Former Female Prisoner Helping Society Accept Ex-Convicts
By Maryanne Waweru-Wanyama
For more than seven years, Elizabeth Ndunge engaged in a lucrative business at Gikomba market in Nairobi, where she traded in second-hand clothes. As the business grew, she partnered with two friends and they would buy clothes in bales and then sell them in Juba – South Sudan, where they had established a new market. Each week, the ladies would take turns to travel to Juba, sell the clothes then return after three or four days when the stock was sold out.
Photo: Elizabeth Ndunge during the interview
“Business was very good, and we were all happy with the huge profits we were making,” remembers the 42 year-old mother of two.
“We would buy about five bales, and then hire one of our regular taxi drivers to take us to the town center from where one of us would board a bus to Juba,” she remembers.
This arrangement went on smoothly for three years, until one day, an unexpected event altered the course of Ndunge’s life forever.
“It was a morning February 2008, and it happened to be my turn to travel to Juba. After purchasing the bales at Gikomba, I waited for my regular taxi driver to take me to the town center. Unfortunately, he delayed, and fearing I would miss my bus, I decided to take the first taxi that came my way.”
And that was to be the decision that would cost her dearly.
“I negotiated the fare with the driver, and after reaching an agreement, I boarded the taxi. The drive was smooth, but just as we were about to get into the town center at the Muthurwa market roundabout, I heard the taxi driver murmur some words before suddenly changing routes. When I asked him why, yet we were almost at our destination, he said he was avoiding traffic. However, I noticed there were policemen ahead of us, and I thought he could have been avoiding them perhaps because he didn’t have a driving licence,” Ndunge recalls.
But she became worried when the car began heading further away from the town center. The taxi driver kept going on, ignoring her pleas to drop her off at the next bus stop. She sensed danger when they got onto Mombasa road.
“Each time I asked him where we were going, he ignored me. Frightened, I even wet my pants, believing I had been kidnapped,” she remembers.
Shortly thereafter, Ndunge suddenly heard loud bangs coming from behind. Instinctively, she ducked down to the floor of the car, realising that the sounds were gunshots.
“I then heard the taxi driver open his door and jump out, leaving the car on its own motion. I felt the car enter a ditch and come to a halt.”
Ndunge recalls struggling to get out of the car, and when she finally did so, she raised her hands in the air screaming out for help. She was grateful when she saw policemen rushing towards her, glad that they would rescue her from her kidnapper. But she was in for a rude shock when the same policemen immediately pounced on her with slaps, kicks and blows.
“As they rained punches on me, asking me to name my accomplice (the taxi driver), it was only then that I realised that the car had been stolen! The policemen stripped me naked by the roadside and tortured me for about three hours, asking me to reveal other members of the car theft syndicate. I was saved from death by the crowd of onlookers who begged for the policemen to spare my life,” she remembers.
At the Langata police station, Ndunge was booked, and there began her court case where she stood trial for the capital offence of armed robbery. The prolonged court case would see her stay in remand for three years. Eventually, she was found not guilty of the robbery with violence charges. However, the judge ordered her to serve 12 months in jail for the offense of being found in a stolen vehicle.
“The judge ruled that it was wrong for me to have boarded a ‘taxi’ that bore no yellow-line, or which was not branded a taxi company’s name. She explained that anybody found in a car that has been reported stolen must answer to charges of theft of the vehicle. She said my sentence would serve as a warning to me and others who board unbranded taxis.”
Having already served slightly over three years in remand, Ndunge decided to make the best of her remaining time behind bars. During the course of her year-long jail term, she began composing gospel songs which she would later record.
While incarcerated, she began noticing that many prisoners, once released, would after a short while return to prison.
“We would spend the eve of her release singing, dancing and praying together, wishing our sister a good life outside the prison walls. But less than a month later, we would see the same woman return. It happened to so many times, and it became an issue that deeply troubled me. One day I gathered courage to inquire about the disturbing trend.”
All the returnees Ndunge talked to all said the same thing.
“They said that once freed, they faced so much stigma and rejection by society that they longed to return to prison. Rejected by their families, friends, neighbours and former colleagues, they found it hard to settle down and make a decent living. Distraught, they would deliberately commit a crime so that they would return to prison –the only home they had come to know. In prison, they were guaranteed of acceptance, friends, food, shelter and clothing.”
As she listened to their experiences, Ndunge hoped that her family would not reject her. She could not fathom the idea of returning to prison no matter the challenges out there.
Finally, her release day arrived in October 2012, and after leaving the prison gates, she vowed she would not return there. She travelled to her rural home in Kangundo, Machakos County, unsure of the reception she’d get.
“Thankfully, my family welcomed me back. Sadly though, my husband had already remarried. I chose to accept and move on with my two children, who had been left under the care of my mother. Shortly thereafter, I returned to my former business in Gikomba, where I was welcomed back by my former colleagues. Relieved, and knowing that acceptance of ex-convicts into society was a possibility, I decided to use the profits of my business to help women ex-convicts so that they too could be accepted back into society.”
Ndunge began offering help to ex-convicts facing problems of rejection by their families after their release by mediating between both parties. As her work progressed, Ndunge decided to make her venture more formal, and in 2013, she registered the organization Kenya Ex-Prisoners Fighting Acceptance Back into Society (Kefabis).
So far, Ndunge has been able to help 29 female ex-convicts be accepted back by their families, after initially being rejected. She sometimes requests the assistance of local chiefs, respected community leaders as well as religious leaders to help in the mediation process. Her initiative has seen her travel across the country, with some of her travel expenses being taken care of by the Missionaries of Africa –a Catholic based society whom she became acquainted with while in prison.
Today, Kefabis has 2,600 members, many of whom have established support groups as a way for helping and motivating each other to live by the law.
“In Kangundo, members have formed a group where they engage in commercial farming activities. In Malinidi, the women engage in craft work while in Kisumu, they engage in evangelical ministry. The Kefabis Kakamega chapter recently received training from a painting company, where they were taught how to paint professionally. The members often get contracts to do painting jobs, and are earning money from this. In Nairobi, members design and tailor clothes, jewellery and other accessories such as handbags. Most of these women use the skills they learnt while in prison,” she says.
Her work has however not been without challenges. Many are the times she has been chased by family members of the ex-prisoner she is trying to mediate for.
“Both of us are hounded out, as the families want nothing to do with ex-prisoners. Many are the times we have been thrown out violently,” she says.
“It is also disheartening when some families completely reject their family member. Two women have so far been completely rejected by their kin,” she says.
But Ndunge soldiers on, because as an ex-convict, she understands the stigma associated with former prisoners.
“I know what it is like to be stigmatised by society. Today, not all my friends have accepted me as some fear me thinking that I am a dangerous criminal. But that will not stop me from doing my work of helping female ex-prisoners rebuild their lives again,” she concludes.
*Ndunge is reachable on 0708898542
Article courtesy: The Star