenzy, inviting a crazy dance and a rhapsody shall ensue. That will be his mettle, bewitching the crowds with his guitar.
Two years have since passed; Kenya is in a state of uncertainty when we, the citizens, are reminded of our ethnicity. Every calendar has been disrupted. Businesses are taking stock earlier than usual. On the day we celebrate our nations’ heroes we shall wake up to either a warm bath or a bloodbath. We pray for the former.
A few days later, Marahuru and several other hundreds of thousands boys and girls will sit for their national exams. To most, it will be K.C.P.E but for us, it will be a step into the future. Good grades for Marahuru and boys in his class could mean secondary school education. If they perform well, and if our prayers are answered, few of them could receive pardons and scholarships to attend regular school. Normal is what they crave for when we consider it a fortress for the weak.
(The story A caged bird will still sing is based on a true story. Thousands of children find themselves imprisoned due to a mistake we can help them avoid. The boy child has been left in the cold as advocacy; empowerment and awareness mainly focus on the girl child. It is high time we stood up equally for both genders.)