The death of his father was the curveball that kicked off the start of a series of misfortunes that shaped the life he lives today.
Together with a few partners, George O. Kaguko, an ex-convict and a self-trained Interior Designer, runs “Reformist Crime kwetu si poa” a non-profit Community Based Organisation that discourages youth living in Mathare North from engaging in crime.
“I have a new lease on life, I can now interact with people freely. I no longer belong to a cocoon of gangs,” he says.
At the age of 20, Kaguko was sentenced to 10 years in prison for armed robbery, a crime he was “taught by his friends” after dropping out of high school in Form Two.
Now married and a father of one, Kaguko uses his NGO to conduct outreach programmes for convicts, helping them make the best of their time in prison to earn skills that will make them a living once their term is over, nurture their talents, accept the reality of the changes they find back at home after their release and so forth.
His family has given him a deeper sense of purpose and focus in life.
“I now have a wife and one child. I am also getting my youngest brother through high school. My life is no longer just about me. I am paying it forward by filling my parent’s shoes in that regard and it gives me immense satisfaction,” he says.
“My father was an employee of the Kenya Cereals and Produce Board and the family’s sole breadwinner. His death affected us in a huge way, I had to drop out of school and my mother was forced to return to Kisumu to live with relatives,” he recalled.
Feeling helpless and unable to cope with life in the village, where dinner was never reserved for those who were not present when it was being served, Kaguko decided to go back to Nairobi to try eking a living by himself.
“I remember I first landed at Eastlands where I saw this big church, I will not name it and thought my problems were too small for the elders to assist if not discuss, but they rejected me. I felt so bitter and left, that rejection is part of the reasons why I later engaged in crime,” he said.
Feeling dejected, Kaguko put up with some of his friends and together they formed a Lingala dance group that did not last long as the revenue accrued from their performances were not sustainable.
Soon after, in early 2000 the phones market started sprouting in the country with Nokia 3310 and Motorolla 8100 selling quite fast.
He noticed a gang of flashy boys in the hood that were hawking the phones for a living and decided to venture into the business.
“I used to pick the phones from the boys and sell at a profit. The income was not that much but it kept me going until I became curious about where the phones were being fetched from. I thought, if I could source them myself, the profit would double if not triple, cater for my rent and help me live well,” he recalled.
He then sourced for a gun and ventured into mugging full time.
Life on the fast lane
His interactions with the gang grew deeper, and one day, they sought his help to drive them to Westlands-their area of operation for “business”.
The offer marked his entry into car hijacking and armed robbery.
“We lived on the fast lane, if one of us died, we’d say his day has arrived and swiftly move on. It was never that serious,” he says.
Then one day in 2003, a gang member hatched a plan to steal Sh10Million from a Cash In Transit vehicle in Western Kenya that would have transformed their lives for good.
“We thought, the plan would sail through because there were no flying squad officers in Western, that was the only police unit that shook our nerves. Little did we know that it would be our last “business” together,” he said.
The gang left for Western Kenya in a squad of five, stole the money but somehow got caught.
“All the money was recovered but the police presented only a fraction of it in court as evidence. I lost my case and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.”
Kaguko’s 10 years behind bars were spent in Kakamega, Kodiaga, Kiboss, Kamiti and Naivasha prisons.
“Transfers were common and helpful in that the change in environment helped one push on with the time left, sometimes they eased on congestion and we made new friends,” he said.
It was during this time in prison that, Kaguko’s life changed for the better. He trained in carpentry and joinery and graduated with grade 1.
Later, he was appointed as a leader of his fellow prisoners a position that came with several privileges including supervising fellow inmates, eating better food, wearing a different uniform, and selling part of his products at a low price to the wardens.
Kenyan correctional facilities are currently holding between 46,000 and 50,000 prisoners, including those in remand and those serving various terms for convicted crimes.
The prisoners are ordinarily engaged in training while in jail, to give them skills that can help them earn a living upon release.
“The correctional facilities serve as reforming and containment tools for all prisoners in that not only do they assist the convicts to transform their behaviour, they give them the opportunity to learn new skills that they can depend on to make a living once released. The skills training helps keep them busy, which in turn prevents them from engaging in crime both while in prison and outside,” Mr Kennedy Aluda, Kenya Prisons Spokesperson.
Kaguko was admitted to Kakamega prison in 2003 at a time when the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government was about to carry out penal reforms aimed at turning prisons into rehabilitation rather than punishment centres.
“I joined at a time when a prisoner’s death in prison was treated as an ordinary thing. The reforms came about when I was in prison, through former Vice President Moody Awori who I shall be forever grateful to. He made us feel human,” he said.
Part of the reforms included humane treatment of prisoners, de-congestion, allowing conjugal visits, access to library services, entertainment and improvement of their diet.
In July 2012, his mother dead and with no one to run to, Kaguko was pleasantly surprised to find an ex-convict that he had helped while in prison waiting to take him home.
“What I had left behind at my mothers could no longer fit me. My relatives stared at me strangely, with my mother absent, I couldn’t fit, so I put up with my newfound family.”
Shortly after Kaguko and his friend started a carpentry shop that did not do so well.
At some point, he sold everything and left Kisumu for Nairobi where the business still did not pick as he wished.
“One day an ex-convict friend of mine and I heard that one of the priest who used to preach to us in prison worships at a church in Ngong and decided to pay him a visit. We made a wooden stool and a rod and left it at the church for him.”
“When he found the items, he asked to meet us. He gave us donated clothes and about sh 20,000 cash in an envelope.”
They shared the money and went separate ways. Today, Kaguko is involved in interior design work on building sites in Nairobi.
“That is what I do for a living. During my other time, you will find me at the organization or in prisons conducting outreach activities or even in schools talking to teenagers about early pregnancies, drugs abuse and the consequences of engaging in crime,” he said.
His life has found new meaning.
“The realisation that I am also a human being with a chance to co-exist with others in society and impact change remains by most humbling lesson in my 39 years of life,” he concluded.