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Lucy Karambu: Intimacy with inmates frees me

 Lucy Karambu

At 52, Lucy Karambu is a fulfilled single woman who has fallen in love with a rare calling; getting intimate with prisoners. She has never been married nor does she have children of her own. She is not open to discussing that personal bit.

Caring for ex-convicts and their children is a higher vocation that she has been committed to for almost 10 years now. This is what gives her consummation in life - working with ex-prisoners, members of our society few would want to be associated with.

And it is not more of the plight of the inmates and all those who have been to correctional centres than it is with memories of her upbringing. As much as she lives for inmates, life, to her was a prison of sorts. Her father and mother separated, leaving a toddler to be raised by a single mum who soon remarried.

Breaking the chains and shaking the shackles, the rather humble and soft-spoken, but engaging Lucy has chosen to confront her barriers head-on. And this is how she is bringing prison walls down. Talk of women breaking barriers. With a hearty cheer, she greets, gesturing with humility while remaining optimistic as a dare to let her open up on a matter that is so close to her heart. She rarely engages in such interviews. Instead, she lets her actions speak for her.  

Karambu was born and raised in Meru by her grandmother Sarah Rigiri. This was after her parents split, a move that had quite a psychological toll on her. This is the first thing I learn from her as we settle for the up-close-and-candid. Intriguing initiation indeed. Pensively, she chooses her words with caution, emotionally so. Every minute of this sitting is a revelation that takes her back to a world she would otherwise forget. Evidently so, even before the recorder starts rolling, tears are flowing down her cheeks. She begs for a few minutes, collects herself together, and sets up again.

“I experienced a bad childhood and through that real experience, I know what it means when a child gets separated. It gets me so emotional...” she muffles, drying the tears with the back of her palm.

“That experience... I do not like to see children suffer … If there is anything I can do to help I will. You cannot change the world, but you can do something about the experiences those children face. Lucy pauses for a moment then continues.

“I grew up with my grandma. She was awesome. She passed on in 2013 and she was such a support system. I do not remember us sleeping hungry regardless of the humble state we were living in. She took good care of us.”

For another moment, Lucy goes in thought as if recalling all the pain of the past. It is a mixed feeling of suffering and triumph. One that begs the question as to why children and women are so prone to suffering. She bows her head, takes a deep breath, and helplessly sobs bitterly. This matter clearly weighs her down. 

“My uncle took us to school as my mum and dad separated when we were young. Being away from your mum is not a thing you would wish for any child. Both my parents are alive, but every time I meet a child who is either affected by divorce or imprisonment, it just triggers me,” she says.

Lucy attributes her childhood trauma to her immense passion for safeguarding and helping children. This is her calling. It is the noble act she wants society to help her achieve.

Getting help as a child has enabled Lucy and her siblings Joseline Gakii and Tsillah Kinoti to get well-grounded education that has seen them rise above family afflictions and limitations that come with troubled upbringing. All the lessons for the past combined, the same having opened doors for her to interact with many people who have suffered untold pain gave birth to a vision.

She has embarked on a mission to support women who leave prison; traumatised and unable to pick up the pieces. Her duty has been to help them go through the transition through mentorship. This is how she came up with the project, Resilient Women of Africa. That was in 2014.

“My passion for this work started when I did a course on conflict resolution and peace studies, which was a specific reference with women who are in prison. It is all about restorative justice. It was such a complete opposite of retributive justice or conventional justice system, which for me resonated with my values, belief systems and values as a Christian,” she says.

Rehabilitation and reintegration of women leaving prison required a lot from her. She thus had to pursue further skills to aid in all these. She underwent her first training by picking an offer she stumbled on through a post she came across on Facebook.

“I did not have any trauma management skills. By then I was working in Tanzania and I saw a post on Facebook that was talking about healing and rebuilding our community. I moved from Tanzania and headed to Kigali, Rwanda, where the training was taking place. With little in my savings, I negotiated the fees, attended the two-week course, and strangely got doors opening for me to proceed for another. From then, I started practising community work,” she says.

This was the start of a venture that saw them ‘break through’ prison walls into their first real encounter with women prisoners at Langata Women’s Prison. She had joined a group with a common course, women who also had a similar background; traumatic past experiences.

“We wanted to take a trauma-informed approach where police officers and psychologists correcting the women prisoners would be aware of what these women truly went through. They need to undergo counselling to help and support them through their healing process. This led us to introduce sessions with both inmates and officers,” calmly, Lucy says, noting that this programme involved financial training for the women prisoners once they were out of prison.

“I thought it is business training they need, probably money, but I later realised that is not what they need. Two major burdens that they usually face are emotional stability and finances. This means that matter has to take a physiological approach first. There is a lot of stigma when one has to carry the tag of incineration and linking up with families and the community integrating. Beginning their lives anew is a real process for them and so they need friendship, people to walk with them, support and understand them,” she says.

“If they have committed crimes, that has simply happened and the question is what we can do to support their transition. When some of them experience the kind of animosity that comes with stigmatisation, they go back to committing the crimes that brought them into prison so then they get imprisoned again as it would seem easier for them in there than it is out here. I have intimacy with inmates and that is something we can learn in showing compassion to people who otherwise seem least to deserve it”.

During the programme, women open up about their children and the conditions that they lived in while they were in prison. It is a sorry situation that impacts their emotional wellness. These are realities that have to be dealt with and that means the care must also be extended to the children.

Jane*, for example, had been sentenced with assault charges and upon release, she was more willing to receive support from the foundation. With skills acquired from prison as well, she now makes home cleaning detergents and retails milk in Kibera slums. Her three children receive education and psychological support from Lucy’s project.

Mercy Rop has also shown positive feedback from the training. She currently does brick making during the dry season and mitumba retailing during the wet seasons when she cannot make the bricks. Lucy credits Rose Rono as one of the most positive receptors of mentorship. Rose, who had been sentenced for life came out and has embraced the outside life, being reunited with her son Stephen Kotia after 10 years. Kotia is currently under the sponsorship and now schooling at Lanet Secondary School.

 Women undergoing a mentorship programme at Manyatta. [Lucy Karambu]

With the effort and time put in empowering her target group, Lucy drives joy from seeing her mentees thrive. “It makes me happy seeing the women just begin their life. It also gives me joy in them being able to support their children and bring them back because it works for them to come back and reconnect, especially if they have been away from their children for eight or 10 years. Supporting children complements support to the mother in a way and that is something that needs to be worked on, both by government, the private sector and volunteers” says Lucy.

She attributes most of her encounters with inmates relating their behaviours to their upbringing and family setting. “Most have never experienced a parent’s embrace. Others come from families where parents engaged in family conflict, with mothers and fathers going separate ways. Others complain about drunkenness. In Kericho, for example, a majority of women that are in the programme have now become responsible people assisting the community,” she says.

Lucy is a contented woman, living with her nieces whom she has as well imparted in them the skills to help both women and children. They have also become part of the organisation and help where they can from time to time.

“I live with nieces who are part of the programme and understand all that is in the programme. What I have deliberately shown them is that you do not need millions to be of help. You can be of help in the least way,” she says.

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