A Day in Dagoretti

After a slightly hairy car journey to Mombasa Airport, during which I hit gridlocked traffic and was convinced that I was going to miss my flight, I managed to get on my plane and land safely in Nairobi. I was then met by a lovely driver named Paul who took me to the house of the friends where I was going to be staying for my remaining time in Kenya. I was going to be helping out with Joss Carruthers, a very close friend of my mum’s from university, with her charity Clean Start which helps women in prisons in Kenya. They equip women and girls with skills and education so that when they do get out they stay out of prison. One of the big problems is that these prisons operate like a revolving door, because when people get out they have no money and so cannot afford food and because of the stigma against convicts they can’t get jobs. This means they have to resort to petty survival crimes that land them right back in prison. By educating these women and girls, Clean Start break that cycle and help them find more education, vocational training or jobs. So needless to say, they’re doing pretty awesome work.

My first day helping at Clean Start involved driving to the Dagoretti Juvenile Correctional Facility where we would be starting a Coaching for Leadership course for the staff. In the car ride over Joss explained to me that in the past the guards had inhibited the process of educating the women and girls Clean Start worked with because they themselves didn’t understand the course so were often intimidated by the sudden empowerment these women felt. Coaching for Leadership introduced the concepts behind the educational course and taught the guards how they could mentor the girls to help them grow and develop.

“What kind of ages are the girls in Dagoretti?” I asked as we drove to pick up Terry, one of the Clean Start coaches.

“It ranges from ten to seventeen, but most of the girls are around fourteen or fifteen.” Joss replied.

“Oh my gosh, that’s so young,” I said, shocked by the fact that these girls were even younger than me.

“Almost all of them are imprisoned because of criminalisation of poverty. They’re selling things on the side of the street without licenses or stealing food to feed their families. Sometimes parents even make up crimes to get their children sent here because then at least they are guaranteed food every day and some form of education,”

“Is the education any good?” I asked.

“No, the standard of teaching is pretty poor. A lot of them aren’t even qualified teachers,” We pulled into the petrol station where we’d be picking Terry up and Joss got out of the car, pulling a woman into a big hug.

“Flora – meet Terry,” Joss said as I got out of the car to shake her hand.

“Lovely to meet you,” I said.

“Flora’s our intern for the next few weeks,” Joss explained, “She’s going to be helping out with comms and she’ll be editing the Langata footage,” There was about eight hours of footage from one of the Clean Start team’s visits to Langata Women’s Maximum Security Prison, the prison in which Teresa Njoroge, the founder of Clean Start, was wrongly imprisoned for a year. Terry smiled at me warmly and shook my hand.

“Welcome,” she said. We all got back into the car and drove the rest of the way to Dagoretti. I didn’t know what to expect. I had never been inside a prison before, let alone one for such young girls. Joss explained that this prison was for low-level crimes whereas some of the guards that would be coming to the training were from Kirigiti, another girls correctional facility for more serious crimes, like drug selling or knife crime. We were let into the main gate and drove along a dirt track, parking the car in a large patch of grass.

The prison was made up of smaller buildings scattered across the site. There was a big rectangular open courtyard of scrubby dry grass and green hedges with buildings around the edge. On one side of the square there was a dining room, where we would be hosting the training, adjacent to a kitchen, one side was open and the two other sides were taken up by long squat buildings which may have been classrooms or dormitories, I’m not too sure. There were girls milling around all over the place, eating some sort of brownish ‘porridge’ out of plastic mugs in their blue uniforms. Joss and Terry knew many of them from the Spear course they had done here so were quick to embrace the girls that they recognised. They were both clearly very popular as the girls faces lit up when they saw them.

We retrieved Clean Start’s supplies from the main office and started getting everything set up. This was when I met the other coaches, Cippi and Milkah, as well as Barbara, the photographer. They were all lovely and made me feel immediately at home, thanking me for helping and welcoming me into the Clean Start team.

We moved all of the tables and benches out of the dining hall and set up a projector, with a screen, a big flip-chart to write on, twenty or so plastic chairs and a big Clean Start poster. We put together the activity packs for the participants as well, connected the laptop and made sure it all worked.

Putting together the information packs. From left to right: Milkah, Cippi, me and Barbara.

Soon we were all ready to go and just needed to wait for the group of guards from Kirigiti. While we were waiting a lovely woman, Fatiah, arrived with some helpers who would be providing us with lunch and tea. She had herself been imprisoned but, with the help of Clean Start, had set up her own restaurant which was doing really well.

About forty minutes later we heard the rumble of a van as it drove in through the gates and we went out to greet our arrivals. Everyone got a sticker with their name on and we ushered them inside. We still had a few latecomers to wait for so we decided to have tea before our introductions. Fatiah laid out tea cups with a rather eclectic combination of foods that I dished out onto different plates. Each person got a beef samosa, mandazi (which is a kind of Kenyan fried bread like a doughnut) and a boiled egg.

Waiting for people to return from their tea

After our tea we were ready to get started. Cippi, Milkah and Terry introduced themselves as the Coaches for this one week course and Joss, Barbara and I introduced ourselves as well. Firstly we all walked over to the empty space in the room and stood in a circle.

“Now we will start with an exercise. You will say your name, your job and what kitchen utensil you would be and why,” Milkah said. “Who would like to start?” Silence descended on the room. I was reminded of workshops in school when bright speakers would come in and try to rally enthusiasm into mute teenagers. Eventually a man stepped forward,

“My name is Francis and I am a cook here in Dagoretti. If I was a utensil, I would be a spoon.” He said, “Because it mixes everything together and I want to take all of the skills that I learn in this course and mix them together.”

“Thank you, Francis.” Milkah cast her gaze around the room, “Who else?” One by one people plucked up the courage to step forwards and say their utensil of choice. As the class went on they got more and more into it, excited by the ideas that they had and the parallels they could draw between themselves and sieves. I remember especially one woman stepped forward.

“My name is Esther and I am a Welfare Manager at Kirigiti. If I was a utensil I would be a tea flask. Tea flasks are very brittle and can be broken easily. I need to be handled with care,” a smattering of laughs rippled around the room at the mischievious look in her eye. “If you do not handle me with care I may break and then you will get burned,” She stepped back into the circle. Milkah took a moment to gather her thoughts,

“Thank you, Esther. Thank you for sharing,” At the end of that exercise everyone went back to their seats to watch a film about the educational course the girls went through, called Spear. It had originated in London and Clean Start had permission from them to adapt and use the materials in Kenyan prisons. The course lasts six weeks and is all about attitudinal and mindset changes. Girls learn about things like the fixed-growth mentality, victim-power mentality and neuroplasticity. When I was talking to Cippi about the course she said that the increase in self-confidence and empowerment was incredible to watch. Women who hadn’t been able to speak in front of other people could stand up in front of big groups and talk, suddenly filled with a confidence they’d never had before.

After that introduction we moved on to ground rules and goal setting, asking these people how they wanted their sessions to be what they wanted to achieve through this training. As they scrawled their ideas down on post-it notes Joss leaned over and whispered to me,

“Now this part is really important to help these guys have ownership over this course. It doesn’t work if we come in and say ‘Turn your phones off’, ‘Listen to each other’, ‘Be respectful’, because it’s so much more likely to stick if it comes from them instead of from us,”

I nodded. That made sense. Forcing rules on a group of people would never work. After the ground rules were established then we moved on to goal setting. Each person would walk to the front and stick their post-it onto the flip-chart and explain what they had written. The things that people came up with were really touching.

“I want to learn new skills so I can help to make the girls better people,”

“I want to use new methods and skills so I don’t need to use the old methods,” Joss looked at me and whispered in the cover of applause,

“By ‘old methods’ he means beatings,” I raised my eyebrows and she nodded.

“I want to be empowered. I want to be skilled. So this way I can counsel my girls,”

These people seemed to have genuinely good intentions and keen to make changes in their life that would make tangible improvements to the girls in these facilities. It was really awesome to see.

After that we had our break for lunch, cooked by the wonderful Fatiah and her team. Then after lunch we started the actual coaching part. Teaching them about the rescue responsibility model and the importance of boundaries. The rescue responsibility model basically highlights the importance of not taking on the client’s issues as well as the client, but instead taking on the client and equipping them with tools so they can solve their own issues. Otherwise you’ll burn out trying to shoulder the burden of every girl that you mentor. This tied in nicely with the need for boundaries so that, as a counsellor, you don’t become overwhelmed by the problems of the girls you work with.

It was really interesting stuff and as the session drew to a close I could see that the group was finally properly engaged with the course. We waved them goodbye and watched as the van pulled out of the main gate.

“Well done you guys!” Joss said and Terry, Cippi and Milkah all smiled. It was clear that they were exhausted but pleased with how the session had gone and the level of engagement they’d had. I found it incredible. Here these women were, teaching skills and imparting knowledge into these prison workers that would ultimately make a huge impact on the lives of the girls inside. I was so happy to play even my tiny role in making that happen.

I just couldn’t wait to get stuck in.

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