Wrongful detention that inspired a reformation centre for boys

James Ouma

James Ouma (left) leads volunteer cyclists in an activity aimed at raising funds to run a halfway house Ouma founded. The house rehabilitates boys leaving prison. 

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • James Ouma was detained for eight days after being arrested while being housed by a wanted man. The stories he heard from male detainees while in custody pushed him to act. He set up house that accommodates young male prisoners and gives them advice is the product of that.

Out of a job and homeless, James Ouma got an offer that he considered godsend — a friend offered to house him for free as he sought to look for ways of fending for himself. It was a costly gift that saw Ouma have a brush with the law and get arrested, spending eight days in a police cell for a crime he did not commit.

Turns out the friend had a dark side to him which Ouma was not aware about. This was until the day police came for the friend, failed to find him and arrested Ouma instead.

“I spent the next eight days in the cells at a Nairobi police station. While there, I met some young men who had been arrested for various offences. In my talks with them, they told me that their biggest lack in life was a father figure. Many of them came from broken homes. I made a mental note of this,” he says.

On gaining freedom, Ouma came face-to-face with the stigma that those who have had a brush with the law encounter. Around this time, he was conducting private tutorials for pupils in the estate where he stayed.

However, when word went round that he had been arrested, the parents suddenly became cold and withdrew their children from the classes he conducted.

“Nobody bothered to find out that it was a case of mistaken identity and that I had been wrongly arrested. To the parents, the fact that I was coming from the police cells meant that I am a criminal,” the soft-spoken Ouma, 46, says.

It is from this moment that the young men he met in the cells came to his mind. “I asked myself: if just by being arrested and being released could earn me this kind of stigmatisation, what about the young men I saw in there, some of whom were coming from broken homes?”

Thus, Lifesong Kenya was born. Ouma says he read and reread the story of the Prodigal Son, more so the part where his own brother was disgruntled after their father threw a lavish party welcoming the man who was once lost but was now found. Lifresong runs a halfway house (a facility that helps people reform) which takes in boys leaving prison.

They are given life skills and helped to reintegrate into society. “The boys leaving prison come out with a lot of emotional scars and since a good number of them don’t have fathers, I decided to play father figure to them. It was not easy at the beginning,” says Ouma. Ouma also lost his father when he was young and all his life, he had been thinking of how life would have been had his father been alive.

“It was then that it hit me that these boys needed to be pointed to the ultimate father, God in heaven. I began this ministry with lots of doubts not sure whether I would measure up to the huge task I had placed on my shoulders,” he says.

Since he relies on well-wishers to run the halfway house, Ouma says the going has been tough. Consequently, every year they hold a cycling event as a fundraiser. This year they are planning to cycle from Nairobi to Arusha in Tanzania, a distance of some 270 kilometres.

Sam Ouma (no relation to James) is a beneficiary of the halfway house. For two years, Sam was an active cyclist helping the cause of Lifesong in fundraising. “Then things went south. I lost my job and my house too. It was Lifesong that came to my rescue by offering to accommodate me as I sought for ways to get back on my feet,” says the pump attendant at a Nairobi fuel station.

He says he is proud of the work Lifesong is doing by giving otherwise desperate boys and young men a second chance at life.

Cynthia Wendo is James’ wife and a co-founder of Lifesong. Apart from helping in administration work, the professional teacher of Chinese (she teaches at a Nairobi university as well as official individual lessons) she has been the chase car driver since 2014 during the cycling fundraisers. She says there is a lot of stigma facing the young people leaving prison and that even they, as people working with such boys, also face discrimination. “Some people don’t want to involve themselves with us because we work with juvenile offenders whom they see as outcasts and perpetrators who’ve done wrong and deserve to be punished as opposed to being given a second chance,” says Cynthia.

“We work with boys and most of them lack father figures. We would really like to work with men because they are the ones these young men really look up to. However, it’s their mothers and women who turn up or seem interested in wanting to change the lives of boys and young men,” she adds.

Cynthia says that their long-term goal is to have self-sustaining projects which will run successfully to help in supporting their programmes and provide jobs to the young men.

She explains that Covid-19 messed up everything and that they were forced to close the halfway house to comply with Ministry of Health regulations. “We are in the final stages of the next phase of the project and we are coming back in the new year bigger and better,” she says.

Ouma, the founder, is excited about the forthcoming cycling event although all indications are that he will be cycling alone. “This is one way we are using to raise funds for the halfway house. The idea is just catching up and not many people have come out to lend support but I believe that God will make a way and at one point we will be self-sustaining,” he says.

Kevin Ochieng has been a volunteer at the halfway house since 2018 and he is delighted with the work they are doing there. “It is very satisfying to see these young ones coming here when they are rudderless and we give them hope to start a new beginning,” says Ochieng, a musician.

“However, it is not all plain sailing. There are some who, even after passing through here, refuse to embrace change and they go back to their criminal ways. There is nothing much we can do in such cases but just to pray that they will change their ways and be good citizens.”

Ouma says there is still a lot of stigma around people leaving jail and that many people feel uncomfortable around them: “This stigma fuels their reluctance to sponsor us because at the back of their mind, many think that by giving us funding they would be abetting crime.” Other challenges are with the boys themselves.

“These are people coming from a controlled atmosphere where even the time to sleep and eat is controlled. You see it when they are eating and in many cases I have to teach them to eat in small bits instead of piling a plate full of food,” he says.

Ouma believes the Kenyan criminal justice system is stacked against boy offenders. Hearing their cases in an open court where anybody can sit and listen is detrimental, he argues, noting that it is equally unfair to have them appear in the dock with other hardcore criminals. “I wish there was a way where such cases could be heard in camera where only those with direct interest in the case would be allowed in,” he says.