Humphrey Wainaina’s metal workshop in Gachie, Kiambu County, does not stand out. There is the usual loud clanging of metal, intermittent bright white flashes from welding rods as apron-clad blacksmiths in dark sunglasses weld pieces of metal together, and the waft of the usual ‘metallic’ odour you’d expect in similar workshops.
After he sees me, he approaches me and offers a firm handshake. And then, the 56-year-old instructs one of his employees to be ready for a lunch meeting. “His name is Peter Mwangi. Would you believe he has spent 17 years in prison?” he asks me while referring to the person he was talking to.
“Most of the people who work in this workshop are ex-prisoners. I offer them shelter, food, clothing but most of all hope through my Community Based Organisation called the Ex-Prisoners Welfare Association. I have been doing it since 2014, three years after I was released from prison in 2011.”
Hustler turned jail bird
According to Humphrey, before his arrest and eventual incarceration at Kamiti Maximum Prison in 2009, he was a ‘normal’ businessman selling second hand wares and other hand-me-downs in the Highridge area of Nairobi County. “One of my drinking buddies called Kibe gave me a call. He asked me where I was. I told him I was with a client. I pushed our meeting to a later time. When we eventually met, he was already drunk. By his side, was a woman I did not recognise.”
Humphrey says that Kibe and the lady did not hang around for long. At around 10pm, he says he left the tavern and dropped off some of his other friends at their homes. “After exactly a week, I received a call from a strange number. The caller proceeded to ask me if I knew Kibe. I said yes because he was a friend. That call signaled the beginning of my woes!”
Humphrey was arrested and locked up in a dingy police cell for a fortnight. He protested, wanting to know the reason behind his jailing. No one listened. He was eventually presented in a Nairobi court to answer to charges he did not know. “During the initial hearing, I was taken aback when the charge sheet read ‘kidnapping’. I was later remanded in Nairobi.”
According to Humphrey, his second court hearing was to prove to be one of the most unforgettable moments of his life. “The charges were changed from kidnapping to murder! I was told that Kibe was found dead that same night we had met! I was prosecuted and sentenced to death.”
Humphrey says he was overcome with emotions. He gritted his teeth in anger and frustration; as tears welled up in his eyes. He remained rooted to the dock, unable to move until the court bailiffs pushed him towards the prison vehicles. “My feet felt like they weighed a ton. It was hard to walk. I stole a quick glance at my wife in the courtroom. She looked dazed. My new home was to be the Kamiti Maximum Prison.”
According to the father of three boys, the evidence presented in court made absolutely no sense. “Some guns were presented in court as evidence. I had never touched leave alone operated a firearm.”
In prison, Humphrey cried himself to sleep every night. He lost weight and was sick most of the time. He still could not figure out how he landed in here. “I tried appealing the judgment but I was not successful. It got to a point where I gave up and accepted my fate. I knew capital punishment is no longer carried out in Kenya, so, I’d spend the rest of my life in prison.”
Humphrey says he came to terms with his situation after accepting God in his life. He started opening up to other inmates. “The stories they narrated were really sad. Others told me, yes, we are guilty, while others say that, like him, they were innocent. Some told me they were repeat offenders because reintegration into society was difficult because of how ex-prisoners are negatively viewed by people.”
“I do not know why I said it, but I blurted out loudly to two fellow inmates that one day, I’ll get out of here and offer assistance to prisoners and ex-prisoners.”
That day came in 2011. Humphrey says he was summoned to court. “This time the judge threw out the evidence that had been presented. It was clearly evident that there was no way of placing me at the scene of the crime. I was set free!”
Overcome with emotion and confusion, Humphrey was received by his wife Loise Wairimu and their children. “At home, it was a while before I adapted because I was used to prison routine.”
Sadly, for Humphrey, everything he had worked hard for, was no more. “My car, business and other possessions were all gone. I had to get back on my feet and resume fending for my family.”
According to Humphrey, he got into the salvage business. “I’d look for houses or buildings whose owners needed demolished. After demolition, I’d take and sell anything of value the owners didn’t need.”
In the course of work, a voice reminded him of a promise he had made in prison. “I made sure that the people I was working with knew that I was in jail. I asked them for help in donating sanitary materials to inmates at Kamiti Prison. While here, I told the prisoners that in case someone is released, they should come look for me.”
His home in the nearby village of Kihara became like a hostel for the released inmates. “They started sleeping on my couch but, after a while, I managed to gather enough funds to construct a Halfway Home in 2014. It can house 30 people. My wife was hesitant at first but later started supporting me.”
So far, Humphrey says more than 80 ex-prisoners have been rehabilitated through his program. He self-funds the program which he says generates revenue from the metal workshop and the salvage and construction businesses. “All my employees are ex-prisoners and every job that I get, we work together.”
Not always rosy
But, Humphrey has lived to be a manifestation of the age-old maxim that says ‘no good deed goes unpunished’.
“One of the people we were helping rehabilitate stole from us. He went to the workshop with a pickup truck, broke in and stole window grills. The good thing is, we deal with such products, so it was not long before we found out where he had sold the looted merchandise,” says Loise.
“Instead of punishing him, we took back what was ours, bought him lunch and gave him commuter fare to travel back to his home in Nyeri,” she adds.
Married since 1984, the couple says the halfway home helps ex-offenders acquire vocational training (wood and metalwork, masonry, mechanical engineering, tailoring, and driving), start businesses, provide emotional support and also encourages them to participate in community programs that aid in their seamless reintegration into the community.
“We also support the ex-offenders to re-unite with their families. For instance, I’ll be escorting one of the ex-prisoners to his home county of Murang’a next month.”
At the moment, Humphrey is constructing a bigger halfway home in Karura. He says it will have the capacity to house 100 ex-convicts. “I am in debt because of the halfway home construction but I am not worried because I know God will provide.”
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