“Prison robs me of my dignity, my pride; it robs me of my privacy and of my freedom. Prison robs me of anything a man can enjoy in life.”
– California prison offender
It takes two matatus to arrive to my next destination. Like the previous trips I have taken before, I don’t know what awaits me. All I have is a simple plan whose success lies on the roughly sketched map on the piece of paper I have folded and unfolded, again and again. I am nervous but you can’t tell by just looking at me. Meeting parents, the police officers who arrested the boys and the people they committed a crime against isn’t an easy thing to do.
I don’t have a clue what I am going to gain from these meetings. Most of the times it begins from making calls to the parents or the people the boys have wronged. Some of them respond very well. The rest respond with hostility which is understandable. There is a call I made and it has never escaped my memory.
“I had given up on ever seeing my son alive,” a mother replied after I had informed her about her son’s whereabouts. “My son usually leaves and comes back home when he feels like. And since he got into crime I usually expect to hear bad news. This is the longest he has been away.”
“When did you see him last?” I asked.
“Four months ago!” she said. “The members of his gang were caught while stealing and beaten up and burnt by the mob.”
“Your son was the only one who the police got to before the mob could do the same to him,” I said. “Would you please find time to visit and talk to him?”
“What do I say?” she asked, a heavy strain drowning her question.
“Just come and spend a few a few minutes with him,” I replied. “You don’t have to say anything mom.”
“Okay, but promise me that you will be there,” she said.
“Yes mom, I will be there.”
The drawing of maps
Most of the time, the boys don’t have their parents phone numbers. Some don’t want us to call. And so, to trace their parents, the boys draw maps and those who don’t know how to read or write simply tell us which matatu to take and where to alight. You will be surprised how many of the boys don’t know how to read and write.
Drawing a map is a process that costs the boys a lot. A boy will screw his face as he tries – all he can – to remember to put directions on a single sheet of paper, gingerly placed on his shaking right thigh. The shaking is as a result of apprehension, doubt, fear and remorse. Not that it shows clearly because most of the boys seldom show any sort of emotion on their faces. In fact, most of them avoid straight eye contact.
Back to today’s trip…
I took the first matatu – a KBS bus – to Ambassador and after a 15 minutes’ walk, I boarded a No.19/60 under the footbridge connecting Muthurwa and Machakos Country Bus. The driver speeds along Jogoo Road and I pray I reach my destination in one piece. I remove the piece of paper from my pocket and look at it. The map is now frayed and worn out in the places I have unfolded and folded, hundreds of times. I am afraid it may disintegrate into different pieces and get swept away, and out through the rattling matatu window.
I look at the map and commit everything to memory. I can still read ‘Mama Oti chipo mwitu kiosk’, ‘black gate on the left’ and ‘second floor on the unpainted 3-story building’. I know I am going to rely on my memory and stop referring to the map, once I get off the No. 19/60. I already know I am going to alight at Masimba, walk for about 300 metres then branch off on my right where I am going to find and walk along a dusty road filled with condoms, torn panties, mangled mineral water bottles, used baby pampers, discarded wine and spirit bottles.
I know reading a map once I am off the Forward Travellers matatu will make me stand out, like a sore thumb (whatever that means!) and everyone will know I am knew. I don’t want that to happen. All of a sudden, the driver changes the music. All of a sudden, one of the young men, in his early 20s, who had been banging the door and harassing female drives mellows down and begins to sing in tune with the song blaring from the speakers inside the matatu.
I watch him sing and dance. He has completely transformed from the unruly young man who wasn’t dropping off passengers at the right bus stage, using foul language to anyone who complains about not being given the right balance and grabbing every young woman’s buttocks as they alight from the speeding matatu. He is just like the many boys I meet and work with in juvenile prison. Though most of them are in prison after committing crimes and doing bad things, I believe they are wonderful human beings. It is so easy to write them off as heartless criminals who should all be locked up – far away from the rest of us – as we throw the keys into the deepest ocean where retrieval is possible.
And for the next 4 minutes and 46 seconds, the whole matatu gets lost into the song and the transformation that is happening. The conductor is the only person dancing and singing…
I was travelling up the mountains one day
And suddenly I heard
A voice come to I and I say
Behold I come quickly, to pay every man
According to the work that ye have done
And I know… that it was the voice
The voice of the Most High
And I know… yes I know
That it was the voice
The voice of the Most High
He said behold, behold, I come quickly
Hear what he say to one and all!
Say behold, behold, I come quickly
This world is like a mirror
Reflect on what you do
And if you face it smiling
It will smile right back to you
So do unto others as you would have them do
So that your days
Will be many, many years much longer
It All Begins With a Phone Call and a Map continues tomorrow.