Saturday January 16 2016

Ex-convict fostering prisoners’ children

Namwano poses with the children she takes care of because

Namwano with the children she takes care of because their mothers are in prison. Extreme left is her son who is now an administrator for the home. 

By Abdul-Nasser Ssemugabi

Jerome Mugume* and Lynette Kansiime* (not real names), are siblings learning to bury their co-mothers’ enmity which split their family like a restaurant knife does an avocado. At the peak of the co-wife hostility, Kansiime’s mother stabbed Mugume’s mother several times to death.

The boy and the girl, now teenagers, were aged five and three years, respectively. Kansiime’s mother was jailed for eight years, and their father, unbothered, moved on with his polygamous ways, marrying another two women, who mistreated the children.

Thanks to Prison Fellowship Uganda’s (PFU) intervention, Mugume and Kansiime have since grown up as brother and sister, despite their family misfortunes.

Both have been promoted to Primary Seven and though they attend different schools, they spend holidays together and as their “new mother”, Irene Namwano says, “They are very compatible siblings. They love each other; they get along pretty well. It’s the boy who taught the girl how to ride a bicycle.”

A few metres behind Mukono prison, is the home where Namwano, 57, a former convict and executive director of PFU, keeps “her children”. Next to the main house, which doubles as PFU offices, are four rooms, where the children live before and after visiting their families during holidays.

Practicing house chores, such as mopping, laundry and cooking, are part of their holiday package as the backyard gives ample space for playtime. Their decker beds are decorated with success cards and short-story books.

The aura of glee and harmony here conceals their ordeals before they found this home away from home. One boy, who has completed his Primary Leaving Examinations, was born in jail. Another 10-year-old girl now in Primary Three was rescued from a waragi brewery when her mother was imprisoned.

Another boy whose father was killed, and his mother and two brothers are in jail, has had his fortunes transformed from a bleak childhood to a brilliant teenager dreaming of becoming a doctor, eight years after PFU adopted him. His 2015 end-of-year report shows he was the best in Senior One at Seeta High School.

Experience being the best teacher, Namwano’s detention is what bent her heart towards prisoners’ children. As chief accountant of one bank (she never discloses the name), she had for long swindled huge amounts of the bank’s money.

Then the turning point: In 1993, she went to a Pentecostal church, seeking a pastor’s hand in prayer. “I thought I was a big sinner that’s why, possibly, God was not answering my prayers.” She was Anglican.

For four years, she had battled with breast cancer. She endured chemotherapy but when the doctor proposed surgery, she feared and sought divine intervention.

She had not told anybody, not even the pastor, about the cancer but she was surprised when the pastor proclaimed, ‘Among us is a lady with a problem on her left breast; whoever is around her, lay your hands on her and pray for her.’ “Those words came with power and I collapsed; my breast began shaking and soon, I felt healed. That’s when I became born-again”.

After the miracle, she felt indebted to God and chose to renew her spiritual life. She could no longer “sit” on the bank’s money. She blew the whistle against herself. “I was ready to lose a job to get into the good books of Heaven.”
In what looked like sheer madness, Namwano confessed she had been stealing from the bank’s treasury, a confession that sent her to jail.

She recounts: “At first nobody believed me; they thought I was crazy, because the auditors had just finished their work and hadn’t found any deficits.” But she showed them how she did it.

By the time she confessed, she owed the bank Shs12m because she had secretly returned the bigger sum. She had, however, sold most of her property and the grace period expired before returning the Shs12m. Namwano was sued and sentenced to three years in prison in 1993.
“Even the judge thought I was mad. On my way to prison, warders mocked me: ‘“You think you are going to heaven but you are going to hell, Luzira (prison) is hell’,” she recalls. “A local paper wrote Saved woman earns herself three years in jail” but she was unmoved and, she has never regretted it.

She is a single mother of two boys, and the younger, Dickson Washitwaya, now a director at PFU, was just in Primary Three. Their father played his part though there were gaps. But nothing bothered Namwano more than the tears of her fellow mothers.

“You would hear heartrending reports like ‘your children are eating from dustbins; your children are so sick; your children no longer go to school…many had sleepless nights having not seen their children for years,” she recalls, her face and tone exuding sorrow. “And I decided I had to do something about it.”

Released in 1996 after 25 months, Namwano embarked on her new mission. Relatives had sold off her remaining property, so she had to start from scratch.

“I began with visiting and counselling prisoners at Luzira, with my fellow church members. Later, I mobilised medical teams from our church; we collected money for transport, bought drugs and went to treat some of the ailing inmates.”
PFU tries to bridge the gap between prisoners and their families because many are reviled and neglected. “But our bigger passion is for children, the victims of their parents’ crime,” Namwano explains. “When parents are jailed, children are left in unfriendly, sometimes rented neighbourhoods and soon they are scattered. So we look at their situation and act accordingly.”

“You consider a child’s behaviour and physical condition before, then after mentoring them, you see a child performing well at school, physically healthy and behaving well, you see a future in them,” Namwano explains with a smile.

“We counsel them; show them the dangers of crime and how to avoid it. Dickson is a young married man who guides them on safer ways of approaching relationships. I don’t see “my children” doing drugs, joining bad groups or being jailed for crime. Talking to them, I see intelligent and focused children. I’m not God, but I see a bright future for them.”

This work requires a lot of travelling. They have to visit prisoners, their families and children across the country.

“Our biggest challenge is lack of transport. We need to move to various parts of the country almost daily. I have a car but sometimes I can’t even fuel it,” she adds.

Money for the children’s facilitation is another problem. When returning to school, they need everything from a pen to pocket money. “And before we return them to their relatives towards Christmas, we have to buy for them all they need.”

Likewise, some families are so bitter they do not want anything to do with the criminals who hurt them. And mending such fences is risky.
“On several occasions we have survived being roughed up.

They hate us for “favouring” criminals and their children. They are overwhelmed by bitterness and I understand; such psychological wounds take time to heal,” Namwano explains.

How big is the network?
PFU is supposed to cater for prisoners nationwide but so far, they are attending to only Luzira, Mbale and Jinja prisons and mostly the women’s section.

Still, their scope is too narrow compared to need. For example, of the 7,000 inmates at Luzira, they cater for just 12 families. Namwano admits that even if you add the contribution of bigger volunteer organisations, there’s still a yawning gap between demand and supply of such services.

She says the Uganda Prisons Welfare Department tries but lacks the capacity to reach all the families.

“Many prisoners’ children across the country are suffering... There are some we find, but before we help, they die. Maybe even the other organisations have not been able to help because they do not know about it. We thus need to draw everybody’s attention that these innocent souls badly need your help.”