In Conversation with Mneti Huru


On a cold July morning we are on one of the far ends of Riruta Stadium, a recreational space situated on the fringes of Dagoretti South constituency. The field is a stone’s throw from Naivasha road which serves as a boundary between Riruta and Kawangware wards situated in Dagoretti South and Dagoretti North constituencies respectively. At different parts of the field as well as the adjoining compound where Dagoretti Empowerment Centre is situated, a few people are clearing patches of grass. I will later be informed that they are part of a group that signed up for Kazi mtaani – a government project intended to put thousands of unemployed youth to work in order to cushion them from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

We are seated on plastic seats facing each other. I am having a conversation with Marley, a friend I have known for the past two years. We speak in Sheng – compared to him I am an amateur at the language. I no longer have to ask him what certain words mean as I used to two years ago when we met. An unfamiliar word can now be put in context and understood. For the most part, however, I am familiar with most of the words he uses.

The white wall next to us is adorned with graffiti of the images of the faces of radical African icons accompanied with quotes written beside their images. Images of Amilcar Cabral, Harriet Tubman, Sekou Toure, Kwame Nkurumah are spread out on the wall as well as those of Malcom X, Winnie Mandela and Julius Nyerere which are closest to us, looking like a backdrop for the elevated grassy ground we are on with our chairs to those who are walking past.

Marley is a community organizer with a personal interest in the reintegration of former prison inmates in their communities. We met at Dagoretti Empowerment Centre two years ago when, alongside other comrades, we embarked on a number of interactive political education sessions – learning about the histories of oppression and relating it to the present. In our interactions Marley informed us about the activities of Mneti Huru (sheng for a free prisoner), a grassroots movement based in the area which deals with the struggles of prison inmates and former prison inmates who have just been released from jail. A former inmate himself, he faced stigma from his community but fortunately some of his friends took him in and supported him until he was on his feet. Besides other community interventions, Marley does the same for former inmates who have just been released from Prison. He is a key driver of Mneti Huru’s activities – the movement facilitates the reintegration of former inmates in their communities, advocacy for prisoners’ rights, and organises prison visits where youthful community members from the larger Dagoretti (North and South) learn from the prisoners’ experiences and think twice before engaging in crime. But, as I came to learn with my engagements with Marley, crime is not a social ill but a political problem. Our conversation speaks to this, the prison system and the history of the area.

“The biggest challenge former prisoners face upon release is acceptance.. Say for example, once you’ve been released after doing ten years you find a lot has changed – your friends who you could have relied on have been killed by police or now have families of their own. Those who are lucky are those whose who have been accepted by their parents as when one is released they virtually have nothing. You don’t have a house, you’re poor – you don’t even have a shilling,” Marley protests. “So you ask yourself where will I sleep? What will I eat? How will I live?” he continues. Marley explains how the government discriminates against them –former inmates can’t get certificates of good conduct from the police which further limit their ability to secure formal employment. It is as though former inmates have been set up to fail to earn a living. This is ironic considering the same government, Marley says, trained such inmates as they served their sentences in prison – inmates did courses on carpentry, welding and baking. All for nothing it would seem. Former inmates, without the much needed intervention, inevitably turn back to crime to get by – recidivism. Death in the hands of police is almost a foregone conclusion once an inmate picks this route. Marley remarks “If I hadn’t associated with certain people who had come from jail I now would have been six feet under. Eh saa hizi ningekuwa nimemadwa juu ningekuwa nimerudi back kwa crime.

We talk about Mneti Huru’s initiatives. Mneti Huru partners with the Full Gospel church based in Dagoretti which has a programme called Maisha Poa. Under this programme, recently released ex-prisoners – facing stigma from their families – are accommodated and fed by the church for 3 or so months while Mneti Huru mediates between them and their parents. But neither the church nor Mneti Huru has the sufficient resources to house and feed everyone who has come from jail. This is a challenge Mneti Huru has been struggling to surmount.

“We established the Mneti Huru workshop I think 4 months ago,” Marley speaks of their new initiative. “The reason why we established it is because we were tired for asking for help and we thought of sustaining ourselves – getting something for ourselves at the end of the month,“ he adds. After explaining the industrial training that former prison inmates went through in prison, he says that they decided that carpentry – one of the skills some of them had learnt – would be their entry point in their attempt to be self-reliant. At the workshop, former inmates who did carpentry in prison can work from the space and earn some amount of money from doing for clients some jobs while giving a percentage of what they earned to the workshop to pay rent and maintain the machines. Working with what one has. Self-reliance. Nyerere’s image and legacy lingers; Mneti Huru would have made him proud were he alive and had he heard their story.

My mind goes back to the industrial training sessions inmates go through while in prison. We’ve had this discussion with Marley before – on previous occasions he had told me that prisoners in their training sessions have produced innumerable products while in prison. It is well known in the public domain that the chairs used by Kenyan legislators in parliament are products of the prisoners’ labour. But what other products have the prisoners produced; at what cost and where do they go? I ask Marley.

Ushainiuliza hivyo tena.” He says and proceeds to inform me on some of the harsh realities of prison life. For those whose sentences are below 15 years, he says, theirs is a dog’s life. The two options such inmates have are to either dig out stones in a quarry or to work in one of the prison’s industries. Marley considers the latter and mentions how prisoners, once trained in carpentry for example, channel all their energy into producing products with a touch of perfection. But the prisoner does not enjoy this perfection in any way – the products belong to the government and are either stored in Kenya Prisons’ showroom or are sold to senior officials in government. Any attempt by an inmate to use or consume such products – for example a prisoner assigned to a farm eating some of the fruits he has grown – is met with unspeakable brutality. “Unapigangwa kama mbwa, unapigwa kama nyoka, “he says with a pained expression. You are a prisoner, a slave to put it bluntly – you are not to enjoy the fruits of your labour.

“As a prisoner did it hurt to know that you don’t get a shilling from your labour?” I ask Marley in Sheng. “One knows how much they have been used only once they are released,” he replies. He then mentions how prisoners in prison wonder how they’ll survive given their diet. “That is not food. You may call it food for pigs. In addition, once you are released it hurts to know that you made the seats in parliament which legislators sit on as well as the number plates on the cars which people drive. And they don’t give you anything once you leave jail. They equip you with all of those skills but they don’t even give you a single tool that you could use to earn a living,’ Marley adds. He describes how prisoners interact with different types of people in prison including those who he says have “criminal minds.” When a prisoner is released, has no means to earn their keep and faces stigma from the community they come from, through the phone they get in touch with those “criminal-minded” inmates who in turn connect the recently released prisoner to their gangs outside prison which engage in crime. Such recently released prisoners, according to Marley almost always meet a bloody end at the hands of police.

In a conversation we had months earlier, Marley intimated to me that for many ex-inmates – owing to the punishing experience of prison life – the decision of going back to crime comes with an acceptance of death as one’s fate. According to him, death is a far better option that prison. A line rapped in Kalamashaka’s song Toka Mbali comes to mind.

Vile vitu ziko noma, afadhali kifo.”

We discuss the recent plans by government to turn the Kenya Prisons into a state corporation. As someone who has a good grasp of prison life, Marley is legitimately opposed to it. “Ni Mboka sasa. Mboka yaani ni kubwa sasa. Sasa hizo vitu zimakeiwe sasa tuziuze mpaka nje.” Marley describes how this would formalize the prison system as a business which would therefore mean that the inmates would have to work twice as hard in order to make the corporation profitable. He reminds me that prisoners do not benefit from their produce and gives an example of Naivasha prison which has a huge shamba where prisoners plant and harvest maize yet the grain is sold elsewhere while after a tendering process, outsiders are usually awarded contracts to supply the prison with food. “Hiyo dough hata haitranslate to – haimprove any livity ya prisons juu maisha ni ile ile, wasee wanakuliwa na chawa, nguo hawapatiwi. Si tunakwitaga hell, huko ndio hell,” Marley laments in Sheng while arguing that the government’s plans can only be good for the establishment but not for the inmates. He likens it to slavery – and he is probably right to do so.

“In prison everything has a timeline,” he responds to the naïve question I asked – do inmates work at their pace? I regret exposing my ignorance so openly. “There’s a timeline for responding to a wardens call, a timeline for going to the field, a timeline for eating. So when you go to the field at 6 a.m., you leave at 12 p.m. and when you bend to cultivate you’re prohibited from standing straight and you have a warden and supervisor who have canes that they use on you if you dare raise your head. You only raise your head when the supervisor brings you water,” Marley continues.

Maybe I’m playing the devil’s advocate as I write this. Writing stories to get a woiye effect from my readers. This bleeding heart is overlooking some of the unspeakable things the inmates did that sent them to jail. But what is the root cause of crime? Is crime a social ill that demands an ili liwe funzo kwa wengine court judgment or a political problem that would demand a political solution?

Marley explains how the influence of friends, stress from one’s mother can push someone to crime. The stress that comes with being unemployed after going to school forces one into drugs which then creates a demand which, in a Kawangware slum of diminished opportunities, can mostly be met by the proceeds of crime. In his case he was addicted to mondo and began pickpocketing, graduated to ngeta then began using firearms to rob people until the point he was arrested.

Kawangware is situated next to Lavington – a palatial suburb mainly dominated by a constellation of rich Kenyans who live and own businesses in the area. Many members of the ruling elite have their political party offices in the area. I feel compelled to question why such glaring wealth disparities exist in Kawangware and the posh Lavington estate located next to the slum. I ask Marley about the history of these areas. He mentions how an older resident of the area told him that the name Lavington is a recent name and that the whole area – Lavington and Kawangware – was all called Dagoretti. According to the old man, Lavington in those days was inhabited by whites and was separated from Kawangware where Africans resided. This zoning, which was also used in other parts of Nairobi, was informed by a colonial logic of racial hierarchy which privileged white settlers with greater wealth and opportunities than their African counterparts. “Lavington was called Kanyaga during the colonial days. In other words it was a warning to Africans not to step in that area or risk being killed,” Marley relays in Sheng the information handed to him by the older resident. He gives a narration of a Catholic Church in Lavington which owned a lot of land in the area but later sold many parcels of the land it previously owned. Africans domiciled in Kawangware, he says, would go to Lavington to work as casual labourers for white people – particularly taking care of their cattle.“Recently Lavington became an estate while Kawangware became a slum. In this ghetto we don’t have jobs, many young people are unemployed here and therefore turn to crime,” he remonstrates.

Marley describes how the area MP offers unemployed youth an “opportunity’ by asking them to acquire a motorbike for 50,000 shillings and daily installments for 300 shillings for a certain period. “So nikienda kutega na nduthi ka ni mingi natoka na vioo ka mbili hapo. So target unaona sitapeleka. Hiyo vioo mbili ni kukula ntakula. So inabaki aje? Si me niko na nduthi? Naingia lavi ama naingia Kilimani ama naingia Parklands. Ntadunga tu wasee wawili,” personifying a motorbike rider, he draws a picture of how the daily amounts would be impossible to attain necessitating extra-legal means of attaining the target – robbing two people in the nearby posh Kilimani, Lavington and Parklands neighbourhoods with the motorbike serving as a convenient means of transportation to the suburbs and for getting away.

For every action there is a reaction. Marley describes how the residents of Lavington put up gates to regulate the entry of people, put up a police post and with the area police prohibited the entry of such motorbikes. “They, I think their association, came together and came up with the law that no youth should enter their estates with their motorbikes. “Ukipatikana huko unashadwa,” (if you’re found there you’re gunned down) he adds. A year ago the local dailies reported that the residents of Kilimani had begun contributing toward the construction of an ultra-modern police station worth 350 million Kenya shillings. Law, order and the institution for their enforcement work for the elite, I think to myself. This puts paid to the idea of the police as a neutral arbiter of the rich and poor. The police exist to keep order for the rich – no attention is paid to the historical circumstances that produced the desperate conditions that compel the poor to commit crimes.

According to Marley, the desperation is so bad to the point the above measures that were rolled out by the residents’ associations in cahoots with the police were not sufficient to stop the youth from Kawangware from robbing the suburban residents in their neighbourhoods. “But still wasee tu wanachaiwa juu like its either I live ama tu nigenye juu ya bullet yaani like sina option ingine. The only option niko nayo saa hizi ni kuchai tu na sina option ingine, ntaishi aje? Nyumba ntalipa aje, natakula aje.?Like ah..Eh..kimacho kavu, jo. Kama mbaya mbaya,” he laments, concluding his assessment of why the youth of his neighbourhood engage in crime.

These questions of their survival cannot be extricated from a historical context. How did Kawangware come into being? How did Lavington come into being? How did this translate to poverty in the former and economic well being in the latter? Are the youth of Kawangware responsible for the living conditions that they were born into – the hardship that compels some of them to rob people in order to survive? Why is it that their counterparts in Lavington do not have to contend with the same hardship they face? Hard, existential questions that call into question the notion of crime as a social ill or an immoral undertaking and illuminate the political dimension of it.

We chat briefly about the politics of the area and shortly after, wind up the interview, exiting the stage framed by the backdrop of the images the three African icons. The worldviews and or attitudes of the icons, it seems, were well represented in our conversation. In the same way Winnie Mandela struggled against apartheid, Kawangware’s youth struggle with the oppressive conditions that were handed down to them. The self-help programme and the self-reliance which Malcom X and Nyerere respectively spoke of is what Mneti Huru has struggled to achieve. Maybe the icons, whose images were painted by artists affiliated to Mneti Huru, have heard what we’ve said just as Mneti Huru learnt from them. I cannot be sure. Nevertheless, what is clear to me is that the youth of Kawangware in their way – wittingly or unwittingly – are saying no to the perpetuation of a colonial legacy.

*Marley is a community organizer based in Kawangware.

Monaja is a recording/performing artist.

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