Gregory Kwasira, 29, knows too well what it means to have a second chance at life. The electrical engineer at Kenya Commercial Bank tasted life in prison at a young age but this experience strengthened his resolve to succeed in life. Not only is he successfully pursuing a career, he is also a volunteer in prison facilities where he gives hope and inspiration to prisoners. He shares his inspiring story with ESTHER KIRAGU.
I had visited the Kamiti Youth Correctional and Training Centre (YCTC) in Nairobi on my church’s corporate social responsibility programme when Gregory’s story first came to my attention. Gregory is not just an ex-inmate of this prison, but also a source of hope and inspiration to those who reside there today. I got his contacts and hunted him down to tell our readers his story.
When he came to our offices for this interview, he looked nothing like I had imagined. I had a difficult time reconciling the image in my mind of an ex-inmate with the now well-built, handsome young man that sat next to me. I gave him a chance to tell his story and perhaps reading my mind he delved right into his past.
“I was only 20 when I was imprisoned at Kamiti YCTC. You know how it is when you are young and reckless – that’s what landed me in jail. Ironically that experience has shaped my life into what it is today and I have since learnt that everything that happens in one’s life is for a reason, if only you open your mind to it,” Gregory says as we settle down for the interview. I am excited talking to a man who appears likely to change my perspective of life.
“Kamiti YCTC is my second home and I spend a lot of time there. I have a farming project going on there and have set up a drip irrigation system to help the inmates grow vegetables. In addition, I have introduced cattle grazing, poultry and rabbit keeping, and all these activities help the inmates become responsible through doing something positive with their lives. I am also educating four boys who were ex-inmates. Two are in high school and the other two in college,” explains Gregory.
“Like many young people in Kamiti YCTC my undoing was peer pressure and it got me into trouble. That is why today I take every opportunity I get to talk to the young inmates and inspire them since I understand their plight too well. I had completed my KCSE at St Paul’s Amukura High School in Teso in 2002 and was waiting for the next phase of my life when I landed in jail,” Gregory talks about his journey that ended in jail.
“I was brought up in Khayega in Western Kenya. My dad left to study in the US when I was a toddler and mum remarried when I was four years old. As per the Luhya customs, I was unwelcomed as a stepchild in my mum’s new home and thus ended up being raised by my grandparents,” he explains, adding that his dad returned to Kenya thirteen years later albeit a stranger to him.
“Upon dad’s return, my grandparents demanded that he takes up his responsibility of raising me and my sister, which he did, albeit half-heartedly. Building a relationship with dad was difficult as I felt he was more of a big brother than a dad to me. And so taking orders from him was impossible. I tried moving in with him but whenever we had disagreements, I would return to my grandparents,” Gregory says, adding that sadly his beloved grandmother passed on in 1999.
Lost in peer influence…
Like many teenagers, the period after KCSE was a time when Gregory craved for freedom to do as he pleased. He became rebellious and lazy, often refusing to work in his grandfather’s farm and opting to spend his days at the village changaa dens with his friends. Frustrated, his grandfather started treating him like the adult he claimed to be.
“I learnt that being independent was no easy task and started stealing my grandfather’s maize and selling it to get money to feed and drink with my friends,” Gregory explains the genesis of his criminal life.
Tired that no one seemed bothered about him and his future because nobody was talking about taking him to college, Gregory decided to leave the village and start life away from home. He stole a Panasonic video deck that belonged to his grandfather with the aim of selling it to raise his bus fare to Mombasa – his intended destination.
It was this act that landed him in Kamiti YCTC. When his dad, the village chief, accompanied by village elders arrested Gregory and took him to the chief’s camp, the idea was to have him locked up for a week or so, as a warning that he must desist from all criminal activities. But things got out of hand.
“On my second day in the cell, the area district officer made an impromptu visit to the camp and demanded everyone in the cells be arraigned before the Kakamega courts the following day. I pleaded guilty to the theft charges and to my disbelief I was sentenced to six months imprisonment at Kamiti YCTC,” recalls Gregory who was very bitter with his dad and grandfather for landing him into trouble by having him arrested. On November 9, 2004, he arrived at Kamiti YCTC, ironically his first time in the big city of Nairobi.
Brush with the law…
“The police officers and prison wardens were brutal to me and other inmates. On the first night the other inmates made me sleep next to the toilet since I was a newcomer. During the day we would weed the prison’s farm with our bare hands only to be rewarded with horrible, little portions of food, as our only meal for the day. The living conditions in the cells were appalling,” recounts Gregory.
He recalls having only a pair of the inmates’ lice-infested uniform and whenever he and other inmates washed the uniform they stayed naked until they dried since they didn’t have a change of clothes. Gregory is amazed at how prison conditions have improved today, thanks to the prisons reforms.
Gregory says perhaps it was due to lack of freedom that he changed his wayward behaviour, though he credits most of this change to the counseling he received from some of the officers at the facility. “They believed in me when no-one else did and often gave me great advice,” says Gregory. On noticing the transformation in him, the officer-in-charge made Gregory a class prefect in charge of the education department before promoting him to head boy in charge of other inmates.
Gregory’s prison term came to an end after six months and he was in a dilemma, not knowing where to go. Fully aware of the stigma ex-inmates face in our society he was scared of returning to the village. His sister picked him up from prison and put him in a bus to Kakamega. As expected, Gregory faced rejection once back home. His grandfather wouldn’t allow him back in his house, nor would his father. He went looking for his mother and even there he was not welcome.
He was given accommodation by a distant grandmother and to support himself did menial jobs in the village. “Because of the negative tag of an ex-convict that I carried, people misused me and often paid me very little or refused to pay after I had done the work. Nevertheless, I was able to save enough for bus fare to Nakuru to seek assistance from a distant uncle who lived there. He helped me get a job,” Gregory recounts.
He worked In Nakuru for a while before relocating to Cherengani in Kitale upon the promise of a better job. However, his new boss neglected him and he went without pay for months before eventually been stopped from working. He returned to Nakuru where he got another job.
Succeeding despite the odds…
Tired of this cycle of life, Gregory wanted more for himself. He quit this job and relocated to Nairobi hoping to enroll in a vocational college. He worked as a barber and mason and saved a little money. With the help of his uncle, Patrick Sikokoti, Gregory started finding a balance in his life. He thanks his uncle for holding his hands and counseling him. Gregory eventually got a better paying casual job at English Press in 2006 and made savings that helped him enroll for evening classes at the Kenya Polytechnic where he studied for a diploma in electrical engineering.
It was a big struggle affording college fees and there were times he supplemented his income by working as a matatu tout before reporting to his shift at the English Press. He graduated in 2009 and got a job with an electrical company in Nairobi where he horned the skills he had learnt in college. Through the mentorship of his uncle he enrolled for a degree programme in electrical engineering at the Kenya Polytechnic and graduated in 2011.
As he looked for a job, he started volunteering at Kamiti YCTC as a counselor in a bid to give hope to the inmates. He got a job as an electrical engineer at the Kenya Commercial Bank in July 2011. He was honest about his past as he went through the interview process. He advises anyone with a dark history to come out clean, especially when you are going through an interview process, as in this digital age your past will soon catch up with you. He says no one should live a lie if they wish to live their life freely.
“My first assignment was in Kigali, Rwanda where I stayed for three months working on electrical installations for a new KCB branch. After successfully completing this assignment I got a four-year contract and now work at the KCB head office. My job changed my life. I want to tell those reading my story that no one should ever give up on themselves in spite of their circumstances. I picked myself from the bottom of the pit and now stand tall. I am not ashamed to tell people where I have come from. Though I regret my early life, it taught me a great deal and I am now using those lessons to help young people who end up behind bars,” says Gregory.
Giving a helping hand to others…
Now appreciative of the ongoing prison reforms, Gregory works closely with the Kamiti YCTC as a stakeholder, a partnership he says the government is aware of and has approved. He also liaises with Shimo la Tewa prison in Mombasa where is also engaged in various projects. He is currently working with his employer to equip Kamiti YCTC with computers to help inmates gain useful computer skills.
While carrying out a research in Kibera, Gregory met Christie, the founder of Global Friendship Volunteer, an NGO based in Ruaraka. He partnered with her and was appointed country coordinator of Global Friendship Volunteers in 2012. The NGO currently supports agricultural-based projects, education and HIV/Aids awareness projects in Busia and Shanzu.
“You can fall down so many times but it all depends on how you rise up, pick up the pieces and move on. Don’t hold onto bitterness and keep believing in yourself,” is the advice Gregory gives to those whose lives may be faced with challenges. He adds that he has reconciled with his dad and grandfather. He is currently undertaking a Masters degree in electrical design at Hebrew University in Israel.
He hopes to one day put up a Gregory Centre at Kamiti YCTC lo leave his mark in prisons, where his passion lies. “I am thankful to God that today am a testament that if you hold on long enough then all your dreams can come true,” he says as we conclude this interview.
Published on May 2013