3 January 2011

J's Trip to Kenya - Part VI

Thursday 9th December

John Odiambo is one of 3 social workers who work with the Isaiah Trust. I had met John on my previous trip but as he is by far the quietest and softest spoken of the guys, I had never really had the opportunity to get to know him.  The previous evening, he had approached me and asked if he could share his story with me and talk to me about one of the girls he takes care of, Evelyn.  “I wanted to explain why I have such a heart for the girls” John began.

John’s story is not necessarily any more tragic than many I have heard.  Both parents died at an early age, the difference being that he was the eldest boy to three younger sisters. 

I too have ‘a heart’ for the girls. I remembered meeting Ruth for the first time and asking if she needed anything.  In our heavily materialistic world, her only request was for “sanitary pads”. No adolescent girl should be in the position of asking for basic needs such as that.  And this was John’s point too.  Many girls turn to prostitution simply because they cannot afford to look after themselves.  Not only selling their bodies to afford food, they sell their bodies to acquire their most basic needs.  

With John’s sisters he knows only too well this was the reason they moved into prostitution. It was their way of maintaining at least some dignity.  John now keeps an eye on 10 girls in the Isaiah Trust program.  “Two of my sisters died having contracted HIV. I don’t want any of my girls to be in that situation ever again”, he whispered.

John and Evelyn
And that is how we came to be doing another home visit this Thursday morning.  Evelyn lives with her grandmother, is top of her class and is poor, was all he would tell me. Touched by John’s story of the previous evening, I loaded up my supermarket trolley with the usual basics for Evelyn’s grandmother.  Having just met John Felix’s grandmother the previous day, I wondering what this one was going to be like.  Still with a heavy heart after talking to John about Evelyn, I filled a carrier bag with sanitary pads, hair shampoo, body lotion (for African skin this is somewhat of a necessity rather than a luxury), toothbrush, toothpaste, soaps and off we went.

As usual Moses drove his old car up a track that would test our 4x4! As we approached the house, we saw Evelyn sitting outside, astride a bench, armed with a bowl of water, a scrubbing brush and the biggest pile of washing I have ever seen.  In another corner of the garden were three older boys, breaking up rocks.  Rocks are a free commodity which when broken up to make gravel can be sold at the local market to building contractors.

We were invited inside to meet Evelyn’s grandmother.  What a difference from yesterday’s grandmother! As I stepped over the threshold, she warmly greeted me and offered up prayers of thanks.  As the other seven orphaned grandchildren gathered around me I was overcome with an emotion that I found hard to identify.  Here was a woman whose grandchildren were her life.  Yes, they had a roof over their heads but certainly no glass in the windows. They had a couple of sofas to sit on and other than the closeness of their family unit that was all. I hastily wiped some tears away. If I started now I knew I wouldn’t stop. This place was filled with so much love it was tangible.  Struggling with my emotions, John, by my side, prompted me.  “You know that Evelyn is top of her class?” he told me. “Ask her how long it takes her to walk to school each day.” Even glancing down at her shredded flip flops, no way was I prepared for the answer. Two and a half hours each way, every week day in rain or shine....this girl is determined to get an education.  

Even Moses was surprised at Evelyn’s daily journey.  We can change that now he said, she must be transferred to St Pauls (a much closer school) come January.  Not wishing to completely bombard this shy girl, I turned to her and asked – “is that okay with you Evelyn?  Will you miss your friends?” She smiled right into my eyes and said, “I will make new friends!” Her grandmother meanwhile was sitting opposite us, smiling quietly and continuing with her basket weaving. Like I did when I first met John Felix, I instinctively knew that this family would be part of my future life.  John had been correct in introducing me and wanting to get me involved.  “Okay, if you’re going to St Paul’s in January, then I guess you need a school uniform,” not to mention leather shoes, I thought!

From school necessities the conversation turned to books.  I still had a donation from Frances on behalf of Olive (a schoolteacher friend who had recently died).  Instead of sending flowers to the funeral, Frances wanted the money spent on school books.  “Do you have libraries here?” I asked.  The response I got was a complete surprise.  There are no public lending libraries throughout the whole of Kenya.  Perhaps in the universities but then only for reference books and manuscripts.  Even in the schools, books are a luxury item. I thought about all of Guy’s and Kitty’s childhood books sold for pennies at the Vide Grenier. The thought of a child growing up without access to books (Enid Blyton, A A Milne, J K Rowling etc etc) was a complete puzzle to me.  “Moses, we need to go to a book shop!” So we all piled back into the little car, Evelyn and her brother Athenas, John Felix, John Odiambo, Moses and myself.  

First stop was to find the school shop for the new uniform.  Moses had said that there shouldn’t be a problem enrolling Evelyn on the first day back in January.  As we entered the shopping mall, out of the corner of my eye, I saw John Odiabo ‘high five’ a small nun.....dressed head to foot in cream rather than the usual black.  We hung back to be introduced to this miniscule lady.  Out of all the people to bump in to, this was the headmistress of St Paul’s.  Evelyn was duly introduced and did an entrance interview for the school there and then! Don’t you just love how God pulls these kinds of surprises on you?

The Kids' First Visit to a Bookshop
Next stop was to order the school uniform to be made (two dresses, one jumper), leather shoes and two pairs of socks.  Where to find a bookshop?  As Moses led us to the doorway, the kids were full of excitement ready to pile in. “Stop right there”, I shouted as they were about to climb up the steps. Having ascertained that this was a ‘first’ for all the kids, I held their attention by commanding them to “Sniff!” All books and stationery shops have the same smell – some sort of clean paper smell - I love it.  I hope those three kids will always remember it now too.  

With Frances’s donation we were able to buy twenty-one books which hopefully will be the start of the Kibos reading library!

Friday 10th December

My time left in Kisumu was flying by.  I’d been here 12 days already and still not had time to visit Moses and Tatu at their home in Kibos! I teased Moses saying that I had not been invited for Chapatis and greengrams yet.  He laughed his belly laugh and promised one of Tatu’s special lunches that afternoon after Prison visiting.
After Prison visiting?? Huh?? I gulped....

Moses explained that I would accompany him on his usual monthly visit to a counselling session with some of the inmates.  The Kibos lunch afterwards was my reward. Once again, my Mastercard and I entered Nakumat supermarket.  This time it was only (??) to pick up 30 loo rolls, 30 toothbrushes and 30 tubes of toothpaste.  Never mind the prisoners, Thomas is going to commit murder when he sees my credit card bill.... after making a hasty phone call to Maurice (prison social worker), we decided we could probably get away with a loo roll for each of the 30, 15 tubes of toothpaste to be shared and 5 (two foot long) bars of washing soap. I assured Moses that I had a supply of toothbrushes back at Covenant.  Having collected the said toothbrushes and counted them, I had a vision of starting a riot – I’d only got 18.....this fact did nothing to calm my nerves as we entered the highest security prison in the whole of Kenya.

The guards gave us cursory glances as we were waved through the main gate having parked up outside the prison on a patch of grass next to a bull.  ‘That’s for Christmas lunch’, we were told by Maurice. The heavy door opened and in we went.  As that door was locked behind us I stared ahead through the next iron doorway which led onto a huge courtyard where 2000 convicts were enjoying a bit of sun after taking lunch. Having signed in, this door was then unlocked for us and we were invited to cross the courtyard to the meeting room on the other side. I felt a sense of unreality.  Where were the security cameras? Where were the closed circuit TVs? Were these guards (who looked equally as scary as the prisoners) only ‘armed’ with what looked like a rounders bat? I’m white, I’m blond, I’m female and I have to walk 100 metres across an open courtyard with only 18 toothbrushes ....

I tried to make myself small and unnoticeable as I walked between Moses and Maurice. I envisioned Thomas switching on Sky News and seeing stories of ‘White woman taken hostage on account of not bringing enough toothbrushes....’ As we got to the other side, it seemed to take an interminable amount of time before the guard unlocked his side of the gate and we were ‘safely’ ushered in to another block.  I breathed a sigh of relief as we were welcomed into a kind of library and offered seats. ‘Phew, that was pretty scary’, I thought. As my heart beat slowed to a more normal pace, we were asked to wait as our group of inmates gathered outside (for what, I wondered??).  The well-spoken gentleman seated behind the desk apologised for the delay - nice shirt, I thought. Eventually, we joined a circle of 22 inmates strangely enough all wearing the same striped shirts (and trousers).  

Introductions over, Maurice wanted each prisoner to tell his own story, what crime they had committed and what goals they were now working towards.  I have to say that in the end, it was a very humbling experience.  The polite ‘librarian’ was in fact an ex school teacher inside for being an accomplice to robbery with violence.  The age range of the prisoners was between 19 and 56.  Nineteen of the twenty-two were serving life.  Their crimes (glad I didn’t know this before I turned up) were mainly for murder, rape and\or defilement. One of the boys had murdered his brother, another had been involved in a ‘fracas’ with his fianc√©, yet another an ex policeman.  The saddest case of all was the 19 year old who, on his arrival, had naively traded sex for some scraps of soap. The cost of a clean body was to contract HIV. However, each one in the group, took part, spoke up articulately and honestly, and confessed to becoming born again Christians.  Practically each one said that their crime had been committed as a result of drink/drugs or falling in with a bad crowd. Now being given the opportunity to perhaps learn a trade or help support someone else, they now had a reason for living and moving forward, regardless of their life sentences.

J with the Lifers
As our session came to an end, they stood up to sing for me.  What wonderful African voices in harmony. As I stood up to thank them for sharing their stories with me, the librarian appeared with a present.   “We thought you would like this, we made it in our workshop here.”  I was lost for words as they handed me my very own Chapati stool and rolling pin.  I walked out of Kibos prison feeling much better than how I had felt on my way in.  How is it possible to feel sympathy for murderers and the like?  Should we just lock them up and throw away the key?  Is there a hope that these guys can change their lives around from the inside and in doing so make a positive influence of some of the others? Maurice and Moses both think so. Who am I to argue?  

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