The year I made friends in Kenyan prisons.

This post has been contributed by Rabia Pasha, graduate UOL LLM in Commercial and Corporate Law and undergraduate Laws programme.

When I arrived in Nairobi on New Year’s Eve last December I didn’t know what to expect. This 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 Kenyan prisons. This was much to my family’s dismay who were in denial of my endeavours until the night they bade me farewell at the airport. “Are you crazy?” was perhaps the most common question I was asked by everyone I spoke to about moving to Kenya and the work I’d be doing. My father made sure he contacted every soul in his network who had ever worked in Nairobi or at least had a contact there so that they could keep a watchful eye on me. Wait, what? Kenya? Teaching in prisons? Anyone would wonder. The rebel that I am, I did not deter and now I can reflect to say, this year in retrospect has been surreal.

In 2014 I attended a Law Provider’s Conference organized by University of London in Kuala Lumpur. I was at the time representing a UOL teaching institution from Pakistan, my home country. At one of the workshops we were shown a brief video of a British charity named, ‘African Prisons Project” started in 2004 by a then 18 year old. A project based in Uganda and Kenya with teams running several inspiring programmes but perhaps the one that resonated the most in the video was the Leadership Programme. Inmates and prison staff, studying the UOL undergraduate Laws programme on scholarship. I was awestruck, stumped by the profundity of the initiative. To empower inmates, most of whom are victims of miscarriages of justice, that was surely an idea unheard of.  I studied the UOL programme as a distance learning student myself but at a private institution with contemporaries that came from privileged families much like myself. To think of inmates studying law, in dire circumstances but with able spirits felt like the most befitting contribution to the community, a phenomenal cause that I immediately felt drawn to but had absolutely nothing to offer to the team at the time.

Upon returning to Islamabad, I wrote to Alexander McLean (the now 28 year old) about being able to help in some way and proposed if the students in Pakistan could perhaps assist the APP students. Welcoming the proposition, we then began a long-term correspondence whereby the students at School of International Law, Islamabad became mentors to APP students, writing letters and supporting them as academic coaches. The exchange of emails lead to the conversation that landed me in Nairobi. Could I come to Kenya and become a Senior Tutor for APP? I leaped at the opportunity, impulsively so. To my parents it certified that their daughter had lost her marbles.

I had my induction week in Uganda, I was received by old and new team members that soon became as close as family. I was touched by the little traditions followed by the organization, a culture of eating together, sharing a laugh, listening to everyone’s ideas and also acknowledging one another for their kindness. The first time I ever step into a prison would be Luzira Main Prison, Kampala. I accompanied Alexander and the rest of the new inductees to a Sunday Church service in the condemned section. All men on death row. 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 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, the tears just rolled down my face and the knot in my throat killed my eloquence.

rabia-app-with-inmatesThe prisons in Uganda and Kenya to me are reflective of their culture, you can truly see the African community. Inmates and officers interact like students and staff at a boarding school. You don’t see anyone with a gun or prisoners in handcuffs. It’s not a morbid image but one that is vibrant. Inmates are engaged in furniture workshops, or making car number plates, stitching uniforms and shoes, making handicrafts or even learning to run a small salon in the Women’s prison. The prisons have a particular focus on education. Some who are more educated teach the rest in the prison schools. In fact some setups are entirely run by inmates as Head Master and faculty.

I have been teaching in Kamiti Maximum Prison for Men, Lang’ata Women’s Prison and Naivasha Maximum Prison in Kenya. I was welcomed at each as a member of APP, a name that is now familiar to everyone in the prisons. I was also the first Pakistani most inmates and prison staff had met. I was asked many questions about the culture back home and to those who had been receiving letters from Pakistani students, wanted to know if I knew them personally. I was even asked if knew Malala Yousafzai and that I must convey a message to her that she was a source of inspiration to many. 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 find in the prisons. The students on the APP programme are some of the most educated in the prisons, they are all respected by other inmates both as teachers and as lawyers (to be) who are helping fellow inmates on their case matters and judicial processes. They 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, it has proven to reduce the prison strength and they have seen many success stories of overturned death sentences and early releases. Thus the officers and inmates work together to restore justice.

rabia-app-with-female-inmatesIn my year with them, the students have taught me more than I have them. I never expected to get lessons in humanity, dignity, humility and grace from prisons but I take so much more back home than I came with. I take with me a renewed perspective of how I perceive society, 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 witness one of the inmates, the founding student on the APP programme, Peter Ouko released from Kamiti on presidential pardon recently. Even whilst in prison, Pete was an idol for many. Convicted on death row, he was the first to complete the UOL Diploma in prison back in 2014. He started an organization by the name “Crime Si Poa” (Crime is not cool) to help educate the masses on the consequences of crime and ran campaigns all while behind bars.

I am so glad for the boldness that Alexander showed when he stepped into the prisons and took the steps that he did to create the avenues the inmates have today. I have had the honour of working with an equally dedicated local staff who are setting a precedent for the rest of the world. As a colleague, they always looked out for me and never made me feel like I was far away from home. No matter how chaotic Nairobi was on the outside, in prison I always felt safe and protected. I am truly indebted to the prison authorities and my students in Kenya for making this a year that I will always cherish in memory.

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