‘After all that has been happening in our country, I needed to be part of an occasion like this,’ said Nancy Karui, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs. It was a very telling remark. Because the place was a prison – the Langata Women’s Prison. And the occasion was the launch of a book: ‘Deadly Money Maker’ by one of the prisoners, Judy Akinyi, writing under the pen name of Saga McOdongo.
Now, I’ve had quite a bit to do with prisons in a previous life back in the UK– not as an inmate you’ll understand, but as a Board member and as someone designing courses for those who counsel prisoners, in the hope that prison can be more a place of rehabilitation rather than retribution.
But I have never witnessed a prison occasion like the one at Langata the other Tuesday, 5th February.
For the inmates, the most progressive of prisons cannot be a pleasant place to be. Even if the cells are clean and not overcrowded; even if the food is palatable; even if recreational and educational facilities are provided; even if the prison officers (the ‘madams’, as they are called at Langata) are considerate; even if all these things are there, a prison is still a place where you are denied that most basic of your rights – your freedom.
That Tuesday some of the prisoners put on a skit showing how dire and disgusting Langata Women’s Prison was – only a few years ago. It was a scene from Judy Akinyi’s book, a description of what she herself had witnessed as common practice. It went like this:
‘The duty officer came into the ward for the headcount and all went quiet. The woman “in charge” of the ward was the only one who was allowed to stand up. The rest of us had to squat.
“Fifty nine, Madam,” she said.
“Wapi mtu mwingine?” (Where is the other one?), Madam asked.
Five “madams” went towards the bathroom. A newcomer was flushed out of the toilet, and the madams rained kicks and blows on her. Others hit her with the “reds” (red plastic bucket handles). To them it didn’t matter where they hit. She was just a “mfungwa” (a prisoner) anyway….’
But things have changed – and most dramatically. As was demonstrated at the book launch. There was a fashion parade by some of the inmates, wearing elegant dresses ingeniously crafted out of whatever was to hand, such as woollen blankets and plastic Uchumi bags. There were poems and songs. But perhaps the best indicator of all was the sight of the Officer-in-Charge, Grace Odhiambo, dancing – whole-heartedly dancing – with a group of prisoners.
Much was said about the commitment and the efforts of the previous Vice-President, Moody Awori, in pushing for prison reform in Kenya. It is a pity he wasn’t there to hear the tributes. And there are other people, too, who have specifically helped to change Langata Women’s Prison – people like Father Peter Kimani, the Prison Principal Chaplain, who has promoted a library; Father Peter Mienberg of the Faraja Society, who has provided facilities for vocational skills training and courses on counselling for prison officers; and Sister Theresa of the Daughters of St Paul, who have published ‘Deadly Money Maker’.
But this was a day for a very special tribute to Judy Akinyi. I heard her being interviewed on the BBC a few months back – and, perhaps, you have already been reading about her in the papers. She is a remarkable woman. A courageous one, too. After fighting down the feelings of fear, shame and despair, she herself has done much at the prison to make it a place of energy and hope. She has used her experience as a teacher to become head of the prison’s adult education school, head of the drama club, the choir mistress and a ‘cell-in-charge’
Most significantly. Judy has written a book that is a stark warning to anyone who might be tempted by the seeming easy money to be made out of drug trafficking. ‘Deadly Money Maker’ is also a book that will make a significant contribution to prison reform in Kenya.
Perhaps there could be no finer tribute to her than that made by the Commissioner of Prisons, Gilbert Omondi. He took off his hat to her, a prisoner. ‘I salute you,’ he said.
Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation