Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Prison Grandmothers

Their rapidly failing eyesight have seen the sun rise and set over the high walls of this heavily fortified jailhouse many times than they would care to count. Although they have been here too long that memories of life outside prison are now just a hazy past, the grandmother prisoners’ hunger and desire for freedom is unfazed.

With most of them incarcerated for life or condemned to hang for crimes of passion most of the 37 old ladies of Lang’ata Women Prison still believe that one day they shall walk through the footpaths of their rural homes as free women. And their plea to the country’s top decision-makers is one; freedom so that they can enjoy their sunset days with their grandchildren.   
“Prison life is very tough for us old ladies because our frail bodies cannot cope with the jail conditions, hence we are hit by many problems,” explains Francisca Ngina Kagiri who landed in Lang’ata in 2005 after being found guilty of murdering her husband. “We are pleading to the authorities to grant us mercy and release us since we are now harmless to society. There no way a lady my age can commit another crime”.

Many of these aged women were overcome with emotions with tears rolling down their cheeks freely as they narrated circumstances that landed them in prison, the challenges of spending their last days in jail and the grandmotherly hunger to spend time with grandkids by the fire place in their rural homes.

“I was accused and convicted of killing my husband through circumstantial evidence just because I was his wife. I know I did not do the act,” Ngina, 67, claims. “He disappeared from home after leaving with his brother. He was found dead six months later. As the next of keen I was accused and sentenced. That is how I ended up here”.

She says she used to run some taxi and tours company at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport through which “I paid four million in tax to the government”.

“There many dietary challenges here for us old people because most of us like eating traditional foods like sweet potatoes, yams, pumpkins and traditional vegetables to age healthily,” Ngina, who says one of her two kids was murdered when she was still in the prison, explains. “But in jail this is not possible hence most of us are afflicted by lifestyle diseases. Personally I take a lot of medicine, sixteen tablets in total per day, because I am arthritic and diabetic”.

Some of the old prisoners, she says, have health problems that embarrass them among their younger colleagues, which lowers self esteem and inflicts psychological problems.

“Some grandmothers here has bladder issues which means they can’t hold urine and end up soiling their clothes, which makes them feel very shameful,” Ngina, who is among the trustees and the unofficial spokesperson for the aged inmates, explains. “Such issues should be happening to cucus (grandmothers) when they are in the privacy of their homes”.

When her grandchildren visits its always very tough for them because they wonder why she is staying in this strange place.
“I used to lie to them that this is a school where one day I will go home to them but now they are big and they have called off this bluff,” the elderly inmate, who also composes the traditional songs that are performed during the prison’s cultural days, says. “The eldest who is in class six is scared of being held here too and always expresses those fears whenever we talk”.

Like Ngina, Esther Wanjeri Kamau was also imprisoned for a crime of passion. She had engaged in a violent physical confrontation with her husband from which he died.

“I was condemned to hang but after nine years my sentence was reduced to life imprisonment,” the 81 year-old grandmother told the Daily Nation. “I have been here since 2002”.

She says although the court says she spend the rest of her life in jail, She has a strong belief that one day she will be free.

“My biggest worry while here is the state of my children and grandchildren. I had eight children one of which died and I couldn’t attend her burial because I was here,” Wanjeri regretfully narrates. “My husband’s family chased our children from my land and they now lead unstable lives”.

The old lady, who was sentenced along her daughter who is also serving life sentence in Lang’ata, says that she used to dance for President Jomo Kenyatta in the 1960s.

“I danced for Mzee Jomo Kenyatta who gave me and my collegues five acres of land each in Kiambogo in Gilgil. Even Jomo’s daughter Jane Wambui used to visit me in Lang’ata a few years back,” recalls the grandmother of 28. “My prayer is to his son Uhuru Kenyatta to remember grannies like me who are languishing in jail and grant us mercy and freedom.”.

Her last born daughter Alice Wangui, who was visiting during the interview, could not hold back her tears as she explained the tribulations that the family has undergone since her mother was jailed 18 years ago.

“My father’s family grabbed our land and most of us are now squatters in various towns,” she says. “I also stay with my deceased and imprisoned sisters’ children, and I don’t have a job. It’s very tough”. 

Unlike the two old women who were accused of killing their spouses, Margrate Kavata from Bungoma was incarcerated for the murder of a priest in 2009. She also claims innocence and says that she was nailed by circumstantial evidence.

“I was a casual labourer and I was just going around my daily business looking for work when I happened to pass by a scene where the priest had been murdered,” the 58 year-old woman claims. “I was arrested, remanded then sentenced to death in 2010”.
Kavata says although she doesn’t have any serious health problem like most of the other grandmothers she deeply misses the things that makes an old lady happy like tendering her crops in the garden by the day and telling stories to her grandkids while sipping a cup of warm tea in the evening.

“I have heard your situation and case and I will definitely make sure the message reaches His Excellency President Uhuru Kenyatta as you have requested,” Wanini,  explained to the grandmotherly prisoners after they presented their situation in emotionally charged traditional song during Lang’atas cultural day. “As the oldest citizens here, you should also impact some wisdom to the younger inmates so that when they go out there they wouldn’t engage in activities that will bring them back here”.

She explained that the authorities were looking into their case as senior citizens

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