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Former Kenyan Prisoners Seek Redemption Through Work

  • Gabe Joselow

It is hard to find a job in Kenya and even harder with a criminal record. But a group of former prisoners in Nairobi is working to prove there is life after crime.
In the Mathare neighborhood of Nairobi, a group of former prisoners has exchanged a life of crime for a life of service. Every day, the ex-convicts take to the streets -- collecting trash and doing other odd jobs to give back to a community that receives few public services.

It all started with an idea hatched in prison by Festus Indimuli and his fellow inmates while he was serving six years for a violent robbery.

Reflecting on the mistakes they made as young men, the inmates thought, there must be a better way and founded the organization Re4mists Kwetu Crime Si Poa or Crime is Not Good.

“When you create all these jobs for these guys, nobody actually will think of crime again, because he has something in his pocket, and he has somewhere that he is staying all the day from the morning to the evening," Indimuli said. "But you see when he does not do anything, just sitting like this, he engages his mind to crime. So that's how we intend to stop the crime in the area.”

A year since its founding, the organization has more than 200 members. Raising a small amount of cash through their work, members hope to expand operations to provide more services, including security.

The community, they say, is mostly supportive.

But some, like fruit vendor Stanley Muiruri, are a bit skeptical.

“We hope that from where they have been, they have reformed, that is what we hope,“ he said.

Some former inmates say their friends and families abandoned them when they went to prison. The organization serves as a kind of support group for those who feel they lost touch with society.

Re4mist member Moses Bayon says he is ready to make up for lost time.

“Like myself, I was there for six years, spent time there. It was no good," he said. "So I understand, I wasted most of my time there. I would have made something outside here, you see? But after that I learned something, and I knew crime was not good.”

Kenyan prisoners often receive training while behind bars, earning certificates in skills like plumbing, electrical work or carpentry. The furniture used by the country’s parliament was made in prison. But despite their talents, it is nearly impossible to get a job. Being an ex-con is a tough stigma.

“They cannot use that certificate or that grade they got from prison, because when he goes to the company somewhere and shows the grade, it is also being written there 'Kamiti Maximum Prison,'” Indimuli said.

Until a time comes when it is easier for former prisoners to re-enter society, the Re4mists will keep picking up small jobs here and there, doing whatever it takes to raise a little money, to give something back to the community, and to commit themselves to prove the belief that everyone deserves a second chance.